Book chat: ‘New Money’ and ‘Independently Wealthy’

New MoneySavannah Morgan arrives in New York on the dime of a father she never met with a plan to take the city by storm.

Now a part of the illustrious Stone News empire, Savannah is the secret daughter who grew up modestly in Charleston away from the prying eyes of the media — and her wealthy, successful siblings. After her biological father suddenly dies, Savannah is left a fortune on the condition that she move to the city and join her brother and sister in the Stone family business.

Simple enough? Perhaps . . . until everything turns out differently than she imagined.

Lorraine Zago Rosenthal’s New Money is a light, entertaining story of a 24-year-old debutante set loose in Manhattan after a lifetime among Southern society. To say she is lost amidst a sea of dark-clothed, serious New Yorkers is an understatement — but once she flees the comfort of her mother’s home in South Carolina, she is determined to create a new path for herself as a writer . . . or maybe something else entirely.

Though I enjoyed Savannah’s story, success seemed to find our heroine a little too easily. After learning the identity of her biological father, a billionaire, Savannah hops a plane and steps straight into a sleek apartment overlooking Central Park with barely a thought of the mother she is supposedly devoted to — or the life she is leaving behind. Her whacky best friend temporarily turns Savannah’s new life into a sorority romp, and the tenuous relationship she is trying to build with her half-siblings is constantly under fire.

The set-up of New Money felt to be entirely tell with no show — a fact that surprised me. I didn’t feel I actually got to know Savannah until the end of the novel, when she was in love with a bartender and fighting to keep her new family’s name out of the press. We were told she is this strong, passionate, intelligent woman . . . but her scatter-brained actions didn’t always reflect that.

But even having said that, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this story . . . I did! It was fun escapism that demanded little of me, which was perfect. It’s actually been a while since I read a story set in Manhattan, and Rosenthal’s descriptions of the city through an outsider’s eyes were fun. Her budding romance with Alex, a reformed fighter, was sweet and sweetly believable; her attempts to get to know her brother and sister were realistic and a little heartbreaking.

All in all, New Money was the first novel I’ve read in the burgeoning “new adult” category — and with a little romance, plenty of family dynamics and lots of rich-people-peeping to keep me company, it was a fun story with interesting characters that I enjoyed getting to know.

Which brought me to . . .


Independently WealthyIndependently Wealthy. Now that Savannah is rooted in Manhattan society and earning her keep at Femme, the magazine which recently published her first work, she is focused on building a place within the Stone family — and discovering the truth about what happened to their father. When her search takes her to Washington, D.C., and into the complicated world of American politics, Savannah must decide whether to push harder than she ever has or turn back.

Filled with more mystery and depth than its predecessor, Independently Wealthy finds us acquainted with a much stronger, more empowered heroine with a clear goal: finding out the truth about the fatal accident that claimed her father’s life and a potential cover-up that could make headlines around the world. When investigators hit dead ends, Savannah snoops in Edward’s files to find connections others may have missed and leaves for Washington in the hope of learning the truth.

Given I’m from the D.C. area, I loved seeing glimpses of my hometown as Savannah races among the political elite to confront the man she believes was instrumental in Edward’s death. We also see romantic development in several areas and a pretty dashing new male lead — one I found vastly superior to Alex, quite honestly. Like, completely.

What made Independently Wealthy really work for me were the growing family dynamics. Ned and Caroline, Savannah’s half-siblings, really became human in this second installment. In fact, where I once found Ned to be particularly insufferable, I actually started to like the guy. He is charismatic and snobby and cocky, but he’s a little lost, too. Each character seemed more vulnerable this time around — and I liked that we got to know them beyond the superficial.

Lorraine Zago Rosenthal has written two books with a sassy narrator who takes chances and goes big, and I enjoyed the time spent with the Stone family. As Savannah has grown so much between books one and two, who knows what could be in store for her down the line . . . I hope we’ll get a chance to find out.


New Money: 3 out of 5!

Independently Wealthy: 4 out of 5!

Goodreads • Amazon (New Money, Independently Wealthy) • Author Website


Book chat: ‘Jane Austen’s First Love’ by Syrie James

Jane Austen's First LoveRomantic, wistful and richly engrossing, fans of the beloved Miss Austen will delight in Syrie James’ well-researched, evocative story of the summer Jane is believed to have first fallen in love.

For a month in 1791, 15-year-old Jane Austen is welcomed with her sister and brother to the vast, beautiful world of Goodnestone to celebrate the engagement of her brother, Edward, to Elizabeth Bridges, one of the young ladies of the estate. On their way to the celebration, their carriage meets with calamity — and Edward Taylor, a handsome and educated young man who lives nearby, comes to their rescue.

As their connection to the Bridges family brings them together, Jane and Edward pass many enjoyable weeks in each other’s company . . . much to the chagrin of the chaperones entrusted with making sure the reputations of both families remain unsullied. Though she knows a match between a wealthy heir and a reverend’s daughter is unlikely, their affection continues to grow — even as Jane meddles in the romances of those around her, causing disturbances and miscommunications.

Based on the scholarly belief that Jane did, in fact, meet one Edward Taylor through her brother — and snippets of letters in which she mentions both Him and Bifrons, Edward’s actual home — James has constructed a lively, entertaining tale of the man who may have stolen young Jane’s heart. With generous and creative nods to future characters (especially Emma Woodhouse, intrepid but misguided matchmaker), Jane Austen’s First Love is a treat for fans of the author and historical fiction alike.

The way Jane falls in love with Edward was sudden but believable — a feat not easily accomplished. As a young woman with little experience away from Steventon (and her mother’s grasp), Jane is enamored to be passing time as she chooses — and in the company of new, exciting, accomplished people. In addition to being handsome and well-traveled, Edward is adventurous and kind. Though a bit of a daredevil with a reputation to match, he has no trouble questioning the status quo: unique in a society that places propriety above all else.

Jane comes from different stock, of course. Visiting Goodnestone for her brother’s engagement celebration, she and Cassandra are under immense pressure to behave well and not present as “country folk.” At 15, Jane is too young to actually be “out” in society . . . but her mother relents for the special occasion, allowing her to participate in the many events and balls held in honor of two sets of soon-to-be newlyweds (the sister of Edward Austen’s intended is also to marry). This new independence delights Jane — but it comes at a cost.

The early feelings of love and affection blossoming between Jane and Edward Taylor — the nerves; the excitement; the desperation to see each other again — are familiar to all of us. Indeed, it’s tough to read Jane Austen’s First Love and not feel transported back to your own first brush with romance. James does a remarkable job of drawing us into the easy banter and camaraderie the two share . . . but of course, we know the ending of the story.

Is it a spoiler to talk of the fate of a famous author who passed nearly 200 years ago? Austen fans know that, for all her exquisite explorations of the human heart, Jane herself never did marry — nor did her sister, Cassandra, after losing a fiance as a young woman. Jane passed at age 41 and left an enormous legacy that still has us talking, speculating and daydreaming centuries later.

Knowing the end of her romance with Edward Taylor even before it began did nothing to harm it; in fact, James beautifully demonstrates how reasonable it was that Jane could have fallen in love . . . but how, in the end, first loves are not always forever loves. What could have been a bittersweet ending was, instead, satisfying and realistic.

I loved my time at Goodnestone — and any time spent in the company of dear Jane is always well spent. Syrie James does a remarkable job of returning us to Regency England in the company of “characters” that actually feel like friends, with a story that felt both familiar and fresh. Jane Austen’s First Love will be a welcome addition to the shelves of Janeites everywhere — and those interested in a good love story will rejoice in it, too.


4.5 out of 5

Pub: August 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Paperback copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book chat: ‘Isla and the Happily Ever After’ by Stephanie Perkins

Isla and HappilyHere’s what I love about Stephanie Perkins: her stories are romantic and realistic, adorable and heartbreaking. There is just the right amount of salt to balance the sweet — and though her characters do get a “happily ever after” (imagine that!), the road isn’t paved solely in diamonds. You have to stumble on a few ruts, too.

Isla and the Happily Ever After — the third in a trilogy of stories featuring independent but related characters — did not disappoint. Like Anna and Lola before her, Isla is a winning combination of strong and vulnerable. The middle of three sisters, our heroine struggles to find her place at her French boarding school — and, you know, the world at large — when Josh, a classmate on whom she’s nursed a serious crush for years, suddenly seems to notice her.

Really notice her.

Josh is a politician’s son — polished when necessary, dorky and artistic and brooding when the cameras are off. He devotes himself to art, working tirelessly on a graphic memoir panel by panel. Though they go to school together in Paris, Isla and Josh cross paths — and finally talk — during a serendipitous meeting on a rainy night in New York. When they reconnect again in France, everything changes.

I loved the sweet, heart-pounding development of their relationship: the little glances, the small smiles. Nerves, anticipation, bliss. It’s impossible to read Perkins’ latest and not remember the first time you fell in love — every element is there, right down to the sickening feeling that accompanies knowing you won’t see him or her for hours after you part. Days, even. The exquisite torture!

Though we know Isla and Josh are destined for each other (I mean, it’s right there in the title), their course is not smooth and untroubled. Isla’s loyalty to her best friend, Kurt, added nice contrast to the familiar “can girls and boys just be buddies?” trope. Their dynamic was unconventional — but I dug that. Beyond the romance at the heart of the story, Isla’s life is made colorful by the relationships she has with friends and family . . . and I felt her struggle to maintain a tight friendship with Kurt while falling in love, something to which many will relate.

While I struggled a bit to get into the story and felt the build-up dragged at points, I never considered giving up — and once I hit the last 100-ish pages, I flew like a jet to finish. In contrast to what she once believes, Isla is a dimensional character who feels like a friend . . . and Perkins’ tale of young love, hope and taking chances definitely resonated with me.

How did it stack up to Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door? Well, Anna remains my favorite heroine with the most pulse-racing story — but Isla would be a close second. Perkins’ leading ladies are vibrant, colorful and memorable . . . and I certainly won’t forget them. Longtime fans of the series will delight in cameos and a fulfilling ending to other characters’ arcs, too.


4 out of 5

Pub: August 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library


Book chat: ‘Seven Letters from Paris’ by Samantha Verant

Seven Letters from ParisTwenty years after they shared one fateful weekend in Paris, Samantha and Jean-Luc are separated by an ocean and wealth of varying experiences. Samantha herself is in a rut — 40 and jobless, staring down an impending divorce, living back with her parents as she nervously tackles her debt.

When Sam stumbles upon a series of letters Jean-Luc sent after she returned to college in America, the passion and connection they shared decades ago comes flooding back to her. She realizes she hasn’t felt that way before or since — but never actually responded to her French Romeo. At all.

Though she believes her apology comes a little too late, she’s able to find Jean-Luc online and sends him the answer she feels he was owed in the ’80s by way of a blog. Their emails lead to phone calls, and calls expand to talk of visiting in person. Is she crazy to leave California for France to see if the connection they once shared has stood the test of time?

Maybe. But she has nothing to lose, and all the world to gain.

Samantha Verant’s memoir Seven Letters from Paris is the romantic, entertaining story of how she reconnected with the love of her life when the odds certainly seemed stacked against them. Their story is an improbable one: a young American woman and French rocket scientist randomly meet at a cafe when Sam and a friend visit Paris in the late ’80s. After they share a weekend exploring the city, Jean-Luc falls completely in love . . . and Samantha disappears. He sends seven letters to her address at an American university but never hears from her again.

Until, one day, he does.

I’ll just come out and say that I’m a huge fan of serendipity. I love stories that connect lovers who, by all logic, should not have found one another; I adore tales of fate stepping in to guide the lives of unlikely people. Sam and Jean-Luc live an ocean and a continent apart — and the idea that they could randomly meet on a sidewalk, lose touch and find each other again after 20 years, several marriages, children and so on was nothing short of amazing.

Where the story could have become schmaltzy and boring, Samantha’s self-deprecating humor and humble roots were endearing and kept me rooting for her from start to finish. As she sheds her dog-walking skin back in California and takes a chance on visiting Jean-Luc, I was breathless with anticipation of their meeting once again. Ah, true love.

Are Jean-Luc’s overtures a bit over-the-top? Sure. But as Sam points out often, the standard for romance in France is, um, a bit different than what we might expect of courtship here in the U.S. She is wooed quite thoroughly by her older scientist — and who could blame her? I mean, really.

A quick and engaging read, Seven Letters from Paris  was just the sort of story I needed to help break me out of my reading slump. I loved Sam and Jean-Luc — and especially loved them together. I’ve heard rumors that we may get a follow-up on their new life together in France (not a spoiler!) . . . I’ll just be over here with my coffee and macaron, waiting.


4 out of 5

Pub: October 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Advance copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book chat: ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez

Book of Unknown AmericansIntense. Riveting. Heartbreaking.

Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans had me feeling nearly every emotion under the sun — especially as this tale of devotion and hope unraveled and left me with an ache in my stomach, a painful desire to undo what was done. To go back in time, helping to repair it — bit by bit, blow by blow.

Following the lives of several immigrant families, Henriquez’s tale focuses on the Toros and Riveras who rent apartments from the same Delaware complex. Mayor Toro falls in love with Maribel, a fellow teen, nearly at first glance — but can tell the Riveras harbor secrets. Everyone who comes to America is searching for something, reaching for something, but for this family? It’s something more. It’s a running-away, too.

As the Toros attempt to help acclimate Alma, Arturo and Maribel, tense relations with neighbors strain further. Mayor wants nothing more than to swoop in and protect Maribel, erasing all the pain etched on her face, but some forces are beyond their control.

It’s been a while since I sank into some good literary fiction. Honestly, with the chaos of the last year or so, I’ve favored neutral works or memoirs that may not demand as much from me as a reader. But it’s not fair to categorize The Book of Unknown Americans as a “tough read” — because in Henriquez’s hands, the tale digests so easily.

It’s impossible not to feel for Alma and Arturo, Maribel’s parents; as they flee their old life in Mexico, wanting to help and protect their injured daughter, they must abandon everything they know that is safe and familiar. The early moments the Riveras share at their dingy, anonymous apartment were heartbreaking. It’s impossible for me to imagine what it must be like, leaving behind a home filled with everything you love, everything you’ve built. And to come to a new country and community that may be hostile toward you — called an “outsider,” a foreigner, or worse — is gut-wrenching.

But Alma and Arturo are tenacious. They care. They try. Desperately wanting Maribel’s condition to improve, they tolerate the time she spends with Mayor and encourage her to form new relationships. Mayor was an interesting character in that he shares some of the Riveras’ experiences, but his own life in America is different. I didn’t bond with him the way I did with the Riveras, but I certainly felt with and for him throughout the novel.

Peppered between the unfolding saga of the two families are the stories of many more men and women, also immigrants who have arrived in the United States for one reason or another — and their personal narrations, sometimes only a few pages long, break up the ongoing narrative. I loved these glimpses into the lives of neighbors, coworkers and new friends. I recognized how responsible they felt for each other — even though they may have all arrived in the country as strangers. They’re Americans now.

This isn’t a love story, but it is a love story. From the blush of early love between Mayor and Maribel to the many sacrifices parents make for their children, the novel is a testimony to devotion and wanting more.

Though the subject matter is often difficult, the pay-off is so great. Henriquez spins a powerful tale filled with memorable characters, heartbreaking narratives and incredible depth. By the time I finished The Book of Unknown Americans, I felt nearly breathless; it was so intense, so moving, that I felt I’d barely come up for air. Highly recommend.


4.5 out of 5

Pub: June 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Advance copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book review: ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ by Maria Semple

Whered You Go, BernadetteHas a book ever just delighted you?

I’ve been fortunate to discover a few that would fall into that category, and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette would definitely top that list. From start to finish, I was enchanted by the characters, unusual storyline and hilarious dialogue.

Basically, it’s awesome.

In rainy Seattle, architect Bernadette Fox is raising her daughter, Bee, with husband Elgin Branch in a dilapidated house she can’t stomach fixing since a disastrous, high-profile project many years before. Smart as a whip, Bee is used to her mother’s quirks: her wry humor, for sure, as well as her constant battles with other school parents. And there’s the whole issue of her never wanting to leave the house, you know — a desire that pushes her to hire a virtual assistant to take care of everything down to grocery shopping.

When Bee is promised a trip to Antarctica, Bernadette turns to her assistant to take care of all the details . . . but as secrets are revealed, the trip falls into jeopardy. Before they can decide how to move forward as a family, Bernadette disappears.

Told through a series of emails and Bee’s notes, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is actually flat-out hilarious. Intelligent. Unique. My summary doesn’t do justice to how funny Bernadette is — and to be honest, I saw much of myself in her. Though I’ve been able to stave off agoraphobia so far, I’m quite happy to take care of most tasks online. If I can email instead of calling you, check yo’ email. Heck, I even order pizza online. (I mean, it’s just convenient.)

Bernadette is a really fantastic, multifaceted character — as is Bee, her hilarious daughter. Elgin plays less of a role in the drama than one might expect, but his behavior is also a catalyst for all that’s set in motion before Antarctica. Bee does most of the narrating, though Bernadette’s emails are at the center of much of the chaos. I loved them both.

It’s hard to explain Where’d You Go, Bernadette except to say it was an enchanting, entertaining, wholly different novel — one I enjoyed from start to finish. Even months later (how did it take me so long to talk about this one?!), I can vividly recall passages and crazy scenes.

If you can get your paws on the audio version, I highly recommend it. Narrator Kathleen Wilhoite does an outstanding job as the many folks populating this great story, and I loved her interpretation of Bee. Though I’m sure I would have had a grand ol’ time with the print version, too, listening to the story was a true pleasure.


4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio version borrowed from my local library

Book chat: ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green

The Fault In Our StarsSo I finished John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars on Sunday. I bought it last week in anticipation of a long weekend away as a “treat” to myself, insofar as a book about kids with cancer can be a “treat.”

Also, despite loving my Kindle for years now, I still feel weird paying for e-books? I mostly read review copies or freebies or library loans. I guess that’s a terrible thing to admit . . . I mean, it’s just that they’re digital. Yes, I do pay for plenty of things I cannot physically hold, but I guess I’m just crotchety and still struggling to grasp the concept of paying real money for things that feel un-real.

Anyway. Clearly a post for another day.

The Fault In Our Stars has been on my radar for years due to its reputation as a tearjerker, I suppose. Sometimes I crave a good cry and don’t mind a depressing novel; they can be quite beautiful, after all. Plus, this is penned by Green, Great Lord of the Book/Young Adult World, and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books. He’s darn witty and insightful.

Also, I saw him speak at the National Book Festival in 2012 . . . and yeah, he’s totally cute. Just feel that, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that.

Anyway. (Man, I’m a mess today.) Back to the actual book, friends. I have lots of thoughts about it, but . . . they’re scattered, disjointed. I went into this novel knowing it had been hyped into oblivion but is also loved fiercely by many readers — I mean, it’s been rated more than 1 million times on Goodreads.

One. Million. Times.

It’s hard to pick up a book you’ve heard so much about without rampant expectations. Like, for example, I expected to cry — a lot. I mean, the basic plot? Two teenage cancer survivors meet at a support group and fall in love. You know something ain’t going to end well, right? Even the title suggests it.

To my shock, I’ve managed to avoid spoilers all this time — no small feat given its 2012 publication date. And the accompanying movie released in June, which I’m now exceptionally eager to see.

So I won’t ruin it for you, either. Trust me.

But back to my Feelings. I loved Augustus because yeah, I think we’re supposed to. Almost engineered to. He’s cool, thoughtful, romantic, sweet . . . all attributes I typically love in a dude. Gus is also wise beyond his years — something that comes with having stared down death, I suppose — and utterly devoted to Hazel, our narrator, who is herself living with a cancer that actively decimates her lungs. Hazel requires constant oxygen delivered via a tank, her breathing shadow, and Gus accepts this.

Gus accepts her. And not just because her chopped-off locks and quiet confidence remind him of actress Natalie Portman.

Green’s tome is a story of life and death. Of life after death, and living well in the face of impending death. Though we all know we’re mortal beings, some of us must confront that fact much earlier than others. It’s awful, but it’s the truth. The subject matter is understandably heavy, and even in its buoyant moments — those sparkly moments of first love, as light as the champagne the two share — it’s there. The gravity weighing them down, the illness with its claws sunk deep into them both.

And yet, they love. They are. They will be.

The portrayal of Hazel’s parents, who are themselves fighting the good fight along with their daughter, also felt realistic and heartbreaking. Ditto the experiences of Augustus’ parents and the extended Waters clan. Even the peripheral characters — Isaac, a fellow cancer survivor who loses his sight; Hazel’s best friend, Kaitlyn, a fashionable and free teen who serves as her tenuous and final remaining link to the “healthy” and unbound world — serve a purpose and occasionally provide comedic relief.

There is so much in The Fault In Our Stars that felt both beautifully clear and unbelievably obtuse. I fluctuated between getting lost in Green’s deep thoughts and feeling completely discomfited by them. Our young lovers are both enamored with a fictional book called An Imperial Affliction, and learning the fate of its various characters via its alcoholic author in Amsterdam becomes an obsession for them.

I got it, but I didn’t always get it.

Still. Did I like The Fault In Our Stars? Absolutely. I’ve thought of little else since finishing. It was sad, yes — but also many things in between. I cried a little, but not as I expected to — and the finale wasn’t what I’d anticipated, either . . . in a good way? I think. It splintered me, but I’m still standing.

Though Augustus is obsessed with leaving a lasting mark on the world, The Fault In Our Stars is a powerful reminder that though our time here is limited, the impact we make on others — even if it’s merely one other — is more important. Lasting.

Love can only ever lead to suffering, to separation . . . but it’s worth it.

It has to be.


4 out of 5

Pub: 2012 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy purchased by Meg