Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Just Jennifer

The Widow’s House by Carol Goodman

Almost immediately out of college, Jess Martin had a best-selling novel, but has been struggling with a follow-up ever since.  His wife Clare is also a would-be writer but has taken a job as a copy editor to pay the bills and support the couple’s Brooklyn lifestyle while Jess continues to write.  Nearly out of money and options, the couple decides to move to the Hudson Valley where surely life will cost less money.  The only situation they are able to afford, however, is as caretakers for the rundown home, River House, known locally thanks to some graffiti as Riven House, of an almost reclusive author, Alden Montague, who was a former mentor to both Jess and Clare.  At first, the situation seems almost too good to be true: Jess is writing again, and it looks as if the young couple will be able to get back on their feet financially and get their marriage back on track.  Soon, though, the dark, oddly octagonal house with hidden rooms and passages begins to show its true self and the abandoned rooms begin to give up their secrets including ghostly figures and crying babies all tied to long ago family secrets.  As Clare slowly begins her descent into darkness, she is certain she is being haunted, but can’t understand why no one believes her.  This creepy, dark, twisty novel is full of all kinds of gothic goodness as secrets are revealed and Clare’s madness turns to clarity.  A modern day read for Mary Stewart and Shirley Jackson fans.

Just Jennifer

Pretend I’m Not Here by Barbara Feinman Todd

When Barbara Feinman Todd began her career in journalism in 1982 as a copy assistant at The Washington Post journalism---and politics---was a much different animal than it is today.  Todd thrived on the newsroom atmosphere, which in those days included the smell of ink, newsprint, and cigarettes, the clatter of typewriters and news feeds, and people shouting and running in an out, an energy not found in most modern newsrooms.  After working for Bob Woodword at the Post, Todd continued as his researcher for his book Veil and inadvertently fell into a career ghosting for big politico names such as Ben Bradlee, Carl Bernstien, and Hillary Clinton though she was rarely given credit for her assistance, particularly in the case of Mrs. Clinton, a slight which led to a series of events and revelations that became public in Woodword’s book detailing the Clinton White House.  Used to being in the shadows and behind the scenes, Todd’s memoir often reads like a tell-all about the closed door politics in not only the news world but in the White House and Capitol.  Heavily involved in journalism at Georgetown (where Feinman Todd is the founding Journalism Director) and the Pearl Project, having co-authored an eBook on fellow journalist Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder, Feinman Todd’s story, at times, has a bit of a “poor me” tone, though in the end she owns up and admits she made her own choices and those choices led her to where she is today, even though the path may not have been as exciting as she would have liked it to have been.

The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan
World War II has taken its toll on Europe and especially on the small Normandy village of Vergers in this familiar yet dependable novel.  The town is occupied by German soldiers and food and supplies are in short supply, yet they are buoyed by the hope and sustenance provided to them by their young village baker.  Emmanuelle, Emma, began her apprenticeship to Ezra Kuchen the village baker at thirteen.  Now twenty-two, she has seen the horrors of war, including Ezra being forced to suffer the indignity of wearing a yellow star and being forced away from his shop at gunpoint, taken away from the village never to be seen or heard from again.  Taking over for her mentor, Emma bakes her baguettes for the soldiers and manages to bake enough bread to share with the villagers and is able to established an underground network allowing for her to trade for the supplies the villagers need to survive until the Allied troops arrive to save them.  Many of the usual World War II are present here, the characters often stereotypical, but overall, Emma’s tenacity and the resilience of her neighbors provides an uplifting look into a small village shortly before the D-Day invasion.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Coming in April

Coming in April...

Of Books and Bagpipes by Paige Shelton
American Delaney Nichols has settled into her new role as a bookseller’s assistant at the Cracked Spine, a bookshop specializing in rare books and ephemera in Edinburgh.  Her current task is to retrieve an “Oor Wullie” comic book from a man at Castle Doune for her boss Edwin MacAlister.  At Castle Doune Delaney finds the man she is to meet dead; while waiting for the police to arrive, Delaney spies the Oor Wullie stuffed into a crevice; without thinking, Delaney snatches up the valuable book and secrets it away to Edwin.  Once back at the Cracked Spine things get complicated as Edwin learns the identity of the dead man, the son of the man, Gordon, a man who Edwin had been close to as a young man, a man who died while he was out with friends, including Edwin.  Even more startling, Gordon appears in the Cracked Spine very much alive and confesses his deceit to Edwin.  As Gordon’s story begins to unfold it becomes clear that there is more to the story than he’s admitting to, something that may have gotten his son killed.  The further into the past Delaney delves, the more secrets she encounters and the ore danger she puts herself in as these secrets are revealed until she finds herself with a killer in her midst.  Strong characters and a chilly Northern Scottish setting combined with a twisty plot full of secrets and intrigue make this literary mystery one worth spending some time with.

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell
Lilly and Neave are sisters less than a year apart and in spite of their different personalities---or because of them---they grow up to be a formidable team: Lilly the outgoing beauty and Neave, quiet and bookish, for whom a penny dreadful The Pirate Lover becomes a how-to-guide.  After World War II, the sisters find themselves out of work as the soldiers return home and the pair decides to create a home sales beauty company, a business that takes off beyond their wildest dreams.  As they are reaching the pinnacle of their success, Lilly disappears and Neave is reasonably certain what happened and is terrified that she might be next.  A good story is made more interesting by an unusual structure and various points of view that demonstrate that universal truths are just that---no matter in what form they are found.

The Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner
Marin’s life seems to be all in order: she’s on the fast track to partner at her Manhattan law firm, he’s engaged to a Wall Street mogul and her Main Line Philadelphia parents are attentive without being smothering.  Marin’s thirtieth birthday celebration, however, proves to be the catalyst of things unraveling for everyone: Marin’s parents announce their intention to divorce; Marin’s father admits to having an affair with a younger woman, and Marin breaks the news that she has broken off her engagement because she is in love with another man.  A surprise phone call from Rachel, a young woman claiming to be Marin’s half-sister and a misstep on her job that causes her to lose her job sets Marin reeling.  When Rachel arrive in Manhattan on her way to Cape Cod to visit the grandmother neither she nor Marin knew, Marin’s mother Blythe is also in town and the three set off on an ill-conceived road trip that turns into a summer full of revelation and healing, not just for the three women but also for a family with long held grudges and secrets.  This story of families in crisis and families healing and recreating themselves is as welcoming and refreshing as the first breeze of summer.

The Outrun: A Memoir by Amy Liptrot
In the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, an outrun, according to the author, is a uncultivated field with rough grazing at the furthest reaches of a farm.  This is the land to which Amy Liptrot decided to return, the land of her birth, after moving to London to escape life on the farm and her father's mental illness, but where she lived life on the edge, drinking heavily and finding herself in rehab.  Amy returns home to reflect and recover and along the way discovers that maybe home, even in the most northern reaches of the world, may be the best place.  This gorgeously written memoir is not only a moving story of a young woman's recovery but an homage to a rough land that renews hope and invigorates life, offering a new perspective on everything.

Miss You by Kate Eberlen
At eighteen Tess’s life is spread out before her: she and her best friend Doll have spent the summer traveling through Italy and Tess has just secured a spot at University where she will read literature.  While in Florence, Tess glimpses Gus who is traveling with his parents as the three heal from the death of Gus’s older brother Ross seven months earlier.  When Tess returns home she is faced with her mother’s imminent death from cancer; from this point forward, Tess’s life will take on a much different shape than she expected, taking on the responsibility of her five-year-old sister Hope who has her own problems to overcome.  Over the next sixteen years, Tess and Gus lead separate lives, each often feeling that something just isn’t quite right and happiness is just out of each’s grasp.  As their paths crisscross, sometime with glancing blows, they never truly properly meet up again until fate decides the time is right.  Will the pair be able to overcome their pasts and finally realize their destinies?  Heart breaking and achingly beautiful, this story with lovely characters is for anyone who has every hoped and never lost hope.  Book groups will find much to discuss in these pages.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
In a group of vignettes centering around now best-selling author Lucy Barton, the residents in and around Amgash, Illinois recall and re-evaluate the choices they’ve made in their lives and the effect those choices have had not only on their lives but those around them and their community.  After Tommy Guptill’s dairy farm barns burned down, he moved his family to town and took a job as a school janitor where he kept watch over the student body, but in particular over the odd and lonely Lucy Barton.  Now in his seventies, Tommy visits Lucy’s brother who lives in isolation and shares his burden with Tommy, who, now in possession of this knowledge must make a choice to forgive or not.  A high school counselor finds solace and inspiration in Lucy’s latest book and unwittingly uses her new insight to help Lucy’s niece.  Lucy returns to her hometown after a seventeen-year absence and visits with her siblings: an attempt at a reconciliation, a chance to assuage her guilt for leaving the small town or an attempt to rebuild the family that was always broken? Parents and children, their own and those of others, and relationships in all their various forms are explored and revealed in this honest and ultimately uplifting novel that will make you believe, Anything IS Possible.

Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan
Just after Jon Casey marries Wailer in August of 1980, the recent college graduates, along with some of their friends slip into the now closed Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia but not everyone emerges.  Locked in, one of them disappears and no one is sure what happened to her.  Thirty-five years later, a skeleton is found in the prison and each of these friends still harbors a secret, some of which could prove the innocence of now celebrity chef Casey as it is his then new bride’s skeleton that has been found and he is charged with her murder.  Judith Carrigan was with the group that night and knows she can help clear Casey’s name but at what cost?  Judith, above all the friends, has secrets that she knows if revealed could cost her the life she has built, including her adoring husband and son.  This rich novel explores many themes including love, loyalty to the past as well as the present, identity and what is worth keeping hidden and what is worth revealing and at what cost each.

Gone Without a Trace by Mary Torjussen
After attending a business conference, Hannah is eager to return home to share the news of her impending promotion with Matt Stone, her live-in boyfriend of four years.  Hannah’s joy quickly turns to terror when she returns home to an empty house---empty of everything that was evidence that Matt had every been part of her life; in addition, matt has scrubbed social media of his presence and has disconnected his mobile phone.  Hannah is stunned by turns and hurt and afraid for what may have happened to Matt.  Her best friend Katie encourages Hannah to grieve for the relationship she thought she and Matt had and then to move on with her life.  Then Hannah begins to feel she is being stalked and begins to receive messages that she is certain are from Matt.  Little by little, Hannah begins descending into a darkness as all the truths start to unravel and a different tale begins to emerge, one that is equally chilling and disturbing but with a different slant, making this dark debut one to devour yet savor at the same time. 

Just Jennifer

The Day I Died by Lori-Rader-Day

The latest book by Anthony and Mary Higgins Clark Awards winning author explores families, those we are born into and those we create, and how we cope and escape when things become unbearable and how we return when there are no other options left us.  Anna Winger lives with her thirteen-year-old son Joshua in Park, a small Indiana town where they live a relatively quiet life and where Anna is hiding out from something unspoken in her past.  Anna is a handwriting analyst and takes jobs mostly on referral from her contact in law enforcement, Kent; she analyzes job applications and ransom notes, and even love letters, advising what type of person might have written them.  When a two-year-old boy Aidan is kidnapped, his mother missing and his babysitter dead, Anna is called in to read a note left by whoever took the young boy, but she is met with a bit of resistance and skepticism by the local police force and feels there is something that is being kept from her, either intentionally or unintentionally, and begins to investigate on her own.  When Joshua goes missing, Anna must face the things from which she has been running and confront her own past in order to find her son and bring him back safely to her.  This story not only has a well-constructed plot with sympathetic characters, it also packs an emotional punch as Anna’s story is slowly revealed and as a community searches for two lost boys hoping that it is not too late to save them…and their mothers who might not even realize they need saving.