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