Tag Archives: Georgia

Have Faith

body in the birches

The Body in the Birches: A Faith Fairchild Mystery by Katherine Hall Page (William Morris, $24.99, 242 pages)

Prolific author Katherine Hall Page places her title character, Faith Fairchild, into the middle of an extended family squabble over a lovely Maine vacation home called The Birches. The Sanpere Island retreat has been in the Proctor family for many generations, its value increasing with each passing decade. The death of Priscilla Proctor Maxwell was the triggering event in the squabble. Priscilla, a pragmatist, left specific instructions in her will that nixed the notion of sharing the retreat among the various family members. She felt that would only lead to friction around who would use it, and when, and who would pay for the upkeep and repairs.

Paul Maxwell, Priscilla’s widower, has been directed to gather the extended family during July with the intent of selecting the best recipient of The Birches. The second most important character, Sophie Maxwell, a lawyer who’s taking a break from corporate legal life, goes to The Birches at the urging of her mother. Sophie and her mother are contenders for the retreat. The rest of the family runs the gamut from greedy to vicious.

Faith Fairchild, daughter of a minister and wife of a minister, is in the midst of a remodel to the modest Sampere Island vacation home that she, her husband and children cherish. During the remodel, Faith and the children are staying with a dear friend who happens to live next door to The Birches. Surprise, Faith stumbles across a dead body in the woods that separate the two houses. Thus begins Faith’s sleuthing.

Along the way, there are accusations, suspicions and the involvement of the great-nephew of Paul Maxwell that spice up the interactions of the characters. No spoiler alerts here!

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The Body in the Birches is a worthy read for a summer vacation at the beach or in the mountains. The author does an excellent job of creating a sense of place and peoples it with well-developed and interesting characters.

Well recommended.

body in the wardrobe amazon

The Body in the Wardrobe: A Faith Fairchild Mystery by Katherine Hall Page (William Morrow, $25.99, 237 pages)

This installment of the series features Sophie Maxwell as she begins to acclimate in her new hometown of Savannah, Georgia. Sophie has taken up residence in a house that is being fixed up by her new mother-in-law. Yes, Sophie has married. No, I’m not going to reveal who she has married as that will be a definite spoiler for readers who are working their way through the series and haven’t yet read The Body in the Birches. All you need to know is that Sophie is surrounded by a very tight clique of locals who delight in reminding her of her outside/Yankee status.

Savannah is possibly best known as a city with ghosts and spirits that haunt older homes. There are several references within this story to the wonderful book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt. Sophie has her own up close and personal encounter with a dead man in the large wardrobe upstairs in one of the bedrooms of the house where she and her husband are living until they find a place of their own to purchase.

Sadly, few of Sophie’s new acquaintances, and most-notably her husband, do not believe that she has found a dead body. That’s because it vanishes before the police arrive in response to her call for assistance. There are more instances that set Sophie’s nerves on edge and she reaches out to her new friend Faith Fairchild for moral support and assistance. Faith is having a tough time dealing with her kids and husband. Together, Faith and Sophie bolster each other’s morale and get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the disappearing body.

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This book will be appreciated most by readers who love the South and have an acquaintance with Savannah. The author knows her topic and presents it seamlessly while putting her characters through their paces.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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Spunky Ladies, Part Deux

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman: A Mystery by Tessa Arlen (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 310 pages)

Class confusion erupts as rascal nephew Teddy Mallory’s body is found hanging in the woods of Lord and Lady Montfort’s country estate the morning after their much celebrated annual summer ball. The setting is the English country manor house and grounds as well as miles of fertile farmland that is worked by hundreds of families dependent on the estate for a livelihood. The time is the early 20th century Edwardian Era.

Author Tessa Arlen has taken on the shifting social dynamics of upper crust society just after the dawn of the industrial revolution. There are strict unspoken rules observed as the gentry interact with their social peers. The set of social rules for interactions between the gentry and their manager servants (in this case, the housekeeper) and the household staff she commands are just as rigid.

To Arlen’s credit, her characters are made real by their thoughts, actions and feelings. The beautiful annual event has been turned into the search for the murder of Lord and Lady Montfort’s college age nephew who has always been difficult but lately has gotten himself deeply involved in criminal activities.

Clementine came downstairs for dinner early. She had taken care over her appearance and had chosen her dress thoughtfully; it was part of her resolution not to let the side down, it was important to keep up appearances at times like these. Her friends gathered together in miserable little huddles throughout the room and were a far more introspective and reserved group this evening, compared to the convivial get-together of the preceding night.

The reader can’t help empathizing with the houseguests trapped into staying while Teddy’s death is being investigated. The lot of them fear that there is a murderer among them. Lady Montfort (Clementine Talbot) takes on the challenge of solving the murder with the help of her stalwart housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, and together they forge a bond and take on sleuthing that most would deem inappropriate, especially since the local constabulary is actively seeking the murderer.

A well-recommended debut novel.

Vintage Gloss

Vintage: A Novel by Susan Gloss (William Morrow, $14.99, 320 pages)

Fast forward to present day Madison, Wisconsin where Violet Turner, a late twenties divorcee and owner of Hourglass Vintage, revels in expressing her individuality in a community that encourages folks like her. Hourglass Vintage, a clothing shop featuring many high-quality items, serves as the nexus for several women of varying ages and backgrounds, each of whom is faced with a life crisis.

Author Susan Gloss patiently sets out the circumstances that bring these women together. April Morgan, a pregnant teenage math wizard who has had a rough childhood and Amithi Singh, a comfortably settled middle aged naturalized citizen who emigrated from India with her academic husband 40 years ago, find refuge at Hourglass Vintage in the person of their most empathetic friend, Violet, when their lives are derailed by deceit and abandonment.

As April’s midsection grew, so did Violet’s sense of longing. She knew it was ridiculous to be jealous. April hadn’t had an easy life, and wouldn’t any time soon. Still, there was a luminosity about her lately, a quiet confidence. Violet had seen it in Karen’s face when she was pregnant with Edith, and she feared she’d never know the feeling herself.

Vintage is Gloss’ debut novel and it is reminiscent of The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean (reviewed on this site in March of 2011). Both proprietors face challenges as they struggle to maintain a vintage clothing shop. Violet has the advantage of having weathered a disastrous marriage, if that’s an advantage, and she knows how to stand up to bullies. April has been forced to step up and be the adult in her childhood with a bipolar mother who has recently died. Amithi is discovering that her world is not what it has seemed to be and she needs to sort out a new approach to her life.

The novel allows the reader breathing room so that the ups and downs experienced by the characters are not overwhelming. Clearly, this is not a tearjerker story.

Well recommended.

Rosemary and Crime

Rosemary and Crime: A Mystery by Gail Oust (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 310 pages)

Rosemary and Crime is the fourth book written by Gail Oust and the first of her Spice Shop mysteries. The main character and narrator is Piper Prescott, the recent former wife of C J Prescott, III, Esq. who is an ambulance chaser. Piper has plunged her divorce settlement money into Spice It Up!, a culinary seasonings boutique situated in Brandywine Creek, Georgia, an up and coming town where she is a Yankee among the Southern townspeople. The opening day for her shop is ruined by the murder of a local celebrity chef, Mario Barrone, who was scheduled to present a cooking demonstration.

“Must have been awful,” Gina continued, “what with finding Mario’s body and all.” She scooped a forkful of chocolate chess pie, a classic Southern sweet, into her mouth. “It it’d been me, I would’ve screamed bloody murder.”

Piper’s BFF Reba Mae Johnson, mother of twin sons, a widow and owner of Klassy Kuts beauty salon, jumps in to assist after the unfortunate discovery of Mario’s body by Piper focuses all the town’s attention on the crime. Naive Piper has picked up the murder weapon and left her fingerprints as she enters through the back door of Trattoria Milano, Mario’s high-end restaurant the night before her shop is set to open.

These better-than-average gal pals get themselves into some hilarious scrapes as they work furiously to solve Mario’s murder. Their nemesis is Police Chief Wyatt McBride, a recent hire in Brandywine, who has returned to his hometown after a law enforcement career in Florida.

Several of the males in this story have mighty character flaws to overcome as author Oust portrays them making many demeaning comments and acting in chauvinistic ways.

Recommended for readers who enjoy cooking and light-hearted drama.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were received from the publishers.

You can read a review of The Secret Lives of Dresses here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2011/03/16/if-you-could-read-my-mind/

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The Stranger You Seek

The Stranger You Seek: A Novel by debut author Amanda Kyle Williams will be released by Bantam on Tuesday, August 30, 2011.   However, you don’t have to wait until then to begin reading it.   Click on the link below to read the first two chapters of The Stranger You Seek:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/58004614/The-Stranger-You-Seek-by-Amanda-Kyle-Williams-Excerpt

Joseph Arellano

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Stand By Me

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $25.00; 192 pages)

“I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories…”

Pat Conroy is the ultra-successful author who has been disparaged by some as a mere “storyteller” and “Southern writer.”   Both are labels he gladly accepts, in fact he revels in the descriptions that are often used to damn him with faint praise.   Conroy is a writer who has remained true to his craft, to his own personal style even if it is not the fashion of the hour or day with critics.   Fortunately, writers are not politicians who must appeal to the majority; nor need they comport with the latest trends.

For this reviewer, Conroy is far from being a minor writer.   In fact, his true story My Losing Season remains as perhaps the best sports-related memoir ever written, one that fairly balances the rewards, life lessons and harsh punishments of competition.   My Losing Season chronicled Conroy’s role as a successful athlete on a far from winning basketball team at The Citadel.   Anyone who has played competitive sports at any level will recognize themselves in the eyes of the young and still naive Conroy.

This memoir might well have been titled My Life in Books, My Favorite Authors and Books, or In Defense of Great Writing.   Conroy, now in his mid-sixties, claims to have read 200 pages a day since early in high school.   In My Reading Life, he gets to serve as the reader-reviewer-judge of a lifetime of books.   He is clearly partial to the works of southern male writers, some of whom served as his instructors or idols, and all of whom served as substitute father figures.   Which brings us to the one big problem with this memoir…  Anyone who saw the film or read the book The Great Santini knows how much Conroy hated his father.   Everyone knows that and yet in this memoir Conroy constantly drags the dead horse of his hatred for his father around, as if it were some type of perverse trophy.   His father has been long-buried, so when is Conroy going to be satisfied with putting his sad childhood to rest?   Enough already.

To his credit, Conroy does not idolize all of the authors he references in this work.   Clearly he never “got” whatever it is that was supposed to be so strong and moving in the works of Ernest Hemingway, and he quite accurately points out that Hemingway’s skills – however one measured them – quickly eroded.   Conroy also paints a cold picture of the hazards of fame, something that – if it should come either too early or is poorly timed – can paralyze a writer like Hemingway or James Dickey.

Conroy does pay fine tribute to three writers, two male and one female:  Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe), Leo Tolstoy and Margaret Mitchell.   Atlantans will find the book worth purchasing simply for Conroy’s profile of Mitchell, his mother’s cultural idol.   Conroy’s mother attended the Atlanta premier of Gone With the Wind, and taught him to hate General Sherman with every fibre of his then-young being.

Of Tolstoy, Conroy writes, “…Tolstoy makes us strive to be better people:  better husbands and wives, children and friends…  Reading Tolstoy, you will encounter a novelist who fell in love with his world and everything he saw and felt in it.”   He also makes the case that with Tolstoy, “There has never been a writer of his mastery who wrote with such clarity and ease.”   This reader wonders, however, whether one could rate a Tolstoy above an English writer whose name was William Shakespeare?

As one reads My Reading Life, one revisits his/her favorite books of a lifetime.   As we revisit these favorites we may well find that something has been lost in modern storytelling.   So many novels these days (as reflected in the quotation from Conroy that introduces this review) appear to be over-told, overly complicated and overpopulated with characters.   Return to a classic from an earlier time, such as Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning story All the King’s Men (1946), and you can see Conroy’s point.   Regardless of how one comes down on this matter of the past versus current writing talent, Conroy’s memoir is a loving tribute to writers, words and the plain but so often brilliant tales of human life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Arc of a Diver

girl-who-stopped-swimming

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming: A Novel by Joshilyn Jackson (Grand Central Publishing, $13.99, 336 pages)

“Her good life was a thing made up…  almost by accident…  If she’d left pieces out, then she’d done it for her family.   She’d only been buttoning shut the ugly parts.   The things she’d buried were better left that way.”

If you like Jennifer Weiner (Best Friends Forever, In Her Shoes) you’re bound to love this popular fiction novel from Joshilyn Jackson (Girls in Alabama; Between, Georgia).   Like Weiner, Jackson has a great, charming, story teller’s voice that you underestimate before realizing how skillfully she moves things along.   In The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, Jackson moves swiftly between comedy and drama, happiness and sorrow, confusion and clarity.   And like Weiner, she populates this novel with great characters of the South – intelligent and naive, wacky and brilliant.

The story’s main character, Laurel Gray Hawthorne, lives in the beautiful and exclusive – and clean and quiet – suburb of Victorianna.   Then one night she wakes up to see her daughter’s best friend Molly, appearing to her as a ghost.   Molly’s dead body is subsequently found in Laurel’s backyard swimming pool.

The local police initially write off the suspicious death as an accident, but Laurel is determined to solve the crime with the aid of her very frank and abrasive sister, Thalia.   It’s not clear whether Laurel is trying to solve the criminal mystery to appease Molly’s ghost, to protect her daughter Shelby, or to resolve matters with the family ghosts she observed as a child.   But once Laurel opens the door on the events of the fateful night, everything in her life comes into play…

Does she really know who she is?   Does her husband love her?   Does she know her own daughter?   The neighbors?   Is her community safe?  

Further details will be left to prospective readers.   This is, without a doubt, a fascinating read.   “Left me breathless…  You must read this book!”   – Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants.   Agreed.   I will now be looking for a copy of Gods in Alabama.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

the girl who“She’d tried to create an airtight home that ghosts could not enter, but they’d come in anyway, through the secret spaces, through the blanks she’d left in all the things she left unsaid…”

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Coming Up Next…

the girl who (sm.)A review of the novel The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson.

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