September 14, 2017 · 4:41 pm
Beach Books – Good All Year Around
Cocoa Beach: A Novel by Beatriz Williams (William Morrow, $27.99, 384 pages)
Ms. Williams is the author of six previous novels. If they are anywhere as well-crafted as Cocoa Beach, readers may have an entire vacation’s worth of adventures from this author alone. The U.S. Prohibition Era brings the Florida coastal town of Cocoa Beach more than just exciting parties and illicit drinking.
The central character, Virginia Firzwilliam, has endured years of abandonment by her secretive husband only to be called to Florida after his death in a house fire. Virginia learns the hard way that she and her little daughter are at the center of a deadly deception.
All Summer Long: A Novel by Dorothea Benton Frank (William Morrow, $15.99, 374 pages)
Get ready for a study in contrasts. A popular and successful interior designer finds herself held to the promise she made 14 years prior when she married a college professor. Nick, the professor, has has long-awaited retirement dream fulfilled – a move back to Charlestown, South Carolina. Olivia, who is a fourth-generation New Yorker, has quite a task ahead. She must adapt to the cultural differences of her new home and keep her design business alive.
Ms. Benton Frank has a beguiling way with words, especially when she’s describing her beloved Low Country. Readers who enjoy this novel will be happy to know that there are 16 published works by this prolific author.
The Beach at Painter’s Cove: A Novel by Shelley Noble (William Morrow, $15.99, 432 pages)
Way up north in Connecticut, family estrangement is the theme of this novel set at the run-down mansion known as Muses by the Sea. The interplay among four generations of a most dysfunctional family can be confusing as there are proper names, nicknames and strange last names. The original family name is Whitaker. Long ago, Wesley and his wife Leonore hosted an artist’s colony on the property of their rambling home situated on Painter’s Cove.
The drama of four generations coming together to decide the fate of the house and property is at best hard to follow. Author Noble uses breathless dialogue and much scurrying about to tell her tale of jealousy and misunderstanding. A family tree at the front of the book would have been a useful addition.
Despite the drawbacks, readers will connect with the message of enduring love that unites the family.
Review copies were provided by the publisher.
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July 1, 2017 · 1:58 pm
You’ll Never Know, Dear: A Novel of Suspense by Hallie Ephron (William Morrow, $26.99, 304 pages)
This is the year that two of my favorite authors have published books about sisters whose roots are in the South. Joshilyn Jackson’s The Almost Sisters is an excellent novel that explores the deep-seated social rules that have persisted through generations. You’ll Never Know, Dear by Hallie Ephron (Night Night, Sleep Tight) explores the haunting, mysterious disappearance of a little girl and the impact of that tragedy on her mother, older sister and law enforcement.
Seven-year-old Lissie was entrusted to look out for her four-year-old sister Janey. Granted, the disappearance took place forty years ago in the front yard of a home in a sleepy, small town in South Carolina. Perhaps even today a mom in a similar setting might do the same, maybe. That same house is still occupied by the aging mom, Miss Sorrel. Lissie (now Lis) is the divorced mother of Vanessa, a post-graduate student. Lis cares for her mother and broods over the terrible time she was distracted by her imagination and wandered off into the woods near the house. Her failed marriage and subsequent lack of support prompted Lis to return to South Carolina years ago.
Each year since Janey’s disappearance, a classified ad placed in the newspaper by Miss Sorrel marks the date. A reward is offered for the return of Janey’s porcelain doll that vanished along with the little girl. The suspense builds after a woman with a Harley-Davidson tattoo answers the ad. Clearly, she is not the sort of person who possesses a hand-painted china doll.
Miss Sorrel and her next-door neighbor, Evelyn Dumont have a decades-long friendship centered around restoring antique dolls, including the personalized china dolls Miss Sorrel created in years past. Each doll’s hair and features were fashioned to resemble the lucky girl whose parents commissioned Miss Sorrel to create the one-of-a-kind treasure.
Hallie Ephron provides readers with an in-depth look at the art of doll making. The marvelous details include references to Madame Alexander dolls. This reviewer has a modest collection of these lovely dolls that began with a much-loved eighth birthday present. The book’s targeted audience is first and foremost ladies of middle age and older who have a fondness for the dolls of their youth.
Suspense and mystery novel lovers will appreciate the twisting story line that includes more than a few family secrets. Ms. Ephron has written another spellbinding tale that does more than rest on the laurels of her past fine works.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on June 6, 2017.
Click here to read a review of The Almost Sisters: A Novel by Joshilyn Jackson:
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March 28, 2013 · 9:28 am
Men and Dogs: A Novel by Katie Crouch (Little, Brown & Company, $13.00, 304 pages; Unabridged audiobook on 7 CDs, narrated by Gabra Zackman, $29.98)
Women coping with the traumas of their past, especially in middle age, seems to be a fascinating topic for many authors who are themselves women. Men and Dogs features Hanna Legare, a daughter of the South whose life trajectory has landed her on the West Coast – at Stanford University followed by a business career and marriage in San Francisco.
At the beginning of this tale, the focus of Hanna’s obsessive energy is the disappearance of her father, Dr. Buzz Legare, a well-liked and good-looking man. The event, a boating accident, took place in April of 1985 in Charleston, South Carolina, Hanna’s birthplace. Hanna refuses to believe that her father is dead. She constantly badgers her family and people from her past demanding a clear-cut explanation for the lack of a body or evidence that Dr. Legare has actually died.
After setting the theme of the novel, author Crouch brings the reader (or, in this reviewer’s case, the audiobook listener) to the year 2009 when Hanna brings her obsession to the boiling point. Her husband and business partner, Jon, seems to be fed up with the indiscretions and affairs she has indulged in over the last few years. Hanna’s defense, dating all the way back to high school, is that she has difficulty feeling secure and, therefore, she uses sex as a way of feeling in control. Hanna’s brother, Palmer, who is gay and veterinarian in Charleston, has also been unable to commit to a lasting relationship. The threads of their unraveling lives cross when Hanna goes back to Charleston for a time-out.
At first the story seems to be a novel/mystery complete with a well-developed set of characters. By two-thirds of the way through, a new theme becomes apparent – that of a cautionary tale. Perhaps a listener or reader who is herself entering middle age would find a sense of life’s lessons as the last of the story unfolds. For this reviewer, the message is clear; do not dwell on the past. Hanna could have benefitted by reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.
The audiobook was purchased by the reviewer’s husband. Katie Crouch is also the author of Girls in Trucks: A Novel.
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September 1, 2011 · 9:58 am
One Summer: A Novel by David Baldacci (Grand Central Publishing, $25.99, 352 pages; Hachette Audio Unabridged version on 7 CDs, $24.99)
Take a break from your own life and get to know the Armstrong family of Ohio. They are the central figures in David Baldacci’s poignant novel, One Summer. This reviewer was captivated by the depth of character development, both male and female, that Baldacci brought to his tale of loss and redemption. The added bonus was listening to the audio version narrated by two highly-skilled readers, Don McLarty and Orlagh Cassidy. Together they provide a wide range of voices for the characters. This blend brought the story to life in a way that would be hard to match with a print version of the book.
The story opens as Jack Armstrong, all around good guy and former military man, awaits his slow death from a rare and always-fatal disease while Christmas approaches. Jack’s lovely wife Lizzie and three children are struggling to cope with the inevitable loss they face. Each has their own way of doing so and 15-year-old daughter Michelle (Mickie) has alienated herself from everyone by rebelling against the entire matter with anger. Deep down inside Lizzie knows she will have to go on without Jack very soon; however, she fantasizes about the entire family revisiting her childhood home in South Carolina during the following summer.
Baldacci takes this premise and injects his own deeply felt take on loss by setting up a twist whereby Lizzie dies in a car crash and Jack miraculously survives. Rather than playing on the sympathy of the characters he has created, Baldacci brings out the good and the weaknesses of everyone involved. This is a tale that demands spirited action and dashing drama. Baldacci delivers all this and more. It is perfectly fine with this reviewer that the gritty reality of life coexists with a fairytale quality series of plot twists.
There’s no mystery here, love conquers all. Highly recommended.
An audiobook review copy was provided by the publisher. “In One Summer, (Baldacci) writes as beautifully and insightfully about the pathways of the human heart as he does about the corridors of power. …(a) hugely emotional and unforgettable novel.” Lisa Scottoline, author of Save Me.
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August 31, 2011 · 12:18 pm
A review of One Summer: A Novel by David Baldacci.
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October 23, 2010 · 4:29 pm
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.
A review copy was received from the publisher.
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