Book chat: ‘The Little Paris Bookshop’ by Nina George

The Little Paris BookshopFloating on the Seine is a very special barge: a bookshop tended by Monsieur Jean Perdu, a brokenhearted bookseller nursing his decades-long heartache by “prescribing” must reads for the patrons passing through Paris. This literary apothecary has medicinal tales for young idealists, overworked businessmen, widows starting over. Perdu presides over the bookshop like an eager pharmacist, ready with a recommendation at every turn.

Long accustomed to a solitary life, Perdu isn’t prepared for the sudden appearance of an equally vulnerable — and beautiful — neighbor. Believing his one true love, Manon, to have abandoned him 20 years earlier, Perdu has thrown himself into work . . . and scarcely looked up until Catherine arrived on the scene.

When their burgeoning relationship awakens old feelings, he panics — and runs. The floating bookshop takes its inaugural run. Accompanied by a young writer in a slump and many friends he picks up along the way, Perdu embarks on a journey to discover the truth about Manon — and to finally find a way to heal.

Enchanting, warm and populated with memorable characters, Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop is a delightful read for francophiles and literary lovers alike. With a touch of magical realism and many fantastic quotes to delight readers, I fell in love with this story.

A melancholy man now in his fifties, Perdu isn’t the type of hero I’m accustomed to following. He’s initially cold, distant, despondent. In the decades since Manon departed, he has never come to grips with what made her go. Jean has not discovered — or even tried — to find love again, and all he has is his canal boat filled with books: self-help, literary fiction, memoirs. Something for everyone.

His apartment building is filled with unusual folks. Max, a popular young author, is now one of them: but he’s stricken with vicious writer’s block, dreading having to churn out his sophomore story. He turns to Jean as a type of mentor and friend, arriving at the bookshop needing guidance and support. Having never had the chance to have children, Jean takes him under his wing — and together, when the going gets tough, they take to the waters.

The French countryside, Provence, Paris . . . all come alive in The Little Paris Bookshop. The setting is so fragrant and beautifully rendered by George, it’s impossible not to feel as though you’ve gotten lost on the Seine yourself. It was the perfect opportunity for armchair traveling with a tenderhearted hero, and I loved George’s descriptions of everything Jean and Max experience. The towns they find, the meals they cobble together . . . everything is a sensory experience.

At its heart, though, the novel is about the redemptive power of love. Even decades later, Jean is still in love with Manon: and the mystery of their separation is a guiding principle of his life. I was as curious to discover the truth as our hero, somehow hoping for a happy ending for the pair even when I knew it couldn’t possibly be so. When they take off on the river, Jean doesn’t realize the journey fate is already taking him on . . . and by the close of the story, I was in tears.

Without spoiling a thing about this lovely tale, the ending was just so satisfying. Loose ends were tied in beautiful but understated bows; characters we’ve come to love find their meandering way to happiness. It was exactly the sort of sweetly enveloping read that’s perfect for a Sunday afternoon, and I really didn’t want it to end.

Interspersed with the narrative are gorgeous quotes about the power of reading — and the ability of books to be both “medic and medicine at once.” Jean takes his job as a bookseller very seriously. This was an instance when I wished I had a physical copy rather than a digital one; if I was holding The Little Paris Bookshop, I would have been dog-earing and highlighting and starring like a madwoman.

As it stands, I want you to discover this novel for yourself. It’s not one I’ll soon forget.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: June 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher for review consideration

Book chat: ‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes

Me Before YouOh, you guys.

I can’t really think about this story without tearing up. I mean, I am deeply hormonal — but I really think I’d have been reduced to a whimpering mess even without a baby playing havoc with my emotions.

This book is powerful. Redemptive. Uplifting. Soul-wrecking. Funny, exhilarating, memorable. Basically, it’s everything I want in a book — and though I ardently wished it could have turned out differently, I understood it. This book? This book was love.

Louisa “Lou” Clark and Will Traynor meet at the most complicated points in their lives. For twenty-something Lou, life is a tireless march between the home she shares with her parents, sister, nephew and grandfather and the tea shop where the regulars all know her name. Day-to-day, nothing much changes; day-to-day, Lou has no plans for change. Or escape.

Will Traynor was a handsome, successful, high-flying London hotshot until a freak accident left him paralyzed with no desire to live. Now wheelchair-bound and living with his devastated parents, Will spends his days immersed in music or staring blindly at films. What he doesn’t want — or need — is a babysitter, but the freshly-unemployed Lou seems determined to fit that bill.

Though initially prickly, distant and cold, Will can’t help finding himself won over by Lou’s eccentric dress and caring personality; she is funny, kind, beautiful. Their days once spent in silence are soon filled with soaring conversation, and they open up to one another within the confines of Will’s home.

When Lou dares to begin to venture outside the safe walls Will has constructed, their friendship deepens — and her desire to make him see the world (and himself) as valuable becomes her reason for rising each day. But what — or who — could change Will’s mind about life?

Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You is easily one of my favorite reads in years. I whipped through it like crazy, simultaneously unable to part with it and absolutely dreading having finished it. When I got to the pivotal conclusion (which I will not spoil, don’t worry), I was sobbing as though I’d just gotten word that my soldier was never coming home.

Lou and Will’s growing dynamic makes this story — and I really fell for Lou. She is so resilient, funny, strong-willed, independent . . . yet still vulnerable and searching, searching. When she meets Will, she’s initially afraid of him and his coldness — but desperately needs the money his parents are paying for his care. She’s not a nurse (Will has someone for that); she’s there for moral support. Companionship. Hired for her cheery disposition, Lou is determined to be a friend.

And she is. As they begin to trust one another, I felt my heart bursting as they set out on adventures like attending a concert or going for walks around a nearby castle. Though Will seems broken, physically and spiritually, he finds healing in Lou’s company. They complement each other perfectly, actually, and I loved the idea that love comes in many forms.

As I approached the last few chapters, I felt a gnawing pit open in my stomach. Though I was desperate to learn what was going to happen, I worried endlessly about both Will and Lou. There was a surprising amount of romance and sensuality in their interactions; their relationship became quite intense. I grew concerned that one or both would get hurt, but realized hurt is inevitable.

Hurt is inevitable. But we can choose how to build from that hurt, how to use that hurt to become something greater, something more . . . and though my heart absolutely broke for Lou, I could see her becoming the woman she is meant to be. The fighter, the dreamer, the do-er that Will encourages.

Me Before You is not a novel I’ll soon forget, and it has cemented Jojo Moyes as one of my favorite storytellers. I loved One Plus One, but this story? It’s one for the ages.

5 out of 5

Pub: 2012 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book chat: ‘Big Little Lies’ by Liane Moriarty

Big Little LiesWhen’s the last time you raced through a book like wildfire, so caught up in the story that you’re unable — or unwilling — to set it down . . . even if that means Mt. Laundrymore has grown in your bedroom and dinner just ain’t getting made?

For me, it had been a while. My reading in 2014 was, to be honest, pretty lackluster. After learning I was pregnant in September, my concentration was pretty much shot. Nothing interested me. Even with stacks of novels just waiting to be picked up, I could barely muster the energy to crack their covers.

That malaise traveled well into November and December . . . until I found Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. A recommendation from Melissa, this novel follows the lives of several Australian families with children in the same kindergarten class: quiet Jane and her son, Ziggy, running from a disturbing past; beautiful Celeste with her wealthy and perfect husband, Perry, who transforms after-hours — and hides that side from their twin boys; outspoken Madeline and Ed, who are parents to two youngsters with Madeline’s teen daughter in the mix.

And then there are the Blonde Bobs: the seemingly-perfect moms who hover and preen and dictate, lording over the “inferior” parents when they dare darken the door of their beloved school. Madeline is well-versed in their antics . . . and all too happy to show newbie Jane, freshly arrived in Australia’s coastal Pirriwee, the ropes.

She knows young Jane needs it.

Interspersed with the narrative are snippets from an interview — and it’s clear something terrible has happened at the school’s Trivia Night. Terrible enough to leave someone dead. As readers, we don’t know what or who . . . but we do know when. And as we get ever closer to that fateful night, my heart began to pound.

What works so brilliantly in Big Little Lies is the wide, varied tapestry of characters we get to know and love. This is contemporary, domestic fiction that shimmers and shines; it’s engrossing, well-written, effortless to read. As I got sucked into Jane’s awful back story, Celeste’s current heartbreak and Madeline’s painful desire to connect with her daughter, I could think of little else. I didn’t want it to end.

But it did end . . . and what an explosive conclusion it was. I must admit to never guessing the twist, and the identity of the murder victim remained elusive until I literally gasped aloud during Trivia Night. My husband asked what was happening — but I shushed him, unable to fill him in with a little snippet. “It’s complicated,” I said.

It was . . . and it wasn’t. As Moriarty deftly unveiled many secrets, I was awestruck at her ability to throw me off while still leading me in the right direction the entire time. She got me — and she got me good.

With its glimpses into many marriages — some working, others not — and the families either trying to stay glued together or ripping apart at the seams, Big Little Lies will appeal to fans of domestic dramas and well-written contemporary fiction. I loved my time with Madeline, Jane and Celeste, and find myself thinking about them even after turning the final page.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

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 review: ‘All Fall Down’ by Jennifer Weiner

All Fall DownAs a mother, wife, blogger and daughter, Allison Weiss is well-versed in responsibility. Between her “freelance” (read: time-consuming) gig writing on feminist issues and her adorable but tough young daughter, Allison’s days are a whirlwind of activity . . . and doubt. Though her life looks frame-worthy on the outside — big house in the suburbs; charming journalist husband; funny and independent kid — on the inside? Well, it’s a little more complicated.

As her father begins to succumb to Alzheimer’s and her mother, always aloof, starts to crumble, Allison foists that additional weight on her shoulders. Coupled with increasing online notoriety and distance from her husband, the pressure Allison feels to hold up her family begins to crack her facade. If she pops a few pain pills, remnants from an old Zumba injury, who is she really hurting? The meds make her feel calm, confident, in control. Drugs — prescription drugs, she always notes — erase the self-doubt that plagues her; they make her stronger. Better.

And so it goes . . . for a while. But when Allison’s life begins to veer uncontrollably, casting her into greater shadows as everything unravels, can she cope?

Jennifer Weiner’s All Fall Down is arguably the grittiest of her works to date. Don’t get me wrong: Allison is still the funny, strong heroine I’ve come to expect from one of my favorite authors, but it deals with some pretty complex and frightening issues. That’s what makes it so startling: Allison is an Everywoman. She has her problems, sure, but they’re nothing beyond the scope of what many women deal with every day. She admits this herself.

But her manner of coping . . .

In spending time with All Fall Down, one can’t help but realize we’re all addicted to something. Beyond obvious issues like alcohol and drug abuse, how many of us haven’t zoned out with a bag of cookies? Or an hour on Facebook? Or a Zulily shopping spree (free shipping until midnight!)? We all have our coping mechanisms, our ways of tuning out the stresses of the day to finally find some measure of peace.

Allison’s method happens to be destructive, nearly costing her everything she loves and holds dear. Just because she doesn’t follow the “typical” stereotype of a drug addict doesn’t mean she isn’t one, and I found her path to acceptance realistic and heartbreaking. She’s a little damaged on the inside, but who isn’t? Her descent into dependence is gradual enough that she doesn’t notice, and that’s what made it so chilling.

Despite its heavy subject matter, I couldn’t help whipping through Allison’s story. The descriptions of her battles with Eloise, her sweet but spirited daughter, made my heart race; her recollections of growing up with an emotionally unavailable mother were so painful. As she reaches out to her husband and receives little support in return, I really hurt for her. And the scenes and memories of her dad had me in tears.

Obviously the stresses compound to the point that she’s relying on narcotics just to function day-to-day, and she can’t keep her secrets — all fall down — forever. As everything began to crumble, I wanted to help. Do something. I felt like screaming at the characters to see what was happening, and the critical juncture at which someone notices what’s happening came as a serious relief to me.

Fast-paced and engrossing, All Fall Down is another winner from Weiner. Unlike her other novels, which tend to follow a variety of women linked by a common thread, Allison is our sole focus — and that worked really well for me. I read this book on vacation in California and couldn’t wait to retreat to our cabin to get a few more snippets before bed. Satisfying and thought-provoking, it’s a story I won’t soon forget.

4 out of 5!

Pub: June 17, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Heiresses’ by Sara Shepard

The HeiressesIn the wilds of Manhattan are four wealthy women — all heiresses to the sizable Saybrook diamond fortune. When their grandfather returned from World War II with a rare, valuable gem, he couldn’t have known how his empire would expand . . . or how his granddaughters would someday work to either protect or squander it.

Corinne, Poppy, Aster, Natasha and Rowan are differing cousins with one major bond: the Saybrook name. Though Natasha has renounced her claim to the family fortune, the others spin around the sphere of the successful jewelry company with varying definitions of success. But when tragedy strikes, grievances are aired — and it’s obvious not everyone thinks the Saybrooks walk on water. In fact, someone wants to bring them all down.

Sara Shepard’s The Heiresses is fast-paced rich-people voyeurism at its finest. Manhattan addresses, fancy clothing, scandal, intrigue, mystery . . . and death. It’s basically a nonstop ride as delicious as settling in with your favorite candy, and its serious cliffhanger has me eager for more.

Though I initially feared this story of five powerful women would be stricken with a vicious case of Too Many Characters-itis, it didn’t take long to learn the quirks and foibles of the Saybrook heiresses. Each has a secret they’re guarding: a scandal that could break their famous family wide open. Though I can’t say I really loved any of the ladies, they were certainly entertaining to read about.

I bonded best with Corinne — a woman planning a wedding to the man she’s “supposed” to marry: Dixon, a preppy dude with a trust fund, square jaw and respectable family. Though her fiance was a bit of a caricature (just picture any polo-wearing jock in your life), I found her back story — and one-time love affair — very compelling. In the weeks leading up to her nuptials, Corinne held my attention as I wondered how she would deal with so many conflicting emotions. It was tough — but realistic, I think.

Poppy was a control freak, Rowan a mess. Aster was the stereotypical socialite bent on destroying her father for something he may or may not even have done, and Natasha was a bit of an empty shell. But compiled together? The Saybrook women were an entertaining lot, if only because they led such vastly different lives from my own. Mystery surrounds two unexpected deaths, and the bent of a blogger to expose their every movement keeps them on edge. As readers, we’re compelled to keep going if only to learn — Clue-style — whodunnit.

In the background are a bevy of relationships, lovers, complications and family troubles — as well as a family secret so dark it has the power to destroy them all. I sped through this story like lightning, invested in the plight of the Saybrooks and curious as to who was trying to wreck them (the options seemed endless).

Fans of women’s fiction, New York-based mysteries, contemporary fiction and wealthy family fiction will find The Heiresses to be a worthy addition to their beach bag this summer. I’m already looking forward to the next installment!

4 out of 5!

Pub: May 20, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Nobodies Album’ by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Nobodies AlbumIt’s been four long years since author Octavia Frost last spoke to her only son, Milo. Now a rock star accused of brutally murdering his girlfriend, Milo’s demons and debaucheries are being dragged out for public consumption. As Octavia prepares to pitch a new book to her publisher — a collection of alternative endings to her previous novels, some beloved and others less so — she must try to repair what for so long has been broken with her broken son.

Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Nobodies Album was a slow build for me. One minute I was rolling my eyes at Octavia’s snobbery, her nonsense and selfishness, and the next I was picking up the scattered pieces of my broken heart upon learning the sad truth of the Frost family — and Octavia’s private hurts. Though Milo was certainly not always a likeable character (like mother, like son?), I found myself invested in the lives of these characters and never considered not seeing it through to the end.

This multi-layered story has a lot going on. Like, a lot. Sprinkled between present-day chapters are the chapters of Octavia’s fictional fiction, excerpts from the titular Nobodies Album . . . eh, you got all that? Basically, a book-within-a-book — and the books have nothing to do with one another, per say. Or do they? In the wake of a great tragedy only revealed toward the end of the book, Octavia has lived her life in a shadow of grief — and her writing career was, in some ways, born of this desire to sift through and move past this despair.

In trying to make sense of the senseless, Milo feels isolated and abandoned . . . and not just a tiny bit angry. Other layers of The Nobodies Album consist mainly of a “Did he really do it?” wonderment regarding Bettina’s death, which is sudden and violent and awful. As readers, we’re lured in with various scenarios, starting to question what we’ve learned and trying to put the pieces together ourselves. I had a few theories — and they all proved false. Every time I thought I’d figured it out, Parkhurst switched everything up on me. As we question what we know of the strange ways these people fit into each other’s lives, a tapestry is formed. I was impressed.

Though the story dragged in parts and I’ll confess to skipping through some of the alternate endings from Octavia’s book, I was captivated by the saga of Milo and his mother and satisfied with the conclusion. Sad but also touching, The Nobodies Album will appeal to fans of contemporary family-centered fiction and character studies. Wise, clever and engrossing, Parkhurst’s work is a memorable one.

4 out of 5!

Pub: 2011 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library