Book chat: ‘The Hopefuls’ by Jennifer Close

the-hopefulsBeth can’t say she entered into her marriage with Matt ignorant of his political aspirations. But when her husband relocates them to Washington, D.C., as part of his work for President Obama, the tedious, seedy and, yes, often dull side of politics takes over her day-to-day life.

A friendship with Ash, a Texan also in the city due to her husband’s presidential connections, adds levity and companionship to Beth’s life — but Ash’s husband, Jimmy, has political goals of his own. When Matt and Jimmy become entangled in “turning Texas blue” as part of Jimmy’s campaign to earn a spot in local government, jealousy and indignation threaten to derail more than just their friendship.

Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls caught my eye because, hello, I adore the cover. I’m also a Marylander who lives within breathing distance of Washington and am always swept up in politics, both local and national, and I’ll admit to being a bit wistful regarding the halcyon days of the Obama Administration. The story opens at the start of his first term, and it was actually bittersweet — especially given the current state of affairs — to think about how different life was then.

The Hopefuls had my attention early, gaining good ground even with the constant digs against D.C. (yes, it’s hot and humid; yes, everyone here talks about their job as a way of gaining status), but my enthusiasm for the story flagged by the time Matt and Beth departed for Texas to help with a weirdly unattainable political campaign put on by Jimmy.

Told from Beth’s first-person perspective, I expected … more of Beth in this story? As it stands, she’s merely an observer — and not a terribly interesting one at that. Though we’re told she’s a writer, she spends her time in Texas complaining and wandering around the house she and Matt now share with Jimmy and Ash, “helping” with the campaign here and there but ultimately doing nothing but seething with rage as Matt comes increasingly distant.

There was so much potential in a subplot regarding whether Beth actually wants to have the child she knows her husband longs for, especially as all of their coupled friends start families … but it never really goes anywhere, at least not in a satisfying way. Beth has an opportunity to look inward regarding the source of her anger as her closest girlfriends become mothers, but the novel just stays on-the-surface throughout. That disappointed me.

I enjoyed Close’s examination of adult friendships and liked brash Ash (hey, that rhymes), but her dynamic with husband Jimmy was pretty sad — and Matt and Beth’s marriage ultimately flounders, too. As a look at how changing priorities can impact — and damage — relationships as marriages mature, I think The Hopefuls works. But it’s just a little depressing, too.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for review consideration

Book chat: ‘Food Whore’ by Jessica Tom

Food WhoreTia Monroe knows food.

That passion is what propelled her into New York’s fashionable, dirty, complicated, cutthroat culinary world. A young critic and baker once featured in the New York Times, Tia now hopes to gain an internship with a famed foodie at work on her next cook book. . . until that opportunity crumbles like a days-old cookie.

Left starting in the coat check (!) at an upscale restaurant, Tia makes the acquaintance of Michael Saltz: the Times critic known for making and breaking the city’s top establishments. Michael giveth, and Michael taketh away — until a strange medical issue threatens to take everything away from him.

Rich, powerful and well-connected, Michael Saltz needs Tia’s perspective — and her palate — to uphold the lavish life to which he’s accustomed. And Tia? She’s wooed by the promise of Michael finally connecting her to the mentor she wanted in the first place. (The pricey meals, expense account and hot chefs are a bonus.)

But can she get out from Michael’s grasp without getting burned?

Jessica Tom’s Food Whore was fast-paced, light and entertaining — everything I love in good chick lit. Comparisons to a foodie version of The Devil Wears Prada are pretty spot-on, but I liked Tia’s persistence and willingness to step out to reach her goals.

Even if that meant getting stepped on.

As a narrator, Tia could be frustrating, though. She’s frequently gullible, though I can’t pretend I would know better. The plot line with her college sweetheart was a little irritating, given dude was as interesting as plain vanilla ice cream (let him go, lady), but I liked the push-and-pull Jessica Tom established in Tia’s conscience: settle for the old, or strive for the new?

Though Tia is our main squeeze, Michael Saltz — and his creepiness — seep between every crack in the story. He presents himself as Tia’s savior, a one-man ticket to a better life, but I had the sense he was all bluster from the beginning. We know his intentions aren’t romantic (he’s gay), but his obsession with Tia as the one remaining tether to his lifestyle and prestige is . . . unsettling, to say the least.

Food Whore moves quickly — so fast I finished it in a few days, which is a record for this new mama who rarely reads more than a few pages at a clip. It often kept me up past my bedtime, and I found myself thinking about Tia and her madcap adventures throughout the day.

Fans of women’s fiction, tantalizing food descriptions, New York settings and speedy reads will enjoy Food Whore. I really liked slipping into Tia’s stylish shoes for this adventure through New York’s culinary culture — and I would return in a heartbeat.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided for critical consideration

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: ‘Maybe This Time’ by Jennifer Crusie

It’s been ten long years since Andie Miller stepped foot in the law office of North Archer — and only then to let him know she was on her way out the door. But now it’s 1992, a decade since she and her ex-husband crossed paths, and she’s finally ready to let him go. She wants to throw his alimony checks back in his face and start over . . . with Will Spenser.

But North has other plans. Now the appointed guardian of a distant cousin’s two young children, North desperately needs help — especially since the kids have already cycled through three nannies. Something strange is happening at Archer House, a property for which he’s responsible, and someone has to figure out what’s going on. Someone North trusts to tell him the truth — and get those kids out of there and ready for school. Kind but firm, Andie seems a logical — if unexpected — choice.

And, surprisingly, she’s up for the task. Andie makes her way to the old Victorian home in Ohio, transported stone by stone from England more than a century before. Complete with a moat and one surly housekeeper, Mrs. Crumb, Archer House has a distinctly creepy vibe — and meeting the two children does nothing to alleviate that. Young Alice’s pastimes include screaming for no reason, demanding unreasonable things, giving angry looks and being as uncooperative as possible. Her brother, Carter, is a quiet 12-year-old who loves art — but is rumored to have a thing for fires. As in, starting them. Everywhere.

And did we mention the ghosts? It doesn’t take long for Andie to begin feeling unexpected drafts in the home, not totally ridiculous given the size and nature of an old house like that . . . but how can she explain the visions and figures she sees lurking around the pond and Alice’s bed, or up in the old tower? And what’s frightening the children so that they refuse to leave Archer House — on risk of death?

Jennifer Crusie’s Maybe This Time is a hard novel to classify — mostly because it’s such a conglomeration of many (awesome) genres. Part romance, part mystery, part thriller, Crusie’s latest — her first solo work in six years — was a suspenseful, entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny look at woman grappling with the past not really being the past . . . and the unexpected feelings of devotion she suddenly feels for two young children. And, you know, surviving the vengeful natures of a few murderous ghosts.

Andie is a resourceful, strong and quick-witted character, and there isn’t too much not to like about her. She manages to walk the fine line between speaking her mind and being honest while not being a raging jerk, and I can respect that. North, on the other hand, comes across as cold and steel-hearted — until you get to know him and see past the lawyerly facade. And recognize the undeniable soft spot he has for his ex-wife. It’s not difficult to see what would draw her to him, a woman with such confidence — a woman he let slip away while he slogged away at his law firm, losing himself in nothing but work and old family drama.

What I loved about Maybe This Time were these two realistic, relatable characters — and the kids, too, who you can’t help but feel close to after spending so many pages here with them. Alice comes across as a borderline nutcase when we first meet her, but I absolutely adored her by the close of the book. She and Carter both act the way you’d expect children to act, complete with intelligent but still child-like dialogue, and I really appreciated that. Plus, I couldn’t help but giggle when she referred to North as “Bad Uncle,” or just plain ol’ “Bad” for short.

For as much as this is about Andie and North reuniting (perhaps?) or Andie caring for and helping the kids, it’s also a real ghost story — complete with mystery and a few bone-chilling scenes. In particular, one features an old nanny, Miss J, and Crusie makes reference to the gaping black holes in her head where eyes should have been. When a seance is held to try and rid Archer House of the apparitions, I got genuine goosebumps. But for a scaredy cat like me, the frightening aspects weren’t overwhelming — and only served to enhance an otherwise very entertaining story.

Fluid, witty and undeniably skilled, Jennifer Crusie has crafted a romantic and very readable story in Maybe This Time. Fans of contemporary fiction, ghost stories and romance will love the unique combination she’s created here — and I’ll be happy to share this one with the other fiction readers in my life.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0312303785 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher

Book review: ‘Short Girls’ by Bich Minh Nguyen

For immigration lawyer Van, life takes a spin after her husband announces unceremoniously, “I don’t want to live with you anymore.” She’s spent a long time feeling settled, comfortable and, in her words, “chosen” by Miles Oh, a successful, charismatic and handsome Asian-American who exudes a confidence and poise that Van herself has never felt. Losing him, as she does on page one, is like losing a limb.

Off in Chicago, Van’s younger sister Linny Luong has troubles of her own — namely the clandestine affair she’s conducting with Gary, a paunchy married man, and the unfulfilling job she holds at You Did It Dinners, a firm that requires her to cook copious amounts of food for other people’s families. At 27 and without a college degree, Linny struggles to find a purpose: something that would pull her up from the muck and introduce her to new experiences, a new life.

Though close in age and raised in the same household, Van and Linny remain estranged as adults — tied only to their aging father, a man caught up in his inventions for short people. Dinh and Thuy Luong arrived from Vietnam in the 1970s, settling in Michigan and raising their daughters to believe they’d have to work hard to excel in America — a land of opportunity . . . and very tall people. All small of stature, the Luongs had to set themselves apart to avoid being overlooked in a land where everyone literally towered over them. While the girls’ mother retreated into herself, staying invisible as a seamstress, Dinh worked on his projects — including the Luong Arm, designed to help short people reach items on tall shelves.

Dinh has only become more obsessed with his work since his wife’s death nine years prior. Once just a hobby, the Luong Arm — and other products of Luong Inventions — have consumed all of their father’s attention. When the sisters are called back to Wrightville, Mich., for their father’s naturalization ceremony, they must finally confront the feelings they have for one another — and their strained upbringing — all while dealing with their own crumbling relationships.

Bich Minh Nguyen’s Short Girls is an interesting, perceptive look at life for the daughters of two immigrants. While Linny bucked against their traditional Vietnamese upbringing, wearing colorful clothing, making many friends and acting “like a white girl,” Van folded in on herself — studying constantly; applying to law school; blending in as best she could in small-town Michigan. The juxtaposition of the two girls was fascinating, and I loved that neither was a complete cliche.

Though I enjoyed the characters and the fact that most defied stereotypes, the novel’s strength lies in the way it conveys the immigrant experience — both for the Luongs, who arrived decades before, and present-day immigrants in a post-9/11 world. As an immigration lawyer, Van works tirelessly as an advocate for the frightened people who arrived in the U.S. without friends or family, looking timidly at locals who bark at them to “speak English.” I’ve always considered myself an open-minded and tolerant person, and reading about the way some of Van’s clients had been treated was painful. I can only imagine how terrifying it would be to be dropped in a foreign country with only a dream of a better life — and no idea how to actually make it happen.

The relationship between Van and Linny is at the heart of the story, though the book is very much about their parents’ marriage, too. There’s no sugar-coating the fact that Dinh is not a pathetic, old widower; though he once loved his wife, they occupied separate parts of the same home prior to her death. Van comments that her mother often used her girls as a shield or a bartering chip, pulling them further away from their reticent father — a man who, they’re forced to admit, they barely know. They don’t have conversations; they don’t know his thoughts. Arriving home on the occasion of their father’s citizenship, Van and Linny feel like strangers.

Short Girls is not an action-packed or fluid story. A better part of this quiet novel deals with the breakdown of Van’s marriage to a man she, too, barely knew. Every character in Nguyen’s novel seems to be kept at arm’s distance — from one another; from themselves. No one is held close. Everyone is a stranger.

But somehow, it still worked for me. My heart caught as Van came to grips with her impending divorce; I wanted to reach out and help Linny in the kitchen, where she worked to prepare traditional Vietnamese meals for her thankless father. Even Mr. Luong was somehow endearing, despite the fact that he withheld approval for his daughters. By the close of the book, I cared about these people. And though not much happens or is accomplished in Short Girls, that’s still what I ask for in a book.

Fans of literary fiction who enjoy stories on family dynamics, sisters or the immigrant experience might enjoy this one. Though it didn’t move me to tears or provoke any action on my part, I enjoyed Van and Linny’s story — and the positive, uplifting note on which the book closes.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0670020818 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy obtained from BookMooch

The Best Darn YA Novels You’ve Probably Never Read

Everyone knows the young adult novels that really get the blood of readers pumping — those books, often in a series, that feature vampires, magic or a distant school called Hogwarts. The world of young adult literature is wide enough for everyone, sure, but sometimes it’s hard to step out of the shadow of titans like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer and see some of the little guys. But those little guys? Totally worth checking out.

Kelly at YAnnabe had an excellent idea for a highlighting those great YA novels that just aren’t getting the face time they deserve — and I’m happy to do my part. If you’re a regular here at write meg!, I’m sure you’ll recognize these titles. But if you’re new ’round these parts? Well, settle in with the caffeinated beverage of your choice and prepare to hit the bookstore — or library. ‘Cause boy, does Meg have some suggestions for you! (And I expect you to take them. Seriously — I’ll be watching.)

The Best Darn YA Novels

You’ve Probably Never Read

The Evolution Of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

This coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of Texas in 1900, is the charming, quirky and endearing story of 11-year-old Calpurnia, a young lady more interested in science than cooking at a time when it was simply not acceptable to be so. Callie’s connection to her grandfather — a wise old-timer who helps her with their scientific experiments — is touching, and I loved every moment I spent with the Tate family.

And, um, if I had a time machine? I’d totally go back to New Year’s Eve in 1899 and party with their crew. We thought 1999 was wild? That was nothing. Here’s a world filled with the first signs of automobiles and mechanized home appliances — a time when technology was revered and feared at once. Here’s a time when women were still expected to be in their rightful “places” — and a time when many of them began to rebel against it. It’s inspiring. And Callie’s just my sort of girl.

artichokes_heartArtichoke’s Heart by Suzanne Supplee

Rosemary’s struggle with weight, friendship, family and love in Supplee’s recent novel absolutely broke and bolstered my heart — all at the same time. There aren’t too many books out there which prompt me to whip out a heartfelt email to the author right after finishing, but I laid my little heart out to Supplee as I sniffled my way through the closing of this one! (And she wrote me back a very nice and gracious note. Love when that happens.)

I can’t recommend this book highly enough — it was smart, funny, touching, moving and life-affirming. I’ve thought of Rosie often since finishing, and I absolutely loved her as a narrator. In my mind, she’s already gone on to happiness and greatness! And no one can convince me otherwise.

enthusiasmEnthusiasm by Polly Shulman

I stumbled across this gem of a book in the bargain bin at Books-A-Million, and as soon as I saw mention of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice on the back, you know I was all over it! The story had me enchanted from the get-go, and I loved the realistic and fun portrayal of close friendship that Shulman provides in Ashleigh and Julie.

It was refreshing to see that two girls can be buddies without it dissolving into petty jealousy and fights when boys enter the picture — anyone else completely sick of that plotline? Hands? I’m not saying girls don’t act totally nuts once cute boys arrive on the scene, but I do get tired of reading about it. You know, having lived it and all. So Enthusiasm was a great change and struck all the right notes with me. A sweet, fast read that’s really flown under the radar.

teashop_girlsThe Teashop Girls by Laura Schaefer

What a sweet, indulgent and fun middle-grade read! I’m 24 years old and I’ll tell you honestly: I was hopelessly addicted to this story. Thirteen-year-old Annie works part-time in her grandmother’s tea shop, a lush world were business is, unfortunately, way down. With the help of her friends and the community, Annie is able to help rescue the Steeping Leaf — and learn quite a bit about what she’s capable of accomplishing in the process.

One of my favorite parts of the book? Another refreshing plotline: girls don’t always have to chase after boys . . . and those boys might not be the ones we really want, anyway. We can stand on our own two feet, you know, and we’re not dependent upon others to place worth on ourselves. An excellent lesson for pre-teen girls — and, you know, their older counterparts. Like yours truly. I read this one at a time when I definitely needed a refresher course on knowledge like that!

north_of_beautifulNorth Of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley

I’m always waxing philosphic about this novel, I know, but that’s because it’s really just that good. Easily one of the greatest books I read in 2009, North Of Beautiful is the story of 16-year-old Terra, a young woman born with a birthmark staining half of her face — and a family so dysfunctional, it was sometimes painful to read. It’s a novel about maps — and about finding our way. It’s a love story. It’s a travelogue — literally and metaphorically.

It’s just . . . awesome. In fact, I’m going to leave it at that and boldly say now: you have to read this book. Headley’s novel is why I read literature — and why I love young adult literature. Because good books are good books, and any genre label we put on them? That’s totally secondary.

Book review: ‘In A Perfect World’ by Laura Kasischke

in_perfect_worldSo all these dystopian novels are beginning to get to me . . . after finishing Laura Kasischke’s haunting In A Perfect World, I had an irrational and overwhelming urge to stockpile canned goods, water and firewood — though I have no fireplace. What difference does that make, right? If a plague is spreading across the United States, you better believe I’ll build a firepit and bunker down. Or, you know, my dad will do it.

Kasischke’s work is the story of Jiselle Dorn, newly wedded to the gorgeous and charismatic pilot Captain Mark Dorn. At 32 and never married, Jiselle is completely wooed by Mark’s stylish courtship and eager to begin a life with him. Her marriage brings her to the Chicago suburb of St. Sophia, a quaint and cozy town where Mark lives with his three children. Camilla, Sara and Sam put on a happy face as Jiselle arrives but waste no time undermining her authority. Petulant Sara, the most unhappy of all, scribbles terrible things in her journal — which she conveniently leaves out for Jiselle to find.

And Mark is traveling all the time. Alone with the kids after she’s given up her job as a flight attendant, Jiselle struggles to find a place within her new family — and to identify, for the first time, as a mother. Her days drag on, filled with chores and reading and lounging on the cabin’s deck, which overlooks a deep ravine. And missing Mark, of course; her longing for him to return, to “save” her, is palpable.

Underscoring the family drama happening in In A Perfect World is a much greater threat: an influenza, called the Phoenix Flu, is spreading across the United States, infecting scores of Americans. Fearing the worst, the global community has turned away from us, sealing their borders and refusing to give us aid; a vaccine does not exist. After a well-known pop star dies of the Phoenix Flu, the threat of infection seems to be everywhere. Life continues for Jiselle and the kids in St. Sophia, but no one seems to be safe. Or to even know what “safe” is any longer.

At many times reminiscent of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It and its absolute apocalyptic feel, Kasischke’s work focuses on the aspect of survival and the growth of an unconventional family. While Pfeffer’s teenage narrator wrote in her diary about the daily tasks of attempting to survive in a world without power, heat, food and an alleviation of boredom, Kasischke’s book is much more emotional; less about the mechanics of a spreading flu and more about the effect of the flu on the psyche.

Starting the novel, I was pretty sure I was going to despise Jiselle. She seemed hopelessly naive, ignoring the cautions of her mother that Mark, while loving, was merely looking for a babysitter to tend to his children. As Mark’s presence becomes less and less a part of their daily lives, Jiselle’s transformation is absolute and apparent. For a woman who was single and childless just a year ago, she adapts quickly — and well.

Kasischke’s background in poetry is very evident; many of her turns of phrase stopped me dead in my tracks. She writes in gorgeous, lilting prose and her words, carefully chosen, seem to add an extra weight to everything happening in the country — and at home. One of my favorites:

One historian Jiselle heard interviewed on NPR said, in a voice so low it sounded like the source of gravity itself, that a return to traditions often preceded the complete collapse of a culture.

And, indeed, the culture seems to implode upon itself. Life In A Perfect World is anything but perfect, littered with fear, uncertainty, illness and grief. The novel, while beautiful, is disturbing — mostly because the “Phoenix Flu” seems, at times, oddly reminiscent of a certain illness that has many Americans currently stocking up on anti-bacterial hand gel and covering their faces with surgical masks. At many Sunday services, parishoners are discouraged from shaking hands; at work places, mandatory handwashing stations have been set up all over the buildings. And that’s happening now — in our own world. So reading about an avian flu that sweeps across the U.S., killing off scores of citizens? Yeah, not exactly uplifting reading.

But I have to say — I actually really liked this book. Kasischke’s interesting writing kept me enthralled and, as the kids and Jiselle come to rely more and more upon each other, I actually felt their bonds plucking at my heart strings. They’re not beyond redemption — nothing is. And while I don’t think the novel had quite the ultimately hopeful feel as Life As We Knew It, it didn’t leave me despondent, either.

Actually, after I turned the final page, I felt more than a little stunned. Some controversy surrounds the novel’s ending, I know, but I was pleased with how it turned out. Sometimes we have far more questions than answers — and sometimes, the resolution never does come. The book is just like life in that way — how we know it, and otherwise.

Lovers of dystopian fiction or those interested in apocalyptic tales while find plenty to “enjoy” (can you enjoy these stories, really?) here, and readers with a taste for family-based struggles and stories will be intrigued by the Dorn clan. Every character eventually won me over — including, and probably especially, Jiselle. A worthwhile but disturbing look at the breakdown of a culture . . . and the creation of a family.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061766119 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

tlc_logo copy

Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours