Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Dog that Saved Stewart Coolidge

Novelist Jim Kraus has been steadily building a brand writing heartwarming stories that explore the impact domestic animals have on the human experience—and vice-versa. In The Dog that Saved Stewart Coolidge, he crafts a story about twentysomethings struggling to carve out their own niches in the world and how a stray dog brings them together.

The book opens when a loose dog sneaks into the Tops Super Market in the small town of Wellsboro, Pa., and successfully steals a rawhide bone from the pet aisle. When the bone-wielding bandit starts returning regularly to the scene of the crime to make additional heists, Stewart Coolidge, a recent college graduate who can't find a job and works as a grocery store bagger, is enlisted by the store owner to catch the elusive thief. The recurring incidents soon become the talk of the town. Whose dog is it and where did he come from? When a local (and conniving) used car dealer decides to capitalize on the situation--and offers a reward for the dog, which he falsely claims is his own--Stewart, in his quest to wrangle up the stray, joins forces with Lisa, his neighbor, also a recent college grad with journalism ambitions, who works at the local coffee house.

While Stewart tries to capture the renegade dog, Lisa begins to cover the story for the town news. In their pursuit, the two become friends. But will their past heartbreaks and disappointments in life and love keep them from being honest with each other and prevent their friendship from blossoming into romance?

When the vagabond canine criminal, whom Lisa and Stewart come to call Hubert (named after The Patron Saint of Dogs), eventually shows up at the apartment house where Lisa and Stewart live--and Stewart decides to secretly take Hubert in--the dog's presence and his mischievous actions deepen the couple's relationship and things grow even more complicated around town. What repercussions will occur in harboring a four-legged fugitive?

Details of small town life ring with authenticity, along with the stresses young people face in meeting the expectations of others and finding and taking their places in the world while remaining true to themselves. Kraus (The Dog that Talked to God) presents a lovable cast of townsfolk and a suspenseful plot that is ultimately infused with a faith-based message that unites the spiritual themes of this wholesome, feel-good story.  

FaithWords, $14.99 Paperback, 9781455562541, 336 pp
Publication Date: October 27, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Owls: Our Most Charming Bird

Artist and avid ornithologist, Matt Sewell, has built a brand writing and distinctively illustrating informative, yet accessibly appealing books about birds. In Our Garden Birds and Our Songbirds, he presented two volumes, each exploring 52 favorite species from England—one bird for each week of the year. In Owls: Our Most Charming Bird, Sewell branches out beyond Great Britain and offers a world-wide compendium of various owls: multi-faceted, nocturnal birds of prey. Watercolors rendered in Pop-Art style and concise, lively prose highlight the individuality of 50 different species of owls that are indigenous to diverse regions of the world.

Sewell explores Woodland varieties like the Northern Saw-whet Owl--native to North America--which is "smaller-than-a-blackbird and fluffier-than-a-three-week-old Labrador" and has "pleading, puppy-dog eyes" etched with a permanent look of surprise. The Great Gray Owl, with a head like a "geodesic dome inhabited by a bunch of strung-out hippies," is considered a Wilderness variety that is a stealthy hunter built to survive in northern, glacial environments. The Elf Owl is one of the smallest that loves cacti and inhabits Wild West deserts of the USA and Mexico. While the Crested Owl is indigenous to tropical Central and South American climates and has eyebrows that appear like "incredible appendages" that serve to aid his camouflage efforts when pretending to be a branch.

This playful, well-conceived collection enhances--and also shatters--myths and folklores surrounding these "all-seeing, all-knowing" mysterious and imperious bird-hunters and proves fiercely entertaining and enriching in the process.

Ten Speed Press, $12.99 Hardcover, 9781607748793, 128 pp
Publication Date: September 22, 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 (10/2/15), link HERE

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders

Stories--in real life and in fiction--take on lives of their own in Julianna Baggott's, Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders. This sensitively rendered, well-balanced novel is told via four, female points-of-view. At the heart is Harriet Wolf, a reclusive, revered author of six adventurous novels featuring two characters, Daisy and Weldon, who fall in love with each other as children and as they age, from book to book, are "separated by wars and disasters, by acts of God and calamities of the heart. When they finally reunite they suffer." Harriet died before the seventh book was published, yet enamored readers believe it would've revealed whether the entire series "was a tragedy or a love story, whether humanity is basically good or doomed."

Harriet's daughter, Eleanor—a mother with two adult daughters of her own—despises and resents her mother's success and having had to share Harriet with the world. When Eleanor suffers a mild heart attack, her own fractured nuclear family reunites. This includes Ruth—married to a Harriett Wolf scholar, but trying to lead a "normal" life while estranged from the family for 14 years—and Tilton—a sheltered, "special needs" shut-in—who shared an intimate bond with her grandmother and made a pact with her regarding the rumored seventh book. With Eleanor ailing, is it time for Tilton to finally expose the mystery surrounding Harriet's last book?

With keen insight, Baggott (Burn) offers an original, richly textured story infused with dark secrets, promises, loyalties, love stories and the psychological complexities of family dynamics across generations.

Little, Brown and Company, $26.00 Hardcover, 9780316375108, 336 pp
Publication Date: August 18, 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 (9/1/15), link HERE

Sunday, September 27, 2015

First Pages in Fiction: The Sea Keeper's Daughters

In this continuing series, "Novel Beginnings," I dissect first paragraphs of novels and show how the opening of a book sets the foundation for what's to follow in terms of tone, character and story intent. In this installment, we'll explore  The Sea Keeper's Daughters by Lisa Wingate. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Perhaps denial is the mind's way of protecting the heart from a sucker punch it can't handle. Or maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe denial is the face of overwhelming evidence is a mere byproduct of stubbornness.

Whatever the reason, all I could think standing in the doorway, one hand on the latch and the other trembling on the keys, was, This can't be happening. This can't be how it ends. It's so…quiet. A dream should make noise when it's dying. It deserves to go out in a tragic blaze of glory. There should be a dramatic death scene, a gasping for breath…something.

Denise laid a hand on my shoulder, whispered, "Are you all right?" Her voice faded at the end, cracking into jagged pieces.

"No." A hard, bitter tone sharpened the cutting edge on the word. It wasn't aimed at Denise. She knew that. "Nothing about this is all right. Not one single thing."

"Yeah." Resting against the doorframe, she let her neck go slack until her cheek touched the wood. "I'm not sure if it's better or worse to stand here looking at it, though. For the last time, I mean."

"We put our hearts into this place…" Denial reared its unreasonable head again. I would've called it hope, but if it was hope, it was false and paper-thin kind. The kind that only teases you...

Wingate launches her story with a profound statement about denial. And the paragraphs that follow bring an immediate sense of intimacy. Notice, however, the use of the words "death," "bitter," "hard," and "sharpening." This speaker is not happy and is grappling, but the philosophical nature of the opening sentences reveal the speaker to be wistful and sensitive. The speaker (not sure if it's a man or a woman) is taking a last look at a place that was obviously dear to her/him. Readers don't know what--or where--that place is, but intrigue deepens, especially when Denise offers a gentle touch and then breaks the speaker's reverie to ask, "Are you all right?" Denise's actions and words--and the conversation that ensues--gives the reader a sense that she is a friend and confidante, and she has a stake, along with the speaker, in something that is coming to a close or someplace these two people will have to leave. The speaker's "hard, bitter" response indicates that she is not a willful participant in whatever change is taking place. And thus, this story begins at the end of something.  

If you're familiar with books by Lisa Wingate (this novel is actually the third in her series of Carolina-based stories; read my review of The Prayer Box), you already know she writes multi-generational, dual time-frame novels of domestic fiction, where she often merges two story threads—a present-day story with a story from the past. You'd have to keep reading this novel to see how this opening scene serves to launch the journey of Whitney Monroe, a high-end (yet struggling) restaurant owner in Michigan who comes from a complicated family. When Whitney's elderly, estranged stepfather takes ill, she travels to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to be with him. He lives at the Excelsior, a famed hotel from the Gilded Age, which he also owns. (Whitney will one day inherit the hotel.) While Whitney is in residence, memories from her childhood are evoked, and she also discovers family heirlooms and letters exchanged between her grandmother and a relative Whitney never knew existed. In reading the letters and experiencing incidents involved, Whitney questions her family and heritage, and she is forced to confront issues of race, politics, identity and secrets.

Wingate once again writes an intriguing, multi-layered story where her main character must take a physical journey in order to trek deeper into the recesses of her soul.

Tyndale House Publishers, $19.99 Hardcover, 9781414388274, 448 pp
Publication Date: September 8, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Woman Who Stole My Life

In The Woman Who Stole My Life, Marian Keyes delivers a warm and positive--at times hilarious--read about the effects of serious illness.

The story is told by charming and chatty, Stella Sweeney--age "forty-one and a quarter"--and the account of what happened when she was a 37 year-old Irish beautician; the wife of a "successful but creatively unfulfilled" bathroom designer; and mother of two rebellious teenagers. Stella's life was humbly ordinary until a strange illness overtook her, making her paralyzed and mute. The diagnosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome--a rare, yet usually temporary, autoimmune disorder--attacks the nervous system. Stella, mentally attentive, remained confined to an I.C.U. The only way she could communicate was via blinking, and the only person who understood her was her handsome neurologist, Dr. Mannix Taylor. During her long hospital stay, the two bond and share intimate details about their lives.

After her arduous recovery, an American tabloid publishes a photo of the Vice-President's wife reading a self-help book called One Blink at a Time—Stella's story, complete with clever, stoic aphorisms she spouted during her ordeal. Stella is surprised to learn it was self-published, behind her back, by dreamy Dr. Taylor. The exposure brings Stella instant international fame and fortune—and the possibility of new love. But at what price?

Keyes (The Mystery of Mercy Close) depicts the realities of illness for the patient and all involved.  Her comic take on Stella's journey--coupled with her distinctive brand of humor and wit--showcases her imagination in top form.

The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes
Viking, $27.95 Hardcover, 9780525429258, 464 pp
Publication Date: July 7, 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 (7/24/15), link HERE 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Love She Left Behind

A dead woman is the central character of The Love She Left Behind by British author Amanda Coe (What They Do in the Dark). The deceased is Sara, who, 35 years before her death from stomach cancer, deserted her husband and children--Nigel, then age 13, and Louise, age 10--and gave up everything to live with Patrick, a playwright for whom she was muse. Patrick never had any fondness for his stepchildren. After Sara uprooted her life for him, he paid for Nigel to attend boarding school and Louise was shipped off to live with an aunt after their birth father remarried and rejected them.

The book opens in Cornwall, in the now-dilapidated house Sara and Patrick shared. Nigel--a married, type-A lawyer and father--has little care or respect for Louise, a divorced, overweight, working-class mother of two rebellious teenagers over whom she has little control. They are faced with Patrick's irritability, drunkenness and writer's block. As the three go over details and assimilate the contents of Sara's will, it is revealed that the couple's house and the dramatic rights to Bloody Empire--a popular play Patrick wrote in the 1980s--were put in Sara's name for tax purposes. Patrick battles Nigel and Louise over the transfer of ownership, and brother and sister also lock horns.

Coe employs dark comedy to piece together and acutely observe emotional issues dealing with abandonment, loss, death and grief. The idea that we do not truly know the ones we love serves to solidify the cracked fault lines in the foundation of this thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking family saga.

The Love She Left Behind by Amanda Coe
W.W. Norton, $25.95 Hardcover, 978039324543, 256 pp
Publication Date: July 15, 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 (7/14/15), click HERE

Sunday, August 30, 2015

First Pages in Fiction: Scents and Sensibility

The first paragraphs of a novel can set the foundation for what's to follow in terms of tone, character and story intent.

Here are the first few paragraphs from the novel, Scents and Sensibility by Spencer Quinn:

Home at last! We'd been away so long, first in swampy country, then in a big city--maybe called Foggy Bottom--that confused me from the get-go. Is there time to mention the air in both those places before we really get started? Soggy and heavy: that sums it up.

Where were we? Was it possibly . . . home? Yes! Home! Home at last! Our home--mine and Bernie's--is on Mesquite Road. Mesquite Road's in the Valley. Quite recently I might have heard that the Valley's in Arizona, but don't count on that. What matters is that right now I was inhaling a nice big noseful of Valley air. Light and dry, with a hint of greasewood and just plain grease: perfect. I felt tip-top. Bernie opened our door, kicked aside a huge pile of mail, and we went in.

"Ah," said Bernie, dropping our duffel bag on the floor. I did the first thing that came to mind--just about always my MO--which in this case meant sniffing my way from room to room to room, zigzagging back and forth, nose to floor. Front hall, our bedroom, Charlie's bedroom--mattress bare on account of Charlie not being around much since the divorce--office, with the circus-elephant-pattern rug, where I actually picked up the faint whiff of elephant, even though no elephant had ever been in the office. I'd had some experience with elephants, specifically an elephant name of Peanut, no time to go into that now...

Do you get the idea the narrator isn't a person? Can you tell the voice leading you into the story is that of a dog? How? The speaker seems conflicted, yet what person do you know who sniffs his way from room to room? And the setting? It's telling that the speaker doesn't really know where "the Valley" is located, but as he inhales a "big, noseful of Valley air," he finds it light and dry, so we can gather this scene is set in the desert. And what's with the elephant rug? Well, that's what makes the reader keep reading...

If you're not familiar with the Chet and Bernie mystery-thriller series, you're missing out. Each book, there are eight in all, is narrated by Chet, a hyperactive dog, who works with his laid-back master and partner, Bernie Little of the Little Detective Agency.

In Scents and Sensibility, the duo have returned home from visiting Bernie's girlfriend in Washington D.C. and realize they've been robbed. The safe in Bernie's office has been pried out of a wall and stolen—complete with a prized watch that belonged to Bernie's grandfather. Then they realize their neighbor has an adult son (one they never knew he had, who is now residing next door) and also has a mature Saguaro Cactus suddenly growing on his front lawn. Where did it come from? How did it get there? It's against the law to move a cactus of this variety. Knowing the neighbor had a key to Chet and Bernie's house in case of emergency, is it possible the neighbor's son is the thief and the cactus transporter? What begins as a simple welcome home set-up evolves into another caseanother dangerous, crime-solving adventure—for Chet and Bernie involving cactus thieves, murder and a kidnapping.

This clever, funny and riveting series is perfect for fans of crime/mystery fiction and animal/pet lovers.

Atria Books, $25.00 Hardcover, 9781476703428, 320 pp
Publication Date: July 14, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Unexpected Consequences of Love

Romantic entanglements are Jill Mansell's specialty, and in The Unexpected Consequences of Love, she cleverly snares knots into several interwoven story threads spun from St. Carys, a seaside town in Cornwall, UK.
The main storyline focuses on commercial photographer, Sophie Wells, a young woman who plies her craft in earnest in order to put a painful romantic past behind her. When Josh Strachan moves back to town after a stint as a Los Angeles, Ca. talent agent to help his grandmother, Dot, run Mariscombe House, the family hotel, he is instantly smitten with Sophie, who is doing a photo shoot at the inn. Having sworn off romance, Sophie doesn't look twice at Josh. This only encourages him to work harder to win Sophie's affections—and solve the mystery about her past.

Amid Josh's pursuit, Sophie's free-spirited best friend, Tula, loses her job and moves to St. Carys. When Tula arrives, she is instantly attracted to Josh, but another man from town, Riley--a ne'er do well and flirt--has eyes for Tula. What will it take for Riley to turn Tula's head? Things grow even more complicated when Tula lands a job at Mariscombe House.

Mansell has written another lively, engaging romance where an ensemble of characters--including Grandma Dot--have had their hearts wounded by the past and secrets. Each member of the cast is faced with hang-ups and heartbreaks and the conflicts inherent in the prospect of loving again. Amid obstacles that challenge happy endings, Mansell braids in poignancy, humor and unexpected grace.
The Unexpected Consequences of Love by Jill Mansell
Sourcebooks Landmark, $14.00 Paperback, 9781492602088, 432 pp
Publication Date: February 3, 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), link HERE

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Valley Fever

A broken romantic relationship propels a disillusioned young woman back to her hometown of Fresno, Calif., in Katherine Taylor's vivid, enjoyable second novel, Valley Fever. This story of family, friendship, loyalty and betrayal is narrated by sharp-witted, 30-something Ingrid Palamede, who settles into the colorful backdrop of the Central Valley and her family's faltering 20,000-acre riverside vineyard--Palamede Farms. The vineyard has a storied history: Ingrid's father, Ned, inherited his first hundred acres and, over the years, kept buying and cultivating more land. But the farm is now in financial trouble, Ned is ill and Ingrid's mother is contemptuous. With plenty of free time now, Ingrid offers to help. Is she the savior the farm needs?

As she becomes embroiled in the small-town landscape that shaped her, Ingrid revisits her past, brushing up against an old flame, an estranged best friend and an employee suspected of stealing from the farm. Ingrid's sister, Anne--a successful voice-over actress in Los Angeles who would do anything for her--is leery about Ingrid's plight. And then there's "Uncle" Felix, Ned's oldest and dearest friend, another vintner, who makes his living by purchasing grapes from other farmers--including the Palamedes. With Ingrid in charge, will Felix hold up his end of the bargain, or will sour grapes and self-interest trump professional bonds?

Taylor (Rules for Saying Goodbye) delivers a vivid, bittersweet, entertaining drama that harvests ripe truths about self-discovery, the workings of the heart and the tangled vines of families and fortunes.

Valley Fever: A Novel by Katherine Taylor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26 Hardcover, 9780374299149, 304 pp   
Publication Date: June 9, 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 (6/30/15), click HERE

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Commentary: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee


The buzz has been building for Go Set a Watchman. This long-awaited first novel was written 50 years ago by Harper Lee before she re-tooled it as To Kill a Mockingbird. I've always been a fan of Mockingbird and Lee (see my Op-Ed in The Record,  7/6/10). And while, as a writer, I am very intrigued by the whole premise of reading the vision of a work before it was edited, early reviews of the novel are making me very leery. And I would bet there have been more articles and criticism already written about—and in anticipation of—Watchman than the 288 pages of the novel itself!

Reviews of Watchman have been disillusioned and unsettling. Most notably (and shockingly) is the character of lawyer and father, Atticus Finch. In Mockingbird, he was a paragon of virtue. In Watchman, reviewers are saying he is a racist bigot—who even attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting.  Watchman is set 20 years later than Mockingbird and builds on the premise of now 20-year-old Scout and her return visit to Maycomb, Ala. from where she now lives in New York City. Upon arriving back in her hometown, Scout is shocked to find that her father holds "abhorrent views on race and segregation," according to Michiko Kakutani  of The New York Times.

How did this happen?

If this review and others are accurate in their assessments, then the very idea of Watchman is confusing and troubling. Was Mockingbird scrubbed of Atticus's racist tendencies in order to make him and the story more commercially viable—to appeal to the masses, a wide swatch of African-Americans and Caucasians? If so, was this choice an artistically aesthetic choice or simply a means to drive up book sales? What might be the reason why Lee would recast Atticus so significantly from a racist "sinner" in Watchman into a morally upright and virtuous "saint" in Mockingbird ?  Yes, the novel is fiction, as is the character of Atticus Finch (although he is said to be closely based on Lee's own father). But for a writer, this would be like rewriting the character of Mother Theresa into an abusive harridan the likes of Joan Crawford!

Mockingbird has sold well over 50 million copies. What author wouldn't want their work read and enjoyed, debated and celebrated by the masses? It remains required reading in schools throughout the USA and beyond. And yes, Lee has made millions and even won a Pulitzer Prize for Mockingbird

But did Lee pay a price—in her soul—to craft the Mockingbird narrative away from her original vision as found in Watchman?

Mockingbird is and will more than likely remain a classic novel. But might Lee have felt, deep down, that she "sold out" her vision by acquiescing to editorial demands--overhauling the Atticus of Watchman in order to make the good and evil aspects of Mockingbird more black-and-white (pardon the pun) and more marketable? Could it be that she felt it was best to let the worldly success and glory of Mockingbird remain as is and never allow her work (or even herself) to be doctored for mass appeal ever again? Might her 50-years of public silence be more understandable when viewed in this context?

Which leads to my next question: if early reviews of Watchman are discerningly on-target, then did Lee really sanction its publication? Could suspicions of Lee's lack of cognizance be accurate? Why would she strip off the idyllic finish of Atticus as portrayed in Mockingbird and tarnish his persona by finally exposing his "dark side" in Watchman? And why now? Was Lee manipulated into publishing Watchman just as she was manipulated to rewrite the essence of Watchman and transform it into the more idealistic version of Mockingbird?  

On the flip side remains the possibility that Lee is completely aware of her intentions—that she is fully mindful and astute. Whether she "sold out" her story or not for Mockingbird, perhaps before her life ends, she wants, for her own peace of mind, for others to experience her original vision, the way she first envisioned the novel?  After all, considering the strides made for equality over the past 50 years, the racial divide is still miles apart and a hot-button issue—especially with the police-civilian riots in St. Louis and Baltimore and the Charleston, South Carolina church massacre. Perhaps Lee has been closely watching current world events unfold and believes Watchman—with its darker, less politically correct themes—may prove even more relevant today than if the book was released 50 years before?

Calculated decision or coercion, we'll likely never know the author's true intent or the real story behind the reasons for publication of Watchman. And maybe "not knowing" will, in the end, serve to further ratchet up book sales, intensify conversations and debates about the continued racial unrest in our country and ultimately make Watchman even more appealing and well-read than Mockingbird.

"To Kill A Watchman?" (commentary) © 2015 by Kathleen Gerard 
Note: Do not reprint, reproduce, post online or copy without proper attribution 

Harper, $27.99 Hardcover, 9780062409850, 288 pp

Publication Date: July 14, 2015

To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (50th Anniversary Edition)

Harper Torch, $25.00 Hardcover, 9780061743528, 323 pp

Publication Date: May 11, 2010

To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE