Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorite Reads of 2013

As a book reviewer for Shelf Awareness, I read and review at least three titles per month. Those titles are culled from an often eclectic list of nonfiction and fiction (mysteries and romances) - books I might not normally choose for myself, per se, but titles I have enjoyed reading that broaden my range. This blog tends to highlight a majority of those titles. However, I read a lot more than what I post on this blog.

Below is a list of my favorite reads from 2013. Please note: there is no special ranking. Each book is vastly different in content, form, tone and subject matter, and I feel it is unfair to qualify them in that manner. The numbers are simply there to keep the list orderly. 

To learn more about any of the selections, click on the highlighted titles for additional information:


1)      The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
2)      The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
3)      The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
4)      Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson
5)      The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
6)      Tapestry of Fortunes by Elizabeth Berg
7)      Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason
8)      Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding
9)      The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg
10)    The Widow Waltz by Sally Koslow


11)    This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
13)    Killing Jesus: A History by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
          by Charles Krauthammer
15)    The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee      

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The First Phone Call From Heaven

Mitch Albom, the author of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, delivers a novel which questions the idea of life after life. 

In The First Phone Call from Heaven, select inhabitants of Coldwater, Michigan start receiving brief, often cryptic, calls from loved ones who have died. Some in the sleepy little town look forward to the calls, taking solace; others find them much too emotional and avoid them. Some choose to keep their conversations secret, but folks like Katherine Yellin—a 46 year-old divorced mother—believe the calls received from her beloved, deceased sister must be shared. When Yellin goes public, others, too, come forward until the mysterious communications from the afterlife grab worldwide media attention, turning Coldwater into a circus-like, pilgrimage destination.

Religious and anti-religious wrestle with the implications, along with skeptics like local resident Sully Harding, a former pilot whose wife died while he was serving prison time. The single father's heartbreaking back-story figures prominently into the suspense of the plot. When Sully's seven-year-old son expresses a longing to receive a call from his own deceased mother, Sully sets out on a quest to prove the phone calls asserting that heaven exists are all a hoax.

Albom's ensemble cast of characters reflects varying attitudes, fears and hopes of people coping with guilt, grief and loss. Interjected throughout the briskly paced narrative are details of Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone, what it meant for his own life and its context in the modern world. Albom's dialogue-driven story culminates near Christmas. The story ultimately becomes a social commentary about human connection, encouraging readers to question the meaning of their own lives, faith and beliefs.

The First Phone Call from Heaven by Mitch Albom
Harper, $24.99, Hardcover, 9780062294371 , 326 pp
Publication Date: November 12, 2013
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mary Kay Andrews: Creating Her Own World Order

The Writer's Life

photo: Bill Miles
Mary Kay Andrews started her career as a journalist, covering what would later become known as the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil murder trial. After leaving the newspaper business, she turned to writing cozy mystery novels, including the Callahan Garrity series about a former cop–turned–struggling private eye–turned cleaning lady. After 10 mysteries, Andrews began writing women's fiction.
Christmas Bliss (St. Martin's Press, $16.99) is her latest--her 21st book, and the fourth in the Savannah series--more adventures featuring Eloise "Weezie" Foley and her Southern belle best friend, BeBe Loudermilk. Weezie is an antique dealer who has a cheating ex, an alcoholic mother, a forgetful father and a gay uncle who was a Catholic priest. BeBe is a thrice-married restaurant owner who is now expecting a baby. In Christmas Bliss, Weezie is pulled in many directions as she prepares for the holidays and her impending Christmas Eve nuptials to her long-time love, a chef suddenly being wooed by the New York restaurant scene.
Andrews's novels offer an absurdist, comic slant on serious issues, where quirky characters merge with plots that are always full of surprises, laughs and heartwarming endings.
How did the Savannah books come about? Did you know from the start this was going to be a series?
Savannah, Ga., was where my husband and I started life as newlyweds--way back when. It's truly a place of my heart. Evocative, parochial and dripping with Spanish moss and Southern charm. I had no intention of writing a series because I'd just ended the Callahan Garrity mystery series, with eight installments.
How do you come up with the clever names of your heroines, especially those in the Savannah novels?
Weezie is named after the heroine of the Kay Thompson's Eloise children's books, which I've always loved. I heard an Atlanta socialite referring to her youngest child as "bay-bay," which she informed me was French for baby--and I knew I would steal that for a character.
And speaking of names, your Callahan Garrity mysteries (published under the name Kathy Hogan Trocheck) have been re-issued under your name. Will you ever return to writing about Callahan?
I loved writing about Callahan and Edna and the House Mouse "girls," and I do sometimes miss them, so who knows? Maybe someday they'll reappear. After 21 books, I've learned never to say never.
You've delivered, on average, a book a year. How do you remain so prolific?
Fear is a great motivator. If I'm not working on a new novel, I start to worry that my readers will forget me and move on to the next hot thing. This past year was a two-book year, with the release of Ladies' Night and Christmas Bliss within five months of each other. Not a feat I want to repeat. Maybe it's the good Catholic girl syndrome that Nora Roberts talks about. You sign a contract, you deliver the goods. I always tell my agent I'll sleep when I'm dead.
Does your Catholic upbringing and faith inform your work?
I'm sure my faith informs my work--hopefully in subtle ways. I believe in family, in faith, in faithfulness. I want the world to be fair, and I dislike bigotry, gratuitous violence and cruelty. I suppose writing fiction is my way of creating my own world order.
If a character from any one of your books could live off the page, which one would you most like to spend time with and why? Is there any character you would try to avoid?
Mary Bliss McGowan, the protagonist of Little Bitty Lies who faked her husband's death in a boating accident, is somebody I'd like to share a drink with. I admire her gutsiness. Scheming, conniving females like Celia Wakefield, the romantic rival in Spring Fever, give me a rash. I'm always wary of women who distrust other women.
How has your journalism background influenced your career as a novelist?
Being a reporter teaches you to ask the hard questions and pay attention to the answers--not just listening, but watching. It teaches you the importance of story structure--beginning, middle and end. It teaches you there's no such thing as writer's block. And you learn the incredibly important skill of working with a good editor, allowing the give-and-take that can lift a so-so piece of prose into something special--or at least something that doesn't suck.
You're passionate about "extreme junking," the search for antiques at flea markets and estate sales--in real life and in your novels. Do you tend to keep things you find and restore, or has eBay become your best friend?
My mother was a junker, and as an impoverished child bride of 22, I learned that I could make a home with somebody else's cast-offs. I've been junking ever since, keeping what I love or passing it along to my grown children or even selling it in my booth in a gift shop on Tybee Island, outside of Savannah. I'm too impatient to wait on the outcome of an eBay auction.
Why do reinvention and the idea of "home" (literally and figuratively) figure so prominently as themes in most of your books?
Most of my readers are women, but I think all of us, deep down, long for home--for that sense of belonging, of being rooted in something, whether it's a physical place, or just an emotional attachment to someone or something. And reinvention is universal, too. Who doesn't dream of having a do-over in life?
You've had a long, varied and prosperous career. Is there anything else you'd still like to explore in your writing?
I joke about my evil plot for global domination, but sure, I'd like to try my hand at writing a screenplay and seeing my story on a big screen--or even a small screen. I've got a cookbook simmering at the back of my mind, and it would be really cool to write a children's book, too. So many ideas, so few hours....
What can readers expect from you next?
I'm working on next summer's book, set in Savannah, with a protagonist who is a wedding florist. Look for Save the Date in early June! 

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this Q&A on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (12/17/13), click HERE

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Christmas Bliss

Christmas Bliss is Mary Kay Andrews' fourth installment in the fun and breezy series set in Savannah, Georgia.  You don't need to have read the others novels to enjoy this one, but you're likely to seek out more once you spend time with antique dealer Eloise "Weezie" Foley. Her whirlwind Christmas season seems far from "bliss" as it snowballs with unexpected surprises and secrets.

Weezie is being pulled in many directions as she prepares for her Christmas Eve wedding to long-time beau, Daniel Stipanek, who has set off to New York City to serve as guest chef at a hot new downtown eatery. With Daniel away and Weezie in full impending nuptial mode, Weezie envisions the restaurant owner, Carlotta Donatello, to be "a senior citizen in a flour-dusted apron, wielding a wooden spoon." But when Weezie stumbles upon a gossip column picture that depicts Daniel stepping out on the town with a woman "with a long lustrous mane of hair and huge, long-lashed doe eyes, which, in the photograph were fixed longingly on (Weezie's) fiancé . . . she (also) had a generous helping of cleavage pressed against Daniel's chest," Weezie's life is turned upside-down.

At the urging of BeBe Loudermilk, Weezie's lovable, Southern belle best friend and maid-of-honor—also a commitment-phobe ready to give birth any day—Weezie drops everything and hops a plane to NYC to check up on and nurse Daniel, who comes down with the flu. What ensues are unexpected glitches and adventures for Weezie, who is faced with a clock ticking toward Christmas Eve.

While Weezie faces challenges in New York, BeBe is faced with troubles of her own in Georgia. The past pays the expectant mother a visit, delivering shocking news that forces her to secretly go behind the back of her live-in love, Harry, in order to set matters right. 

Rounding out the lively drama are a cast of recurrent, small town characters who enrich the lives of these two women in crises.

In true Mary Kay Andrews' style, she spins yet another clever, charming tale full of laughs and a heartwarming ending that arrives at the eleventh hour.

Christmas Bliss by Mary Kay Andrews
St. Martin's Press, $16.99, Hardcover, 9781250029721 , 304 pp
Publication Date: October 15, 2013
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

Plant a seed of gratitude to harvest new hope

Thursday, November 28, 2013
Opinion/Editorial (Section A-22)

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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Maddie's Choice

Newly single, native New Yorker, Maddie Taylor is a romance writer stuck in the throes of a writers' block when she receives news that Jonah Spartman, an older man she met by chance ten years before, has bequeathed her half of his cattle ranch in Arkansas. The land can be hers, but only under the condition that she stay on the ranch for a period of three months.
Eager for a change of scene, Maddie heads west, where she meets Gideon Spartman, Jonah's grumpy grandson, a man with rugged good looks, who owns the other half of the ranch. Gideon is a troubled Afghanistan military vet who struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He has also become the guardian of his two, lonely orphaned nephews, Abe and Mark, whom he orders around like "hired help." Even though Gideon is initially leery and standoffish with Maddie, the two are instantly attracted to each other.
Do the secrets and scars that Gideon carries prohibit him from loving another person? And does the same hold true for Maddie and her life of isolation, lived on the pages of her romance novels?
As prideful Maddie tries to settle in to the Spartman Cattle ranch, she starts writing again, while growing closer to Abe and Mark and making friends with the townsfolk.
With yearnings suddenly awakened in Maddie for Gideon (and vice-versa), the two become fearful, suspecting that the depth of their feelings may be life-changing. But do either one of them really want their lives to change?
Zeller has written an intriguing Western-themed, contemporary love story, blending well-defined, wounded characters--from two different worlds--mired in the pull and tug of romance. Zeller also weaves in a suspenseful subplot regarding the harrowing struggles of a beef cattle farm in financial crisis.

Camel Press, $14.95, Paper, 9781603819596 , 274 pp
Publication Date: September 1, 2013
To order this book via AMAZON link HERE

This book has been reviewed as part of a blog tour hosted by Tribute Books. To be entered to win a $25 Amazon.com Gift Card (or PayPal cash), link HERE 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

All Aboard: Riding the Rails in Fiction

For many of us, trains are fascinating: cargo and passenger trains, subways, high-speed rail. The call of a train whistle--the rumbling, chugging sound--awakens the spirit and encourages the imagination to crisscross time and place. That's what inspired me to write In Transit, a woman-in-jeopardy novel published two years ago. It's the story of a misguided, rookie NYPD transit cop assigned to the labyrinthine New York City subway system and how, when she falls in love with the wrong man, her life derails.

In Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith, four travelers, diverse in backgrounds and ages, are brought together on a train bound from Edinburgh to London. They pass the time by telling tales of how the railroad played a significant part in each of their love lives.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is a coming-of-age novel that connects the disparate lives of two women. The story is based on the program that, from the 19th century until the Great Depression, carted orphans via train to adoptive families in the Midwest.

Pandemonium infuses Mrs. Queen Takes the Train. In William Kuhn's clever, inventive novel, Queen Elizabeth gets fed up with the demands of life at Buckingham Palace, slips on a borrowed hoodie and goes rogue, taking public rail transportation to Scotland.

The Train of Small Mercies, a collection of short stories by David Rowell, links the poignant, personal experiences of six ordinary people who witness and grieve as the train carrying the body of Robert F. Kennedy from New York City to his final resting place in Washington, D.C.

The idea of riding the rails conjures romance, intrigue and drama as trains take us on collective and individual journeys--both on the page and off. 

NOTE: This article is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this column as published via Shelf Awareness for Readers (11/5/13), link HERE

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Beth Harbison: Believing in Happy Endings

The Writer's Life

photo: Chandler Schwede
Beth Harbison has been writing a novel a year (sometimes two) since 1997, when, under the name Elizabeth Harbison, she began writing and publishing series and stand-alone category romances with Silhouette Books. Along the way, she's also published four cookbooks, most notably on bread machine baking.
Harbison admits that series romance proved limiting. "The focus," she said, "has to be on the romance and romance alone. My thoughts eventually expanded beyond that... though the elemental 'love saves her' idea never fully leaves my consciousness."
Shoe Addicts Anonymous, published in 2008, launched the next phase of her career: she's written seven lively and engaging novels about contemporary women facing romantic challenges. Harbison's novels often explore difficult life situations, but each story is woven with humor and a sense of the absurd. Her latest, Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger (published by St. Martin's; see review below) is a bittersweet novel that centers on two very different brothers, and how they affect a woman's life and her ability to love.
The titles to your books are very clever--When in Doubt, Add Butter and Hope in a Jar, among others. How do your titles come about, and is there a story behind the title of your latest novel?
Usually my editor, Jen Enderlin, and I brainstorm what's next. We have total mind-meld, in general, so these
conversations are always fun and productive. As we talk, she'll often snap her fingers and say, "That's IT!" I remember we were eating at Tom Colicchio's Craft Restaurant in New York when she said, "What do all women want? To be thinner, richer, and prettier." And there it was, fully formed. Thin, Rich, Pretty--the title for my novel.
The title for Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger is to Jen's credit, as well. She'd read an article while on the train some years back about a woman who had called off her wedding and sent out a similarly snappish response.
You've been remarkably prolific in your career. Describe your process and inspiration.
I have a lot of emotions and thoughts, and if I don't write them down they rattle around inside my head and actually start to hurt. Too much still ends up in e-mails to my friends and family, but writing books is a great way to get it all out.
You've written in many genres, from romance to cookbooks to women's fiction. What are your feelings for each genre, and why does each appeal to you? Are there any more cookbooks in your future?
I'd love to do more cookbooks, but with Food Network and the like making celebrity chefs into major media stars, there's no room for an ordinary cook to do a cookbook, no matter how good. As for what appeals and why, it's always a mood thing, isn't it? Romance appealed at a time when my life was simpler.... My children got older, my life got complicated, and more issues came up--from health worries to divorce to death--and romantic fantasy alone no longer felt honest to me. I wish it did, though. I miss those days.
Your books are about women finding love and romance, and your stories' themes are fate, second chances and happy endings. What are your feelings about happy endings--in life and in literature?
I didn't think most of my women's fiction books were about finding love, but I guess you're right. More recently, they've certainly become more encompassing of the idea. At the risk of becoming too morose, I guess the answer is that I have always been a melancholy person. My first writing venture was re-writing the end of Black Beauty in the fourth grade and bringing all the horses back to life because I hated the sadness of having "watched"--through the story--the happy early days for them deteriorate into sad endings. Unfortunately, that seems to happen too much in life. When I was 17, I came home and found my father had passed away on the couch--my mother was out of town and my sisters were grown, so it was only he and I at home at the time--and that was an early indication of how hard and unfair life could be. This came directly after a very emotional breakup that I loosely chronicled in my novel Always Something There to Remind Me. I started thinking very seriously around that time about how easy it would be to dissolve into the negativity of life, but I couldn't afford to live like that, because eventually there's no more "up." I had to decide to believe in happy endings--chances of being happy are much greater if you expect happiness. The person who expects to be miserable is seldom disappointed.
What inspired you to write Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger?
This novel is set in Virginia, which is a landscape I know and love. I love horses. I love farms, but I pretty much
made up the rest of the story. Writing romantic tension is just plain fun, yet not a thing in the book actually happened to me.
In each of your novels, you write big scenes that are often peppered with small details and first-person point-of-view asides that intensify the overall charm of each story. Do these details emerge in early drafts or do you add them later during rewrite?
Ha! Details are usually all I have. I am a detail queen! Not in terms of handling the details of my life, alas, but that is my writing style. I can write a scene of stirring cream into your coffee that will make you feel like you're hyped up on caffeine. Unfortunately, that's not enough to write a book, so I always have to go back in and beef up those "slices of life" up with plot.
What's next?
Recently, my ex-husband passed away very suddenly after 25 years in my life, so everything turned upside down for the kids and me. There will definitely be a next novel, but the idea isn't solid yet. That said, I can't wait to come up with a meaty plot to dive into so I can get out of my own head and into a pretend world instead! 

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this Q&A on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (7/9/13), click HERE

Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger

Love and its many contemporary complications have become the hallmarks of Beth Harbison's cleverly titled novels. In Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger, a single woman is forced to come to terms with two brothers who broke her heart ten years before. Harbison sets up a love triangle that's sure to please fans of entertaining, light-hearted women's fiction.

In this story, small town girl Quinn Barton had every intention of marrying her high school sweetheart, Burke Morrison. Moments before she is to walk down the aisle, however, her brother-in-law Frank pulls the twenty-one year-old bride aside and announces that Burke, his brother, has been cheating on her. Quinn, appalled, calls off the wedding and has a short-lived rebound relationship with Frank that ultimately fizzles. For the next ten years, with the boys having departed their Middleburg, Virginia hometown, Quinn stays behind, married to her job running a local bridal shop.

When Burke and Frank's eccentric, 82 year-old grandmother decides to marry again, she hires Quinn to make her wedding gown. Might this be a scheme to lure the boys back to town? When they arrive for the ceremony, and to tie up loose ends on the family farm, Quinn realizes the story of the Morrison brothers and the depth of her feelings for them, are not really over - and vice-versa.

Harbison (When in Doubt, Add Butter) has once again created an endearing, humorous story with laugh out loud twist and turns. The interior intimacy of her witty, first person point of view protagonist leads readers on a well-balanced, romantic journey from true love to heartbreak - and back again.

St. Martin's Press, $25.99, hardcover, 9780312599133 , 384 pp
Publication Date: July 9, 2013
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 (7/9/13), click HERE

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Burying Ben: A Dot Meyerhoff Mystery

"The sad legacy of suicide...survivors are left with many unanswered questions." And 48 year-old Dot Meyerhoff, the newly employed psychologist of the Kenilworth (California) Police Department, is faced with more unanswered questions than most.

Burying Ben opens with the suicide of Ben Gomez, a sensitive young rookie cop who had a serious personality clash with his Field Training Officer (FTO), jaded Eddie Rimbauer, who chronically needled Ben, referring to him as "Mr. Safeway," as in the food store. "He used to work produce. Knows how to handle a cantaloupe, but he's over his head as a cop," Rimbauer once told Dot when she counseled Ben, working hard to earn the rookie's trust while gauging his ability to perform amid the pressures of law enforcement.

After Ben kills himself, his emailed suicide note blames Dot for his tragic fate. He believed Dot breached their patient-therapist confidentiality and made matters worse for him with his bullying, demeaning FTO.  As a result of the therapy sessions and Dot's advice, Ben even believed his marriage began to suffer.

Ben's accusations about Dot, a divorcee still hung up on her ex, shatters her self-worth and confidence. Is she truly responsible for this young man's death?

When charges are later brought against Dot by Ben's widow and Dot is put on administrative leave without pay, investigated by the California Board of Psychology, she becomes determined to learn more about Ben and other factors that could've led to his death.

Everyone on the police force comes into question, in particular FTO Rimbauer and the police chief, as well as Ben's family, friends and peers. Even Dot's ex, a psychologist who steps in for Dot at the police department, becomes suspect.

As Dot slowly puts the pieces of Ben's life together, danger abounds as it becomes clear that Ben lived with many secrets and faced a slew of life complications including a dysfunctional family, a baby on the way and a shotgun wedding to a sociopath wife with displeased parents, most especially her high-powered, District Attorney father. 

Author Ellen Kirschman, an award-winning public safety psychologist in real life, conveys an authoritative grasp on cops—their language, mentalities and lifestyles. The dramatic, suspenseful narrative of Burying Ben is authentic and compelling, as are the chilling realities of life for a smart, middle-aged, career-driven protagonist forced to reinvent her life amid a string of unfortunate events.

Aakenbaaken & Kent,  $15.95, Paper, 9781938436116 , 244 pp
Publication Date: September 4, 2013
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Photographer Brian Nice and "The B Nice Project"

I discovered the photography of Brian Nice in 2009, when he published Rescue Tails: Portraits of Dogs and Their Celebrities, a project that was inspired by his own dog, a Pug named Buster, who was losing his eyesight. Buster was later helped by the Humane Society and proceeds from the sale of Nice's book continue to benefit the organization.

Nice has been a photographer for thirty years. His career was originally launched in advertising and fashion photography. Nice was at the top of his craft when he suffered a series of severe, life-threatening traumatic brain injuries. After numerous surgeries, vigorous therapy and a life now spent in a wheelchair, Nice has remained undaunted in reinventing himself—personally and professionally. With great courage, inner strength and the support of a loving family, Nice is continuing to pursue his photography as a fine art, now with a completely new focus.

On September 27, 2013, Brian Nice and his team embarked on an exciting cross-country road trip to photograph the American landscape. Brian hopes his journey and the images he captures will inspire others, especially TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) survivors, to see past their own limitations and do what they love. The project will include the production and promotion of a gallery exhibit of photographs, a full-color coffee table book and a documentary film about Brian and the journey.

Link HERE to learn more.

Follow Brian's cross-country journey and see the world from his unique perspective.

Read a feature about Brian Nice in The New York Times

Follow Team Brian Nice on Twitter: @TheBNiceProject

To make a donation to "My Point of View/The B Nice Project" link HERE
Photograph by Brian Nice - TheBNiceProject
 Enjoy the journey, Brian! 
You're an inspiration to us all!

Rescue Tails: Portraits of Dogs and Their Celebrities by Brian Nice, Beth O Stern (Introduction)
Gallery Books,  $19.95, Paper, 9781439152768 , 176 pp
Publication Date: November 3 2009
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE