Posts Tagged ‘Beth Hoffman’

leavittEisenhower-era conformity and Cold War suspicion inform Caroline Leavitt’s  involving Is This  Tomorrow (Algonquin, trade paperback review copy), where the mystery of a missing child shapes the lives of a neighboring  family. Ava Lark sticks out in the Boston suburb where she rents a house in 1956: a head-turning, divorced, Jewish working mom. Friendly, too, which goes over well with the neighborhood husbands and kids but not the wives and mothers. Her smart 12-year-old son Lewis is also an outsider, casually bullied at school by students who don’t understand his religion and by teachers who wish he would stop with the questions. But he does have two close friends, the fatherless siblings Jimmy and Rose.

When Jimmy disappears — and Ava may have been the last to see him — the police and neighbors have questions, which scare off Ava’s boyfriend, jazz musician Jake. Fast forward to 1963. Lewis has left home to work as a nurse’s aide; he shuns intimacy. He long ago lost touch with Rose, now a lonely schoolteacher who still pines for Lewis. Ava has moved forward, using her pie-making skills to supplement her job as a secretary, but she still lives in the same neighborhood. When Jimmy’s remains are found, Lewis, Rose and Ava awkwardly reunite and face uncomfortable revelations. Leavitt’s spot-on with her ’50s/’60s suburbia as she explores the mystery of  family and character.

lookingformeA brother goes missing in Beth Hoffman’s Looking for Me (Viking/Pamela Dorman, advance readers’ copy), her follow-up to her memorable first novel Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. Like that book, this new one also offers a firm sense of place (the Kentucky hills and Charleston, S.C.) and a colorful cast of Southern characters. The narrative’s a bit choppy, though, as furniture restorer Teddi Overman jumps around in telling  about life in 1990s Charleston, where she owns a successful antiques store, and her girlhood on a Kentucky farm, filling in the backstory in fits and starts.

The Charleston scenes, from the time she apprentices herself to a crusty old dealer to the time when she runs her own show, would make a charming chick-lit tale on their own. Teddi meets her best pal Olivia in a cemetery for quick heart-to-hearts; she turns trashed items into treasures; she enjoys a sweet romance with a local attorney. The visits to Kentucky add drama, as Teddi contends with a controlling mother and wonders about the whereabouts of her free-spirited brother, who disappeared into the woods he loved years ago. Packing up the old house after her mother’s sudden death, Teddi finds clues that Josh may still be alive. “We sift and search and question as we try to discover our truths and the truths of those we love. . .”

typistThe Roaring Twenties are just a dull hum for Rose Baker, the canny narrator of Suzanne Rindell’s clever debut The Other Typist (Amy Einhorn/Putnam, digital galley). An orphan raised in a convent and living in a drab boarding house, Rose takes pride in her work as a police stenographer at a Manhattan precinct in 1923. She doesn’t make mistakes when she takes even the most lurid confessions under the watchful eye of the fatherly sergeant or the flash lieutenant. 

Enter the new girl in the typing pool, the glamorous, enigmatic Odalie, and prudish Rose, first disdainful of this other typist, is soon vying for her attention. The two become fast friends, and Rose immerses herself in Odalie’s life of speakeasies, bootleggers and posh hotels. But this Cinderella tale darkens as Rose’s fascination with the unreliable Odalie turns into obsession, and Rose is in over her head. Or is she?  Murder will out.

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I picked up Katie Crouch’s YA novel The Magnolia League thinking it sounded something like last year’s Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman. Forget that.

Despite a similarity in plot — motherless girls whisked away to genteel Savannah — Hoffman’s coming-of-age tale is sweetly conventional. Not so with Crouch’s spicy story, in which 16-year-old Alexandra Lee lands among the mean Magnolias and discovers “nothing in Savannah is what it seems.”

Wicked fun ensues as dreadlocked Alex, raised on an organic farm commune in California, is taken in hand by her formidable grandmother after her bohemian mother Louise is killed in a car accident. Grandmother Lee heads the elite Magnolia League and immediately deputizes two of its younger members, the impossibly privileged and pretty Hayes and Madison, to transform Alex into a designer-clad debutante so she can assume her rightful place in society.

Alex is an uneasy Cinderella, comfortable in her vintage T-shirts, aghast at her new friends’ consumerism, longing for the boyfriend she left behind who seems to have forgotten her. She finds a pal in Dexter, another high school outsider who doesn’t care about the Magnolias, but she’s still impressed by Hayes’ handsome prepster brother. She’s curious, too, as to why her grandmother keeps her mom’s girlhood room locked and warns her to stay away from Dr. Sam Buzzard and his family, who appear to have a strange hold on the Magnolias. Can you say hoo-doo?

Alex is both fascinated and repelled as she learns more of the old African rituals and potions. Suspense builds as the annual debutante ball approaches. Will Alex accept her “destiny”? It’s no mistake that “That Old Black Magic” (Savannah’s Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics) is playing in the background as Crouch adroitly sets the stage for a sequel. Can’t wait.

In such previous books as Garden Spells and The Girl Who Chased the Moon, Sarah Addison Allen has captivated with her own brand of dreamy Southern magical realism.  She’s a kinder, gentler Alice Hoffman, so her tales are not as dark nor deep.

The Peach Keeper, set in a North Carolina mountain town, offers family rivalries, secrets, superstitions and an actual skeleton that appears when old peach tree is uprooted during the renovation of the old Jackson family mansion, The Blue Ridge Madame, into a ritzy inn.

 Willa Jackson, who has returned to her hometown after a disappointing decade, runs a small sporting goods/coffee shop catering to out-of-town hikers. Paxton Osgood, whose family ascended into society after scandal befell the Jacksons, is overseeing the opening of the Madam with the same poise and efficiency with which she runs the local women’s club founded by hers and Willia’s grandmothers.

 Both old ladies reside in the same senior home, but Willa’s grandmother Georgie has slipped into senility. Paxton’s grandmother remains sharp as a tack but keeps secrets as well, especially as regards Tucker Devlin, the traveling salesman who long ago charmed her, Georgie and every other young woman in town.

Paxton and Willa have their own romantic troubles. Paxton believes her love for her handsome best  friend is unrequited, while Willa won’t admit her attraction to Paxton’s twin brother, in town for the gala opening. Oh, what fools these mortals be! Can’t they feel the magic stirring in the shadows, smell the scent of smoke and peaches?

Allen displays her usual light touch. The story’s not much in the way of suprises, but the resolution should please readers. My favorite scene remains one midway through when Willa rescues an unusually drunk Paxton from some local thugs, and the two begin to sift through years of misunderstanding on both sides.

Open Book: I read a digital advance of The Magnolia League (Little, Brown) through NetGalley. I’m probably going to buy a copy to go with my other Katie Crouch books, Girls in Trucks and Men and Dogs, both set in the South Carolina lowcountry. Crouch has family on Edisto Island, as do I, and really knows the local color. I bought my copy of Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper (Bantam).

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Yes, you read that right. SIBA — the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance — has announced its pick of the winter/spring 2010 crop of books. Go to www. sibaweb.com to see the list. Congrats to all the authors involved. Several of these books were already on my radar — Connie May Fowler’s How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, a new collection of short stories from Ron Rash, journalist Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s memoir Enchanted Evening Barbie and The Second Coming. The latter’s publisher, New South Books, already has sent me a galley.

But I also am now looking forward to the other tasty-sounding Southern-fried offerings. How ’bout Gullah Cuisine: By Land and Sea by Charlotte Jenkins and William Baldwin?! And my Sisters-in-Crime pal Patricia Sprinkle has a March novel, Hold Up the Sky.

I think I need a snack to tide me over. Maybe Beth Hoffman’s Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, which is already in stores.

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