Fall reads

We’re all familiar with the summer read — a beach read, if you will … like, say, Beach Read.

Maybe it’s set on Nantucket, filled with colorful locals who despise the “summer people” but still depend on (and even fall in love with) them. Or we meet estranged sisters who return to the old summer cottage to mend fences after the passing of the family matriarch. Or, ooh! College friends who have grown in different directions, but reunite once a year to remember who they used to be before launching their high-powered careers (in PR, natch) with “free time” spent scrubbing at baby spit-up in the back of the minivan. If an old flame happens to show up on the shore, well … all the better.

I’m not putting down summer reads … not at all. Adulthood is fun because there is no syllabus. I read what I want and I don’t feel guilty about it. And a novel being classified as a “summer read” is no statement on its quality or general awesomeness. Take Taylor Jenkins Reid’s popular Malibu Rising, for example. Wow.

Anyway, you know all this. Summer reading is clearly a thing well beyond those mandatory lists in high school. That’s why there are so many lists.

I get it. And as a list enthusiast, I also respect it.

But I think we’re missing a big opportunity here: Fall reads.

The fall read is where the magic truly happens. Trading our piña coladas for pumpkin spice lattes naturally lends itself to all things cozy, including stories … the classics, perhaps. Little Women. Or simply books set in autumn, regardless of subject — books that capture the warmth and anticipation of my favorite time of year.

I took a mental health day last week. After assisting with a family emergency, my husband made it quite clear that I was to actually enjoy my day while the kids were at school … not, you know, fill the hours by scrubbing toilets or reorganizing closets. That’s hard, of course. With Hadley and Oliver occupied, I can actually do the things that need to be done around the house. But much in the way that I once forced myself not to always spend my newborns’ precious nap times doing dishes, I decided I was going to read.

Well — binge-watch “LuLaRich,” the new LuLaRoe documentary on Amazon Prime … which is so nuts it feels like satire. Then read.

That’s how I found myself outdoors with a bag of fancy caramel apple kettle corn (from Target, don’t get too excited for me) with Joanne Rendell’s Crossing Washington Square, which has been sitting on my TBR shelf for a solid decade. That cool Friday afternoon held a whisper of fall with its golden, slanted sunlight. It was basically perfect. Even I, an indoor cat, could not waste it.

So I sat outside for two hours (!), getting swept up in the politics of an elite English program with warring professors in this modern twist on Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. We have college! New York City! Pompous MFA students! A budding romance! Fall leaves! It’s not earth-shattering, but it sure has been entertaining for this erstwhile English major.

So now that I’m fully embracing the fall read, I want more. I know some folks are again participating in RIP-XVI, the Readers Imbibing Peril challenge for spooky season — but I get freaked out enough by the nightly news. I did once stay up until 2 a.m. reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, devouring it all at once because I’d mistakenly believed I had another week to finish for a British lit course. But have I read anything creepy since? No. Suspense is OK, but, like … Harry Potter-level suspense. Kid-friendly suspense, basically.

So what’s on your Fall 2021 Reading List?

I’m ready to pounce on all autumnal suggestions.

Just let me grab that latte first.

write meg!’s 2020 reading honors

It was quite the reading year for me, friends! Not like the old days, exactly, but closer than I’ve been in the five years since welcoming my first child. I read 40 books, surpassing my annual goal of 36. That’s double what I accomplished two years prior, and 15 more than the year before.

On face value, it would be easy to say the pandemic thrust me back into the arms of my beloved books — and that’s partially true. But personally, even more than the virus, my son and daughter are now old enough to entertain themselves for more than 30 seconds — and I was able to get caught up in something for myself every now and then.

As I shared last year, I can feel bits of myself returning as Oliver is now 5 and Hadley is 3. Also? I just made more time for myself, accepting that I cannot pour from an empty cup. Reading is self-care. There were times I shunned the vacuum in favor of my Kindle, and I don’t regret it.

At the end of last year, I made some reading predictions for 2020 — not knowing, of course, that the world would soon come to a stand-still and we’d all be spending more time at home than ever. I wrote, I feel optimistic about what my reading year might bring. I plan to continue in my no-pressure way, finding stories that interest me and help me grow as a person, reader and mom.”

I think I accomplished that. In the wake of COVID-19 and ongoing racial injustice in 2020, I challenged myself to do more than just escape through books. While of course I read for enjoyment and entertainment, I also read to grow. I’m surprised by how many of my reads were non-fiction — and how much of an impression they had on me.

Maybe they’re ready to make one on you, too.

Katherine Center is an insanely talented writer and a sorceress who makes me lose all track of time. Things You Save in a Fire (2019) was a slow build that erupted into a major burn, leaving me with the malaise that follows a really great read after I closed the final pages. Cassie and the rookie — a love story for the ages.

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six (2019) was an audio, and I can’t honestly imagine loving it as much in print. The performance was incredible. It was so well-acted and realistic that I was often overcome with the urge to google the band, convinced this was a real documentary rather than a fictional account of a band’s ascendence and betrayals. After finishing, I found myself still researching any scraps of truth behind the novel (i.e. Fleetwood Mac). Very well done.

Jennifer Weiner is a stranger to few of us, and Mrs. Everything (2019) was a sweeping novel that introduced two new characters I couldn’t help but love. Jo and Bethie are the stars of this multi-generational storyline. Novels that span decades can feel sprawling and disconnected, but Weiner — talented as ever — made it work beautifully. I shed a few tears, had a few laughs, and finished with much to ponder about family and sisterhood. A full experience as a reader, and one of my favorite Weiner works to date!

Anissa Gray’s The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (2019) was an early audio that captured my imagination. I really felt for each sibling in different ways (OK, each sister — Joe was tougher to empathize with). Lillian felt the most “real” to me: real, human, flawed … as are we all. Alternating viewpoints are read by different narrators, and the sumptuous quality of the language was really on display.

Margarita Montimore’s Oona Out of Order (2020) was my final read of the year. A fresh spin on the time-travel trope, Oona was thought-provoking and entertaining. Though I put the pieces together on several plot points early, that didn’t hamper my enjoyment in the slightest. The familiar moral of the story was a welcome reminder that the cup is already broken — and it is our goal to soak up every bit of happiness we can.

Brantley Hargrove’s The Man Who Caught the Storm (2018) was an instant favorite from last summer. I couldn’t put it down, first of all, and have often thought about storm chaser Tim Samaras since finishing. Compelling writing and a fascinating subject matter combined into one unforgettable story.

Running Away to Home (2011) called out to me from my bookshelves at the height of the pandemic. Jennifer Wilson’s story of moving her young family to her grandparents’ ancestral village in Croatia satisfied both my quarantine-induced wanderlust and the resonant ideas of being happy with the here and now. Jennifer and husband Jim realized the rat-race suburban life was leading to stuff, not satisfaction — and left in search of more. It was published a decade ago, but felt just as relevant today.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) needs no introduction. Read by the author, the audio version is powerfully affecting as Coates — in a slim volume that packs an unforgettable wallop — breaks down the construct of race and, in so doing, shakes the Dreamers awake. “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it,” Coates writes to his son. As a parent, certain passages — “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered” — were breath-stealers. Required reading for all.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham (2019) is another book so epic in scope, it’s hard to fathom it’s true. As I wrote then, I knew very little about Chernobyl except for its shorthand as a way to describe “an epic disaster,” and this stunning book is anything but. Fascinating, thought-provoking, and detailed to a degree that is truly stunning to behold. I can only stand back in total awe of Higginbotham’s creation: a true story that often reads like poetry, from “the throat of the reactor” to the cold beds of a Moscow hospital. I didn’t want it to end.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2016) needs no accolades from the likes of me … but I’ll give them anyway: this book — unbelievable in scope — is, I feel, what all great journalism aspires to be. I have remembered poignant scenes and lessons many times, and find myself talking about it often. In Milwaukee, Desmond follows eight families as they “struggle to keep a roof over their heads,” the description reads. “Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.”

Past reading honors:
2019 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011
2010 | 2009 | 2008

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