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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Most Compelling Books of 2020

Reprinted from the Citizen:

 This is the time when the end of the year “Best Of” lists start appearing, and that means it’s time for my Most Compelling Books of 2020 list. These are the books that I still think about long after I have finished them. They have intriguing characters, fascinating storylines, and writing that makes you stop and reread beautifully crafted sentences. 

This year I had more time to read, so I had a larger selection from which to choose- over 125 books. I found it interesting that all of my choices were novels, perhaps because the escape from the real world outside to fiction was a necessity. 

Emily Nemens’ book The Cactus League takes the reader inside the Arizona baseball spring training for one season. The story is told by multiple characters, including the pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery trying to hide that it didn’t work, a former MVP whose personal life hides a secret that could blow up on him, and the overhyped rookie. 

Colum McCann always tells a great story and his novel Apeirogon is based on the true story of two men- one Palestinian and one Jewish- who both lost their daughters to violence. They join together to try and understand each other. It is so beautifully written, and he combines the history of a troubled region in a poetic way with these men’s tragic family stories. It’s an epic accomplishment. 

Brit Bennett has gotten much well-deserved praise for her second novel, The Vanishing Half about twin Black sisters from a small town in the 1950s. At the age of sixteen they leave home. One returns years later with a young daughter, and the other one manages to pass as a white woman. It’s an eye-opening look at race and family. 

Regina Porter’s The Travelers also tackles race in her multi-character driven novel. Her story tells the tale of two families whose members intersect over the years. Her characters are so well-drawn, and the strong pull of home here rings true. 

The world has been waiting for the fourth book in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels, and the wait was worth it. Jack brings us the back story of a preacher’s prodigal son Jack Boughton, after being released from prison in 1950’s St. Louis. Jack falls in love with Della, a young Black schoolteacher. Interracial relationships are against the law, but Della finds herself drawn to Jack, and he fights to be the man she deserves. It’s just stunning. 

V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue tells the story of Addie, young woman in 1714 France who, while running away from an arranged marriage, makes a deal with the devil. She wants to live life on her own terms and when she is done, her soul is his. He agrees, but in making the bargain, Addie discovers that while she will live as long as she wants, no one will remember her. It’s a sad life, until 300 years later she meets a man who remembers her. Why did this happen? 

Jess Walter’s historical novel The Cold Millions combines real people with his characters of two Irish immigrant brothers who get involved with the labor movement in 1909 Spokane, Washington. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling, his best since Beautiful Ruins

Kristin Fields’ A Frenzy of Sparks is set in 1965 Howard Beach, New York, when young men are being drafted into the Vietnam War, and the scourge of drugs is starting to appear in young Gia’s close-knit neighborhood where almost everybody is related. The story of a family fighting addiction is heartbreaking. 

There are a lot of WWII novels, but Hazel Gaynor’s When We Were Young & Brave tackles a different aspect. Her story is set in a Japanese Army internment camp in China, where a British school’s students and teachers are being held. The bravery of the teachers protecting the children is the best of humanity. Fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale should pick this one up. 

Emily Gray Tedrowe’s The Talented Miss Farwell captured me from the very first page. Becky Farwell is the comptroller of her small town’s government. She has an alter-ego named Reba who becomes enthralled by the art world, and becomes a dealer and collector, financed by money she steals from her town. The tension ratchets up as the art world collapses and her town’s finances crater. It is based on a true story, and an homage to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. 

Here’s to reading good books in 2021.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Friday 5ive- December 18, 2020

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post featuring five things that caught my attention this week. Can you believe it's only one week until Christmas? I hope you have your shopping nearly done (and your gifts have been delivered).

1)  On Saturday night we watched the magnificient Andrea Bocelli live in concert at the Teatro di Parma in Italy. The concert was streamed for one night only, and he sang some of our favorites- Amazing Grace and You'll Never Walk Alone. One of the highlights was him singing Hallelujah with his young granddaughter Virginia. This is a link to YouTube with that performance.

2)  I took a walk through midtown to see some of the holiday displays. It was strange to see so few people on Fifth Avenue, and there was no one at the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree. These are some of my favorite sights from that day.
The Rockefeller Plaza tree

The Roosevelt Tram in Saks windows

A food truck display in Saks windows

A bejeweled ballerina in Bloomingdales windows

3)  My husband bid on and won a virtual wine tasting with a sommelier at a charity auction, and we participated in it last night with some friends and fellow wine lovers. We tasted three Barolos from the Piemont region of northern Italy. The sommelier Maria gave us an interesting overview on the region and history of Barolo wine and winemakers. It was a fun and informative evening, and we are planning another virtual wine tasting in the near future. If you enjoy wines, I would recommend a virtual wine tasting from your favorite winery.

4)  Netflix is running a new movie every Friday in December, and I watched The Prom. It was originally a celebrated Broadway show, about a group of Broadway performers who travel to Indiana after their show flops to help Emma, a young woman who wants to go to prom with her girlfriend in a place where that is not welcomed by the community. Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan Michael-Key, Andrew Rannells and newcomer Jo-Ellen Pellman star (she is marvelous as Emma). It's a wonderful movie that will fill your heart with joy (and will make you tear up more than once). The music is great, and it made me wish I had seen the Broadway production, which I heard was amazing. 

5) I managed to finish one book and I'm halfway through another this week. Shuggie Bain is Scottish writer Douglas Stuart's debut novel, about a young boy who lives with alcoholic mother after his father abandons the family. It's a heartbreaking story of how poverty, alcoholism and mental illness beat down on this family, how people are cruel to anyone different from them, and it's based in part on Stuart's life. It's brilliantly written, and Stuart won the prestigious Booker Prize for his first novel, along with ending up on just about every critic's Best of 2020 list. 

I'm in the middle of another book that critics loved, White Ivy, the debut novel by Susie Yang. Ivy is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who move to this country for a better life, although things don't always go their way. Ivy's mom pushes her to study hard, her grandmother teaches her to shoplift. Ivy has eyes for Gideon, the scion of a wealthy Boston family, and pursues him as her way to achieve the American dream, no matter what. One of my favorite bookish friends loved this book, and I can see why. Ivy is a riveting  character. 

I hope you are stay safe, socially distant, wash your hands and wear a mask. And Merry Christmas to all!

Friday, December 11, 2020

Friday 5ive- December 11, 2020

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post about five things that caught my attention this week. It's been all about Christmas this week- mailing our Christmas cards, and wrapping gifts. 

1) In February our local Papyrus store was closing, so I popped in to see what they had left and found these terrific Christmas cards with a New York City theme. One is of St. Patrick's Cathedral, where we have spent time at masses there, and the other is Yankee Stadium, where we have also spent a lot of time at and jokingly refer to as "the Cathedral of Baseball." I got them 70% off, a great deal, and even better, I remembered where I put them seven months ago when I needed to send them out this week.

2)  This year I placed a big Christmas gift order order with Bookshop.org (it's like Amazon for independent bookstores). I chose my books, placed my order, and my books arrived in time for me to wrap them and send them out this week. On Bookshop.org, the books ship from a warehouse, but you can designate a specific bookstore you would like to receive your portion of the sale. They have raised over $9 million for independent bookstores since the pandemic began, and my local bookstore received a nice chunk of money from my purchase. Here are some of the books I ordered, wrapped and ready to go. You can order digital gift cards too if you need last minute gifts. Who doesn't want a book for the holidays?

3) On Saturday I received my medal and t-shirt from the 4th virtual bike race I completed- Manhattan to Montauk 180 Mile Challenge. This one was fun because two of my friends joined in, one biking, one running. Doing these challenges is a great way to keep me on track and on the bike everyday. Race number 5- Winter Quest, The Snow Belt Challenge- is next. We have to bike 300 miles, the distance between Niagara and Albany, the snow belt in New York State, between December 1st and February 28th. The link is here if you want to join. Thank goodness for Peloton, because it's too cold to bike outside.

4)  Last night I watched a special on NBC- One Night Only- The Best of Broadway, a salute to Broadway shows that we miss so much. There were wonderful performances from Broadway shows, including Jersey Boys, Ain't Too Proud to Beg, and Mean Girls. The highlights for me were "All That Jazz" from Chicago, a searing performance of "You Oughta Know" from Jagged Little Pill, and surprisingly gorgeous performance of "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" from Oklahoma sung by country artist Brett Eldridge. The show was a fundraiser for Broadway Cares, and since they missed their annual red bucket fundraiser this year, I donated the $20 I usually put in the bucket after a Broadway show. You can help here if you wish, and watch it on NBC.com if you missed it. 

5) I got back to reading this week, with three stellar books. The first is Christina Baker Kline's historical novel, The Exiles, about women prisoners in England in the 1860s sent on a convict ship to serve their sentence in Australia. It's powerful and the twist in the middle is a stunner. I love how she writes a different book every time out. If you liked her novel The Orphan Train, read this one. 

The second book is a fascinating novel, The Talented Miss Farwell, by Emily Gray Tedrowe. Becky Farwell is the comptroller of a small midwest town with a fascination for the art world. She invents a new persona, Reba, for her forays into the art scene, buying and selling artworks by up and coming artists. The only problem is that she uses money she stole from her town to do it. Tedrowe took her inspiration from a real life event and I was sucked right into this book from page one. I could not put it down. It's gripping, and somehow you like this character. The title is an homage to Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Continuing my quest to read more Christmas-themed books this year, I picked up Christina Lauren's 
In A Holidaze. At an annual Christmas vacation in Colorado, where four families have gathered for twenty years, Maelyn makes out with Theo, someone she has known since she was a child. The only problem is that she pines for his brother Andrew, who sees them kissing. On the way to the airport to return home, the car Maelyn is in is hit by a truck. When Maelyn wakes up, she isn't in the hospital- she is on the airplane with her family on the way to their annual holiday. Maelyn finds herself reliving the entire vacation. Can she fix things this time? It's a sweet, charming, romantic tale, and a great way to wind down from hectic holiday chores. 


I hope you are all safe and healthy- wash your hands, wear a mask and stay socially distant.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

A California Christmas by Brenda Novak

A California Christmas by Brenda Novak
Published by MIRA ISBN 9780778361039
Mass market paperback, $7.99, 400 pages

I think we are all ready for Christmas to come this year, and I have been trying to read more books with a Christmas setting to get me in the mood. While I don't normally think California when I think of Christmas, Brenda Novak's A California Christmas intrigued me, so I picked it up.

When Los Angeles TV news anchor Emery Bliss breaks up with her co-anchor with whom she had been romantically involved, he posts a sexually explicit video of them online and Emery is not only mortified, she is fired.

Traumatized, she runs away to the home of her mother's friend Aiyana who runs a school for children who have had difficulties in their young lives in the small town of Silver Springs. Aiyana adopted several of the young boys herself, including Dallas, a young man who lost his mother and sister to violence when he was a child.

Dallas is making a name for himself as a free rock climber, traveling the world, with no ties to anyone. He had a crush on Emery in high school and is saddened to discover what happened to her. Emery is in a fragile state, and Aiyana warns Dallas to be careful with her.

Emery and Dallas are attracted to each other, and Dallas becomes protective of her. He offers her a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen. His concern for her is very sweet, and his gentle manner gives men a good name.

While she ponders suing the news station for firing her, Emery takes a job at a local ice cream parlor, worrying the entire time that someone will recognize her. More than once Dallas comes to her rescue in that regard.

Eventually Emery and Dallas can't fight their attraction, and the resulting sexual relationship is very steamy indeed. But with Dallas traveling the world and Emery possibly moving to Boston with her mother and sick grandmother, a long term relationship seems impossible, no matter how much either wants one.

I think Dallas is good character, a very evolved young man in the way he respects Emery's feelings, not wanting to do anything that would make her uncomfortable, but he also has an old-fashioned chivalry about him. I also liked Aiyana and her soon-to-be husband's relationship. She had been single for so long, and finally is ready to take the marital plunge. It's nice to read about a mature, loving relationship.

A California Christmas is the seventh book in Brenda Novak's Silver Springs series, I just may have to dip into the others to get more background on these characters.

Thanks to Harlequin for putting me on their Harlequin Holiday Book Tour.

Happily This Christmas by Susan Mallery

Happily This Christmas by Susan Mallery
Published by Harlequin ISBN 9781335448958
Hardcover,  $28.99, 352 pages

I was introduced last year to Susan Mallery's delightful new series, Happily, Inc. in Meant to Be Yours. The books are set in the wedding destination town of Happily, Inc., California where we meet the various citizens of the town, many of whom work in the wedding business.

In the newest novel, Happily This Christmas, single mom Wynn has a terrific thirteen year-old son and owns her own thriving printing business. She has lots of good friends, but no man in her life. When her handsome police officer neighbor Garrick comes over and asks for assistance decorating his home for the arrival of his pregnant 21 year-old daughter, Wynn thinks this might be her way to get to know him better.

Both Wynn and Garrick had their children when they were young. Wynn was on her own with her son, and Garrick is divorced from his wife, who remarried and now has three young sons with her new husband. 

Garrick's daughter Joylyn is not happy coming to see her father, they have been somewhat estranged, much to Garrick's dismay. Joylyn's husband is away overseas on active military duty, not due home until close to the baby's due date right after Christmas. She also feels that her own mother is abandoning her.

Wynn takes a reluctant Joylyn under her wing, introducing her to the women in her ladies' weekly lunch group, and Wynn's son likes having someone closer to his own age like Joylyn around. Garrick wants to take this chance to get to reconnect with his daughter, to be as close they used to be when she was just a liitle girl.

I really enjoyed my visit back to Happily, Inc. and watching Wynn and Garrick's relationship move in an exciting new direction. The Christmas setting is wonderful, and this being a wedding destination town, there is a wedding to plan. 

After reading the last two books in the series, I immediately ordered the first two books so I could get to know all of the characters from the beginning. Reading this series is like catching up with old friends, and if you are a fan of Hallmark's Christmas movies, the Happily, Inc. books are for you. I highly recommend Happily This Christmas to help get you in the holiday spirit, and don't we all need that now? (And the cover looks so festive you could use it as holiday decoration.)

My review of Meant To Be Yours is here. 

Thanks to Harlequin for putting me on their Harlequin Holiday Blog Tour. 


Friday, December 4, 2020

Friday 5ive- December 4, 2020

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post featuring five things that caught my attention during the week. I took last week off for Thanksgiving, so this post will cover two weeks worth of fun.

1)  I was watching the Today Show a few weeks ago and Jill Martin had a segment on women-owned companies. She highlighted Hestia Harlow, an events planning company in Washington DC that was hit hard by the pandemic. They pivoted to renting table settings and tablescapes to consumers, and with Thanksgiving coming up, we rented a package from them. UPS delivered the boxes two days before Thanksgiving, and we had fun putting all the pretty things on our table. Rinse it all off, put it back in the boxes, set out on the porch the next day and UPS picks it up. It was so easy, and our table never looked more beautiful. We may do it again for Christmas or New Years.
Our Thanksgiving table

2)  I am loving seeing everyone's Christmas trees, ornaments, and decorations on Facebook, it really puts me in the holiday spirit. And it sure does feel good to be talking about something positive after a brutal political season and pandemic worries. This is our tree:

3)  While out running errands I saw two things that caught my eye. The first is a window display at Housing Works, a thrift store in my neighborhood. There are many of these stores in the city, and they support programs for people with HIV. The theme of the window is Breakfast at Tiffany's and it's pretty great.

A few blocks away, Treadwell Restaurant had this sign in front of their outdoor seating area. Any establishment that quotes Shakespeare has it going on in my book. 

4)  I wanted to find something festive to watch while writing out my Christmas cards, so I put on Dolly Parton's Netflix movie, Christmas on the Square. Dolly plays an angel (who would be better?) who is mentoring a young angel. Dolly wrote all the many songs, and Debbie Allen directed and choreographed the dances, so this movie is a notch above most Christmas movies. The fantastic Christine Baranski plays the owner of a the land where the town square is located. She is selling the land to a mega-mall developer, displacing all of the town's small businesses, including the salon owned by her childhood best friend (played by the amazing Jennifer Lewis) and the general store previously owned by her father, now owned by her former boyfriend, played by Treat Williams. It's great to hear Treat singing again, I haven't heard him sing since he did the movie Hair. The acting and singing by the main cast is wonderful, and although the story may be a little corny, I did tear up a little bit at parts. I recommend it. 

5) Between Thanksgiving and Christmas decorating, shopping, card writing, I only had time to finish one books, Brenda Novak's A California Christmas. When Emery, a young news anchor is the victim of revenge porn from her former boyfriend and co-anchor, she runs away to the home of her mother's friend, Aiyana, who runs a school for young people who have had trouble in the lives. There she meets up with Aiyana's adopted son she knew in high school and old feelings are reignited. It took me awhile to get into this one, but once I did, I liked the story. Just a warning (or recommendation, depending on your preferences), it's pretty steamy. My full review publishes on Tuesday.

Stay safe, socially distant, wear a mask and wash your hand

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Books As Gifts Guide

Reprinted from auburnpub.com

It’s time for the annual Books As Gifts Guide as Christmas shopping is beginning earlier this year, and more people are shopping online. Books make the best gifts- they’re never the wrong size or color, and they’re easy to wrap, even for the most gift wrapping-challenged among us. Independent bookstores offer great customer service online; go to bookshop.org to shop and help local independent bookstores across the country.

We’ll start in the fiction section. Your sister will enjoy Lian Dolan’s The Sweeney Sisters as the three Sweeney sisters come to terms with a woman who claims to be their deceased father’s daughter. 

Your best friend will love Jane L. Rosen’s Eliza Starts A Rumor about four women in a small Hudson Valley town who bond together as they face troubles. 

For your friend who likes to laugh out loud, get Gigi Levangie’s Been There, Married That about a woman whose marriage to a Hollywood producer comes apart. 

Your aunt will love Fannie Flagg’s The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop, a sequel to her Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

Literary fiction fans will enjoy Abi DarĂ©’s The Girl With The Louding Voice about a young Nigerian girl who perseveres to get an education.

Alka Joshi’s The Henna Artist takes us to 1950’s India as a woman discovers she has a young sister, and works to build her career and her own house.

James McBride’s Deacon King Kong brings a Harlem neighborhood and its residents to life. 

Historical fiction fans have several great choices. Fiona Davis’ The Lions of 5th Ave takes us right into the New York Public Library in 1913 with a family who resides in an apartment there.

Ellen Marie Wiseman’s The Orphan Collector is for fans of Christina Baker Kline’s The Orphan Train and Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours.

Jenny Field’s Atomic Love is set in the years following the creation of the atomic bomb, when a woman must discover if one of her fellow scientists is a Russian spy. 

For the mystery lover, Cassidy Lucas’ Santa Monica will satisfy fans of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.

Riley Sager’s Lock Every Door is for those who like their mysteries a little creepier.

Michael Connelly’s back with The Law of Innocence featuring his Mickey Haller character. 

In the Romance genre, Nina Bocci’s Hopeless Romantics series of four books set in a small Pennsylvania town is a great bundle to give.

Jenny Colgan’s Christmas on the Island Hotel is for your neighbor who is already in the Christmas spirit. 

Turning to nonfiction, for your mom who likes biographies, Michael J. Fox’s No Time Like The Future shares his life living with Parkinson’s Disease.

Dolly Parton is popular this year with Sarah Smarsh’s She Come By It Natural about Dolly and all the women she influenced, as well as Dolly’s own Dolly Parton, Songteller which shares lyrics and stories about her songs. Add Dolly’s new CD A Holly Dolly Christmas and you’ve got a great gift. 

For your niece who is into soccer, Megan Rapinoe’s memoir One Life is perfect. 

For your dad who likes history, John Dickerson’s book about presidential history, The Hardest Job in the World is timely.

Jenna Bush Hager’s Everything Is Beautiful In Time is an inspirational book about her grandparents, George and Barbara Bush.

If you know someone who likes to laugh, Jerry Seinfeld’s Is This Anything? is a good choice, and David Sedaris’ The Best of Me collects his best essays. 

For the cook in the family, Ina Garten’s Modern Comfort Food is one of her best yet. 

If you have a wine aficionado on your list, The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia is a treat.

Erin Zammett Ruddy’s The Little Book of Life Skills gives great advice to everyone. 

For teenagers, Nic Stone’s Dear Martin and Dear Justyce are popular. 

If they read the City of Bones series, Tracy Deon’s Legendborn is next. 

Middle readers love graphic novels, and Jerry Craft’s Class Act and Raina Telemeier’s “Babysitters Club” are excellent. 

Karina Yan Glaser’s The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found is the fourth book in this wonderful family series. 

 Jeff Kinney’s The Deep End is his newest Wimpy Kid book. 

Meg Medina’s Mercy Suarez Changes Gears is another great choice. 

For the littlest ones, Chris Harris and Dan Santat’s The Alphabet’s Alphabet is colorful and educational.  

Sherry Duskey Rinker’s Construction Site Mission: Demolition!

 continues her fun series of board books.

Happy shopping and Thanksgiving and next month, I’ll wrap up the Most Compelling Books of 2020.