Posts Tagged ‘Women’s Fiction’

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Heidi B’s Picks

December 17, 2014

I am an eclectic reader, and 2014 saw my reading choices all over the map. I love grown-up chick lit (sometimes known as the more serious Women’s Fiction, or even domestic fiction), coming of age stories, and anything related to how the human body works. Below are my five choices for books I read in 2014 that made an impact on me; most are not new, but new to me. Happy reading!

The Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This is a terrific book that often is unfortunately labeled as a “teen novel.” Chboksy’s debut novel is a cult classic as well as being critically acclaimed; no easy feat. Anyone who navigated adolescence (uh, all of us) can relate to some aspect of Charlie, an awkward wallflower and high school freshman that no one seems to notice. Well-drawn characters, realistic dialogue, and a plot twist at the end all make for a classic.  See my full review.

The ShiftThe Shift by Tory Johnson
The subtitle of this book is, “How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life,” but this is not a “diet” book. This is one woman’s narrative on how she shifted her entire life, her way of eating, and her place in the world, all in one year. Oh, and by the way, lost the 70 pounds that had dogged her for 40 years. Everyone I know who has read this book has read this in one sitting; a couple of people I know and love have made major changes to their health due to this book. Hat’s off to Johnson for an inspirational read.  See my full review.

Wishin' and Hopin'Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Christmas Story by Wally Lamb
Who doesn’t feel even a tiny bit nostalgic when seeing the endless running of “A Christmas Story” on cable TV? Come on, admit it: you do. Wishin’ and Hopin’ is a delightful Christmas tale by veteran storyteller Wally Lamb; a racier, edgier, more irreverent 1960’s version of the classic Red Rider BB Gun tale A Christmas Story. Set in 1960’s Connecticut and told through the eyes of 10-year-old Felix Funnicello (cousin to Annette), this is a delightful, coming of age story with a nostalgic twist.  See my full review.

The Story of the Human BodyThe Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, Disease by Daniel Lieberman
The history of our bodies, in terms of evolution, is a complex and fascinating subject. Lieberman is a Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology, as well as being a gifted writer. He tells the story of human evolution in a manner that is readable like a biography, and as compelling at times as any thriller. What made humans become bipedal? (hint: to see over tall grasses!) Why did we move from hunting and gathering our food, to farming it? What aspects of our development contributed (and continue to contribute) to diseases that plague us? Lieberman is a talented and popular science writer. What could have easily have become mired in jargon is explained for the layperson. A fascinating read.  See my full review.

The Husband's SecretThe Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
The premise in The Husband’s Secret is: what would do if your husband had a deep, dark secret that might shatter your life, and like ripples in a pool, the lives of others? This is grown up chick lit with stories of lives that intersect told in alternating chapters. A sharper reader may pick up on how these women’s lives intersect, but I never saw it coming. The ending was a blockbuster.

Fire and Rain by Diane Chamberlain

November 3, 2014

Valle Rosa is a small southern California town that is turning to dust: ravaged by wildfires, the town is desperate for rain. Mysterious stranger Jeff Cabrio arrives in Valle Rosa and approaches the town mayor Christopher Garrett with a tantalizing promise: I can make it rain. Cabrio doesn’t seek money, or fame; as a matter of fact, he wants to remain low-key and behind the scenes. He promises he’ll make it rain for room, board, and peace and quiet. Somewhat conveniently, the place he ends up boarding is in the cottage of an estate owned by Garrett’s ex-wife, investigative TV reporter Carmen Perez. If Perez can make a story out of Cabrio, she can invigorate her flagging career, and despite his wish for anonymity, Cabrio finds himself under the journalistic microscope. Valle Rosa is a town of secrets and Cabrios’ secret is explosive.

Fire and Rain is one of Chamberlain’s older novels and in it she shows her strength for creating intriguing characters with depth. I didn’t care that the science was implausible (a rain-making machine?), because I was entranced by the story line and the personas. I loved the juxtaposition of how the author used the metaphoric rain and fire to create a story that tugs the heart strings. Cabrio’s soul is as dry as tinder due to his secret past, ready to ignite when he meets Mia Tanner, a woman who has been hurt in her relationships in the past. Chris Garrett is a former baseball professional still in love with Carmen, despite Carmen’s many issues. Carmen is the somewhat stereotypical driven career woman, who ruthlessly seeks to unearth Cabrio’s past to boost to her waning career. The characters are all damaged, and all have been burned, figuratively by life and love.

Diane Chamberlain will be visiting the North Regional Library on Saturday, November 22 @ 2:30 p.m. She is a delightful, engaging author who loves her readers. Click here to register.

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

November 4, 2013

Esther Greenwood, the narrator of this autobiographical novel, is a complex and troubled young woman. It’s the summer of 1953 and Esther should be happy. She is working for a magazine in New York City as a college intern, along with other high achieving girls. But, Esther is something of an outsider. She wants to be a writer, and she isn’t interested in marriage, babies, or in learning stenography for a backup career as a secretary.

When she returns home, she discovers that she has not been accepted into a prestigious writing course that she had been counting on to keep her moving forward. Instead, she spirals into depression, unable to read, write, or sleep. Her mother simply doesn’t understand that Esther can’t just snap out of it. After a disastrous electroshock therapy treatment, Esther begins to seriously consider suicide.

The author herself committed suicide just a month after the publication of The Bell Jar in England in 1963. Her death created a lot of interest in her work, and the novel was published in America in 1971 after Plath’s mother failed to block its publication. (She doesn’t come off looking too good in the book.) The book became a feminist classic, a sort of female Catcher in the Rye. Esther talks frankly about subjects that were formerly hidden from view, including sex and mental illness. She struggles with becoming her own person in a society trying to mold her into someone she isn’t interested in becoming.

It’s impossible to say how we would feel about The Bell Jar if Sylvia Plath had not committed suicide at the age of 30. The English reviews were not particularly positive, and if Plath had lived, she would not have allowed the book to be published here until after her mother’s death in 1994. By then this groundbreaking work would not have seemed quite so daring. However, The Bell Jar still has a lot to say about social pressure, about men and women, and about growing up female.

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Waking Up in Dixie by Haywood Smith

June 11, 2013

Waking Up in Dixie, by Haywood Smith, is a fun and insightful read. Smith is the author of many novels, all enjoyable, but Waking Up in Dixie is possibly the best. This novel blends humor with sadness and is thought provoking while still being a light read.

Elizabeth Mooney is determined to break free from her life of poverty and her drunken father. To accomplish this, she sets her sights on Howe Whittington, who happens to be Whittington, Georgia’s namesake. The Whittington family is rich and refined but there is more to them than Elizabeth bargained for. Elizabeth marries Howe and enters a life of misery. Her marriage is anything but loving and Howe constantly cheats on her.

One day, Howe has a stroke while in church. The unfolding events after Howe’s stroke turn everyone’s lives upside down. Now, Elizabeth must contend with a husband who has no filters and must tell the truth about all his transgressions. Howe doesn’t stop there though. He also has the urge to tell everyone else how to live a proper life and in doing so, reveals their personal business. To the shock of Howe’s family, Howe has also developed the uncontrollable urge to curse. The stroke has yet another consequence: Howe is now fully aware of all the pain he caused and sets forth on a path of repentance and wants to repair his relationship with Elizabeth. This turn of events forces Elizabeth to make decisions that will affect her family and deal with emotions she has tried to bury.

Waking Up in Dixie is a funny novel without losing its tone of regret and promise of hope. It is a great novel for anyone who has ever had to ponder matters of the heart and for those who have made mistakes and tried to make amends.

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The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes by Diane Chamberlain

February 5, 2013

CeeCee Wilkes is  a naïve young woman waitressing at a coffee shop in Chapel Hill in 1977. She is lonely and ripe for being duped. Regular customer Tim Gleason is sympathetic, and her innocent attraction to him turns into her first love affair. Tim, however, has designs for CeeCee that go way beyond their romance. He tells CeeCee that his sister has been wrongly jailed and is on death row for a murder he says she did not commit, and that he and his brother plan to get her out of jail. He asks for CeeCee’s help to kidnap Genevieve Russell, wife of the governor, and  hold her hostage for ransom until the governor pardons his sister. The plan Tim believes is foolproof goes horribly wrong – he doesn’t know Genevieve is very pregnant and a high risk patient. What happens to the infant and to CeeCee Wilkes over a period of two decades makes up the suspenseful plot, with rich and mostly sympathetic characters.  CeeCee goes underground, takes a new name, and has a family of her own. Twenty years later Tim is on death row for the murder of Genevieve and her baby. Only Cee Cee knows that the baby survived. Will CeeCee tell the truth about what happened to save Tim’s life, even if it means revealing her secret and destroying her family?

Diane Chamberlain is a bestselling author of suspenseful women’s fiction richly set in North Carolina.  She lives locally in the Raleigh area, as well as out at the coast, and local venues are recognizable in her twenty novels. She is often compared to Jodi Picoult in terms of writing style, and while I do see some similarities, I find Chamberlain’s characters more realistic and believable than Picoult’s (Picoult’s children in her novels are always ridiculously wise beyond their years, I find), and Chamberlain’s writing more straightforward and less symbolic and metaphoric than that of Picoult, which is fitting since Chamberlain writes suspense novels. Very good suspense novels.

Join Diane during “Meet the Authors: A Visit with Diane Chamberlain” at West Regional Library on Sunday, February 17 at 2 p.m., when she’ll talk about writing and answer your questions. Advance registration is required. Call 919-463-8500 to register.

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Spring Fever by Mary Kay Andrews

January 23, 2013

Mary Kay Andrews, a pseudonym for Kathy Hogan Trocheck, has come through again! MKA, who lived in Raleigh for a couple of years, is well-known as the creator of sassy, southern women, and Annajane Huggins is no exception.

The setting is familiar: a small town in North Carolina that revolves around a soft-drink manufacturing plant (can anybody say “Cheerwine?). Having been divorced from Mason for five years, Annajane is as surprised as anyone to find herself sitting in the church at his wedding. As you might expect, nothing goes as planned, and Annajane finds herself wondering if leaving Mason was a mistake.

The first third of the book has a lot of flashbacks and background, and it made me a little impatient to get back to the present and move forward. But once we got going, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Pascoe, NC. The advantage to the slow build is that the relationship between Annajane and Mason seems real and understandably complex. Andrews provides an eerily accurate description of what hard work relationships are as we watch Annajane and Mason struggle to define exactly who they are to each other. MKA is a master at including witty, bright, and fun supporting characters, including the irrepressible Pokey, Annajane’s best friend, who just happens to be Mason’s sister, and perfectionist Celia, Mason’s fiancee with a thing or two up her sleeve.

The narration of the audio is especially well-done, even Mason’s daughter Sophie, and I often don’t like how narrators play the roles of little children. Whether you read or listen to Spring Fever, you’re about to enter a town you’ll never want to leave.

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Deep Dish by Mary Kay Andrews

January 14, 2013

Deep DishMeet Regina Foxton, host of Fresh Start, a local Atlanta public television cooking show. Gina is a by the book small town girl from South Georgia with superb culinary skills. Everything is going great in Gina’s world until the producer of Fresh Start, Scott does something that jeopardizes the show. Because of Scott’s actions, Fresh Start has lost their sponsor, Tastee-Town and without them on board it is next to impossible to keep the show running. Gina is furious that Scott has put their careers and relationship in jeopardy. Did I mention that Scott is also Gina’s boyfriend? When Gina’s world starts falling apart her wild card sister, Lisa and D’John, her stylist are there to give her much needed moral support.

With Fresh Start on the chopping block, Scott is working feverishly to secure his career and trying to find new sponsor s for Fresh Start. Luckily, Scott is able to land Gina an audition with The Cooking Channel, if she can wow the TCC people she could secure a spot on the popular cable network. Gina is excited about her TCC audition but it will include friendly competition from local cooking show host, Tate Moody. Tate Moody is the host of Vittles, a kill it and grill it style show. Tate is ruggedly handsome and possesses not only the skill to catch his food but he can also serve it up very nicely.

The “Food Fight” will take place on Eutaw Island, a remote South Georgia island. Gina and Tate must prepare several dishes to be judged by famous restaurateurs. The catch is that Gina and Tate can only use the very basic staples supplied to them, they are responsible for scouting the island for the remainder of their ingredients. As if having to hunt and gather their main ingredients isn’t enough, Gina has bad blood with judge, Beau and Tate is not a favorite of judge, Deidre. While each contestant is trying their best to make sure they have a surefire plan for winning there is some obvious love/hate chemistry between them. Could love be in the air? With the help of lifetime Eutaw residents, Iris and Inez, Gina and Tate are able to put together some great dishes but which of these talented cooks will rise to victory?
This tale of two cooks and their mouth-watering dishes includes a good sprinkling of romance, drama, wit and southern charm. Mary Kay Andrews easily draws you into this story and introduces you to a number of great characters who keep you wanting more.

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Don’t You Forget About Me by Jancee Dunn

January 9, 2013

Don't You Forget About MeAh, high school. Some remember it fondly, others with sheer horror. Jancee Dunn’s “Don’t You Forget About Me” is a delightful romp of a novel focusing on Lillian Curtis, who was the cat’s meow twenty years earlier at a suburban high school. Lillian is now 38 years old and life is going swimmingly – or so she thinks until her husband blindsides her and asks her for a divorce. She takes a leave of absence from her TV production career in Manhattan and heads back to New Jersey to lick her wounds. Back in her old room in her parent’s house, replete with the boy band posters still on the wall and old cassette tapes of songs taped off the radio ready to pop into her cassette player. Her mom is making her breakfast every day, and calling for her to get up in the morning. Cozy and comfortable… It just so happens that her twentieth reunion for Bethel High School is coming up, and she’s fixated on reconnecting with her high school ex Christian Somers, who she remembers as the pinnacle of male perfection. As she regresses (staying out late being naughty with old classmates who live in the area among other things,) she learns that the people she thought looked up to her in high school had a very different impression of her teenage self.

This could have been the most shallow premise and plot, but Dunn’s hilarious writing style and knack for creating characters with depth keep this novel from being a simple read. Looking back on her teen age years, Lillian is full of nostalgia since her own present life is messy. She meets ex-classmates whom she thought were friends – but who were terrified by her. She thinks Christian is going to be her salvation – and he turns out to be something she hadn’t considered. Lillian’s world is turned upside down, by going back in time. An excellent read, especially for anyone who is feeling nostalgic for the 1980’s.



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Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2012: Sarah K.’s Picks

December 14, 2012

This year, I decided to clump my favorite “old reads” into two categories. In one, I have stories which concern themselves with the lives of women and the other is stories which play with the Western genre in unconventional ways. On one hand you have female characters who must struggle against society’s limitations and constraints on women, and on the other you have two authors who have struggled against the conventions of a dusty genre with deep-set tropes. — Sarah K.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Nowadays, most people associate the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn with hipsters and all their accoutrements, such as fixed-wheel bikes, ironic facial hair and craft foods. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Williamsburg was a hard-scrabble, working class neighborhood. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows the coming of age of Francie Nolan, who lives there with her family as they struggle against poverty and the consequences of her father’s alcoholism. Though Smith wrote with a natural lyricism and was able to capture hope and beauty despite difficult circumstances, she did not flinch from realistic depictions of unwanted pregnancies, substance abuse and child predators. If you haven’t had a chance to read this classic or haven’t read it since your youth, give it a try and prepare to be charmed.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Fans of large country houses, large eccentric British families, and outsized personalities will enjoy The Pursuit of Love. Breezy, but sharp, Mitford based her portrayal on her own family and neighbors causing much pearl-clutching and gasps of outrage when it was published. The story follows the romantic misadventures of Linda Radlett as she seeks out true passionate love and adventure. Unsentimental, the book’s candy-coating of wit hides a deeper melancholy as it examines the conflict between seeking out romantic fulfillment or settling for domestic stability.

The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Group follows the lives of eight Vassar graduates as they navigate relationships, careers and motherhood in the mid-1930s. Think of this as the Depression-era, Girls or Sex and the City. Considered scandalous upon publication in 1963, many of the themes in the book pertaining to sex and its complications are fairly tame by today’s standards. However it’s compelling to read this and see the similarities and differences in the “women having it all” discussion that American women continue to struggle with. A fascinating aspect of the book is the section centered on new mother, Priss and the proto-mommy wars into which she gets sucked. Yes, the breastfeeding versus formula debate existed even then.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Reminiscent of the tone and style of Charles Portis’ True Grit, The Sisters Brothers tells the tale of Charles and Eli Sisters, as they pursue Herman Kermit Warm at the behest of the Commander, a powerful tycoon who wants to cash in on Warm’s chemical formula for finding gold. The book is narrated by Eli, a reluctant murderer who is plagued by self-doubt, yet stays in the business to remain close to his reckless and callous brother. DeWitt uses deadpan formalized 19th century vernacular as a gateway to melancholy dark humor, and his portrayal of lonely, woebegone Eli is the highlight of the book.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Not for the faint of heart, Blood Meridian follows the bloody trail of ‘the kid’ as he joins a violent band of mercenary scalp hunters as they tear through the borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico during the mid-1800s. A meditation on the nature of violence, embodied by the grotesque character of the Judge, McCarthy explores the myth and reality of the Westward Expansion. What elevates this book from merely a laundry list of gratuitous acts of violence is McCarthy’s piercing, hypnotic prose and surreal imagery.

Best New Books of 2012: Heidi B.’s Picks

December 11, 2012

I read lots of best sellers, suspense/thrillers, biographies, and women’s fiction. My picks for 5 of the best new books this year kept me turning their pages, and I hope they’ll do the same for you.  — Heidi B.

Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay
Ray is a gentle paranoid schizophrenic obsessed with conspiracies and maps, obsessed with the computer program Whirl360 (think: Google Earth) that allows him to traverse the cities of the world. But what is that image in the window of a New York apartment building that he sees? It sure looks like a woman being smothered by a plastic bag over her head… Ray and his caretaker brother Thomas are thrown head-first in to a web of crimes and murders that leave the reader on the edge of the seat.

The Good Father by Diane Chamberlain
Travis Brown is single parent struggling in a bad economy to make end’s meet and care for his daughter baby daughter, Bella. He is offered what sounds like a great job in Raleigh, only to discover that the job actually is the offer to commit a crime, with the offer of a lot of money.  How far will Travis go to keep his daughter? Chamberlain is a master storyteller  who combines the elements of family issues and suspense in this highly readable, tug-at-the-heartstrings novel set in North Carolina.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Five years of marriage is turned upside down when Nick’s wife Amy vanishes from home. This dark, character-driven novel is told from the point of view of Nick and Amy, a young couple who are both untrustworthy and full of their own secrets. Did Nick kill Amy? The police think so, as the damning evidence mounts against him in this roller-coaster ride of a story. This is a dark, rich thriller, with a complicated plot full of twists and turns. Anyone who enjoys a story full of head games will enjoy this one.

Defending Jacob by William Landay
How far will you go to protect your child? Andy Barber is an assistant district attorney with twenty years on the job in a rural Massachusetts county.  Then the unthinkable happens; his teen son Jacob is accused of murdering a classmate and charged with the crime. Landay’s plot line and twists and turns harken back to the early writings of John Grisham. I tell everyone to whom I recommend this book, “I’ll give you $10 if you can guess the ending.” So far, no one has collected.

Elizabeth the Queen: the Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith
One of the best biographies I have read – ever – of anyone. This exhaustively researched biography reads like a novel and is based on hundreds of interviews to tell the story of the woman who has ruled Britannica for 60 years. Bedell Smith has chronicled other royals as well as the Kennedys and has a knack for retelling stories that really give reader insight into the personality of the Queen. A must for any Anglophile! Grab a cup of tea and a scone and dig into this lengthy book.

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