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Monday, December 18, 2023

The Most Compelling Books of 2023

Reprinted from auburnpub.com

It’s the time of year for my annual list of the Most Compelling Books I read in 2023. These are books that I still think about long after I finish reading them, with characters I care about in fascinating storylines.

Two of the books are current releases, first up is Alice McDermott’s novel Absolution. Unlike most of McDermott’s books that are set in New York or Ireland, this one tracks an Irish-American newlywed woman as she follows her engineer husband to Saigon, Vietnam, at the beginning of the U.S. involvement in the war. The writing is gorgeous, and it reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible

Lauren Grodstein’s historical fiction We Must Not Think of Ourselves also recently published. Adam is young widowed Jewish teacher living in Warsaw in 1940 when the Nazis have forced Jewish residents to leave their homes and move into ghettos. He ends up living with two other families in a small apartment, and we watch as their lives deteriorate daily. This powerful book resonates today as we see how people struggle to keep their humanity while they are being treated inhumanely. 

Family stories are always a favorite and Tracey Lange’s The Connellys of County Down tells the story of the three adult Connelly siblings after their youngest sister is released from prison for a drug charge. She moves back in with her siblings and tries to rebuild her life as we see how what happened to her changed everyone’s life. 

J. Ryan Stradahl’s Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club takes us to Minnesota as four generations of women of a family own and operate a popular supper club through the years. Some of them take to the business, others feel confined by it. The sense of place is so strong, you’ll want to go there to eat at the restaurant. 

Michiko Aoyama’s novel, What You Are Looking For Is In The Library is a translated Japanese novel that intersects the lives of a group of people who are each at a crossroads in their lives. When they meet a special librarian, she gives advice that helps them. This one restores your faith in humanity.

We go to India for Parini Shroff’s terrific debut novel The Bandit Queens. When a young woman in their village is falsely suspected of killing her no-good husband, other women secretly seek her assistance in taking care of their rotten husbands.

Jesse Q. Sutanto has written young adult books, romance novels, and now turns to mysteries with Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers. Vera is a 60 year-old widow owner of a tea shop in Chinatown. When she finds a dead body in her shop, she decides to investigate on her own since the police seem uninterested. Vera is a hoot, one of the best characters I’ve seen in a long time. 

Matthew Norman’s Baltimore-set novel Charm City Rocks is about a music teacher whose teenage son thinks he’s helping dad by conning a rock star his dad had a crush on years ago to come to Baltimore in the hopes that sparks fly. It’s funny and sweet and you’ll want to visit Baltimore after reading this one. 

Jane L. Rosen’s On Fire Island takes readers to that vacation community as a young widower struggles to deal with his grief with the help of an older widower neighbor and a teenage boy. The characters in this heartwarming story one are wonderful, especially Shep, the older neighbor. 

The Leftover Woman by Jean Kwok deals with two women, one a young mother from China who travels to New York to search for the  daughter she was told died at birth. Her story intersects with a wealthy executive who struggles with her publishing career and raising her young daughter. 

On the nonfiction front, Helen Ellis’s book of essays, Kiss Me In the Coral Lounge recounts her loving marriage to her husband and how they survived the pandemic in a New York apartment. It’s hilarious and heartfelt, every married couple should read it.

Maggie Smith’s memoir You Could Make This Place Beautiful is the flip side, describing how she dealt with her marriage falling apart and raising her young children during this time. Smith is a brilliant poet and each word hits emotionally. 

Bonus pick- Ann Patchett's novel Tom Lake. Lara recounts to her adult daughters the story of when she dated a famous actor while working in a summer theater years ago. Set during the pandemic, the writing is perfection and Patchett never hits a false note. 

Out of the 110 books I read this year, these are the 12 books that affected me the most. What did you read that you loved?

Friday, December 1, 2023

The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor

The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor
Published by Park Row ISBN 9780778334187
Trade paperback, $17.99, 304 pages

I am a big fan of novels that retell or reframe a classic- Ann Napolitano's Hello Beautiful (Little Women) and Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible (Pride & Prejudice) are two of my favorites- so when I heard that Jillian Cantor's new novel The Fiction Writer paid homage to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, I was intrigued.

Writer Olivia Fitzgerald is having a bad year. After the success of her first novel, her second novel (a retelling of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca) doesn't sell well at all. Her live-in boyfriend moves out, and her editor is not excited about her next effort.

Her editor says that billionaire and People's Sexiest Man Alive Ash Asherwood has requested that Olivia ghost-write a book with him about his grandmother and her relationship with Daphne du Maurier. The money is too good to turn down, so off Olivia goes to Malibu.

Ash is a widower, his wife perished in a car accident (was it an accident?) and he is reclusive. His housekeeper seems to be very attached to him and is hostile to Olivia.

While Olivia is becoming accustomed to life in Ash's beautiful ocean front home, Ash is pulling her more into his orbit. But when Olivia tries to get down to work discovering what exactly his grandmother and Daphne du Maurier's secret is, Ash becomes cagey and puts her off.

Olivia decides to investigate on her own, and discovers that Ash has not been truthful with her. What is he hiding and what is his real purpose for bringing Olivia to Malibu? 

Fans of Rebecca will enjoy The Fiction Writer on a deeper level, and the controversy around Daphne du Maurier's novel (other people claimed that she stole their story) adds an interesting aspect to the story. Pairing a nice copy of Rebecca with The Fiction Writer would make a great gift for the classic literature lover on your holiday list.
Thanks to Harlequin for putting me on their Fall 2023 Blog Tours.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

The 2023 Books Are Great Gifts Guide Is Here

Reprinted from auburnpub.com:

Thanksgiving Day is coming upon us and that means holiday gift shopping gets into full gear so it’s that time of year for the annual Books Make Great Gifts Guide. Books make great gifts- they always fit, are never the wrong color or size, and easy to wrap.

For your best friend whose television is tuned permanently to the Hallmark Channel this month, Sarah Morgan’s The Book Club Hotel has a charming Vermont boutique hotel setting at Christmas, best friends, and a romance. 

Jenny Colgan’s The Christmas Bookshop is set in lovely Edinburgh, Scotland and centers on a young woman determined to save the bookshop where she is employed from being purchased and turned into a tacky tourist shop. 


Mary Kay Andrews’ annual holiday book Bright Lights, Big City takes place in New York City as a brother and sister come up from North Carolina to sell their family’s Christmas trees in Greenwich Village in New York City and save the family business. 

For your sister who loves true crime podcasts and fictional mysteries and thrillers, Jessica Knoll’s novel Bright Young Women tells the story of two women connected to the crimes of real life killer Ted Bundy. 

Tess Gerritsen starts a terrific new thriller series with The Spy Coast, where a few retired CIA spies have settled in a small town in coastal Maine. When one of them is threatened by someone from her past, the spies bond together to save the day. 

For your aunt who likes to read historical fiction and recently binged the miniseries All the Light We Cannot See, Kelly Rimmer’s The Paris Agent is a tense novel about ordinary British women who become undercover spies in WWII France, and the price they pay to try and save the world. 

Turning to Nonfiction, for your uncle the history buff, David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon, has a new book, The Wager about a shipwreck, mutiny, and murder in 1740. It’s gotten rave reviews. 

Rachel Maddow’s new book Prequel has been getting a lot of buzz. It tells the true tale of Nazis sympathizers who infiltrated power positions in Congress, media, and religion in the United States in the lead up to WWII. 

Moving up chronologically, Loren Grush’s The Six is about the first six women in NASA’s space shuttle program in the 1960s and 1970s. This one is for your niece who read Hidden Figures.

Speaking of the 1970s, Henry Winkler’s fascinating memoir Being Henry takes him from his childhood through his breakout role as the Fonz on the TV hit “Happy Days’ through his struggle with dyslexia to his Emmy-winning role on HBO’s “Barry’ and more. This one will be a great gift for so many people on your holiday list. 

“General Hospital” heartthrob, Uncle Jesse on “Full House” star, and perpetually youthful-looking John Stamos has a memoir out as well that will appeal to fans of his many years in popular culture titled If You Would Have Told Me. 

For the person who loves to be creative in the kitchen, there are two good cookbooks out. Natasha’s Kitchen by popular blogger Natasha Kravchuk has 100 “family-friendly and foolproof” recipes, including some from her native Ukraine.  

Molly Baz shares her motto More is More in her cookbook that is great for cooks of all skill levels. Molly believes in intuitive cooking not so much in exact measurements. 

 Fans of The Games of Thrones have their next read in Rebecca Yarros' two novels

 Fourth Wing and Iron Flame.  

For Young Adults, Rebecca Ross’ Divine Rivals is a popular fantasy one, the first book in her Letters of Enchantment series. 

Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty trilogy has been repackaged in a three-book set for those who love the Prime series it is based on. 

Middle grade readers are big fans of Rick Riordan’s series of novels, and his new one in the Olympians series is The Chalice of the Gods. 

Christopher Paolini’s new addition to his popular Eragon series is Murtagh

Other popular series for children are The Magic Tree House which has over 50 books in the series, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and The Bad Guys series. 

Mo Willems has a new picture book for youngsters, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Sleigh and poet Amanda Gorman’s Something, Someday teaches about kindness. And you can’t go wrong with a Sandra Boynton board book for babies.

Remember that you can support independent booksellers buy purchasing on bookshop.org.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 10, 2023

Friday 5ive- November 10, 2023

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly-ish post featuring five things that caught my attention this week.

1)  Manhattan has its first Wegmans grocery store  (there is a Wegmans in Brooklyn) and it is a stunner! The 6 train lets you out right across the street from the store so it is convienent for me to get there, although carrying groceries back can be a bit tricky. The layout is beautifully done, and they have so much product in the store. The prepared foods section has something for everyone in packaging for one, two, or more people. I picked up a chicken francese, potato au gratin, and broccoli for my dinner and it was delicious. They have a wing bar, a huge charcuterie section with packages of sliced meats of all kinds, and an amazing cheese section stocked with products from their own cheese cave, overseen by their own Cheese Cave Affineur (that is a new term for me). The edible Chocolate Tea Cup in the bakery is adorable. I will be making many more trips to Astor Place to visit Wegmans.
Chocolate Tea Cup

Charcuterie as far as the eye can see

2) The NYC Marathon was this past Sunday and it's always fun to go cheer on the runners. It's a real team building exercise for New Yorkers and something we sorely needed this year, everyone on the same side, encouraging the brave souls running through all five boroughs. I love all the clever signs, like this one below.

3) I went to a live taping of Hillary Clinton's podcast You and Me Both at Symphony Space. Her guest was Broadway legend Patti LuPone and the conversation between this two iconic women was enlightening and intelligent. Amber Ruffin- comedian, author, actress, Broadway creative (she wrote the book for Some Like It Hot and the upcoming revival of The Wiz)-hosted and joined the ladies for a funny and interesting Q&A at the end. (Who knew Amber Ruffin and Hillary Clinton were such good friends?  It makes sense though, they are both accomplished and funny people. They should auction off dinner with these two ladies for charity,) Once again it was great to be among a community of people joined together for an activity. We even got to hear Patti sing Make Someone Happy. They did. (And Patti's red shoes were to die for!)
Hillary Clinton, Patti LuPone, Amber Ruffin

4) I watched all four episodes of Netflix's All The Light We Cannot See, based on Anthony Doerr's novel of the same name. I read the book when it published in 2014, and I think they did a good job with the miniseries. It tells the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl in WWII who, along with her uncle and aunt, work for the French resistance using her uncle's radio to send secret coded messages to the Allies to help them defeat the Nazis. Even though I knew how the story ends, I was on the edge of my seat as director Shawn Levy rachets up the tension, especially as Marie is being stalked by a Nazi who wants something he believes she possesses. Aria Maria Loberti does a good job as Marie, as does Louis Hoffman as Werner, a reluctant Nazi soldier who has an unknowing connection to Marie. Hugh Laurie is fantastic as Uncle Etienne as well. 

5) I finally read Toni Morrison's Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Beloved. I can't believe I never read this incredible novel. It was my October Banned Book read gifted to me by my daughter-in-law, and it is a novel that everyone should read. Taking place shortly after the Civil War, former slave Sethe and her daughter Denver live in Ohio and are haunted by spirit of Sethe's dead baby Beloved. No one in town will associate with them for reasons that become apparent. Another former slave Paul shows up to stay with Sethe and Denver, and soon a young woman appears who shakes up things in the household. Sethe is traumatized by her life as a slave, and Morrison shows the reader the horrors and dangers of treating people as less than human. It is brutal and eye-opening, and heartbreaking. This book should not be banned, it should be required reading. 

Stay safe and healthy all, and we wish all of our veterans who sacrificed for our country a Happy Vaterans' Day tomorrow.