Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Favorite Reads of 2015

As a writer for Shelf Awareness, I read and review at least three titles per month. Plus, I also read books for my own pleasure (although there is never enough time!)  Below are some of my favorite reads from 2015:


Act of God by Jill Ciment: The premise of Ciment's novel may seem zany--a fungus overtakes Brooklyn and affects the lives of two elderly sisters--but the absurdity serves to offer insights into the human condition in the modern world.
Crow Fair: Stories by Thomas McGuane:  Montana is McGuane's terrain, and this master of the short story form tackles the quirky bonds of friendship and family with a wry, comic edge and a host of "surprise" endings.
Days of Awe by Lauren Fox:  Fox's novel, infused with wit, centers on a woman's sudden death and how it challenges her best friend to reassess the meaning of her life, her marriage, motherhood and the possibility of a second chance at love.
Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart:  This imaginative, historical-based, true-crime novel takes place in Paterson, New Jersey in 1914 and is about three sisters (one of whom was a female sheriff) who took on the Mob...and all that that entails!
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee:  If this novel truly reveals Lee's original intent--before it was rewritten for more commercial, mass appeal as To Kill a Mockingbird--then this pared-down story about a woman confronting racial intolerance and discrimination in her Southern hometown and in her family shines on its own merit.
Like Family by Paolo Giordano: This short, beautifully written novel, translated from Italian and inspired by real events from the author's life, is a gentle, moving story about an older woman who becomes a nanny and confidante to a family of three and how her presence changes their lives.
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: It's never too late to love...In this tender, understated, short novel, aging widowers--who have known each other for decades, but who live alone and have "no one to talk to"--form a deep bond of friendship and true intimacy that ultimately sparks controversy in their small town and amid their families.
Valley Fever by Katherine Taylor: Taylor delivers a bittersweet, entertaining story about a heartbroken, disillusioned young woman who returns home to a vineyard in Fresno, California in order to find herself—and untangle the vines of family and fortune.
The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes: Keyes' distinctive, clever brand of humor is in top form as her novel traces the life of an Irish beautician who is transformed by a mysterious illness and a charismatic neurologist who changes her life.
Boys in the Trees: A Memoir by Carly Simon: The Queen of Top Forty tells all about her life from childhood to family secrets, romances and even the creative inspiration behind her hit, "You're so Vain."
Drinking in America: Our Secret History by Susan Cheever: Cheever presents a riveting, well-conceived and well-balanced portrait about the history--good and bad--of one of America's favorite pastimes.
A History of Baseball in 100 Objects by Josh Leventhal: It's like visiting a well-conceived museum exhibit between the covers of a book...Leventhal presents a wide-range of interesting artifacts relating to every era of the game.
The Time of Our Lives: Collected Writings by Peggy Noonan:  Noonan is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and this collection offers her reflections and impressions of life in the USA--and beyond--over several decades. Compelling food-for-thought for Conservatives and Liberals, alike.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: In spare prose, Strout (Pulitzer Prize-winner for Olive Kitteridge) crafts a luminous, moving novel about a writer who looks back at pivotal experiences in her past that ultimately shaped her sense of self and her destiny.
Happy Reading in 2016!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Merry Christmas!

How would the world be different--beyond spirituality and religion;
in a cultural sense--if Jesus Christ had never been born?

Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Opinion/Editorial: "Other Views/ Guest Columnist" (Section A-13)

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

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Elin Hilderbrand: A Summer Novelist Tackles Winter

The Writer's Life

photo: Laurie Richards
Twenty-two years ago, Elin Hilderbrand sublet her Manhattan apartment where, after college, she'd been living and working in publishing and as a teacher, and spent the summer on the island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts. "The second my ferry pulled into the harbor I thought, I'm never going back (to New York)," she says. Ever since, this bestselling author has called Nantucket home, on the page and off--all of Hilderbrand's 16 novels are set on the island. Hilderbrand has been labeled "the Queen of the Summer Novel"; her fans expect a new book from her every summer, featuring ensemble casts of characters, the complexities of contemporary family life and romantic entanglements.

In 2014, Hilderbrand published her second novel of the year, Winter Street, a story about the Quinns, a large dysfunctional family that gathers on Nantucket for Christmas and faces unexpected surprises. In Winter Stroll (see my review below), Hilderbrand reunites the Quinn family as they face new familial complications and partake in holiday festivities particular to Nantucket.

Did you plan to write a Christmas series of books?
In the summer of 2013, my publisher, Little, Brown, had a book fall off their winter list, and they asked if I could write a Christmas book in four weeks. I said, "No!" But it got me thinking about Christmas novels, and I came up with the idea of the Winter Street Inn and the Quinn family. I knew I wanted it to be a trilogy, but it took the first book for me to convince my publisher.

Why should readers want to read your "Winter" series when they've grown so accustomed to your "Summer" novels?
The Christmas books give a whole new aspect to life on Nantucket. It happens to be one of the most charming places in America to celebrate the holidays. In Winter Stroll, I tried to incorporate the fun aspects of Nantucket's annual holiday festivities, including Winter Stroll Weekend, where Nantucket becomes a winter wonderland. At the Festival of Trees party, the Whaling Museum is all adorned and decked out, and island businesses and organizations decorate 100 Christmas trees. Nantucket restaurants and people--year-rounders and summer residents--dress up and kick off the Christmas season in style.

How did you create the Quinn family for the series?
I knew I wanted a large, blended family--a man with a wife and an ex-wife, with children by each. I myself have two older boys, then a girl. So I used that combination from my own life in the story, and I added the character of Bart, who is deployed to Afghanistan, to the creative mix. Bart is the son by the second Quinn wife.

Your books often juggle multiple story threads and characters.
Yes, I wait to see what my characters will do once I create them. It's always surprising.

Do you have a favorite character from the "Winter" novels?
Hands down, my favorite character is Kelley Quinn's first wife, Margaret Quinn, who is the anchor of the CBS Evening News. I love Margaret because she is a working mother and at the time that I started writing this novel, I was so absorbed with work that I suffered from mom guilt. I wanted to write a novel where the working mother came in to save the day, where the working mother was the hero.

In Winter Stroll, you mention that Ava (the music teacher) despises the Christmas song "Jingle Bells." Is this a personal dislike of yours?
All music is personal and our predilections are inexplicable. I hate "Jingle Bells." Hate it. I was able to vent this particular dislike in the character of Ava.

You've been writing two books a year. Is it hard to do?
Yes, it's an insane work schedule! I began writing two books a year with Winter Street. I have two down, one to go in the "Winter" series. And then I hope to reclaim my life and go back to one book a year.

Do you have a favorite novel among those you've written?
My favorite of recent novels is Summerland, which takes place at Nantucket High School. My favorite character is Hobby. If you want to understand why, you really have to read the book.

Which is the most difficult novel you've written?
Silver Girl, but in some way each novel gets progressively harder because my job is to write the same thing and yet something completely different. It's a tall order.

Have you ever had the urge to revisit characters from your prior novels?
Yes, I'm considering writing a murder novel called "N" and bringing back characters from the past 10 books.

You are a breast cancer survivor. Did that affect your writing?
The only connection between my cancer and my writing is that the writing kept me focused and occupied during a very trying time. I wrote The Rumor all throughout my illness, surgeries and treatment. I have to admit, I look back and I can't believe I kept going.

You graduated from the "literature-based" writing programs at Johns Hopkins and the University of Iowa. How did you come to write commercial women's fiction?
I wrote short stories while at Iowa. When I graduated, however, it was pretty clear there wasn't really a market for stories. I needed to write a novel, and I wanted to write one set on Nantucket. From there came my idea for my first published novel, The Beach Club--and the modern beach book was born. I don't think in terms of literary or commercial. I think of writing about people and the place that I love better than anywhere on earth.

Do you think you'll ever write a novel not set in Nantucket?
My novels will always be set primarily on Nantucket, although the one I'm writing now is also set in New York City, Kentucky and L.A. And on deck... a novel about Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.

Would you be willing to offer readers a glimpse into your next "Summer" novel?
Sure. It's called Here's to Us, and it's about a very famous, very successful and very tormented Manhattan chef who kills himself on page one. His three ex-wives and their children come to Nantucket to the house he impulsively bought in order to spread his ashes.

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  (10/23/15), click HERE 

Winter Stroll

Family and holiday traditions are at the center of Winter Stroll, book two in Elin Hilderbrand's Winter Street series. In this installment, the Quinn family reunites in Nantucket on Thanksgiving weekend, when Kelley Quinn, the twice-married family patriarch and father of four, once again hosts his ex-wives, as many of his children as can make it, their children and several significant others at his iconic Winter Street Inn. All have gathered to celebrate "Winter Stroll," an annual Nantucket festival to kick off the Christmas season, and to attend the baptism of a new addition to this large, complicated and dysfunctional family.

Personal baggage and romantic difficulties abound for Kelley and his offspring: Patrick, a once successful financier, is now serving prison time; Bart, a soldier, is still missing in action in Afghanistan; Ava, a local music teacher, is having second thoughts about her relationship with the school principal; and an old flame returns to taunt Kevin, who thought he finally had his life back on track. Add Margaret, Kelley's first wife--a high-profile television journalist--and her commitment-phobic doctor beau, and eccentric Mitzy, Kelley's estranged second wife, to the mix, and the ante goes up for feuds and dramatic complications.

Hilderbrand (The Rumor) juggles an ensemble cast and successfully weaves together many bittersweet story threads, tying up just enough of them to keep readers anticipating another sequel. Despite some characters being at odds with each other, the Quinns--a large, complicated, dysfunctional family--prove to be a close-knit, unified and loyal bunch, who truly love each other and stick together through the joys and challenges of life. 

Little Brown and Company, $25.00 Hardcover, 9780316261135, 272 pp
Publication Date: October 13, 2015
To order 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 (10/23/15), click HERE

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Short Story America : Volume IV

I am pleased and honored that one of my short stories was a finalist for the Short Story America Prize. The coordinators of the prize and T.D. Johnston (writer/editor) have compiled 33 notable entries and gathered them in one amazing collection.  

In my story, "Revival," a second wife goes to great lengths to help her dying husband. I wrote this story--a story I treasure--during a very challenging time. It was my way to escape the "drama" of my own life.

To learn more about the anthology and to order the volume, link HERE

Happy Reading...Enjoy!

Short Story America (Volume IV): 33 Great Contemporary Short Stories
Edited by T. D. Johnston
Short Story America Press, $25.00 Paperback, 9780988249783, 285 pp
Publication Date: October 1, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Letters to Santa Claus by "The Elves"

For years, letters addressed to Santa Claus have been shipped to Santa Claus, Ind., where a staff of dedicated town volunteers, "elves," process and answer over 400,000 pieces of mail every December.

The book gathers more than 250 scanned letters and documents from the 1930s to the present. Material wish lists reflect the times--from Shirley Temple dolls to Apple gift cards--and the letters are telling and confessional. A "good little bad boy" admits he's been a "real louse," pouring Tabasco instead of chocolate syrup on his brother's ice cream.  A humble little girl only wants "some shoes...with heels" for her depressed single mother.  Another asks for a time machine to "fix all the bad things that have happened to me." A 6 year-old wants Santa to bring his ex-con father a job. A dog, abandoned by housemates, wants his favorite treats. A Braille letter from a blind, Filipino girl asks for a radio.  There are others boldly seeking mates, money, lingerie and legal aid.

Some lists are long and typed, others short: "I want my dad to be smarter" (102); "Can my mom come home from the hospital?" Questions about reindeer, chimneys and coal abound, as do apologies and vows toward better behavior. Some dangle prospects of Christmas Eve sweet treats to entice Santa—one promises beer and a liverwurst sandwich.  This well-presented, historical collection--reflecting both the naughty and nice--will entertain and offer insights into the human condition. And it's even been reported that a reader spotted her own letter to Santa in mix! Might yours be included?

Indiana University Press, 20.00 Hardcover, 9780253017932, 224 pp
Publication Date: October 5, 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 (10/27/15), link HERE