Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Today Will Be Different

A restless wife and mother tries to reboot her life only to have her quest go awry.

What does a restless, middle-aged wife and mother--a graphic artist and renowned animator of a legendary cartoon--have in common with a Catholic-turned-atheist hand surgeon to the stars; a makeup-wearing third grader named Timby, who got his name from an autocorrect spelling of the name Timothy; a frustrated poet who works at Costco; and a dog named Yo-Yo? They are the cast of quirky characters created by Maria Semple (Where'd You Go, Bernadette?) in her comic third novel, Today Will Be Different. 

Semple sets Today Will Be Different in the supposed "least religious city in America," Seattle, where scatterbrained, middle-aged Eleanor Flood--resettled from New York--narrates her angst. She feels stalled in her life, unfulfilled and failing those she loves. She wakes one morning and vows, determinedly, to live in the moment and be her "best self." As on any other day, she makes breakfast for her doctor husband and drops Timby off at his progressive, politically correct elementary school before going to her weekly private poetry lesson. But Eleanor's noble quest to reinvigorate her life goes awry when, during the course of one day, she's faced with a string of mishaps--starting with Timby faking a sickness at school--which snowballs when she comes face-to-face with a former employee, an "ingratiating wannabe... sweaty ass-kisser" she fired 10 years earlier, who is now a famous, accomplished artist. 

With a strong narrative voice, fast pace and her signature wit, Semple cleverly spins another raucously funny story wound around deeper implications about the unexpected ways life teaches us to find meaning.

Little, Brown and Company, $27.00 Hardcover, 978-0316403436, 272 pages
Publication Date: October 4, 2016
To order this book on INDIEBOUND, click HERE
NOTE: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (October 18, 2016), link HERE

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Curt Menefee: 'A Self-help Book Wrapped in Sports Stories'

The Writer's Life


photo: Brian Paulette
Curt Menefee is the longtime host of Fox NFL Sunday and was a sports reporter for SportsDesk on the MSG Network and WNYW, the Fox flagship station in New York. Menefee grew up an ardent sports fan in Atlanta, loving the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Flames. His grandmother Juanita took him to his very first professional sporting event--a Braves vs. Pirates game at old Fulton County Stadium. Menefee wanted to be a professional athlete, but a serious knee injury at the age of 15 sidelined him and set him on a course toward a career in sports media. In Losing Isn't Everything (see my review below), Menefee explores notable sports figures who wound up on the losing side of memorable moments in sports history.

Why a book on losing? 

I've always tried to find a different angle to tell a story, whether as a local reporter, calling games as a play-by-play announcer or in the studio at Fox. The one thing that virtually all sports contests have is a winning side and a losing side, and I've often wondered how "losing" affected someone who was at the top of his/her game as he/she went forward in life. Why were some able to bounce back from adversity, while others struggled? I'd had several chances to speak and interview people who'd lost monumental sporting events and saw that this would be a great topic to explore: the overall effects of being known for failure.

Why did you present the stories in book form rather than as a TV documentary?

First of all, these stories lend themselves to long-form storytelling--not only to provide the details of the events, but to give the necessary background and perspective that each subject employed in trying to cope with loss. Secondly, in a couple of cases, my contact with the athletes/coaches to ask for their participation in this project was the first time I'd ever spoken with them. I needed to build trust before getting them to truly open up. That was best achieved by sitting and talking in familiar settings with a recorder running, rather than lights, cameras and the formalities of video documentation that might make them feel more guarded in providing, often quite personal, details.

The stories in the book are so varied. 

As a sports fan, I was intrigued by so many classic moments that have occurred in arenas and on fields over the last 50 years--and not just in football. It really came down to which individual stories had lessons in them that all could learn from... and it was important to me that the subjects "got" what the project was about. I never wanted the book to be about "what happened and how did you lose," but rather more toward what can be learned from coming up short in life's big moments. 

How did you choose which subject to feature in each particular story?

First, I chose the sporting event that I wanted to spotlight... then I tried to find the person who was in the eye of the storm that changed history. For example, in the case of the '86 Red Sox, fielder Bill Buckner has been blamed--for 30 years--for losing a tough World Series. Yet, if you look at what actually happened, he never should have been involved. The Boston pitcher, Calvin Schiraldi, blew a one-run lead in the 8th inning of Game Six, and a two-run lead in the 10th, after getting two outs. Then, Schiraldi completely fell apart. The game should have been over before the ball ever rolled toward Buckner.... If Boston had won that game, and then Game Seven of the World Series, no one would even remember the Buckner play at all.

You also focus some stories on coaches and managers.

Yes, as I went along in gathering research, I felt it was important to include their perspectives as well--to find out what it was like when a coach or a manager made a decision that led to a loss. That's why Ron Washington, the manager of the Texas Rangers who was one strike away--twice--from winning the World Series, was important to include. As was Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks, whose call to throw a pass (that was intercepted), rather than try to run it in for a touchdown in the closing minutes of the Super Bowl in 2015, will be forever scrutinized--right or wrong.

Were your subjects eager to speak with you?

Some understood the goal of the book right away, others took a bit of cajoling. By the end of the initial interview--which I always tried to limit to two hours of face-to-face time--they all "got it." Obviously, some of the more personal stories involving struggles took some trust-building, and follow-ups were needed. In fact, each person granted us a minimum of three interviews, not to mention various e-mails and text messages to clear up points from time to time. 

What was the greatest challenge and/or reward in writing this book?

The greatest reward was believing that I'd made a contribution to the legacies of the sports figures featured in the book. History labeled them as "losers" simply because they didn't win a major sporting event. Yet, if you look at what some subjects have faced--the way their lives have been impacted by "failing," and how some have found a way to move forward--you know that they are anything but "losers." Each has dealt with some of the toughest "workplace" adversity, which all happened on a very big--and a very public--stage... recorded for all time. The biggest challenge was making sure I told the stories true to each unique circumstance, focusing on coping processes, while also tying in common themes.

The stories are steeped in fact and offer psychological insights.

Well, I have no psychology background, just a deep curiosity in human nature and behavior. I'm a grown up version of the little kid who constantly asks "why?" all the time.

Who do you hope reads this book? 

I'm most honored by those who've said that they aren't sports fans, but loved the book. I truly believe that this is a self-help book wrapped in sports stories. It's about how we all face the challenges of adversity in life and the battle to overcome those challenges. 

Did you learn anything surprising? 

The biggest surprise for me was how honest and open each participant was in sharing deeply personal details with me. Several of them went into some dark places after their public loss. For them to relive those details and share them with me for publication was an honor that leaves me forever indebted to them.

What's your favorite sport?

I love all sports, but the NFL and World Cup Soccer are my favorites. I've been to the championships of every major sport in the U.S., but nothing ever compares to the three World Cups I've attended--all as a fan. Nothing compares!

Does not having first-hand experience playing professional sports affect your broadcasting career? 

I believe it allows me to look at sports and ask the questions that everyday fans would ask if they could sit in my chair. I don't assume that folks at home automatically understand the terminology or circumstances that those around their respective sports take for granted. 

Care to offer a prediction of who will play in Super Bowl LI in 2017? 

Well, my preseason prediction was Arizona and Pittsburgh. I think I'm going to be off on the Arizona part. If I'm forced to right now, I'd say Seattle and Pittsburgh. A rematch of Super Bowl XL in 2006

NOTE: This interview is a reprint and is being published with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this Q&A as originally published on Shelf Awareness for Readers (11/11/16) click HERE

Losing Isn't Everything


Riveting stories that document pivotal career losses that changed the lives of athletes with applicable lessons for everyone!

Host of Fox NFL Sunday Curt Menefee and co-writer Michael Arkush (Rush!) present an in-depth examination of pivotal instants in the lives of 15 athletes, coaches and managers who have been on the losing side of memorable moments in sports.

Menefee and Arkush profile a range of familiar names and incidents: Boston Red Sox pitcher Calvin Schiraldi gave up the final game of the 1986 World Series to the New York Mets. Craig Ehlo of the Cleveland Cavaliers allowed Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls to score the winning shot in the '89 NBA playoffs. Lou Michaels, a placekicker from the Baltimore Colts, missed a field goal that cost the team the '69 Super Bowl. Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis made a split-second decision at the finish line of the 2006 Winter Olympics that banished her from gold. In the fourth round of the 1991 U.S. Open, Aaron Krickstein played his heart out against veteran tennis icon Jimmy Connors, but it wasn't enough. With one strike away from winning the 2011 World Series, Ron Washington, manager of the Texas Rangers, made a fateful decision. Underdog French golfer, Jean Van de Velde choked in the home stretch of the 1990 British Open. And runner Mary Decker literally fell short at the 1984 Olympic Games.

Every riveting, heartrending profile offers a well-chronicled history into events that led up to the dramatic moment that changed everything, along with a fascinating analysis of how each affected athlete sorted through complicated emotions and moved on--or didn't--after the fact.

Dey Street Books (Harper Collins), $26.99 Hardcover, 9780062440075, 272 pages
Publication Date: November 1, 2016
To Order this book on INDIEBOUND click HERE
NOTE: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (November 11, 2016 ), link HERE

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Murder at the Moonshine Inn

When Murder at the Moonshine Inn opens, readers learn that it's been eight years since Hazel Rose--a computer programmer turned romance novelist and super-sleuth--solved the murder of a disgruntled Richmond, Va. book club member who died after sipping cyanide-laced tea at a book club discussion.

In this second installment, Hazel goes undercover to find out who killed Roxanne Howard, a willful and high-powered executive, in the parking lot of a local redneck watering hole. Roxanne's grief-stricken sister enlists Hazel's help to find the killer as Roxanne's husband, Brad, is actually Hazel's distant cousin—and he also becomes the prime suspect in his wife's murder.

As Hazel gets drawn deeper into the mystery--and enlists the help of her shrewd, clever, mystery-loving book club cohorts--more complications ensue that involve Hazel's distant relatives and a long list of possible suspects ranging from Roxanne's rivals to former employees.

Hazel's fifth husband, a retired Richmond homicide detective who is a writer of true crime books, offers Hazel pertinent information into the investigation that aids her quest to flush out the murderer. What was the motive—love or money...or maybe revenge? When a second murder occurs, red herrings thwart Hazel's investigation until her own safety comes at risk. 

King (Murder at the Book Group) delivers another well-written, suspenseful cozy filled with a charming, quirky cast of book-loving characters and a plot that tightens before it ultimately unspools into a surprising conclusion.

KoehlerBooks, $16.95 Paperback, 9781633932814, 260 pages
Publication Date: November 15, 2016
To order this book on INDIEBOUND, click HERE

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Siracusa

An intimate, suspenseful story of two American couples--whose marriages are in crisis--vacationing in Sicily.
Delia Ephron (Sister Mother Husband Dog: Etc.) turns an idyllic Sicilian vacation upside-down in Siracusa, a novel about two sophisticated American couples in their 40s. Told through shifting timelines and four points of view, the story reveals the couples' shared history and the restlessness they are facing in their respective marriages. 

Lizzie and Michael, struggling writers, are a childless couple from New York. Lizzie is a long-form journalist, and Michael is a famous author and riveting raconteur who secretly wants out of the marriage, as he is in love with a younger woman. Finn and Taylor are from Maine. Their daughter, Snow, is tagging along on the trip; she is a beautiful but deeply repressed--and impressionable--10-year-old, with a condition called "Extreme Shyness Syndrome." Finn owns a restaurant and is resentful of Taylor, a cultured heiress who smothers their daughter with care and attention. Finn, too, harbors secret romantic longings of his own. Upping the ante is the fact that Lizzie and Finn were once an item. The two perpetually flirt with each other, provoking the ire of their spouses.

Ephron writes colorful repartee and backhanded insults, revealing the foursome's jealousies, lies and betrayals that further ignite when an unexpected visitor crashes their holiday. The atmospheric details of historic Sicily serve as a remarkable backdrop to the characters' personal conflicts, rendering Siracusa as a dark, psychologically astute story about the limits of marriage and friendship.

Blue Rider Press, $26.00 Hardcover, 9780399165214, 304 pages
Publication Date:  July 12, 2016
To order this book on INDIEBOUND, click HERE

NOTE: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (July 22, 2016 ), link HERE

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Juliette Fay: Vaudeville and the Culture of Outsiders


The Writer's Life


Photo by Kristen Dacy Iwai
The Tumbling Turner Sisters (read my review below) by Juliette Fay is about a poverty-stricken family and how four sisters form a vaudeville acrobatic act in 1919. Fay's novel was inspired by her great-grandfather, Fred Delorme, who, in order to support his own family, found success in small-time vaudeville shows and revues. Fay is the oldest of three sisters. "We are quite a pack!" she says. "And while none of us is especially like any of the Turner girls, I felt very comfortable writing about the sibling dynamic, and I have my own wonderful sisters to thank for that." Fay's three priorworks of contemporary women's fiction have earned awards and recognition from the Massachusetts Center for the Book, the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, Good Housekeeping, Target's Bookmarked Club and Library Journal

Why write this book now?

I was coming up blank on ideas for contemporary fiction when I was reminded of my great-grandfather and his vaudeville career. I overcame my reservations and dove in. I always wanted to try historical fiction because I enjoy reading it so much. It's a wonderful way to learn about another time while enjoying the entertainment of a good story. I was hesitant to take it on, though, because I didn't feel "qualified," as if I needed a Ph.D. in some little-known era to be allowed to write about it. Even when I got over that, I was intimidated by the steep learning curve of doing so much research and communicating it in a natural way over the course of the story.

Any major challenges in the writing process?

Two: getting the history right and getting the voices right. There's so much about writing in another time period that's tricky. You don't know how people talked to one another, what phrases or tone they might have used--or not used!--that would be different from today. You don't always know what had been invented. I wanted to write a scene in which the girls were listening to the radio, and I knew radios had been invented, but I had to do more research to learn that there were no public broadcasts until 1920, the year after the story takes place! I felt like with every sentence I wrote, I needed to look something up.

Did anything stand out or surprise you in your research?

Vaudeville itself was a subculture based mostly on merit. If you were talented and successful, your gender, skin color and ethnic origin didn't matter nearly as much. What kept coming back to me was that vaudeville, in many ways, was a culture of outsiders. Middle- and upper-class Americans looked down their noses at performing, which was considered sketchy work. So it was left mainly to the poor, immigrants and minorities, and women--none of whom had many other options to rise above their station in life. It was a way for them to beat the system which, at the time, offered up a pretty heavy slice of oppression.

The vaudeville era spanned from the 1880s to the 1920s. Why did you choose to set the story in 1919?

Socio-politically there was so much going on in 1919--the passage of prohibition and women's suffrage within a matter of months, even as the country was just barely beginning to recover from the deep losses of World War I and the Spanish flu. Everything was changing--except for racism, that remained very entrenched.

I was particularly interested in exploring the choices that the Turners could and couldn't make as women at that time. They could get jobs outside the home, but only certain jobs, for instance as nurses, telephone operators and secretaries. And much of society still considered that second best to being a wife and mother; employment was something you had to endure if you couldn't find a man to marry you. College was a complete long shot, even for young women from wealthy families. And yet the concept of the New Woman--smart, adventurous, unmarried--was gaining ground. I loved being able to tell a story about four individual young women who were coming of age at the same time America was coming of age.

This novel is the first book you've ever written using a first-person perspective.

After having written in third person (my own "voice") for three previous novels, it was quite a challenge to constantly have to think about how a character would say something, whether she would or wouldn't notice something, what her thoughts might be on a subject.

The story is told from the middle sisters' points of view. Why share only two perspectives?

My original intention was to tell the story from one point of view--17-year-old Winnie's--and I wrote the entire first draft in her voice. But then it became clear there were interesting things happening with the other sisters that I couldn't talk about because Winnie didn't know about them. I considered Kit (the youngest) and Nell (the oldest), but ultimately it was Gert who had the most secrets, and only she could bring them into full view. So I added chapters from Gert and rewrote some of Winnie's chapters in Gert's voice.

The supporting cast--beyond the family dynamic--is rich and colorful.

Yes, many of the secondary characters stand for something important--both in terms of the story and in terms of history.

As an African-American, Tippety Tap Jones is not only tapping across the stage, he's tap dancing his way around the landmines of racism. He traverses the fine line between deference (for his own survival) and not being pushed around. His refusal to "black up" becomes a sort of rallying call for the girls, and emboldens them to live on their own terms a little more, even though as women, they are rarely allowed such control.

Nat and Benny, the Jewish comedy pair, are also stand-ins. The more I researched vaudeville, the more I saw how immigrants and children of immigrants flooded to vaudeville because it was one of the few ways they might get ahead in the new world. Jewish humor was all over vaudeville, from Weber and Fields to Smith and Dale to the Marx Brothers. The humor of Nat and Benny endears them to the girls, and so does their avuncular kindness. They teach the girls many lessons about entertainment and about life.

Acrobatics play a major role in the story. Do you have any personal background in this?

Absolutely none. This became evident when my editor, a former gymnast, told me quite bluntly that the girls would never have been able to learn all those stunts in a couple of months. She really made me work at making the skill acquisition more believable, for which I'm very grateful. Otherwise I'd be getting scoffing reviews from gymnasts by the dozens.

What would you like readers to take away from this novel?

I hope that readers will love the story of these four girls. Then I hope they'll consider the conditions and constraints the sisters had to deal with--that all of these "outsiders" had to deal with. While we've come so far from those days, to varying degrees and in different forms, some of those conditions and constraints still exist. I hope The Tumbling Turner Sisters will spark some conversations and deeper understanding about that.

Is there another historical novel in your future?

Yes, I've just started a story set during the silent movie era of the early 1920s. Hollywood was becoming a mecca for film production and it was a pretty crazy place, so I'm having a lot of fun! 

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this Q&A as originally published on Shelf Awareness (6/24/16), click HERE

The Tumbling Turner Sisters

Four sisters launch a vaudeville act to rescue their working-class family when it falls on hard times.  

The vaudeville era is authentically brought back to life in The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay (The Shortest Way Home). The story follows the plight of a hardworking, near-poverty-level family in Johnson City, N.Y., in 1919 after the patriarch, Frank, a lowly shoemaker, has his hand crushed when he tries to break up a barroom brawl. With Frank unable to work and bills piling up, determined mother Ethel, who'd always craved stardom, seeks to remedy the family's misfortune by recruiting her four daughters (ages 13 to 22) into forming a sister act of vaudeville tumblers.

The story is told from the perspectives of the middle sisters: Winnie, who wants to go to college and become a doctor, and Gert, no-nonsense and curvy-figured, who longs for a better life than her mother's. Rounding out the quartet are Kit, the youngest and tallest of the bunch, and Nell, the oldest, a young mother and recent widow. It doesn't take long for the sisters to attract the attention of an agent, who launches them on a tour through upstate New York, where they encounter a host of colorful performers including a Yiddish comedy duo, an African American tap dancer, Italian immigrant musicians and temperamental animal handlers. 

As the girls and their mother become immersed in the grueling vaudeville circuit, their mettle is tested. They are forced to discover who they are and the realities of life amid romantic attractions, con men and issues of women's rights and racial discrimination. Fay's historical novel probes the personal lives and questions of the era with adventure and aplomb.

Gallery Books, $24.00 Hardcover, 9781501134470, 352 pages
Publication Date: June 14, 2016
To order this book on INDIEBOUND, click HERE


NOTE: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (June 24, 2016 ), link HERE

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Not all books require batteries



How has your local indie bookshop changed YOUR life? 
Read how 
Shaw's Book Shop 
has influenced mine.

(Shaw's will celebrate 40 years in business in 2017)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016
Opinion/Editorial: "Other Views/ Guest Columnist" (Section A-7)
BY KATHLEEN GERARD

To read the article in its entirety, click on the highlighted title above

SUPPORT LOCAL INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules

A comic crime caper about five Swedish pensioners who break out of their retirement home and become criminals.

When Lily of the Valley retirement home in Stockholm is sold to ghastly new owners and renamed Diamond House, the cloistered pensioners who reside there get fed up. Their food is "delivered and served under cellophane wrapping," and budget cuts curb their daily coffee consumption. Believing they would be better treated and have more freedom in prison, one clique at the facility--a close-knit group of five friends who, in their late 50s, decided to live together in old age--start a rebellion to test their theory. The group, banded together by 79-year-old, childless, crime fiction fan Martha Andersson, call themselves "The League of Pensioners" and go on the lam. The League consists of handsome, dapper Rake; Oscar "Brains," an optimistic solution-finder and inventor; Christina, who's in search of simple pleasures; and hard of hearing Anna-Greta, a former banker and financier. The quintet set out to rob from the rich and contribute the funds to improve living conditions for seniors throughout Sweden. After a successful robbery at a luxury hotel, they attempt the heist of a Renoir and a Monet from the National Museum that ultimately lands them behind bars. The missing paintings, however, continue to elude the police and ultimately, even the Yugoslavian mafia.

A comedy of errors, oversights and obstacles infuse Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg's clever American debut, where a spirited cast of walker-dependent characters in their 70s and 80s cause hilarious, escalating antics that will have readers of all ages rooting for their cause.

Harper Paperbacks, $15.99 Paperback, 9780062447975, 400 pp
Publication Date:  July 12, 2016
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE


Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (7/19/16), link HERE

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Dog that Whispered

A rescued black lab helps a troubled veteran confront traumatic war experiences and get on with life.

A rescued black lab named Thurman is the titular The Dog That Whispered in the continuation of Jim Kraus's (The Dog That Talked to God) fictional series featuring domestic animals that alter human relationships. At 85 years old, Gretna Steele adopts Thurman before learning that her retirement community in Pittsburgh, Pa., does not allow pets. So Gretna hands the dog off to her son, Wilson, a college professor "nearing-senior-citizen-status," who has lived an insular life for decades, ever since his tour of duty in Vietnam. Wilson grudgingly accepts Thurman, who eerily begins uttering, in growls and barks, responses to Wilson's self-talk--words like "bunkum" and even phrases: "I good at dog. You not good at human." Thurman forces Wilson to question his sanity, examine his conscience and confront the socially isolating aspects of his guilt.

In a parallel story, 20-something actuary Hazel Jamison of Portland, Ore., is packing up her recently deceased mother's belongings when she discovers a picture of her mom--a never-married hippie--with a uniformed soldier. Written on the back of the photograph, in her mother's hand, are the words "Our Wedding." Hazel, who believed she was the byproduct of a short-lived affair, is shocked by the revelation. She cashes in her mother's stocks, quits her job and sets off on a cross-country road trip determined to find out more about the man in the picture. Amid her quest, Wilson and Thurman enter her life.

The power of providence and redemption emerge as undercurrents in another delightful installment in Kraus's inspirational series. 



FaithWords/Hatchett, $14.99 Paperback, 9781455562565, 336 pp
Publication Date: June 7, 2016
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE


Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (6/3/16), link HERE