Book chat: ‘The Ramblers’ by Aidan Donnelley Rowley

The RamblersAs readers, we’re all looking for that magic.

The spark. The recognition. The connection. Whatever the special ingredient is that pulls us close, that makes it impossible to let go of a story and its characters . . . well, Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s The Ramblers has it.

I’ve been an ardent fan of Rowley’s since Life After Yes, her 2010 debut, and followed the progress of The Ramblers through the author’s Instagram feed. When I learned her sophomore novel was ready to be released in the wild? Er, I might have shrieked a bit. And then it arrived, I petted it, and we got down to business.

Set over the course of one autumn week in New York City, The Ramblers tells the stories of Clio Marsh and Smith Anderson — longtime best friends both set adrift by lovers, family and circumstances, clinging to each other through life’s changes before finally realizing they’re ready to inch into whatever comes next.

Smith and Clio are flawed. They’re struggling. Leaving her roots with a mentally ill mother and distant father, Clio is now a successful ornithologist who also leads bird walks through Central Park in New York City. Smith is Clio’s college cohort, a life organizer — a fixer — who grew up in a blue-blood family . . . but her advantages come with many costs.

Clio is in love with Henry, a hotelier who desperately wants her to move forward — and in — with him; Smith is still smarting from the cataclysmic break-up of her engagement to a doctor her father didn’t deem “suitable.” Clio believes it’s time to confront her grief at her mother’s recent death, but it’s actually her life — their shared lives, disrupted and distorted — that she’s mourning. And Smith has to learn how to snap the gilded strings her parents wrapped around her wrists . . . just in time to attend her younger sister’s wedding.

Here’s the thing about Rowley: her writing is gorgeous, lyrical, intentional. Each word is carefully selected; nothing is left to chance. This could come across as stilted, even condescending — but it doesn’t. The result is a novel of fully-formed characters that endear and irritate. They make an impression.

Described in the publisher copy as a “love letter to New York City,” the setting certainly has a starring role in this story. I knew nothing about the Ramble before diving in, but found myself picturing it beautifully as we moved along. I actually didn’t do any research until after I’d finished; I wanted to save my own mental pictures. They were pretty accurate, it turns out: the Ramble is a 36-acre “‘wild garden'” within Central Park where more than 40 species of birds perch year-round.

Clio’s occupation — and preoccupation — with birds was unique, interesting and never overdone. It’s her choice to lead birdwatching groups through the Ramble that brings her to Henry, crying quietly on a bench — a man who is also a little broken, a little scuffed . . . and the perfect match for her.

This is a love story, but it is not a love story. Though it could get steamy, even sexy, this is really a modern story of two women choosing to unshackle themselves from the past — and prior selves. There is growth, and when you finish? You feel like you’ve really gone somewhere. You’ve arrived.

Recently-separated Tate’s storyline was, in my opinion, the least interesting of the three — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy getting to know him and how his life would come to intersect, however briefly, with Smith’s.

Fans of thoughtful fiction, lush New York settings and lyrical writing will find much to adore in The Ramblers. There is much more I could discuss, but it’s a novel best enjoyed on its own merits. And after adoring Rowley’s first work so much? Well, it was more than worth the wait.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher/TLC Book Tours for critical consideration

Book review: ‘The Wedding Beat’ by Devan Sipher

The Wedding BeatThirty-something writer Gavin Greene is used to romantic settings, tearful vows and candlelit dinners — just not his own. As a wedding columnist for New York’s leading newspaper, Gavin attends intimate soirees, hob-knobs with the rich and recaps their events for readers. It’s an enjoyable gig — even when it can’t help but remind him of what he’s missing.

And that would be . . . someone like Melinda. After a brief encounter at a New Year’s party, Gavin is smitten with the “young Sandra Bullock” lookalike — a woman with an adventurous spirit and winning smile. He loses his gumption before asking for her number and, in classic New York fashion, she disappears into the crowd. Determined to find her, Gavin sets out on a cross-town adventure — and discovers her in an unlikely place.

Devan Sipher’s The Wedding Beat is, if you’ll pardon the term, dude lit. Chick lit with a goatee. Sipher’s male narrator brings a refreshing change of pace to the classic city love stories I gobble whole — and I couldn’t help but fall for the cute, sweet and occasionally clueless Gavin.

This quick read is the sort of story I escape into during periods of extreme stress, you know? When you need something light, frothy and fun. Though the story meanders into deeper issues at points (the state of journalism, for one), the fast pace keeps you moving through Gavin’s adventures around New York — and into the ballrooms of the city’s fabulous brides. Those who love weddings will find plenty of details to pour through via Gavin’s assignments, and it was hard not to get in a bell-ringing, engagement-seeking mood. It’s obvious why Gavin, a single guy in his late thirties, would find listening to others’ love stories tedious after a while . . . and why he’d feel like “a wedding beat” was continuously pounding in his psyche.

Though never specifically named, Gavin’s paper is obviously The New York Times — and his attempts to survive cutbacks and lay-offs felt alarmingly familiar. The author’s modern touches — like the staff’s need to blog and tweet, aimed to keep our industry from becoming obsolete — were interesting and true. Delving into the author’s background, surprise: Sipher is a Vows columnist for the Times.

James Marsden in 27 DressesSo, you know, Gavin is basically Sipher. And Sipher is Gavin. And rumor has it James Marsden’s character in “27 Dresses,” pictured at right, is based on him — a plot also woven into The Wedding Beat. So the plot thickens.

If you’re a fan of those types of movies (and I totally am), you’re going to eat this one up. With just enough romance to keep me hooked, Gavin is a quirky but loveable guy — a character you can’t help but want to be happy. Though he takes a few missteps in his quest to find the ever-elusive but unforgettable Melinda, he’s a genuine guy — and a very charming one. It was fun to read a romance from a male perspective — and penned by a male author.

So yes, The Wedding Beat:  fun, quick and very enjoyable. I listened to the audio during three days of a super-long commute and wouldn’t have wanted to pass the time any other way.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451235797 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

About the audio: Narrator Peter Berkrot plays an excellent Gavin: a guy who is simultaneously confident and anxious, worried and in control. It’s a quick listen — just over seven hours — and a humorous one.

Book review: ‘When You Reach Me’ by Rebecca Stead

Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me was one of those novels gathering dust on my shelves since 2009, peeking its colorful head out every so often to squawk, “Hey, I’m still here, you know. Unread. Think you’ll get to me any time soon? You’ve read, like, thirty review books this year. And you paid good money for me, you idiot.”

Books can be so rude.

Set in the 1970s, When You Reach Me defies categorization. Its middle-school protagonist Miranda seems to settle it in a middle-grade or young adult fiction camp, but the themes — family; loyalty; friendship; time travel — speak to a diverse audience. As a 27-year-old who hasn’t dealt with bullies or mangled friendships in quite some time, I still found myself intrigued by Miranda’s story and easily relating to the complicated web of school dynamics. And there are these mysterious notes . . .

The time travel aspect was one of the most startling and delightful bits of this unique, fast-paced story. Loosely centered on the friendship between Miranda and best friend Sal, When You Reach Me has a series of odd letters at its heart. Miranda is a huge fan of Madeleine L’Engle, devoting her days to reading A Wrinkle In Time (which she refers to only as “her book”), and the reader starts to think all this time-travel business has gone to her head. She’s daydreaming, I thought. Or, She’s hallucinating.

To be honest, I wasn’t always sure of what was going on. But that disjointed nature — that confusion — made the ending all the sweeter.

For young readers, Miranda is the type of heroine we would wish our daughters to emulate. She’s whip-smart, inquisitive, watchful, loyal. She’s fearful of the crazy man on the corner, the one who seems to spend most of his time sleeping beneath a mailbox, and devoted to her mother. Throughout the narrative, Miranda’s single mom is preparing for a stint on a game show — and “The $10,000 Pyramid” is seen as a chance to help elevate their small family beyond their meager circumstances. Though Miranda never speaks of being poor in New York City, there’s a huge gap between she and a classmate, Julia — a gap Miranda constantly acknowledges. She was a sweet kid, I kept thinking — and a caring one. A kid you’d like to have yourself.

So much is happening here: Sal and Miranda’s floundering friendship; the kids’ new “job” working at a deli on their  lunch breaks; the friction between Sal and a kid who pummels him on a city street — one who ends up being Marcus, a pivotal character; and the strange notes that keep falling out of Miranda’s possessions, tucked away and packed with private knowledge. As Miranda further explores the concept of time travel with Marcus, the only other kid who doesn’t seem to think her interest is crazy, the pieces come together.

Though the plot is relatively simple, the story has great depth. Three years after purchasing this book, I’d forgotten what inspired me to pick it up — but other readers’ suggestions came flooding back to me as I read. It’s unconventional, surprising, heartwarming, true — all facets of a book I’m happy to call a winner. And when you’re finished, you’ll want to start all over again . . . piecing together the mystery that surprised me from the start.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0385737424 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.’ by Sam Wasson

Gearing up for my weekend in New York City, I wanted a themed cosmpolitan read — and Sam Wasson’s Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. seemed to fit the bill. Though the nuances of some references probably went over my head, it was still a quick and enjoyable read — perfect for the train ride.

“Audrey Hepburn is an icon like no other, yet the image many of us have of Audrey — dainty, immaculate — is anything but true to life. Here, for the first time, Sam Wasson presents the woman behind the little black dress that rocked the nation in 1961.

The first complete account of the making of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. reveals little-known facts about the cinema classic: Truman Capote desperately wanted Marilyn Monroe for the leading role; director Blake Edwards filmed multiple endings; Hepburn herself felt very conflicted about balancing the roles of mother and movie star. With a colorful cast of characters including Truman Capote, Edith Head, Givenchy, ‘Moon River’ composer Henry Mancini, and, of course, Hepburn herself, Wasson immerses us in the America of the late fifties before Woodstock and birth control, when a not-so-virginal girl by the name of Holly Golightly raised eyebrows across the country, changing fashion, film, and sex for good.

In this meticulously researched gem of a book, Wasson delivers us from the penthouses of the Upper East Side to the pools of Beverly Hills, presenting ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ as we have never seen it before: through the eyes of those who made it. Written with delicious prose and considerable wit, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. shines new light on a beloved film and its incomparable star.” (LibraryThing)

Oh, Audrey. Has there ever been a more elegant, beguiling star? Despite having never seen “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” as a teenager, I was adamant I would channel her for my senior prom. I wore a long black dress, the white pearls; my hair was swept up in that signature style. All I lacked was a cat named Cat, and that was probably fine; I can go without white hair on a black gown.

Oddly enough, more than 40 years after the release of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” I arrived for pre-event pictures with a group of friends and discovered there was another Audrey in the group — and her name was also Megan. Though initially horrified that my fellow Megan had such a similar look (same hair, similar dress, pearls, etc.), I now look back with amusement at the staying power of such an iconic woman. Two suburban high schoolers as miniature Audreys — in 2003.

As mentioned, I knew little of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” before renting it in 2011. I knew it was famous, that Audrey was glamorous — but the behind-the-scenes of what made this movie so controversial in its day? That’s where author Wasson stepped in. Providing enough background on society’s temperature in 1961 and the unexpected choice of good girl Hepburn as a charming prostitute, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. was a treat that taught me a little something, too.

For devout fans of the famous film, I’d imagine they’ve seen this song and dance before — but Wasson clearly did his research and might have uncovered new things. He begins with Truman Capote, author of the original “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” and weaves in stories of who the “real” Holly Golightly could have been. Though the women possibly inspiring the character might not have considered it a good thing, there’s no doubt Holly captured the American imagination. And all these years later, we’re still talking about her.

Beyond Capote’s characters and their journey to the big screen, we get glimpses of those who brought the movie to life: director Blake Edwards; composer Henry Mancini, who wrote the haunting “Moon River”; famed costume designer Edith Head, who felt displaced after Audrey’s wardrobe selections were usurped by Givenchy. Pivotal to the book, too, is Audrey’s struggles within her marriage and attempts to start a family. Throw in a generous dash of feminism and changing ideals of womanhood and you’re left with a quick read that attempts to do much — and largely succeeds. Could it have delved deeper into many issues, especially Audrey’s abusive relationship? Sure. But that would been an entirely different book.

If you’re only vaguely familiar with “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” have no fear — Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. did a solid job of explaining “the woman behind the little black dress that rocked the nation,” as the jacket copy so accurately states. If you enjoy “making of” glimpses at life for the rich, famous and everyone in between, this makes for a fun read.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061774162 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from Amused By Books

New York ‘Newsies’ weekend: The main event


The name alone inspires wonder and, if you’re a theatre nerd like me, a bit of awe. When my sister and I heard “Newsies” was shifting from a 1992 cult film to a prized New York City stage performance, we gobbled up tickets — and made plans to head up for the weekend. We heard about the show after seeing “King Of New York” performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, then finalized our plans in February. And then? Then, I kind of forgot about it. Because life gets crazy. Because I was planning another trip, busy at work and trying to keep all the plates spinning.

Before we knew it, I was tossing some clothes in a suitcase and hopping on a train to Penn Station. Kate and I got to New York at lunchtime Saturday and hit the ground running, getting a sandwich en route to Times Square and scoping out the New York Public Library (more coming soon). For a book nerd like me, the NYPL was the mecca I’d imagined it would be — and posing with the stone lions was a definite highlight. What can I say? I’m a sucker for tourist hotspots. And though I tried not to scream “TOURIST!” for 48 hours, I was a tourist. And it felt good.

After sightseeing, changing for the evening and enjoying a delicious dinner at Haru on 43rd Street (like my NYC street knowledge?), we made it to the Nederlander Theatre and joined the queue to enter “Newsies,” the entire crazy reason we’d poured ourselves up to the city. After we got in line, the queue wrapped easily around the block — and the audience energy was palpable. People everywhere were chatting, talking excitedly and snapping photos with the flashy marquee. Though I didn’t remember much about “Newsies” (beyond my sister’s favorite songs), I was pumped, too. A real Broadway show! Serious actors! Staying up late in Manhattan!

It was everything I would have wanted — and my sister loved it. A lifelong “Newsies” fan, she performed tunes like “King Of New York” and “Seize The Day” in an elementary school talent show — and I can still picture her dancing in her newsboy cap, so proud of her moves and lyrics. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe my 23-year-old sister is . . . well, 23. Being older, I’m perpetually unaware of her growth and change. To me, she’s still my 5-year-old sidekick with the long tresses and easy laugh.

I’m so glad we could share the experience. Jeremy Jordan was wonderful as Jack Kelly, the smokin’ hot and charismatic leader of the newsboy crew. When newspaper heavyweight Joseph Pulitzer raises the cost of papers (or “papes,” if you’re cool with Newsie lingo), the army of homeless and hungry newsboys in New York City’s boroughs rebel against the added financial burden. Kelly becomes their mouthpiece, organizing a newsboy union and striking. Against arguably the most powerful man in media. This was in 1899 — and based on a true story.

The Broadway rendition is probably catchier than the real-life struggle of hundreds of kids more than a century ago, but that’s quite all right. I like my history with a side of adorable dancing men, stuck-in-your-head-forever show tunes and intrepid girl reporters. “Seize The Day” should be my new anthem as I struggle to get up for work — and these aren’t the kinds of songs you’ll soon forget. The audience was completely into it, leaning forward and dancing in their seats. Aside from the audience member in front of me who almost got a swift kick to the head (literally — I fantasized about it) for her obnoxious screaming (really?), I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

And then we got egg creams and cheesecake from a diner near our hotel and I really couldn’t have asked for anything more.

If you’re in the NYC area or looking for a fun day trip, “Newsies” is well worth a look. We were told by another show goer that the story enjoys a cult following — and judging by the audience’s pumped-up dance moves and enthusiastic standing ovation, I don’t doubt that for a second.