Sunday, October 16, 2016


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)

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


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

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Dog Days of Summer

From My Shelf

Now is the perfect time to lounge in a hammock, sip an iced tea and cuddle up with fictions about furry, four-legged canine companions. Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley--a funny, moving novel about an aging and infirm dachshund who changes one man's life--has become a literary sensation.

There are many other dog-centric novels about unforgettable fictionalized pooches, as well:

In A Man of His Own by Susan Wilson, a WWII veteran, Rick Stanton, returns home, broken in body and spirit. When Rick and his wife are reunited with their beloved dog, Pax, a rescued German shepherd-mix who was later volunteered to serve in a K-9 military unit, a tug-of-war for the dog ensues between Rick and Pax's devoted handler from the front lines. 

Two dogs--Dante, a super-smart Border collie, and Sissy, a sweet natured spaniel--are unwillingly dumped on Jonathan Trefoil, a floundering, unfulfilled 20-something New Yorker in Jonathan Unleashed, a romantic comedy by Meg Rosoff. The dogs' attentiveness to Jonathan--and vice versa--create refreshing new beginnings for Jonathan's thorny, uncertain life.

Hector, a fluffy little white dog owned by a widow in a small town, and Trey Barkley, Hector's 26 year-old, professional dog walker who suffers from schizophrenia, are at the center of The Chocolate Debacle by Karen Winters Schwartz. When Hector's owner is found murdered, Trey becomes the prime suspect in this psychologically astute murder mystery.

And in my own novel, The Thing Is, a crafty therapy dog, a lovable Yorkshire terrier named Prozac--with supernatural wisdom, a canine Mensa IQ and an even higher opinion of himself--sets off on an adventurous, comedic quest to rescue a blocked romance writer grieving the death of her fiancĂ©. 

So before summer winds down, let yourself 'go to the dogs'…literarily.

NOTE: This column previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers (8/16/16) and is being reprinted (in a slightly different form) with their permission. Link HERE to read the column as originally published.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Dating Tips for the Unemployed

A mosaic of comical short stories about a 35 year-old single, intellectual woman trying to navigate the complexities of life and love.

Crafty comic writer Iris Smyles returns to exploring the life of her fictional anti-hero, Iris, in Dating Tips for the Unemployed. In Smyles's first novel, Iris Has Free Time, character Iris was a young, single New Yorker grappling with life after college and the pitfalls of young adulthood. In the new novel, Iris is now 35 and still single. She's grown older and while still struggling with hard-won wisdom, she continues her witty, self-deprecating and often self-defeating search for a place in the world.

This time around, character Iris--an aspiring writer largely supported economically by her Greek, politically right-leaning family--starts her journey having now completed her second master's degree and feeling that she needs to find a man and get married "before I gain any more weight, before I get too old, before people start to talk." That quest, channeled through Iris's lovably downtrodden, often absent-minded perspective, is not easy to accomplish. In 24 short, eclectic episodes, Iris--a wry observer and keen philosophical thinker--shares stories centered on men, dating, work (and the lack thereof), loneliness, friendship, sex, literature, costume parties, growing older, time travel, insomnia, Greek mythology and the complete series of Rocky movies. A large cast of characters comprised of family, friends, lovers and strangers enhance the very funny details of Iris's rich, authentic urban odyssey.

Smyles delivers another clever, insightful glimpse into the often absurd existence of an intellectual young woman who makes the idea of floundering in life a laudable art form.

Mariner Books, $15.95 Paperback, 9780544703384, 320 pp
Publication Date: October 27, 2015
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 (6/28/16), link HERE

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Invoice

In this thought-provoking existential comedy, a lowly video store clerk receives an astronomical bill for simply living his life.

The absurdities of life coupled with the strangely surreal are hallmarks of Swedish actor and playwright Jonas Karlsson's work (The Room). His second novel, The Invoice, again turns on a Kafkaesque premise: a nameless, 39-year-old part-time video store clerk and film aficionado--a loner with only a handful of friends, whose most notable indulgence in life is having a pizza and taking in a movie in his one-room Stockholm apartment--receives a bill for 5.7 million kronor (roughly $875,000) in the mail. Thinking the bill--imprinted with a nondescript logo--is a mistake or a scam, the narrator disregards it. The next month, he receives another bill in the same amount, but with a surcharge of 150 kronor tacked on as a late payment. When the narrator calls to inquire, he makes matters worse as it is soon discovered that he owes even more than originally calculated. "What am I supposed to be paying for?" the narrator asks. "Everything," says the representative. "Being alive costs."

Through a cryptic, engrossing storyline that snowballs with staggering, thought-provoking complications, Karlsson reveals more about his underachieving hero. It seems contradictory that the hefty "happiness tax" in the whole country should be imposed upon someone living such a simple life. Fair or not, this leaves the narrator to scramble for deductions in the form of disclosures about free-floating anxiety, missing his parents and the loss of a secret love. The satirical, philosophical nature of this story delves into the meaning and purpose of life, how we measure joy and what truly constitutes a sense of accomplishment.

Hogarth, $24.00 Hardcover, 9781101905142, 208 pages
Publication Date: July 12, 2016
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read the review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (7/15/16), link HERE

This review was also published in a longer form on Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade (6/20/2016). To read the longer form review, link HERE

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Decent Proposal

Two strangers are brought together by a mysterious benefactor who offers them a chance--with conditions--to split a million dollars.

Los Angeles is the backdrop for Kemper Donovan's smart and observant first novel, The Decent Proposal, which asks, what would two people do for a million dollars? Sex is not part of this proposition. Rather, a mysterious, anonymous benefactor hires a lawyer to bring together two strangers, promising that they can split $1 million if they agree to spend at least two continuous hours with each other--engaging in substantial conversation--every week, for one year.

Richard Baumbach is a good-looking, down-on-his-luck film producer. Richard's best friend is Michaela (aka "Mike"), a hardworking literary manager. In college, they were a couple, but Mike ended their romance. Once Mike gets wind of Richard's moneymaking opportunity--the DP, as the "decent proposal" is called--the scenario suddenly frames Richard in a new light. Is Mike actually in love with Richard after all?

Elizabeth Santiago is the other half of the DP and the antithesis of Richard: she doesn't watch TV; she's not even on Facebook. On the fast track to partnership at her high-powered law firm, Elizabeth doesn't need the money. A loner who lives to work, she has forsaken her family and their devout Catholic faith. The DP offers Elizabeth a perfect opportunity to step outside her comfort zone.

A strong, omniscient narrator anchors Donovan's deconstructed, opposites-attract love story where emotional stakes deepen as the story unfolds. References to pop culture, classic literature and movies--along with snappy dialogue and well-drawn characterizations, especially in the cast of supporting players--infuse a clever plot filled with surprising twists that will keep readers entertained and in suspense. 

The Decent Proposal by Kemper Donovan
Harper, $25.95 Hardcover, 9780062391629, 320 pages
Publication Date: April 5, 2016
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read the review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (4/15/16), link HERE

This review was also published in a longer form on Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade (3/14/16). To read the longer form review, link HERE