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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Two Books By My Favorite Authors

Reprinted from auburnpub.com:

There are some authors whose work I will always read. Their books are filled with characters that feel like people I want to know, the stories are interesting, and writing entrances me. Lisa Grunwald and Caroline Leavitt are two of those authors, and they both have wonderful books publishing in April.

Lisa Grunwald’s last novel Time After Time (about a young woman who, after she dies in train crash in a tunnel in Grand Central Station before WWII, returns to life but can only exist within the walls of Grand Central Central Station, falls in love with a train conductor) is one of my all-time favorites. It’s a beautiful love story.

Her new novel, The Evolution of Annabel Craig also has a historical setting. In 1925 Dayton, Tennessee, Annabel is married to George, a lawyer. Annabel overhears a group of the town’s businessmen discussing a newspaper article that states that the American Civil Liberties Union was offering to back any teacher in Tennessee who was willing to test a new law signed by the Tennessee governor. 

The Butler Act forbid the teaching of evolution in public schools in order to protect the children from hearing something that is in direct contrast to religious teachings. The Dayton businessmen believed that this test case could be a boon to business in town. 

Luckily for them, John Scopes, a young substitute science teacher and high school football coach, had taught a class about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is found in their science textbook. John agrees and history is about to be made.

Annabel’s husband George ends up on the defense team, and their lives immediately change. Their neighbors and friends become angry with them. Over 200 reporters descend on the town, including a female reporter named Lottie Nelson. 

Lottie befriends Annabel and opens Annabel’s eyes to a life beyond being a housewife. Annabel likes to take photos and Lottie encourages her in this pursuit, telling Annabel that “what a person wants can change”. 

The Evolution of Annabel Craig may be a historical novel, but it has so many parallels to things happening right now. The media circus, the debate over separation of church and state in schools, the country coming out of a recent horrific pandemic (the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic), it all resonates with today's issues.

If you’re familiar the play Inherit the Wind, you know about this story. Lisa Grunwald tells it through the lens of Annabel’s growth as a woman, discovering who she is and what is important to her. It’s a book that leaves the reader with so much to think about, I read it months ago and I still think about it. I give it my highest recommendation.

Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, Days of Wonder is more contemporary, but also tells the story of  a woman’s growth. When Ella was sixteen years old, she fell madly in love with Jude. They were inseparable and their love became nearly obsessive.

When it appears that Ella and Jude poisoned his father, a judge, after he disapproved of their relationship, Ella is sent to prison while Jude’s father moves him far away.

Ella was pregnant with Jude’s baby and Ella’s mother Helen made the decision that the baby would be given up for adoption. Six years later, Ella gets out of prison and returns home to Helen, who just wants her daughter to be safe and happy. Ella cannot forget about the daughter she gave up however and is determined to find her.

Moving to Ann Arbor, Ella doesn’t tell her mother she is going to find her daughter who has been adopted by a couple. Ella becomes involved in the lives of her daughter and the woman who has adopted the baby without them knowing who she really is.

Meanwhile, Helen, who has never had a relationship with a man since she had Ella, finds herself involved with a man who treats her with kindness and respect. Her life has opened up in ways she never believed possible.

Leavitt does a remarkable job with the characters of Helen and Ella. We watch them change and grow as they have to deal with an impossible situation and we root for them. Helen and Ella have found a place in my heart and no one writes the mother-daughter relationship in novels better than Caroline Leavitt. I also give Days of Wonder my highest recommendation, and it may be Caroline Leavitt’s best book yet.

The Evolution of Annabel Craig by Lisa Grunwald- A

Published by Random House

Hardcover, $30, 320 pages

Days of Wonder by Caroline Leavitt- A

Published by Algonquin Books

Hardcover, $29, 320 pages

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Two Books With Small Town Settings

Reprinted from auburnpub.com:

This month’s Book Report features two books about families in small town settings.

I was always a fan of Anna Quindlen’s monthly column in Newsweek magazine years ago. When she turned to fiction, I enjoyed her many books as well. Her latest book, After Annie is her best book yet. 

After Annie begins when 37 year-old mom and nurse aide Annie Brown dies suddenly at home in front of her husband and four young children. Her husband Bill is completely bereft and has no idea how to carry on caring for his young children and running his plumbing business.

It falls to 13 year-old Ali to keep the house running, get her younger brothers off to school in the morning, and make sure there is food in the house. She puts one foot in front of the other and does the job all while trying to process her own grief and deal with being a teenager.

Annie’s best friend Annmarie is also grieving. Annie and Annmarie were best friends since elementary school, and they were a part of each other’s daily lives even though they led different lives.

Annie and Bill struggled to pay bills, and Annmarie owns a successful business and has married a man who has money. Annie and Bill have a big family, Annmarie has suffered miscarriages.

As we follow the story through the Bill, Ali, and Annmarie, we see Annie through their eyes. We discover that Annmarie had a serious addiction problem and Annie did her best to help her friend through her troubles. We see what a compassionate caregiver Annie was at her job at a nursing home, and what a giving mother she was to her children and a supportive and loving wife to Bill.

The sections of the novel that deal with Annie’s death and funeral ring so true to anyone who has experienced a sudden loss. Ali waiting up for her dad to come back from the hospital, shopping with her aunt for a dress to wear to the funeral, and the actual funeral itself- it’s all so vivid and visceral.

Quindlen has written about grief before, Every Last One being a powerful book, and After Annie is just as powerful but in a quieter way than that book. Annie- the wife, mother, friend, caregiver- may be gone by the first sentence of the novel, but she looms so large in these pages that we miss her even though we didn’t know her. I highly recommend After Annie.

Like After Annie, Amy Jo Burns novel Mercury has a small-town setting. The book begins in 1990 when 17 year-old Marley and the single mom who raised her move into the small town of Mercury, Pennsylvania. 

The Joseph family own a roofing business in town, and the first thing Marley sees as they pull into town is the three Joseph men on a roof. She is instantly intrigued. As the new girl in town, football hero Baylor Joseph flashes his smile at Marley and she is smitten.

Baylor invites her to dinner where she meets his younger-by-one-year brother Waylon. While Baylor can be cool to Marley, Waylon is kind. If only she met Waylon first. 

Marley spends every night at the Joseph’s family dinner table at the invitation of mom Elise ,and soon becomes a real member of the family when she marries one of the brothers. 

Mick, the patriarch of the family, is a dreamer and seems to have a lot balls in the air, a short attention span, and no financial sense. He leaves much of the roofing business work to Baylor and Waylon. Waylon works hard to expand the business, and soon Marley gets involved in the business as well which annoys Mick.

Over the years, we see the Joseph family dynamic change. Elise, who ran a tight ship, seems to pull away for reasons that soon become clear, and Marley takes over the matriarch role. Marley becomes a mother figure to the youngest Joseph brother Shay who is often left to his own devices.

We get a mystery when a dead body is discovered in the tower of the church. The Joseph family had repaired the roof years ago, could one of them be involved?

Mercury is character-driven story. Watching Marley grow into a strong, confident woman is such a reward. Each character is interesting and well-drawn, from Waylon to Shay to Shay’s best friend the town cop. The small town feels like a real place, and it plays an important part in the story. I highly recommend Mercury as well.

After Annie by Anna Quindlen- A+

Published by Random House

Hardcover, $30, 285 pages

Mercury by Amy Jo Burns- A

Published by Celadon

Hardcover, $29,  336 pages