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Posts Tagged ‘Charleston’

bordelloIt’s just a few days until Christmas — and P.I. Liz Talbot’s planned wedding to her partner Nate Andrews — when Liz gets a frantic call from bestie and bridesmaid Olivia that she’s stumbled over a body in the parlor of her great aunt’s historic home in downtown Charleston. Oh, and Olivia thinks the dead man is her attorney husband Robert, but y’know it was dark and she didn’t turn on the lights she was so upset. . .  So Liz rushes from nearby island Stella Maris — just a ferry and a couple bridges away — only to find that if there was a body, it’s gone now, and Robert’s very much alive.

But that’s just the beginning of Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry Bordello (Henery Press, digital galley), the fourth caper in this Southern charmer of a series. The next day, a body does turn up in a nearby park — that of Thurston Middleton, local developer and aspiring politician, as well as a longtime client of Aunt Dean’s high-class house of prostitution. What started as a proper boarding house has evolved into a home where local men keep their “nieces.” Olivia is part-owner of the house and begs Liz and Nate to help investigate, but quickly and quietly. Ha!

Boyer again crafts an entertaining cozy that comes with a supernatural flourish courtesy of Liz’s guardian ghost Colleen. Readers of the previous books will feel right at home, although newcomers might be tripped up by the rush of events — Murder! Wedding! Christmas! Still, a very merry time.

bronteKatherine Reay’s The Bronte Plot (Thomas Nelson, digital galley) is something of a hybrid: literary tribute, romance, travelogue, coming-of-age story, morality tale. Lucy Alling, a Chicago rare book dealer, loves a good story, so much so that she can’t resist telling little white lies. Then her boyfriend James breaks up with her over a big lie, and Lucy realizes that if she wants to emulate the strong literary heroines she so admires, she needs to change her life. The first step is accompanying James’ wealthy and frail grandmother Helen on a two-week antique-buying trip to England, despite James’ disapproval. Helen and Lucy have a lot in common, it turns out, and their mutual reckoning with their pasts proves revelatory as they visit London and then Haworth, the home of the Brontes.  A side trip to the Lake District also proves necessary.

Reay knows England and English lit, so her story is replete with scenic details and appropriate  literary allusions. The main characters — Lucy, James and Helen — are flawed and engaging as they struggle with doubt and moral ambiguity. Will they get the happy ending of a Victorian novel? Reader, I’m not going to tell you.

rufflesThe title character of Nancy Martin’s Miss Ruffles Inherits Everything (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover) is not a pampered princess pooch despite her fancy moniker. She’s an energetic Texas cattle cur who likes to chase prairie dogs and dig in the garden, as well as snap at the gentleman callers visiting her owner, wealthy widow Honeybelle Hensley. When Honeybelle drops dead of a heart attack, her family, friends and, indeed, all the townspeople of Mule Stop, Texas, are stunned to learn she’s left Miss Ruffles the bulk of her fortune. Honeybelle’s personal assistant and dogsitter Sunny,  cook Mae Mae and butler Mr. Carver will each receive $1 million dollars if they take good care of Miss Ruffles for the next year and then find her a good home.

Sunny, a Yankee newcomer from Ohio, is stunned when she becomes the object of vicious rumors, although she, too, has her suspicions about Honeybelle’s death. But she’s more worried about protecting Miss Ruffles from Honeybelle’s kin, especially her snobby daughter-in-law who was planning on dumping the dog at the pound while she produced her younger sister’s wedding in Honeybelle’s prized rose garden. Then there’s the university president who was hoping for Honeybelle to foot the bill for a new football stadium, and the goodlooking cowboy/attorney who is slated to be the groom in the upcoming rose garden nuptials. When Miss Ruffles is dognapped and held for ransom, Sunny sets out to rescue the rascally canine. Mayhem ensues on several fronts.

Despite some busy plotting and cliched characters, Martin’s tale is an agreeable bit of fluff, wirh lots of bark and a little bite. Miss Ruffles steals every scene she’s in, but it’s lookalike pup Fred who stole my heart.

 

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palmettodoveThis was going to be a different post when I started writing it last week. It was called “Summer Lowdown,” and it was about how I was homesick for the South Carolina Lowcountry — family, friends, food — after reading four beach books set in my favorite part of the world. But that was before nine people were shot in a downtown Charleston church, leaving me heartsick that such a hate crime could happen in this day and age in the United States, especially in a city I hold dear.

Many people have written many things about Charleston in the week since the tragedy, and I’ve read news accounts, blog posts, editorials and essays in an attempt at understanding. I’ve heard the powerful words of forgiveness from the victims’ families. I’ve talked with friends who are as surprised and saddened as I am about the ignorance and racial antagonism still showing up on social media. I grew up in the Carolinas and have lived in the South most of my life. My grandmother told me how her mother remembered being a child and her daddy — my great-great grandfather — coming home from the Civil War, walking down the dirt road to their lowcountry farm. I went to college with classmates who had Confederate flag beach towels.

I’m not posting the reviews of the four books today. They’re all good escapist fiction, and I’ll wrap them up with other summer reading picks in the weeks ahead. But if you want something good to read and think about, I’ll make two recommendations. One is something Josephine Humphreys wrote about growing up in the segregated South and posted to Facebook last night. You can use this link to where I shared it on my timeline: Charleston

Humphreys writes about what changed her. To Kill a Mockingbird started the change in me. My aunt gave me Harper Lee’s novel when I was in the fifth grade, and it’s been a favorite ever since, read so many times I know passages by heart. I was planning on a reread before Go Set a Watchman comes out next month. I think I’ll start now.

 

 

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marycelesteWhat are the odds? The evening news tells of an abandoned ship sailing the Atlantic filled with cannibal rats. On a recent episode of PBS’s Sherlock, a reference is made to the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Then the novel I’m reading, Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, digital galley), includes an abandoned ship, a chapter titled “The Giant Rat of Sumatra” and Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Synchronicity. Serendipity. Martin makes elegant use of both as she stitches fact and fiction about shipwrecks, spiritualism, and Doyle flexing his storytelling skills. He is one of many fascinated by the actual mystery of the Mary Celeste, an American brig found floating at sea in 1872 with her cargo intact, her crew nowhere to be found. He even writes a bizarre tale about such a ship where a passenger goes berserk and murders all aboard, presenting it as an authentic account. Traveling in America in the 1894, he savors his new fame, not realizing that Philadelphia medium Violet Petra has a link to the tragedy. He thinks Violet is truly clairvoyant, but journalist Phoebe Grant is certain she’s a fake. Writing from multiple perspectives, Martin offers a story as rich and strange as one of Doyle’s. Full fathom five . . .

harrisRobert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy (Knopf, digital galley) recounts the infamous Dreyfus Affair from the viewpoint of an actual French army officer, George Picquart, who like many of his compatriots believes Capt. Alfred Dreyfus is a traitor. But shortly after Dreyfus is stripped of his rank in 1895 and shipped off to Devil’s Island, Picquart is promoted to head the military’s counterespionage unit and finds evidence that another spy has been passing secrets to the Germans. He also realizes that Dreyfus is the victim of a anti-Semitic conspiracy by military higher-ups, who aren’t pleased by Picquart’s investigation and derail his career. Harris unravels the complexities of the case with a novelist’s flair and a historian’s eye for detail, but I didn’t find it as thrilling as his novels The Ghost, Enigma or Archangel, where he allowed his imagination free rein.

inventionSomething similar occurs in Sue Monk Kidd’s involving The Invention of Wings (Viking, digital galley), which was inspired by the life of Sarah Grimke, a real-life abolitionist and feminist from Charleston, S.C. It’s a matter of record, Kidd writes in an afterward, that Sarah was presented with a house slave, 10-year-old Hetty, on her 11th birthday. The real Hetty died young, but Kidd re-imagines her as spirited and resourceful “Handful,” who is more pragmatic about her fate than precocious Sarah, who tries to emancipate her. When that fails, she teaches Hetty to read, and both girls are severely punished. Their friendship is tested by time and distance — Sarah finding refuge in Quaker Philadelphia, Hetty still a slave in the Grimke household — but both persevere in their ambitions and ideals. The dual narratives work well for the most part, but Hetty’s story is more harrowing and heartbreaking. Although Sarah’s accomplishments are many and laudable, she just isn’t as compelling a character when contrasted with the imagined Hetty. Both are strong women, but Hetty is more memorable, more real.

mrsblakeApril Smith is quick to write that while the circumstances of her new novel are factual, the majority of the characters are fictional. Still, A Star for Mrs. Blake (Knopf, digital galley),  has the veracity of real lives and true emotion. In 1931, Cora Blake is a librarian in a Maine fishing village whose only son died in World War I. As a “Gold Star Mother,” she joins a group of other women on a government-sponsored trip to France to visit the graves of the fallen and bid a final goodbye. The group line-up is familiar from central casting — the Boston society matron, the Jewish farmer’s wife under her husband’s thumb, the Irish maid. A Southern black seamstress has the same surname as a woman recently released from a mental hospital, but the group’s escorts, 2nd Lt. Thomas Hammond  and nurse Lily Barnett, quickly resolve the mix-up. The voyage over and the visit to the Meuse-Argonne is crowded with incident: flirtations, affairs, a scandal, a secret or two. Cora remains the star of the story; of particular interest is her friendship with a badly scarred war reporter who wears a tin mask and her relationship with the good man who waits for her at home. Throughout, Smith’s lovely writing elevates the story above  sentimental predictability.

underskyAs someone who learned to read from A Child’s Garden of Verses and has long been fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and works, I had great expectations of Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Random House, digital galley). The Scottish writer and his plucky, older American wife Fanny Osbourne had a-larger-than-life romance and marriage marked by RSL’s health troubles, frequent travel to exotic locales and career conflicts. And it’s still a good story, although Horan’s workaday prose threatens to rob Louis and Fanny of all vitality, turning them into characters who profess passion — for art and literature, for one another, for a wide and starry life — but who never leap off the page. Maybe someone should make a movie. . .

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edistopigNo more Pig chicken. It’s true — come Saturday, the Edisto Beach Piggly Wiggly is closing its doors and the grocery store that has prided itself on being “local since forever” will be gone forever.  Oh, the building will reopen later in November as a Bi-Lo, but it won’t be the same. Several staff members say they’re staying on, but we haven’t heard yet if the deli  will return with fried chicken on the menu. Bi-Lo would be smart to continue the tradition because the Pig has been serving “Mrs. Mac’s fried chicken” since 1967 when former school lunch lady Nel McNaughton took over the deli at a West Ashley Piggly-Wiggly in Charleston. Mrs. Mac passed in 2008 at age 92, and that West Ashley store at Dupont Crossing is gone as well, but the Lowcountry is still eating up her chicken by the 8-piece box full at family dinners and church suppers, club meetings and beach picnics.

When word went out in early September that Bi-Lo and Harris-Teeter had bought a bunch — or should that be herd? — of Pigs in South Carolina, Twitter and Facebook lit up. I was in Florida and called my sister-in-law to hustle down to the  Edisto Pig and pick me up a Pig T-shirt before they all disappeared. By the time she got there that afternoon, the size selection was limited to tiny tots or football players. So now I am the proud owner of a pink T-shirt, XX-L, “Piggly Wiggly Edisto Beach,” on the front, and “I’m Big on the Pig”  on the back.  Makes a great nightshirt.

I am trying to be sanguine about the Pig closing. Some folks say they can’t imagine the beach without the Pig. Well, I can. I remember when that location, years ago, was an IGA, and before that, when Marion Whaley’s little filling station/store a block off Palmetto comprised the beach’s “business district.” Now it’s a restaurant, joining the half-dozen or so dining establishments that have appeared since I was a kid and we fried our own chicken and shrimp.

edistopowellAs I was packing to come up here in September, I got an e-mail from a publicist at Open Road Integrated Media that it was publishing an e-book of an acclaimed 1984 Southern novel. Was I familiar with Edisto by Padgett Powell?

Oh, yes. When Edisto was first published, I was nearing the end of a 5-year sojourn in the Midwest and homesick for the South. But the novel confused me. I liked the wry coming-of-age of 12-year-old narrator Simons Manigault, but his late 1960s Edisto wasn’t the one I knew.  The geography was all cock-eyed. Simons (pronounced Simmons) lives in an isolated house on the beach at Edisto with his mother — the literary “Doctor” — while she’s temporarily separated from his father, but he goes to school in Bluffton? Impossible. Bluffton’s way too far away, practically to Georgia.  Then, at one point, Simons goes to church in Savannah, “the closest place you can find an Episcopal layout.” Not so. Trinity Episcopal has been on Edisto Island since 1744. Then, near book’s end, the Manigaults move to Hilton Head, like it’s just a shortish drive. Uh, no. Most of Beaufort County and St. Helena Sound are in the way.

edistonovelIt is possible that I was just a teeny bit jealous of Powell; he wasn’t much older than me and he was getting these great reviews for a first novel named after the place I loved most in the world. So I became used to explaining that Edisto the book wasn’t really like Edisto the island/or beach. Powell could just as well have called it some other Lowcountry name like Dawhoo or Fenwick or Fripp. And yet the colloquial dialogue rang true, as did Simon’s memory of the old Charleston market before it was prettyfied, and how fiddler crabs look like they’re brandishing little ivory swords.  I recognized the dusty dirt roads and rundown juke joints, the palmettos crackling in a stiff wind, the salt-smelling air, summer heat, mosquitoes.

edistorevisitBy the time Powell’s Edisto Revisited came out in 1996, I was long reconciled to his vision and discursive voice, what Simons himself refers to as “boyish, untethered locution.” The second book is something of a picaresque romp, with the house at Edisto a jumping-off point for an aimless, post-college Simons to roam the South. I love it.

It’s being published as an e-book, too, although this poses a problem for the Edisto Bookstore, where the print versions have been steady sellers for years.  Owner Karen Carter recently tried to order more copies for the store, only to have publisher FS&G say the rights have reverted to the author. Unless Open Road or another publisher decides to release paperback editions, Edisto will soon be out of print, so to speak, unless you have an e-reader. I’m happy I still have my original hardcover copies. Happier still that I have my Edisto past and present. Also the laminated PFC card in my wallet that identifies me as “Pig’s Favorite Customer.”

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badmonkeyLet’s see: A severed arm, a voodoo queen, a Medicare fraudster, a fugitive schoolteacher, a sexy coroner, a Yankee developer, a Bahamian fisherman, a demoted cop, an ambitious sheriff, a murderous widow, a pill-pushing doctor, hungry sharks, restaurant roaches, a tiny terrier, an obese Siamese, a poorly behaved primate. And, oh yes, a hurricane with a wimpy name. Carl Hiaasen doesn’t miss a trick in Bad Monkey (Knopf, digital galley), which makes it don’t-miss summer reading.

This black comedy crime caper may strike some as outlandish, but Floridians will laugh with recognition because the Sunshine State is so ripe for satirization. I found it perfectly plausible that disgraced Keys cop/health inspector Andrew Yancy would use a severed arm to angle his way into a homicide investigation and to woo a Miami medical examiner. Also, that the hairy arm in question would later go missing in a Callaway golf bag, but the media would miss the story because of the unfortunate decapitation of a country music star who collided with a cruise ship. “Rule one: A celebrity head always trumps an anonymous arm.”

Such “sad but true” details, combined with a pretzel plot and gleeful writing, make Bad Monkey a laugh-aloud romp. Carlheads, rejoice! 

lastoriginalI have a good friend (yes, Dean, you) who does a wicked snort when something strikes him funny. I’m more grin-and-giggle, but I admit to several good snorts while reading Dorothea Benton Frank’s chatty The Last Original Wife (Morrow, digital galley). In this “she said, he said” tale of a long marriage on the rocks, Leslie Anne Greene Carter, 58, and Wesley Carter, 63, confess all (or almost) in separate therapy sessions. Les, for example, explains how an incident on a vacation trip to Scotland led her to take a vacation back home to Charleston from Atlanta and reassess her life. Wes’s side of the Scotland trip has him almost missing his tee time at St. Andrews.

The laughs come because sympathetic Les’s observations on everything from “the Barbies,” Wes’s friends’ new young wives, to a romantic encounter with an old friend, are so spot-on. “I was sick-to-death with feeling bad about not being some hot number with fake tan, straight hair, and a bald you-know-what. (I still don’t understand that last one),” she says. Les makes a good case for being taken-for-granted and unloved, but she’s not mean or vengeful, even when she finds Wes has been poor-mouthing for years. A sudden urge to kick him in the teeth passes.

Readers, however, might like to give Wes kick in the you know where, he’s so self-absorbed and clueless. He’s not a bad guy; he just doesn’t get it — that is until mortality comes knocking and their two grown children come home to roost. Can this marriage be saved? Kudos to Frank for making Les see that whatever comes next, she first has to save herself.

crazyrichThe set-up of Kevin Kwan’s funny first novel is familiar: Boyfriend invites girlfriend to a family wedding so she can meet his relatives, but doesn’t tell her they’re wealthy snobs. So what’s different here? Handsome New York history prof Nicholas Young fails to tell ABC (American-born Chinese) Rachel Chu that he’s Singapore’s most eligible bachelor and that his family isn’t just rich but fabulously, extravagantly wealthy. Hence the appropos title Crazy Rich Asians (Doubleday, digital galley).

Rachel is stunned by the lavish lifestyle of private planes, opulent estates, designer clothes, old money. Although Nicholas’ cousins, glam fashionista Astrid and friendly flamboyant Oliver, are welcoming, his resolute mother Eleanor is already conspiring with her close friends to thwart any engagement. So are numerous back-stabbing socialites who see themselves as Nicholas’ princess bride. Rachel’s no slouch in the looks and education department, but she’s not connected to the Taipei Chus, or to any other dynastic Chinese family. No wonder she worries about fitting in with the Youngs and their ilk, “whose lives revolve around making money, spending money, flaunting money, comparing money, hiding money, controlling others with money, and ruining their lives over money.” 

Kwan’s comedy of manners is itself rich with telling details, Malay slang and Cantonese phrases, all defined in context or in footnotes, some of them delightfully snarky. Crazy Rich Asians is crazy good.

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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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moonoverI had the perfect excuse to put off packing this weekend to go back to Edisto — I was reading Beth Webb Hart’s engaging new novel, Moon Over Edisto (Thomas Nelson, purchased e-book), which is set on the South Carolina lowcountry island I call home about half the year.

Happily, Hart is not what I call a “drive-by” author, one who chances on a picturesque setting and decides to write a book about it. Hart knows Edisto and the territory in and around Charleston, and has written about it in previous novels such as Grace at Low Tide. Unlike one famous novelist, she’s not about to put a Wal-Mart on an island that doesn’t have a single stoplight. Better still, she understands how landscape shapes lives, how place imprints on memory.

A successful New York artist, 39-year-old Julia Bennett put Edisto in her rearview mirror when she was 19 after an unbearable betrayal. But now, just as she’s preparing to spend a fellowship summer in Budapest and planning her December wedding, she’s plunged back into the “Southern gothic dysfunction” of her family. There’s no one else to look after her three young half-siblings while their mother Marney — Julia’s late father’s second wife — is in the hospital. Certainly not Mary Ellen, Julia’s mother and the first wife, who is still striving to create a life for her divorced self in Charleston. Nor will Meg (“call me Margaret”), Julia’s younger sister, be of any help, what with three kids of her own in Mount Pleasant, a jam-packed schedule and a grudge that won’t go away.

The story shifts among the perspectives of Julia, Mary Ellen and Meg, along with a few interspersed narratives from Etta, a prenaturally wise 9-year-old. Julia does return to Edisto, but only for a week, and a lot happens then and in the following months. There are also storylines involving Jed, the first boy Julia ever kissed, now a Charleston surgeon, and Nate, Mary Ellen’s gruff dog-loving neighbor, and a fisherman named Skipper.

Moon Over Edisto is  family and friends, regret and forgiveness, sweet tea and blue crabs. Things are messy and lovely and real, even if Julia is a little too-good-to-be-true and Jed a whole lot so. Hart can really write, and she gets it right, from the spotty cell service on Edisto to the way it looks from the air.

“As the plane took off, she peered out of the window at the waterways and rivers and salt marsh creeks like enormous snakes winding their way out to sea. The sunlight was almost blinding and the creeks themselves looked like little rivers of gold reflecting the light on their moving surfaces. The thought occurred to Julia that it might not be so easy to put this visit out of her mind, to tuck it away like she had her childhood and seal it closed like so many places in her heart.”

Oh, I’m homesick. Time to pack.

Open Book: Yes, the Caroline Cousins books are set on Edisto, although we called it Indigo Island and fictionalized it quite a bit so as to be more like Edisto when we were kids and the drawbridge still connected us to the mainland. Also, I want to recommend two more new novels about family and place, The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (HarperCollins, digital galley),  and Three Sisters by Susan Mallery (Harlequin Mira, digital galley).

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