Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Florida’

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.

 

 

Read Full Post »

lovesickCrimes of the heart. Sins of the flesh. The four novellas collected in James Driggers’ evocative Lovesick (Kensington, review copy) are linked by the fictional  South Carolina town of Morris, located somewhere near Florence, an hour or so north of Myrtle Beach, and firmly in the territory of Southern Gothic. Sure, it’s the land of Faulkner, O’Conner and Crews, as well as a host of younger writers. Driggers is right at home.

“Butcher, the Baker,” set in the 1930s, features a black ex-con whose extraordinary baking talents have society ladies passing off his treats as their own. When war widow Virginia Yeager offers to give him credit for a cake, Butcher proposes they secretly partner to enter the Mystic White Flour baking contest in Atlanta. Wearing a big white hat and armed with Butcher’s recipe for Angel Biscuits, Virginia makes quite an impression on the racist company owner, but another competitor’s threat to expose her leads to blood and betrayal. “The Brambles,” set in the 1950s, puts a dark and unexpected spin on Arsenic and Old Lace as two middle-aged sisters marry for money and murder. “Sandra and the Snake Handlers” focuses on a recent widow whose obsession with a television evangelist has tragic consequences. Then there’s the contemporary tabloid tale, “M.R. Vale,” in which a gay florist confesses how he wound up in motel room with a dead body and a brutish mechanic. Driggers’ small-town South of secret scandals, stained-glass windows and judgmental neighbors proves both familiar and strange.

sewingTupelo Honey Lee, the appealing narrator of Darlyn Finch Kuhn’s first novel Sewing Holes (Twisted Road, review copy), is the first to admit she’s not as sweet as her name. Honey can’t help but say what she thinks, and her forthrightness can get her into trouble. But candor is a gift for a storyteller like Honey as she recounts her eventful coming-of-age in 1970s Jacksonville, where the South of bait shops and home-ec classes is giving way to suburbs and the wider world.

Honey’s heroines are Joan of Arc and Lois Lane as she copes with a troubled and troublesome family. Her chronically ill father and her unhappy mother are often at odds; her older brother becomes a war resister; her good-for-nothing uncle can’t support her young cousins, one of whom shares Honey’s room and her mother’s attention. As Honey’s growing-up years are marked by love and loss, faith and forgiveness, a bookish, burdened girl becomes a thoughtful, compassionate woman. You can picture her telling you these stories over a glass of sweet tea on the porch, stitching one memory to another.

sunshineThe nameless narrator of M.O. Walsh’s lush first novel, My Sunshine Away (Penguin, library hardcover) looks back to the pivotal summer of 1989 when he was a gawky 14-year-old enjoying a free-range childhood of bikes and backyards in sultry Baton Rouge. He secretly spies on neighbor Lindy Simpson, a pretty 15-year-old track star, and casts himself as the hero in her life instead of the dorky pal. Then Lindy is sexually assaulted, and her unknown assailant escapes into  the evening shadows. The narrator is one of several initial suspects and, as weeks go by with no arrest, he becomes determined to solve the crime and win Lindy’s heart. That his efforts go awry and cause pain to those he loves causes an aching regret that follows him into adulthood. A family tragedy also complicates his memories, and the wish to exorcise the ghosts results in a novel with the feel of a memoir.

“I imagine that many children in South Louisiana have stories similar to this one, and when they grow up, they move out into the world and tell them.”

Perhaps, but one doubts that those coming-of-age stories so effectively mix mystery and memory.

Read Full Post »

nancyadamsMost of us consider ourselves experts on high school — we’ve been there, after all. But how would that experience help or hurt us if we went back 20 years later, not as a student but as a teacher?

In Larry Baker’s smart and entertaining new novel The Education of Nancy Adams (Ice Tea Books, paperback ARC), Nancy, valedictorian of the class of ’77, returns to Kennedy High School as a first-year teacher 20 years after graduation. A widow with no children, she’s as surprised as anyone to be living in her late parents’ home on the St. Johns River in northeast Florida, but her favorite high school teacher, Russell Parsons, has lured her back. He’s the popular principal at Kennedy now, married with two daughters, but Nancy is still emotionally drawn to him. Once school starts, however, she has more on her mind than rekindling her schoolgirl crush.

Baker, author of Flamingo Rising, a terrific coming-of-age novel, creates a colorful microcosm populated with familiar yet credible characters. Nancy, who narrates, has students who are high-flyers, misfits, bullies, rebels, nerds. The perplexing Dana may be the smartest of them all, but she’s struggling to make up classes after having a baby. Nancy can’t figure her out. But she’s also contending with her fellow teachers: the veteran who helped integrate the faculty, the prissy by-the-book newcomer, the charismatic basketball coach, the guidance counselor who knows where all the bodies are buried. Over the course of a schoolyear, replete with surprises, Nancy learns from them all about what being a teacher really means.

Baker’s book is in tune with the times — the mid 1990s — and thoughtfully explores issues of racial prejudice, sexual harassment, school violence and school-board politics. But mostly it’s a good story about mostly good people making their way in a changing world. I’m giving it an “A.”

flyingshoesIf you are the kind of person who alphabetizes your books, color-codes your closets and likes stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, bookstore owner Lisa Howorth’s first novel, Flying Shoes (Bloomsbury, digital galley) is likely to drive you plum crazy. How appropriate it kicks off with Mary Byrd Thornton throwing a cheap plate on the heart-pine kitchen floor of her Oxford, Miss., home. The shards of faux-china explode all over the place, just like the pieces of Mary Byrd’s story. It’s a credit to Howorth’s often-glorious writing that you’re willing to pick through the mess.

Really, plot is the least of it, although Mary Byrd throws the plate after getting the news that the 1966 unsolved case of her murdered little brother in Richmond, Va., is being reopened after 30 years and Mary Byrd needs to come home. This will eventually result in her hitching a ride with a trucker and outrunning the ice storm that paralyzes Oxford, but not before her housekeeper Eva’s daughter is accused of murdering her abusive husband. And then there’s Mary Byrd’s husband Charles and their children, her gay best friend Hubbard, the homeless but resourceful vet Teever, and gallivanting flirt Jack Ernest. They all have their stories, which intertwine with Mary Byrd’s like the ragged vines in her overgrown garden. The past tale of the murdered brother is overwhelmed by the casual chaos of  Mary Byrd’s present, the very randomness of the everyday. Best go with the flow, or you can always fling a plate.

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

camperdowns“It was June 4, 1972. The day started out peacefully enough, a creamy soft Sunday afternoon, a sweet do-nothing day. My mother called them tea-finger sandwich days. A day with the crust removed.”

This is Riddle James Camperdown looking back to the Cape Cod summer she was 12-almost-13, when her liberal father “Camp” was running for Congress with the passive-agressive help of her mother, icy blonde actress Greer Foley. This is when charismatic Michael Devlin, Camp’s former friend and Greer’s former fiance, re-enters their lives with his handsome college-age son Harry. This is when 15-year-old Charlie Devlin disappears. This is The Last Summer of the Camperdowns (Liveright/W.W. Norton, digital galley), the truly wonderful second novel by Elizabeth Kelly that I already have read twice and will probably re-read every summer.

Says Riddle near the book’s beginning: “I’m thirty three years old and the memory of that long-ago summer remains as alive to me as something I can reach out and touch. . .If only. If only I could somehow poke a hole through time and space and reach into that old house and shake that girl, slap her silly, tell her to shout out from the rooftops what she knew.”

Because Riddle knows what happened to young Charlie in the stables of a neighbor, although she tells herself she doesn’t, especially when around Gula, the sinister stable manager. Still, there’s a lot that precocious Riddle doesn’t know as regards her parents, the Devlins, and several secrets from the past. It’s The Great Gatsby meets Mad Men (Greer is sooo Betty Draper but wittier and wiser), and Kelly trods familiar coming-of-age territory. But her sharp, evocative writing makes The Last Summer of the Camperdowns seem singular. She describes one supporting character as “Slim and narrow, looking like something Evelyn Waugh might have doodled on a napkin during a lull at a dinner party.”  And the conversations among the characters, especially the Camperdowns, animate Riddle’s observations:   

“Did anyone ever tell the truth about anything? The adults around me loomed like tall trees that resisted climbing, pendulous, dark and mysterious. I was lost in their forest. I was lost to myself.”

yonahThea Atwell, the narrator of Anton DiSclafani’s ambitious first novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Riverhead, digital galley) also wonders about the reliability of adults. Looking back to 1930 and the Great Depression, Thea recalls her 15-year-old “confused, wronged” self exiled to an exclusive girls’ school in the North Carolina mountains after a scandalous incident with a boy on her family’s Florida citrus estate.

Thea witholds the details of the incident, parceling them out in flashbacks from her Yonahlossee narrative so as to sustain suspense. But much can be guessed at because DiSclafani isn’t nearly as subtle with her hints as she is with her lyrical evocation of time and place. Thea, home-schooled with her twin brother Sam, initially feels like an outsider among the wealthy Southern debutantes, but she aligns herself with popular Sissy and her riding skills impress even the resident equestrian-goddess. She also gives riding lessons to the headmaster’s young daughters, which allows her more time with the handsome headmaster.

DiSclafani is better with girls and horses than she is with men and boys, and so Thea’s relationship with her classmates and horses is more richly delineated than her romances. “There was so much of the world to see, and most of us had never held a boy’s hand. We wanted to do more than that, anyway, we wanted boys to hold not just our hands but all of us, gather us into their sturdy arms and ring our slippery curls around their thick but tender fingers.”

But as much as Thea recklessly plays at desire and grapples with sexuality, she eventually realizes that knowing oneself begins at home and that there is plenty of blame to go around back in her beloved Florida. “Danger presented itself, every girl knew, from within the family — your father’s mistress; mother’s thorny relationship with her mother-in-law, your grandmother; the first cousin who had tried to kill himself. But we were no one, nothing, without our families.”

A year at Yonahlossee gives Thea the distance she needs to become someone in her own right, to go home again. And to leave by choice.

Read Full Post »

ladiesnight“To live well yourself is the best revenge.” Grace Stanton, the heroine of Mary Kay Andrews’ beach-alicious new novel Ladies Night (St. Martin’s Press, review copy), certainly has the living well down pat: She writes a popular lifestyle blog from her posh Florida home. But the revenge thing? After she catches her husband Ben with her naked young assistant (and it’s exactly what it looks like), she drives his precious Audi convertible into the pool. The “he had it coming defense” doesn’t go over well with Judge Stackpole, who orders her into “divorce therapy.” Meanwhile, Ben has taken custody of the house, the blog, the bank accounts (and the skanky assistant), and Grace has to move in with her mom above the family bar, The Sandbox, on Anna Maria Island.

Trading betrayal stories with the other wronged spouses in her therapy group actually proves a good thing once their strange counselor-divorce coach goes AWOL, and the four women and one man move to The Sandbox for drinks and strategy sessions. Even as Ben tries to ruin Grace’s online reputation with readers and sponsors, she starts the true Grace blog, chronicling her efforts to restore a cracker cottage. She rescues a little dog and falls for the divorced father of a little boy. Still, obstacles to living well abound, including Judge Stackpole, who seems to delight in sticking it to Grace and the other group members. Mmm. Time to turn some tables.

Ladies’ Night is funny, smart and hopeful. Just add lemonade, or maybe your favorite adult beverage. Cheers!

timebetweenI was little worried when I first heard that Karen White, who often writes about Charleston, S.C., was setting her new book, The Time Between (NAL, digital galley) on Edisto Island, my family’s home turf. It’s kind of like when they replaced the old drawbridge to the island, making it easier for tourists to find us. We used to be a secret.

Happily, White gets most of island life right, although locals don’t spell out the full names of Edisto spots in casual conversation, like Island Video and Ice Cream. Nor am I fully convinced that sisters Eleanor and Eve spent their childhood on Edisto as the daughters of a local shrimper. That was before the accident that left beauty queen contestant Eve in a wheelchair. Eleanor, once an aspiring concert pianist, feels guilty about Eve, as well as for her attraction to Glen, Eve’s high school sweetheart husband. She gets a chance for redemption when her investment banker boss Finn Beaufain asks her to help care for his elderly aunt Helena, who has lived on Edisto since she and her sister escaped from Hungary in 1944. Eleanor is soon trekking back and forth between the big house on Edisto and the shabby home she shares with her careworn mother, Eve and Glen in North Charleston.

The set-up is ripe for old secrets, family conflicts, new dreams. Did I mention that too-good-to-be-true Finn is the handsome divorced father of a little girl overcoming a grave illness? Or that enigmatic Helena’s sister died in mysterious circumstances? Eleanor narrates most of the involving story, with occasional chapters from Helena and Eve’s perspectives. Eve’s thoughts aren’t really needed, but every story should have a character as tart-tongued and strong-willed as Helena. And Edisto, of course, makes a picturesque and perfect setting, IMHO.

Open Books: Readers of this blog know that Mary Kay Andrews is a longtime pal of Caroline Cousins. I hope to actually meet Karen White at a booksigning later this month. And this is just the beginning of posts on the wave of summer fiction, including new books from Dorothea Benton Frank, Claire Cook and Mary Alice Monroe. I’m writing about them a few at a time from beach at Edisto. 

.’

.

Read Full Post »

smartoneJennifer Close’s first-rate first book Girls in White Dresses came out before Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, but both writers clearly capture the humor and heartbreak of 20something characters trying on different selves in the  post-college years. Now, just as ABC preps its new sitcom How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of your Life), Close’s smart second novel, The Smart One (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), hones in  on adult siblings moving in with Mom and Dad.

The Coffey family, headed by boomers Weezy and Will, is a nicely feathered nest in suburban Philadelphia, but when Weezy urges her three children to join them for the annual week at the shore she doesn’t realize their visit home will extend for months. Debt-ridden Claire, 29, moves back from New York following a broken engagement, takes a temp job and takes up with an old high school boyfriend living in his parents’ basement. Socially inept Martha, older by a year, is already in residence, having long ago left nursing to work as a  J.Crew manager. Tired of folding shirts, she makes a tentative move back toward nursing by becoming a caretaker for an elderly man. Happy-go-lucky Max is off at college with his beautiful girlfriend Chloe until unforseen circumstances force them into co-habiting at the Coffey’s. So who’s the smart one now?

Close easily moves among the perspectives of the four female characters, whose hopes, habits and misgivings make them as real and relateable as your own family members. Claire realizes she hasn’t lived up to her parents’ expectations or her own. “It was like when you were younger and believed that it was just a matter of time before you would become a gymnastic gold medalist or a Broadway star. But then you got to be a certain age, and you realized that the gymnasts at the Olympics were younger than you, and you couldn’t sing either; and just like that visions of being a balance beam superstar or playing Annie on stage were gone.”

palmIf the Coffeys are recognizably contemporary and realistic, the members of the Bravo family in Laura Lee Smith’s first book Heart of Palm (Grove/Atlantic, digital galley via NetGalley) are the kind of larger-than life characters you meet in the pages of a Southern novel. And although the story takes place in present-day,  excepting the fabulous first section describing a courtship 40 years ago, the Bravos seem as stuck in time as their hometown of Utina in backwater Northeast Florida.

Once famous for palms and moonshine, Utina is swampy, scraggly, struggling. Middle-aged Frank Bravo long ago put his dreams on hold to run the family fish camp restaurant and local watering hole, while his 62-year-old mother Arla and 40-year-old sister Sofia have the uneasy co-existence you’d expect of two tall, temperamental red-headed women. The piano stuck in the front hallway of the family home is the result of their  latest battle of wills. Father Dean, the bad-boy Bravo whom Arla fell for, took off years ago. Elder brother Carson has escaped to nearby St. Augustine, where he’s running a Ponzi scheme from his investment firm. He’s married to Elizabeth, the love of Frank’s life. Another brother, Will, died 20 years ago, and the Bravos never got over it.

Now, though, past, present and future collide when developers make an offer for the Bravo land because of its proximity to the Intracoastal Waterway. The promise of money and change causes family members to ponder their ties to the land and Bravo ways; some see the offer as a solution, while others can’t get their heads around it.

Smith takes her own sweet time telling the tale, lovingly describing the rural Cracker landscape. In spite of its outsized characters and their somewhat forced eccentricities, Heart of Palm is more dramedy than sitcom. Think of a Florida version of The Descendants, which was a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings before it was a movie.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »