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Posts Tagged ‘chick lit’

weekendersBeyonce hasn’t cornered the market on lemonade. Riley Nolan Griggs of Mary Kay Andrews’ new beach-ready novel The Weekenders (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) is batting at lemons as soon as she sets foot on the ferry for North Carolina’s Belle Isle. Her soon-to-be ex-husband Wendell has missed the boat again and isn’t answering his texts. This Memorial Day weekend was when they were going to tell their 12-year-old daughter Maggy that they’re divorcing, maybe break the news to Riley’s formidable mother Evelyn, who dotes on the son-in-law who now runs the family real estate business. Then, right in front of everybody — Riley’s best friend Parrish, her little brother Billy, the gossipy neighbor known as Belle Isle Barbie, old flame Nate — a process server shoves an envelope in Riley’s hands. And more lemons await — a foreclosed house, family secrets, financial scandal, hurricane warnings. And murder! Really.

Andrews packs The Weekenders with all the requisite romance, drama and breezy wit readers want, but she also includes some heavy-duty stuff they might not expect. But before she began writing under the Andrews pseudonym, Kathy Hogan Trocheck wrote the Callahan Garrity series of mystery novels, and she knows how to balance dark times with lighter moments and hopeful hearts. Her well-drawn characters help, especially former TV reporter Riley, dealing with a cheating husband, a manipulative daughter and screwball relatives (talking about you, Aunt Roo), all the while trying to remain true to herself and her dreams. A highlight is her stint as the host of an online video show where she has to wear clothes provided by sponsor Floozy and interview hucksters promoting breast augmentations and colon cleanses. But Riley discovers she’s adept at turning lemons into lemonade, maybe mixing it with some limoncello for added oomph. Just what you want for the beach. Tart and sweet.

summerdays“Summer loving had me a blast…” The whole time I was reading the stories in the stellar anthology Summer Days and Summer Nights (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), I kept singing under my breath the song from Grease. You know: “Summer sun, something’s begun/ But oh, oh, these summer nights.” Editor Stephanie Perkins has gathered contemporary love stories by a dozen authors with YA cred, and their tales range from realistic to fantastic, funny to serious while capturing the ups and downs of first love.

The teens in these stories find love and romance at summer camp, summer school, a mountain park, a spooky carnival and a haunted resort. Nina LaCour’s “The End of Love,” has narrator Flora re-meeting the girl of her dreams while coping with her parents’ divorce. In  Jennifer E. Smith’s “A Thousand Ways This Could All Go Wrong,” a day-camp counselor’s crush helps her understand an autistic boy. Francesca Lia Block strikes a wistful note in “Sick Pleasures,” while Libba Bray goes full-out zombie war in “Last Stand at the Cinegor.” Lest you think that’s weird, check out Leigh Bardugo’s lyrical fairy tale mash-up of mermaids and monsters, and revel in the darkly comic magic of Cassandra Clare’s “Brand New Attraction.” My favorite is the final tale, Lev Grossman’s “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” in which two teens are caught up in a time loop, repeating the events of August 4 every day a la Groundhog Day, apparently forever until the reason reveals itself.  “Summer days, drifting away. . ”

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beachtownSun, sand, salt air. All of Mary Kay Andrews’ beach-worthy novels — from Savannah Blues to Summer Rental — have a sure sense of place. But setting is absolutely essential in Beach Town (St. Martin’s Press, advance review copy) because location scout/manager Greer Hennessey needs a picture-perfect coastal hideaway for a bullying Hollywood director’s next big film. No planned communities or condo high-rises need apply, which pretty much rules out Florida’s panhandle. Then Greer finds Cypress Key, the beach town time forgot after the toxic paper plant left town. It has the requisite beach and palm trees, as well as a shabby fishing pier, an aging motel and crumbling casino/dance hall. Greer figures the locals will love having a movie crew in town, but she hasn’t counted on Cypress Key’s mayor and jack-of-all trades Eben Thibadeaux, who wants to revitalize his hometown without exploiting it.

The sparks between Greer and Eben and the ensuing fireworks when the production hits town could be entertainment enough, but Andrews turns Beach Town into a summer blockbuster with a colorful supporting cast and complications galore. Greer’s long-estranged dad, a former Hollywood stunt driver, now lives in Florida. Eben’s rebellious teenage niece is enamored with movies and with this film’s star, a spoiled bad-boy rapper right out of rehab. A local heiress could be friend or foe, depending on how much money is involved. Add in paparazzi, palmetto bugs and portable potties, and you’ve got a hot mess that Andrews sorts out with her usual flair. Beach Town is a whole lot of fun with a side of serious. Bring it on.

summersendSeeing that Mary Alice Monroe’s The Summer’s End (Gallery, digital galley) is the concluding volume of her Lowcountry Summer trilogy about three half-sisters, a little catching up is in order.  In the first book, The Summer Girls, middle sister Carson returned to her grandmother’s home on Sullivan’s Island, S.C., and confronted her wild-child ways and drinking problem. In the second, The Summer Wind, older sister Dora needed the family as she coped with divorce and her autistic son. But both her grandmother, Mamaw, and housekeeper Lucille were keeping life-changing secrets revealed at book’s end.

Now in the third entry, younger sister Harper moves to the forefront as she tries to write a novel and separate herself from her controlling mother. A former Marine with PTSD  captures her heart, but the fate of the family home, Sea Breeze, hangs in the balance and all three sisters face decisions about their respective futures. Monroe’s environmental subplots about wild dolphins, a depressed shrimping industry and the threat posed by development give the books substance, but her characters give them heart. The verbal duel between feisty Mamaw and Harper’s snobbish English grandmother is an entertaining battle between two strong women who want the same thing — family happiness.

guestcottageSophie Anderson and Trevor Black meet cute in Nancy Thayer’s The Guest Cottage (Ballantine, digital galley) when both single parents accidentally rent the same beach house on picturesque Nantucket Island. Still, what follows is as much about family as romance. Sensible Sophie, blindsided by her architect husband’s request for divorce so he can marry a younger colleague, is more worried about her kids — Lacey, 10, and Jonah, 15 — than the demise of her marriage. She isn’t looking for a fling with a younger man like Trevor, the widower father of 3-year-old Leo, who misses his actress mom. It’s really for the kids’ sake that Sophie and Trevor decide to share the conveniently large cottage, and after some initial missteps, the arrangement proves comfortable and comforting. As for the grown-ups’ mutual attraction, it’s tested by romantic opportunities with other interesting parties and some thoughtless behavior. Sure, it’s all as predictable as the tides and light as a beach ball, but hey, it is summer.

 

 

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penthouseYou know how characters in rom-coms meet cute? The likeable threesome in Elinor Lipman’s The View from Penthouse B (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley) live cute. After Margot loses her divorce settlement to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi-scheme, she asks her widowed sister Gwen-Laura to share expenses in her Greenwich Village penthouse. To economize even further, they then rent out the maid’s room to Anthony, a gay man in his 20s who has lost his job at Lehman Bros. and makes wonderful cupcakes. All three have man trouble: Margot’s ex, a fertility doc who went to prison in an infamously sleazy fraud case, is paroled and moves into a studio in their building; Gwen cautiously re-enters the dating world via online sites with decidedly mixed results; and Anthony’s on the lookout for a good guy after his current boyfriend moves on.  Some of the antics, especially Gwen’s online dating woes, have a been-there, done-that Sex in the City feel, but Lipman’s writing sparkles and her characters charm.

mercycloseI suppose I could include Marian Keyes’ The Mystery of Mercy Close (Viking, digital galley) in a crime fiction column, but the mystery’s just the excuse for Keyes to write another “Walsh sister” tale. (Previous include Rachel’s Holiday, and Anybody Out There?) Helen is the fifth of the five sisters, a pragmatic private detective with a sharp wit and past issues with depression. Now that Ireland’s suffering post-Celtic Tiger blues, Helen’s PI business is on the skids; she’s lost her office and now her flat, and facing more unpaid bills, moves back home at 33 with intrepid Mammy Walsh. Her ex-boyfriend Jay, promoting a reunion concert of the once-famous boy band The Laddz, hires her to find band member Wayne, who has disappeared from his Mercy Close house four days before the concert. Looking for Wayne hither and yon, Helen gets help from her current lovely boyfriend Artie, a divorced cop with three kids, and Harry, a mobster who leaves her cryptic messages. Mammy Walsh is also on hand, especially when Helen tries to get in touch with Decker, the Laddz member who went on to pop star fame and fortune a la Bono. A mostly good time is had by all, even as Helen copes with a depressive cycle that seriously threatens her well-being. All of the Walsh sisters are head cases to a degree, but I think quirky, self-deprecating Helen may be my favorite.

whileAre you and your friends still discussing the fate of poor Matthew on the last episode of Downton Abbey? Then you’ll no doubt identify with the four residents of an historic Atlanta high-rise who star in Wendy Wax’s While We Were Watching Downton Abbey (Berkeley, paperback galley). Concierge Edward arranges the screenings, which bring together married-to-old-money Samantha, blocked writer Claire and unhappy divorcee Brooke. As they mull over the upstairs-downstairs lives of the TV characters during its second season, they face their own troubles with a new resolve. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t watch Downton Abbey “getting” this book, but we don’t know any of them, do we?! Fans of Wax’s Ten Beach Road and Ocean Beach know Wax knows what breaks and makes friendships.

tableFriendships and marriages are stressed to the breaking point in Whitney Haskell’s Table for Seven (Random House, digital galley), which follows a supper club from its inception on New Year’s Eve through the next 12 months. Here’s what Haskell does well — the mouth-watering menus at the beginning of each chapter; Will and Fran coping with their rebellious teen daughter; Jaime dealing with her tennis prodigy stepdaughter and her thoughtless husband; and everything about elderly widower Leland. Not-so-well is the predictable off-again-on-again affair between widowed Audrey and sexy bachelor Coop, and Fran’s fantasies of leaving Will for Coop. If my supper group — the Cheese Club of Grater Orlando — was this dysfunctional trying to out-gourmet one another, we wouldn’t have lasted for 15-plus years.

whatshewantsIn Sheila Roberts’ light-hearted What She Wants (Harlequin, digital galley), poker buddies hit on a truly novel idea to improve their love lives. At a library book sale, former high school nerd Jonathan picks up a copy of a best-seller by romance writer Vanessa Valentine, ostensibly for his sister. But peeking at the pages, he discovers good advice for getting high school crush Lissa to pay attention to him at their upcoming reunion. At first, his friends laugh, but soon vertically challenged Kyle and befuddled Adam, whose wife kicked him out, are also reading Vanessa Valentine. Readers of Roberts’ Icicle Falls series (Better than Chocolate), will recognize local landmarks and references to familiar characters, but it’s Roberts channeling Vanessa Valentine that steals the show.

whimseyKaye Wilkinson Barley’s Whimsey: A Novel (self-published, review copy from author) takes its name from a  fictional artists’ colony on a Georgia sea-island founded by the late, legendary Elizabeth Calhoun. Now, her great-niece Emma, an Atlanta  jewelry designer who thinks her talent has deserted her, is resisting her Aunt Zoe’s invitation to become a resident artist at her new upscale gallery on Whimsey. Emma knows going home will mean coming to terms with her childhood best friend Olivia, her girlhood love Eli, and the ghosts of her past, including the opinionated, cigar-smoking Great-Aunt Elizabeth who materializes at both opportune and inappropriate moments. Barley’s fanciful, Southern-flavored tale also includes a chatty imaginary friend named Madeline and a high-heeled pixie named Earlene, which is perhaps two too many supernatural characters.  The imaginative story entertains, but it could use a strong editor.

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Four beach books for the Fourth, or for whenever you want your reading lite.

I’ll never again watch Dancing with the Stars without thinking of Deirdre Griffin, the title character in Claire Cook’s lively Wallflower in Bloom (Touchstone, library hardcover). Deirdre, fed up with assisting her brother Tag’s rocketing career as a self-help guru and her own sorry love life, uses his fans and her social-networking skills to become the hit show’s first non-celebrity contestant.  Even as Deirdre, weighed down with extra pounds and poor self-esteem, struggles to learn the cha-cha with dance partner Ilya, Tag and the family begin to reevaluate her role in holding them together. Cook spices her cute Cinderella story with inside show trivia — I want some illusion mesh of my very own — and humorous self-help aphorisms.

Reality TV also figures in the plot of Wendy Wax’s Ocean Road (Berkley, paperback galley from publicist), a stand-alone sequel to last year’s Ten Beach Road. The three women — Maddie, Avery, and Nicole — who became friends renovating a Florida Gulf beach house — head to Miami, along with Maddie’s grown daughter and Avery’s estranged mother. They’ll be filming the pilot for a home improvement show called “Do-Over,” and the neglected mansion owned by ancient vaudevillian Max is badly in need of repair. But the film crew seems intent on capturing the women’s messy personal lives instead of their renovations, and outside forces, including an actor on location, a secret from the past and hurricane season, threaten to thwart the whole project. Pleasantly predictable, the book offers fascinating DIY details and a delightful supporting cast (the Oscar goes to Max) as the women hammer out their problems and shore up their friendship.

I felt completely at home reading Dorothea Benton Frank’s Porch Lights (William Morrow, library hardcover), and not just because it takes place in my part of the world — the South Carolina Lowcountry — and I know the author. I think it’s because I’m from a family of talkers, and Frank’s two narrators — Jackie, a widowed Army nurse, and Annie Britt, her opinionated mother — can talk a blue streak. After Jackie’s firefighter husband is killed in the line of duty, she takes their traumatized 10-year-old son from New York to the family house on Sullivan’s Island. Annie, who drove off her husband Buster with her meddling ways and constant chatter, tries to comfort Jackie and young Charlie with down-home meals and a heaping helping of good intentions. Fortunately, neighbor Deb, sister-in-law Maureen and Buster himself help  keep mother and daughter from driving each other crazy. At times, reading Porch Lights is like being on a conference call with two of your best gal pals, who hardly come up for air as they talk, talk, talk, skittering from subject to subject like a couple of water bugs. They entertain, overwhelm and keep on keeping on.

Kate Klise rotates among four narrators in her zippy In the Bag (Morrow, paperback review copy). Teenager Webb and his dad Andrew are in coach on the flight to Paris, while Daisy and her teen daughter Coco are in first class. On a whim, Andrew sticks a mash note in Daisy’s carry-on, but what brings the two single parents and offspring together is checked luggage. Webb arrives in Madrid with Coco’s black duffel bag, and Coco is dismayed to discover she has Webb’s duffel in Paris. The two tech-saavy teens soon find one another on the Internet and their e-mail exchanges propel the story fast-forward as the initial mix-up leads to comic complications and conspiracies.

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Mary Kay Andrews’ new novel is called Spring Fever, but it’s really the perfect summer beach book, a fizzy concoction of family and friendship, first love and second chances.

The Bayless family is the royalty of rural Passcoe, N.C., owners of a hometown bottling company that makes the popular cherry soda Quixie. Annajane Hudgens is shirttail kin — best friends since childhood with Bayless daughter Pokey, she has worked at Quixie bottler since high school and was a favorite of company owner Glenn Bayless. She also was briefly married to Mason, Pokey’s eldest brother.

But Annajane is about to put all things Bayless in her rearview mirror. In five days, she’s leaving for a new job in Atlanta close to her fiance, bluegrass musician Shane Drummond. First, though, she’s going to watch her ex marry the lovely Celia Wakefield, a Passcoe  newcomer who has wiggled her way into Quixie management and Mason’s heart.  Annajane’s former mother-in-law, frosty Miss Sallie, may be frowning at the presence of the first wife at the second wedding, but Annajane’s just fine sitting next to pregnant Pokey because Annajane is so over Mason. Or not.

When a family emergency interrupts the wedding, Annajane has time to reconsider her feelings for Mason, recalling their history together from the time he rescued her dressed as a Quixie Pixie. Of course there are serious obstacles to any re-romance — her new love Shane, for one, and the charming Bayless child Sophie, for another. Then there’s seemingly perfect Celia, only her recent behavior at Quixie raises suspicions as to her true agenda regarding the Bayless family’s fortunes.

Annajane is another of Andrews’ smart-but-insecure heroines confounded by matters of the heart. Time for her to put on her big-girl panties, trade in the flip-flops for killer heels, take a swig of Quixie, and go after what she really wants.

Open Book: I am way partial to Spring Fever (St. Martin’s, ARC), MKA being a longtime friend of  Caroline Cousins. Also when I was going to UNC-Chapel Hill, my suitemate Katrinia kept a case of Cheerwine under her bed. The North Carolina cherry soda was our mixer of choice. Cheers!

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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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Sorry I’ve been away so long. The last week or so I’ve been happily hibernating from the heat, eating lemonade bars and getting lost in books.  I motored through Maine and then went south to Folly Beach. Destination reading, so to speak. (I also solved quite a few mysteries along the way, but that’s a future post).

J. Courtney Sullivan wrote about four women in 2009’s Commencement, rotating perspectives as a quartet of recent Smith College graduates told of their coming of age in the new millenium. In Maine, the four women who tell the story are all members of the Irish-Catholic Kelleher clan of Boston.

Matriarch Alice, 83, and her late husband Daniel built a cottage on the Maine coast where the family has summered for 60 years. All the generations once piled in together on top of one another, but since Daniel’s death a decade ago, the children have divided up the months they’ll spend with their mother. An elderly beauty with a critical tongue, Alice has increasingly turned to alcohol and the church to assauge the guilt she has carried for years.

Eldest daughter Kathleen, 58, is estranged from her difficult mother, having remade herself in her 40s after a painful divorce. She quit drinking and used the money her father left her to move to California with her laid-back boyfriend Arlo, with whom she runs a successful worm farm. She worries about her daughter Maggie, a 32-year-old free-lance writer living in New York who continues to make mistakes with men.

Sister-in-law Ann-Marie is closer than any of them to Alice, and when it appears that Maggie’s plans to spend June in Maine have been cut short, Ann-Marie efficiently rearranges her own life, including babysitting her young grandchildren, and ships her latest dollhouse project to the cottage. That Maggie, hiding a surprise pregnancy, is still in residence hardly disconcerts her. She’s obsessed with perfecting her miniature furnishings while harboring romantic notions about a neighbor.

Sullivan takes her time setting the bucolic scene, while family secrets, grudges and lies simmer in the background. But when all four women end up together, watch out for the fireworks.

Sullivan has a deft hand with memorable set pieces, from Alice’s searing memories to Ann-Marie’s inevitable meltdown. The Kellehers are a family in love with their own mythology, and mothers, daughters and daughter-in-law all confront the ways in which it has shaped their lives as women for better or worse.

At 400 pages, Maine is one of those summer books that you sink into for the duration and finish with a sigh of satisfaction. Dorothea Benton Frank’s Folly Beach is as frothy as its name, a happy holiday of a novel that may set you to humming “Summertime.”

Cate Cooper belts out the tune from the bathtub of the “Porgy House,” the tiny old cottage on Folly where playwrights Dorothy and Dubose Heyward lived in 1934 while collaborating with George Gershwin on what would become “Porgy and Bess.” Like other native Charlestonians, Cate knows it was adapted from Heyward’s play about the city’s Gullah culture, but now she’s more curious about the house’s former residents, leading players in the Charleston Renaissance of the 1920s.

Cate needs something to think about other than her present predicament. She’s gone from riches to rags practically overnight because of her scheming husband’s recent suicide. Rather than move in with her sister Patty, living nearby in New Jersey, Cate retreats to the safe haven of Folly, where her Aunt Daisy raised both girls with the help of her partner Etta. Daisy, whose health issues have increased with age, asks for Cate’s help with her rental house business and installs her in the Porgy House.

This is a familiar plot for Frank’s fans — a woman at mid-life finding herself at a crossroads and turning to her Lowcountry South Carolina roots. Cate is not exactly a merry widow, but she’s happy to be single again when a handsome history professor obligingly appears on the scene. John Risley encourages her research on the Heywards, especially Harvard-educated Dorothy, and Cate decides to wite a play about the playwright.

It’s Cate’s one-woman show about Dorothy that intersperses her own chatty narration and which separates the novel from Frank’s previous best-sellers. The play-within-the-book explores talented Dorothy’s life and her  devotion to her husband, with plenty of period touches and literary name-dropping to lend authenticity.

Cate’s story of family, love and pecan pie, on the other hand, is a Karo-syrupy fairy tale heavy on happy endings. Still, who doesn’t want dessert on vacation?  “Summertime.  . .”

Open Book: I read the digital galley of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine (Knopf) via NetGalley, and a review copy of Dorothea Benton Frank’s Folly Beach (William Morrow). I first met Dottie about 10 years ago, and we keep in touch via e-mail, Facebook, mutual friends and her sister Lynn on Edisto Beach.

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