Sunday, March 22, 2015

Murder at the Book Group


Maggie King entertainingly darkens the common perception of book clubs (a benign assembly of readers who've come together to discuss books) in her quirky debut, Murder at the Book Group. The story begins when normally even-keeled, vain Carlene Arness hurls the cozy mystery under discussion into a fireplace. "This book sucks," she exclaims. "There should be a law protecting the reading public from such trash!" The shocked members try to placate irate Carlene, who is also a mystery novelist, then rationally discuss and analyze the plot, which has to do with cyanide slipped into the teacup of an unsuspecting victim.

When the group breaks for refreshments, Carlene suddenly drops dead. Remarkably, her death is deemed the result of cyanide poisoning. When a note is discovered, Carlene's death appears to be a suicide. Many in the group, however, suspect someone killed her and forged the note--or is this kind of thinking the result of having read too many mystery novels? The quest for both who done it and why unearths a host of insidious rivalries and romantic entanglements.

The narrator, Hazel Rose, is a computer programmer turned aspiring romance novelist who cofounded the book club with Carlene. Carlene's death gives Hazel's banal existence a much-needed jolt, but her search for a would-be killer is riddled with snags when Carlene's friends, family and acquaintances offer compelling details of Carlene's multiple identities, surprising secrets and sordid love affairs. The amateur sleuth's pseudo-investigative skills and her interactions with a cast of well-drawn, small-town characters reveal a deception that ultimately coalesces into a study of human nature and the limits of perception.

Murder at the Book Group by Maggie King
Pocket, $7.99 Mass Market Paperback, 9781476762463, 400 pp
Publication Date: December 30, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (1/6/15), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (12/18/14). To read the longer review click HERE

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread


Family life never grows old in the hands of Anne Tyler, a master of domestic fiction who returns to familiar terrain in her 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread. This time around, Tyler (The Beginner's Goodbye) focuses on the Whitshank family of Baltimore, Md., launching the story with a call from wayward son Denny, who, at age 19, drops an attention-getting announcement on his parents, Abby and Red. He then hangs up and disappears from their lives--and the lives of his three siblings--for years. 

Tyler characterizes the Whitshanks as "one of those enviable families that radiate clannishness and togetherness and just... specialness," and Denny "trailed around their edges like some sort of charity case." Years later, when the entire family--including Denny--finally reunites in Baltimore, stories of the past are retold when Abby and Red's future living arrangements are called into question. 

The common thread binding the generational tapestry of the Whitshanks is the family home built by Red's father in the 1930s; the warm, inviting nature of the house comes to represent the family. In flashbacks, Tyler delves into the history of Red's parents and how Abby and Red met and married in 1950s. The stories of those who inhabited the residence deepen the meaning of the present-day predicament: with Abby and Red growing older and more infirm, the four disparate siblings and their spouses urge the couple to dismantle their bedrock, their beloved home, and make alternate living arrangements. 

Abby and Red's decision will not only affect their lives, but the lives of their children--particularly the two sons who struggle to reconcile their distinct places in the fold. Tension builds in this multi-generational saga as Tyler stitches together an intricate, insightful story about family history, memories, rivalries and long-held secrets.

Knopf, $25.95 Hardcover, 9781101874271, 368 pp
Publication Date: February 10, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE


Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (2/10/15), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (2/6/15). To read the longer review click HERE

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Proof of Angels


When Sean Magee, a troubled 30-year-old firefighter, becomes trapped while battling a raging inferno, he bargains with God: "If you get me out of this... I promise... I'll be a better man." As if in answer to the prayer, a mysterious angelic light leads him to an escape, where he is forced to take a blind leap. His jump from the three-story building casts him into a new life filled with disabling and prolonged physical challenges. 

Sean's story is a spin-off thread from Mary Curran Hackett's previous novel, Proof of Heaven, in which a young boy with a life-threatening illness and his mother found their faith tested. "Uncle Sean"--a volatile, emotionally distant alcoholic--couldn't deal with their situation, so he ran away and created a new, single, solitary life in California. Proof of Angels, set three years later, delves into Sean's history, including how and why his heart was badly broken on an ill-fated trip to Italy years before.

After the fire, personal regret inhibits Sean's healing, and his physical immobility forces him to examine his conscience and make good on his life-saving promise to God. He must reconcile his past with the present, addressing his relationships with family, friends and caretakers who all have struggles of their own and, ultimately, with the woman he left behind across the ocean. Hackett delivers another gritty, yet hopeful story about the myriad ways broken human beings are often brought together to help and heal each other.

William Morrow & Company, $14.99 Paperback, 9780062279958, 320 pp
Publication Date: November 4, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (11/18/14), click HERE

Friday, February 13, 2015

Fretting Friday the 13th?





Friday, February 13, 2015
Opinion/Editorial: "Other Views/ Guest Columnist" (Section A-9)
BY KATHLEEN GERARD

To read the article in its entirety, click on the highlighted title above

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Gift of Maybe: Finding Hope and Possibility in Uncertain Times


Before she became a business consultant and life coach, Allison Carmen was a stressed-out attorney working at a large Manhattan law firm. Plagued by depression, sleeplessness and hopelessness, she was "addicted to certainty," a need to know the future and what was going to happen next.

One day, Carmen's Qigong instructor shared a parable that sparked an epiphany, changing her way of thinking--and her life. Carmen realized that the unexpected is often viewed through a prism of negativity clouded by fear. She learned to apply a new approach--what she calls Maybe, a transformative, life-strengthening philosophy. No matter how dire a situation may appear or how far it may deviate from the plan, Maybe encourages us to investigate what is possible in a situation, rather than what is impossible. Seemingly bad circumstances, disappointments, failures, struggles and losses can become gateways that lead toward positive breakthroughs.

Carmen illustrates her Maybe philosophy with examples from her own life and those of ordinary people who have faced challenges in business, relationships, health, finance and retirement. She also cites stories of notable figures, such as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, whose personal setbacks have often become sources of empowerment. Thought-provoking questions and strategies, such as breathing exercises, visualization techniques, meditations and mantras, will inspire seekers challenged by uncontrollable aspects of life to consciously bend their minds toward the idea that everything has the power to be a good and positive life force.

Perigee Trade, $15 Paperback, 9780399169533, 352 pp
Publication Date: November 4, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (11/18/14), click HERE

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Girl on the Train


Rachel is a "soon-to-be-homeless alcoholic" who exists on the periphery of life since her divorce. She pines for and stalks Tom, who lives with his new family in the house he and Rachel used to share. Every day, Rachel rides a train past her old neighborhood, snatching a momentary glimpse into other lives. From this vantage point, she fixates on one couple she often sees, idolizing them: "They're what I lost, they're everything I want to be."

One day, as the train passes the house, Rachel spies the woman kissing a strange man in her backyard. This discovery shatters Rachel's illusions about the "happy" couple, so she binge drinks to the point of blacking out. The following day, when the news reports the woman is missing, Rachel vaguely recalls having exited the train in her old neighborhood that night and subsequently convinces herself that she may be involved. Unfortunately, Rachel can't remember much else--including where and how she received cuts on her hand. Determined to reconstruct the night in question and solve the mystery, she soon becomes entangled in the police investigation.

Paula Hawkins fashions The Girl on the Train from a staggered timeline and three female narrators. Rachel is the anchor, though she's not always understandable or trustworthy; Hawkins fills in the missing pieces via flashbacks and passages narrated by the missing woman and Rachel's ex's new wife. En route to a terrorizing, twisted conclusion, all three women--and the men with whom they share their lives--are forced to dismantle their delusions about others and themselves, their choices and their respective relationships.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books, $26.95 Hardcover, 9781594633669, 336 pp
Publication Date: January 13, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (1/13/15), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (1/5/15). To read the longer review click HERE

Sunday, January 4, 2015

BOMB: The Author Interviews


Who better to ask a writer about writing than another writer? For more than 30 years, BOMB, a magazine of essays, literature and visual portfolios, has been publishing in-depth interviews with artists conducted by artists of all disciplines. In BOMB: The Author Interviews, publisher and editor Betsy Sussler collects 35 of the best conversations between influential and intellectual authors of world literature.

The Q&As are intimate and delve into aspects of the writer's craft, including the importance of sentences, rhythm and pacing, creating characters, narrative shaping, literary influences, editing and revision, the publishing industry and the demands of the writer's life amid more mundane concerns. They are intimate and give rare insight into the creative processes, feelings and work habits of contemporary prose writers and poets such as Sam Lipsyte, Steven Millhauser, Courtney Eldridge, Amy Hempel, Tobias Wolff and Jeffrey Eugenides. Each conversation differs in topic and tone. Clipped, clever banter infuses the exchange between Kathy Acker and Mark Magill, while a host of the Q&As convey mutual admiration, as evidenced when Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat discuss their ancestry and what it's like to be "book obsessed."

Articulating the complexity of the craft, the challenges of the writing life and the impetus behind certain works sometimes proves difficult, but each dialogue sheds light onto the act of writing itself and the profound satisfaction in having created something lasting on the page. Such revelations are bound to be helpful and insightful to readers and other writers intrigued and mystified by the process.

Bomb: The Author Interviews by Bomb Magazine; Betsy Sussler, ed.
Soho Press, $40.00 Hardcover, 9781616953799, 480 pp
Publication Date: November 4, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (11/3/14), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a much longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (11/3/14). To read the longer review click HERE



Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy 2015 !




 How will you launch the New Year?

Thursday, January 1, 2015
Opinion/Editorial: "Other Views/ Guest Columnist" (Section A-19)
BY KATHLEEN GERARD

To read the article in its entirety, click on the highlighted title above


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Favorite Reads of 2014


As a book reviewer for Shelf Awareness, I read and review at least three titles per month. Below is a short list of some of my favorite reads from 2014.  Hope you'll discover a title, plot line, topic or author that might interest you enough to feed your e-reader and/or support your local indie bookshop.

To learn more about any of the selections, click on the highlighted titles for additional information:


This riveting short book, with concise chapters, is narrated by a disillusioned, middle-aged French woman who owns a fabric shop. When she wins the lottery, she chooses not to tell those she loves about the windfall right away. An interesting examination about want and need and pondering changes in life.

Irish-Catholic family dysfunction straddles the past and the present in this  accessible, multi-generational saga (with dashes of humor and romance) about an aging woman with "holes in her memory" who is forced to stitch together the past in order to better grasp the truth of who she is.  

This absurdist comedy of manner offers a timeless, vivid take on the 1990s - before the advent of cell phones, email and reality shows. When an aging mother suffers a freak accident, her two disparate daughters, sisters who've never seen eye-to-eye, are reunited and forced to confront each other and figure out what they truly want out of life.  

An atmospheric historical novel centered around an arranged marriage and a cabinet-sized replica of 17th Century Amsterdam home. When an elusive miniaturist is enlisted to furnish the house and replicate dolls of the inhabitants, eerie and chilling coincidences start to mirror real-life happenings . . . part love story, part suspense novel, part thriller. 

This book was released in 2013, but I only read it in 2014.  This thought-provoking novel of contemporary domestic fiction is set in Australia and centers on the lives of three women. Moriarity braids the tumultuous threads of each separate life together to explore the ways in which, married or single, we can never really know the ones we love.

A tender, graceful story about a successful businesswoman who must settle her great-aunt Ruby's estate - including deciding the fate of Ruby's beloved children's bookshop in Seattle. While sorting through papers, letters between Ruby and Margaret Wise Brown, the writer of Goodnight Moon, a classic children's book, are discovered. In the process, secrets are revealed that have the power to change lives.

A single, hermetic, New York City writer--with a keen eye and perceptive, searing wit--goes on a quest to find Mr. Right.  But when a serious illness strikes, this very entertaining social satire--that pokes fun at helicopter moms, young/self-important urban professionals, entrenched New Yorkers and fanatical city dog-owners--gains unexpected depth and profundity.

Caldwell writes exquisite, insightful memoirs about turning points in life, and this time she delivers a moving and powerful story about her midlife odyssey to reconstruct her leg crippled by and degenerating from childhood polio. A ruminative, wise, uplifting meditation on growing older and wiser.

The true story about this secretive nanny who was a gifted (yet closeted) street photographer is intriguing, however sad. Maier's photography only came to light and brought her fame after her death, when a trove of more than 100,000 images were discovered in a locker. This mammoth collection brings together the best of her best work.

A riveting thriller that keeps readers consistently off-balance. The story centers on a lonely, single woman--an alcoholic jilted in romance--who rides the rails in London and suddenly finds herself caught up in murder investigation in her old neighborhood.  Some are predicting this will be the Gone Girl of the new year!

Happy Reading in 2015 !  


Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Christmas Cat


A single, 34 year-old man, with an aversion and allergy to cats, is faced with the methodical task of finding suitable homes for six precious felines in The Christmas Cat, a heartwarming novel by Melody Carlson (The Christmas Dog). Garrison Brown—trying to build a new life in Seattle after spending nine years doing missionary work in Uganda, battling malaria and nursing a broken heart in romance—receives word, near Christmas, that his widowed grandmother has died of a heart attack.

Summoned to Vancouver, Washington to settle her affairs, Garrison is surprised to learn that his frugal "Gram"—who raised him after his parents died in a car crash when he was 12 years-old—left behind her house, fully paid off, along with a substantial nest egg. Before Garrison can claim his inheritance, however, he is designated as "the keeper of the cats," responsible for following Gram's detailed, stringent criteria to match each cat's unique personality to his or her prospective new owner. Once Garrison can prove each cat is happily settled, the selected adoptive families will each receive $10,000. Where does this leave Garrison—especially with his feelings about cats? And just how should he roll out the plan in order to sift through suitable adoptive homes from mere gold diggers?

What ensues is a lighthearted story of Garrison's reconnection to his old neighborhood, his interacting with strangers who may become friends—or even something more—and his rekindling old hopes and dreams. Carlson, prolific in feel-good, faith-based fiction, once again delivers an affirming tale brimming with compassion and charm.

The Christmas Cat by Melody Carlson
Fleming H. Revell Company, $15.99 Hardcover, 9780800719661, 169 pp
Publication Date: September 2, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (9/12/14), click HERE

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Writer's Garden


Jackie Bennett (former editor of The Garden Design Journal) offers an intimate glimpse into the country homes and gardens of notable, accomplished British poets, essayists and novelists in The Writer's Garden: How gardens inspired our best-loved authors. This coffee table book examines the lives of nineteen, diversely accomplished British writers and how their  private residences facilitated their work: Virginia Woolf wandered the room-like gardens at Monk's House while she labored over Mrs. Dalloway. Charles Dickens tended daily to the gardens at Gad's Hill Place before tackling masterpieces like Great Expectations. The woodland paths and boathouse at Greenway inspired Agatha Christie's Dead Man's Folly. And would there have ever been a James and the Giant Peach had Roald Dahl not studied his own fruit orchard and crawly creatures in the gardens at Gipsy House?

Archival images and vivid landscape photographs by Richard Hanson accompany the profiles and enhance each intimate glimpse into the countryside sanctuaries that fed the imaginations of great writers. "Written in Residence" sidebars offer lists of works created at each locale, and epilogues explain what became of the homes and gardens after the death of each revered wordsmith.

(Photographs by Richard Hanson)
Frances Lincoln Publishers, $40.00 Hardcover, 9780711234949, 176 pp
Publication Date: November 1, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (11/29/14), click HERE