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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Mallery’

unlikelySure, some of you are headed back to school and work, and you have my sympathy. But others are headed out to the pool or back to the beach to savor what has been a summer for the books. There have been so many that I actually lost track of what I’ve reviewed. I wonder what I was doing in June that was so important that I forgot to write about Judy Blume’s  In the Unlikely Event (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), a novel that thoughtfully explores the impact of a series of plane crashes on the townspeople of Elizabeth, N.J., in the winter of 1951-52. As usual, Blume’s writing is assured and accessible, her sympathetic characters flawed in familiar ways. The story is studded with period details: hats and gloves, wood-paneled rec rooms, cocktails and cigarettes. I quite liked it.

darkdarkMaybe I was distracted by a couple of thrillers I read back-to-back, S.J. Watson’s Second Life (HarperCollins, digital galley) and S.K. Tremayne’s The Ice Twins (Grand Central, digital galley). Watson’s follow-up to Before I Go to Sleep features a woman who goes on an online dating sight in attempt to solve the murder of her sister and becomes caught up in an erotic affair. I remember reviews commenting on the surprise ending. Didn’t surprise me. Neither did Tremayne’s implausible tale of a grieving mother on a remote island puzzled as to the true identity of her surviving twin daughter. For some eerie psychological suspense, I recommend Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood (Gallery/Scout Press, digital galley), in which a crime writer tries to remember the events of a girls’ weekend at the secluded Glass House after waking up in a hospital. There was snow. And there was blood.

lakeroadWare’s writing reminded me of Sophie Hannah when she’s at the top of her game. Alas, Hannah’s latest, Woman With a Secret (Morrow, digital galley), is kind of a mess, with an unreliable narrator narrating too much of the story of a murder of a controversial columnist. Detectives Waterhouse, Zailler and crew have a difficult time sorting out all the many unpleasant suspects, and the narrative is stuffed with tiresome e-mails, Twitter exchanges and online rants. Really didn’t care for Naughty Nicki and her secret cyber affairs. Secrets from the past, of course, are a staple of beach books. In Karen Katchur’s atmospheric The Secrets of Lake Road (St. Martin’s digital galley), a missing girl at a lakeside resort stirs up Jo’s carefully guarded memories of her high school boyfriend’s drowning 16 years ago. But Jo’s daughter, 12-year-old Caroline, about to leave childhood behind, steals every scene she narrates. Wendy Wax temporarily abandons her beachside setting in A Week at the Lake (Berkeley, review copy), but she’s still writing about female friendships, loyalty and betrayal. Emma, Mackenzie and Serena all have show-business connections and secrets, which give their story a glossy, dishy patina.

moviestarReal stars, including Clark Gable and Martina Dietrich, appear in Peter  Davis’ first novel of 1930s Hollywood, Girl of My Dreams (Open Road, review copy), but the focus is on a young screenwriter in love with a glamorous actress — the improbably named Palmyra Millevoix — who is also pursued by a studio tycoon. The tale of this triangle unreels with an overlay of nostalgia for celluloid dreams. Feel free to speculate as to which contemporary stars inspired celebrity memoirist Hilary Liftin’s Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper (Viking Penguin, digital galley). It’s to Liftin’s credit that this faux memoir is more than tabloid fodder as young Lizzie recounts her courtship and marriage to mega-star Rob Mars, whose attachment to a cult-like spiritual group interferes with their relationship. Living a seemingly luxurious life for all the world to see, Lizzie has to decide if she’s going to become the heroine of her own story.

lawyerSometimes in summer, a girl just wants to have fun, which is when I read Susan Mallery’s Fools Gold fluffy romances. She offered a trilogy this year: Hold Me (Harlequin, digital galley), in which secret singer Destiny and Olympic skier Kipling work search-and-rescue together; Kiss Me (Harlequin, digital galley), the love story between city girl Phoebe and cowboy Zane; and Thrill Me (Harlequin, digital galley), where Maya returns to town and runs into former flame Del.  Court and spark. But the book I fell hard for was Lee Robinson’s engaging Lawyer for the Dog (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), in which 49-year-old Charleston attorney Sally Baynard is appointed by a family court judge — also her ex-husband — to represent a miniature schnauzer in a custody dispute between a divorcing couple. Trying to figure out what’s best for adorable Sherman also means Sally has to figure out what’s best for her dementia-afflicted mother and for her own heart. Will it be the ex-husband, the Johns Island vet, or maybe a dog all her own? There’s real substance beneath the fluff; call this one more than puppy love.

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dorothyYou just can’t keep a good ghost down, especially when she’s as smart and tart-tongued as Dorothy Parker. Ellen Meister resurrected the literary legend as a not-always-blithe spirit in 2013’s Farewell, Dorothy Parker and brings her back in a nifty follow-up Dorothy Parker Slept Here (Penguin/Putnam, digital galley). Mrs. Parker is still haunting the halls of the Algonquin Hotel, but she admits to being lonely since all her famous pals have elected to move on to the afterlife. She sets her sights on Ted Shriver, a famous writer brought down by a plagiarism scandal, who has holed up in the hotel with a brain tumor. If Mrs. Parker can get him to sign the magical guest book before he checks out, she’ll have a new drinking buddy. But bitter, irascible Shriver will have nothing to do with her or young TV producer Norah Wolfe, who desperately wants to interview him, unless, perhaps, they can help him with a few things. Shenanigans ensue in this appropriately witty and surprisingly sweet tale.

carefreeYou binge watch Girls on HBO and then you feel sort of sad. Yes, you laughed, but you also cringed at the awkward hook-ups, the intense friendships, the dramatic highs, the despairing lows. Being a veteran of Sex and the City, you also know that grown-up girls also have emotionally messy lives. The women in Katherine Heiney’s bouyant collection of short stories, Single, Carefree, Mellow (Knopf, digital galley) are more likely to be married, anxious and faithless, but they’re a fun, frank bunch. Here’s wife and mother Nina in “Blue Heron Bridge,” caught up in an affair: “Oh, it was horrible to have a teenager’s emotions and a forty year old’s body. It was humliating. It was depressing. It was degrading. It made her feel alive to the very tips of her toes.” Myra, who appears in several stories, juggles her married French boss with her longtime boyfriend and his family. Friends support one another through boyfriend crises in “The Dive Bar” and “Thoughts of a Bridesmaid.” In “Cranberry Relish,” a woman tries to sort out failed expectations. “Josie thinks that the problem with being a writer is that you miss a lot of your life wondering if the things that happen to you are good enough to use in a story, and most of the time they’re not and you have to make shit up anyway.”

actofgodJill Ciment’s Act of God: A Novel (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) is a stylish mix of comedy and tragedy that reminds me of a the old saying “for want of a nail, the shoe was lost, etc., etc.” From the moment that 64-year-old identical twins Kat and Edith find the eerily glowing mushroom in their late mother’s Brooklyn townhouse, their lives, and those of their neighbors, quickly unravel. What turns out to be a peculiar toxic mold spawns one disaster after another, the contagion unwittingly spread by the twins, their actress landlady — who ignored Edith’s calls — and a runaway Russian au pair who was hiding in an upstairs closet. Soon, there are haz-mat units, condemned buildings, and community shelters for those who have nowhere else to go. It’s like one of those cheesy ’50 flicks where giant ants come out of the woodwork or maybe an episode of Dr. Who, but it’s also a scenario familiar from the wake of natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Ciment has a light touch, but the cumulative effect of her pop-culture satire is poignant and provocative.

mischiefStart your summer reading early with Susan Mallery’s The Girls of Mischief Bay (Mira, digital galley), although her three friends are hardly girls. Nicole is the youngest at 30, owns a Pilates studio in a seaside California town and is married to a wanna-be screenwriter. Almost 40, Shannon has a successful career in finance but a poor record with men and relationships. Recently turned 50, Pam is happily married but wonders if Botox might keep her more youthful. When life becomes an obstacle race for each of the three, they turn to one another for help over the hurdles. Nicole feels her husband has lost interest in her and their 5-year-old son. Shannon’s new guy comes with emotional baggage and shared custody of two kids. Pam’s life is upended by a tragedy out of the blue. The novel, the first in a new series, has more in common with the domestic drama of Mallery’s Blackberry Island trilogy than her Fool’s Gold series of romances but should satisfy readers of both with its credible characters coping with life’s changes.

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blissOne of my favorite holiday-themed tales is my friend Mary Kay Andrews’ Blue Christmas, which is warm, sweet and funny, complete with a hilarious turkey-carving disaster. So I blissfully gobbled up Christmas Bliss (St. Martin’s, purchased e-book), which is the diverting follow-up, featuring more of Weezie and Bebe’s excellent adventures. It’s the week before Christmas and Weezie is prepping for her small Christmas Eve wedding to Daniel, Savannah’s hottest chef. Except Daniel’s showing off his culinary expertise to the sultry owner of a chi-chi restaurant in Manhattan. Meanwhile, bestie Bebe is happily and heavily pregnant, juggling her job on Tybee, renovations on a new house, and worries about her charter-boat captain beau Harry’s career. As Weezie hops on a plane for a surprise trip to New York, Bebe is left with mischievous mutt Jethro and the burning secret that she is still married to her snake of an ex-husband. All sorts of complications ensue — including Weezie losing both her coat and shoes in separate big-city mishaps, and Bebe enduring a baby shower — but Andrews neatly wraps up the intersecting storylines into a package that’s merry and bright.

starryDebbie Macomber’s Starry Night (Random House, digital galley) is about as improbable as me shedding pounds over the holidays, but at least it’s a no-cal treat. Chicago reporter Carrie Slayton hopes to trade the society beat for hard news with an exclusive interview with best-selling wilderness author Finn Dalton. Only the reclusive Finn never gives interviews, not even when Carrie eventually tracks him to Alaska and hires a bush pilot to drop her off  at Finn’s isolated cabin with a snowstorm howling at her heels. Forced together in close quarters, the odd couple find some common ground, but their mutual attraction isn’t great enough to overcome Finn’s issues with love-’em-and-leave-’em women like his mom and his ex. Carrie returns to Chicago without her scoop or Finn — until he comes looking for her. Awwww. 

fourthA snowstorm also plays Cupid in Susan Mallery’s Christmas on 4th Street (Harlequin, digital gallery), another winning entry in her Fool Gold’s series of contemporary romances. It’s only slightly more realistic than Starry Night, but Mallery’s fans are used to almost-magical events in the small California town. Putting tragedy behind her, Noelle Perkins forsakes her law career to open the Christmas Attic shop on 4th Street. She’s brimming with holiday cheer, unlike Army surgeon Gabriel Boylan, coming off a hard tour overseas to visit his brother. Gabriel is undecided about his next move, although his exacting drill sergeant dad expects him to continue in the military. Lovely Noelle has him considering his options, but their romance craters until the aforementioned storm and an ensuing avalanche intervene. Sweet.

flynnKatie Flynn’s A Christmas to Remember (Random House Adult Trade, digital galley) is one of several books by popular British authors to be released globally as e-books. Flynn’s warm-hearted tale is a bit soapy and predictable, covering seven years after World War II as young Tess Williams grows up in Liverpool, where food is still rationed and times are hard. Living with her grandmother Edie above a hat shop, bright Tess makes friends with widower tobacconist Albert Payne, tangles with mean girl Marilyn, is torn between the affections of farmer boy Jonty and city boy Snowy, and wonders whether to go to university or get a job. An accident and then a stray cat set her on an unexpected path. All’s well that ends well with another memorable holiday. More for fans of East Enders than Downton Abbey, although I like both.

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Novelist Meg Wolitzer has a thoughtful essay in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review about women’s literary fiction and how it often is unjustly  relegated to “the second shelf” below books by men. She notes, however, that she is using the term “women’s fiction” to discuss “literature that happens to be written by women,” and not “a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and may well find a big ready-made audience.”

In other words, “popular fiction,” “chick-lit,” “beach books.” Oh, please. I understand that many writers and publishers and critics care very much about the distinctions, which are handy labels for booksellers and librarians, but most readers don’t. They’re looking for good books of all kinds, and, yes, covers can signal  appealing subject matter, but so what?  The contents are what counts, and a great many readers happily turn the pages of Anne Tyler, Anne Rivers Siddons and Anne of Green Gables. (Also Anonymous, but that’s another story for another day.)

I’ve been thinking of this because I just read three very different novels that are being marketed as “women’s fiction.”

In the appropriately dishy Gossip (Morrow; hardcover review copy), Beth Gutcheon follows three friends through the years, with a twist. Although Lovie has been good friends with both Dinah and Avis since boarding school days in the early 1960s, the other two have little in common except Lovie and her tony dress shop. That changes when Dinah’s favorite son, who is also Lovie’s godson, falls in love with Avis’ only daughter.

Lovie is a likable, sometimes catty and possibly unreliable narrator as she recounts Dinah’s short career as a newspaper columnist, Avis’ marriage to a wealthy drunk, and her own long-running affair with an older, married man. As in The New Girls (my favorite of Gutcheon’s many novels), the characters’ lives typify the times. “Dinah said it was as if we’d all gone to sleep one night in the world of Edith Wharton and awakened the next morning at Woodstock.”

Love that Janis Joplin inspires the title of Jane Green’s latest, Another Piece of My Heart (St. Martin’s Press; hardcover library copy), but that’s about it when it comes to this grating tale of a war between stepmom Andi and teenage Emily. Green gives both about equal time to tell their side of things and how Emily’s pregnancy rips the fabric of family, but they’re equally unpleasant characters. Andi whines, Emily bitches, they’re both selfish. I wanted to tell them both to shut up, but I shut the book instead.

By contrast, I was sorry to come to the end of Susan Mallery’s winning Barefoot Season (Mira, digital galley via NetGalley), which is a lot more than the beach book its cover indicates. Michelle Sanderson and Carly Williams were best friends growing up until Michelle’s betrayal severed their bond. Now, 10 years later, Michelle, an Army vet with a bum hip and PTSD, returns to her family’s small inn on Puget Sound after the death of her difficult mother.  She finds the business struggling against heavy debt and is quick to  blame single mom Carly, who has been managing the inn in hopes of becoming part-owner. Forced to work together by a loan officer with her own agenda, Michelle and Carly have to confront the past and weather the present if either is going to have a future on Blackberry Island.

Mallery is best-known for her numerous contemporary romances, and while both Michelle and Carly are looking for new loves, their friendship and the relationship between mothers-and-daughters is center-stage. It’s often heavy-duty stuff, but Mallery’s not heavy-handed as she mixes trust and betrayal, heartbreak and humor. I’m looking forward to the next entry in the promised series.

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