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Posts Tagged ‘Joshilyn Jackson’

The title of Rachel Khong’s pithy first novel, Goodbye, Vitamin (Henry Holt, digital galley) doesn’t make sense until you read the book, and then it makes perfect sense. So do the neon-colored lemons floating on the cover. They’re as unexpected as this darkly funny story in which a daughter tries to make sense of her life even as her beloved and brilliant father is losing his mind and memories. Ruth, a 30-year-old medical sonographer recently jilted by her fiance, returns home for Christmas, and her frustrated mother asks her to stay for a year and help out with her father. An admired history professor, Howard Young is on a forced leave of absence from teaching because of his dementia, and he knows what’s going on — except when he doesn’t. Then he wanders off, throws plates against the wall, tosses pillows in the neighbor’s pool.  In a chronological series of vignettes, Ruth narrates events, everything from fixing nutritious meals full of cruiciferous vegetables (Howard calls them “crucified”) to joining with Howard’s grad students to convince him he’s still teaching a seminar. Brief excerpts from the journal Howard kept when Ruth was a little girl add smiles and depth. It’s a happy/sad story, heartfelt, semi-sweet. Not your usual summer book, perhaps, but one of my new favorites. “What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers.”

Superheroes play an integral part in Joshilynn Jackson’s eighth novel The Almost Sisters (William Morrow, review copy), which cements Jackson’s rep as a Superwriter. She knows how to pack a plot with quirky characters, realistic emotions and thoughtful observations on the Old South and the New. Here, self-confessed dork and successful graphic artist Leia Birch Briggs has a one-night stand with a costumed Batman at a comic-con and two months later realizes she’s pregnant. Just when she’s getting ready to tell her very Southern family that a bi-racial baby is on the way, her perfect stepsister Rachel’s marriage falls apart in Virginia and her 90-year-old grandmother Birchie reveals to her Alabama small town that she has full-blown dementia. With her teenage niece in tow, Leia heads to Birchville to size up the situation with Birchie and Wattie, her lifelong best friend and daughter of the family’s black housekeeper. It’s not good, and things get worse when old bones turn up in an attic trunk and the law comes calling. Then Batman reappears. Class, privilege, racism, family history, small-town norms: Jackson connects them all with panache. Superbook, and a summer selection of the SheReads online book club.

A summer camp in the Berkshires provides the setting for Mandy Berman’s first novel, Perennials (Random House, digital galley), billed as an evocative coming-of-age tale. Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin bond as campers at Camp Marigold, although Rachel is a city girl who lives with her single mom, and Fiona’s the middle child of a well-off suburban couple. Their friendship flourishes in the freedom of summer, but by the time they return as counselors after their freshman year, secrets have come between them. As to those secrets, Berman chooses to disclose them in flashback chapters told from different perspectives, including Rachel’s mother, Fiona’s younger sister and the middle-aged camp director who still sees himself as a young man. Then there’s an incident at book’s end that undercuts the credibility of the whole. Too bad. Berman is good at depicting the roiling emotions of teenagers and the rituals of summer camp, but the linked short story structure doesn’t work, and Perennials is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Five years ago, both first novelists Claire McMillan and Francesca Segal channeled Edith Wharton, with McMillan reinventing The House of Mirth in Cleveland, Ohio with her Gilded Age, and Segal transporting the plot of The Age of Innocence to a Jewish community in London via The Innocents. Their second novels find them moving in different directions, although there’s a distinct whiff of Wharton in McMillan’s entertaining The Necklace (Touchstone, library hardcover). In 2009, Portland lawyer Nell Quincy Merrihew arrives at the Quincy family home in Cleveland after her Great Aunt LouLou’s death. She and her cousins are surprised to find that the matriarch has made Nell her executor and also left her a gaudy necklace from India. When the necklace turns out to be a valuable antique that hints at an old family scandal, Nell has to fight for her rights as a true Quincy. In alternating chapters set in the Jazz Age, the Quincy family history unfolds with a doomed love triangle at its heart. The Necklace is fast-paced and fascinating, and I read it in one sitting. Segal’s The Awkward Age (Riverhead, digital galley) may borrow the name of a Henry James novel, but it’s a thoroughly modern drama of a blended London family. Julia and James are blissfully in love despite the resistance of Julia’s 16-year-old daughter Gwen, who can’t stand James nor his snarky 17-year-old son Nathan. Julia’s former in-laws and James’ first wife further complicate the new marriage, but they can’t compete with the storm of emotions unleashed when Gwen and Nathan hook up. Awkward, to say the least, but it makes for a good story.

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oppositeTrust me: You want Paula Vauss on your side. The formidable Atlanta divorce lawyer eats other lawyers for lunch as she wages war on their clients. Her tongue is as sharp as her black stilettos, their “blood-red soles promising all sorts of carnage.”

The narrator of Joshilyn Jackson’s layered new novel, The Opposite of Everyone (HarperCollins, digital galley), is battle-hardened. The mixed-race daughter of a free-spirited white mother, Paula moved from place-to-place in the South as a child, until one of her mom Kai’s drug-dealing boyfriends got busted. Kai went to jail and Paula — whom Kai called Kali after the Hindu goddess — ended up in the foster-care system. Then a betrayal led to a long estrangement, and Paula assuages her guilt by sending monthly checks to an address in Texas. When a check is returned along with a cryptic note, and a young man with Kai’s green eyes turns up on Paula’s door, her past converges with her present. With the help of her ex-lover Birdwine, a troubled private detective, Paula begins the search for Kai and the family secrets that will change everything.

An accomplished novelist (A Grown Up Kind of Pretty, Someone Else’s Love Story), Jackson has a gift for creating quirky, memorable characters in unexpected situations. Here she weaves riveting scenes of young Paula’s experiences in a group home with her adult struggle to remain independent yet not withhold her heart. The judgmental lawyer learns that sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are not the whole stories, and truth comes with forgiveness. Trust me: The Opposite of Everyone is a story you’ll want to read.

onlyloveIf you’re a fan of Neil Young’s music and the novels of Southern storytellers like Pat Conroy and David Payne, and if you don’t let nostalgia and familiarity get in the way of your reading pleasure, than Ed Tarkington’s first novel Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Algonquin, digital galley) is your kind of book. Tarkington darkens his coming-of-age tale with elements of Southern gothic, but the whole is burnished by a sense of place and family.

The place is the small town of Spencerville, Va., in the mid-1970s and 1980s. The family is the Askews — “the Old Man,” his younger second wife, his teenage son Paul from his first marriage, and younger son Rocky. It is Rocky, age 7 when the story begins, who narrates from the vantage point of middle age. Rocky worships 16-year-old Paul, whose long hair and cigarettes brand him as something of a rebel, and he likes nothing better than hanging out with Paul and his pretty girlfriend, Leigh Bowman, listening to Young’s After the Goldrush. Rocky’s on hand when Paul trespasses on the big house up the hill and is shot and wounded by the house’s wealthy new owner Brad Culvert. But he’s left behind when Paul later runs away with Leigh and disappears. Leigh eventually returns, mentally unstable, but Paul is apparently gone for good.

And so Rocky becomes a teenager, his knowledge of life and love helped by his friendship with fragile Leigh and his relationship with Culvert’s daughter Patricia, who extends his duties as the stableboy to assignations in the hayloft. A double murder coincides with Paul’s long-awaited return to reckon with his father, felled by a stroke. Long-held family secrets come to light. Rocky grows up.

Tarkington writes beautifully, and the pages flow. As the title reminds us, only love can break your heart, but as Tarkington tells it, love is also what mends the broken pieces.

 

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rosieAfter several months together, my mom and I are rubbing off on one another. I’ve started watching Jeopardy again, which can make me feel both intellectually superior (you don’t recognize the names of Charlotte’s babies from Charlotte’s Web?) and incredibly stupid (the only stuff I know about physics is from The Big Bang Theory). Now, though, I’ve got Mom watching Big Bang and we can yell out “What is Higgs boson?” with the best of them, if we weren’t such polite Southern ladies.

So I know Mom — and all fans of Dr. Sheldon Cooper — will like Graeme Simsion’s fine and funny first novel The Rosie Project (Simon & Schuster, library hardcover), which is narrated by Don Tillman, an Australian version of Sheldon. He’s a little older than Sheldon — 39 — and is a professor of genetics as opposed to physics, but like Sheldon, he’s a brilliant yet socially inept research scientist. That Don is as endearingly unaware is soon apparent as he delivers a lecture on Asperger’s without realizing he’s describing his own behavior. He does know that he’s a disaster when it comes to women (no second dates), and so conceives The Wife Project in hopes of finding the perfect partner.

His two friends — philandering psych prof Gene and his therapist wife Claudia — suggest that the 16-page questionnaire might intimidate, even anger, most women, but Don proceeds. Grad student Rosie Jarvis fails as a potential partner — she smokes and is chronically late — but she needs Don’s help tracing her biological father. So begins The Father Project, which finds  Don acquiring amazing skills as a bartender so as to collect DNA samples. It’s one of the laugh-aloud moments in a series of hilarious set pieces as Don and Rosie figure out their fraught relationship and that love is both art and science. I haven’t had so much fun since I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Where’d You Go, Bernadette or Lexicon — all entertaining tales that make me feel smarter than I really am. Bazinga!

joshilynJoshilyn Jackson’s Someone Else’s Love Story (HarperCollins, advance reading copy) is a warmly funny novel with quirky characters who don’t know their own hearts — at least not yet. When Georgia college student and single mom Shandi gets mixed-up in a convenience-store robbery, she thinks it’s Destiny that handsome William comes to her and young Natty’s rescue. But her efforts to insert herself into the research scientist’s life are thwarted by her best buddy Walcott, William’s protective friend Paula, and William’s grief over the loss of his wife and child. She also has to cope with her still-feuding divorced parents and the question of Natty’s unknown father; Shandi fell asleep at a fraternity party three years ago and woke up pregnant.  Perhaps William’s research skills could help her search. Oh, Shandi, be careful what you wish for.

Jackson’s use of multiple points-of-view and flashbacks can be disconcerting, but unlike Shandi, she knows exactly where she’s going. I followed the twists and turns with pleasure.

chipIn Elizabeth Hand’s touching Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol (Open Road Media, digital galley), holidays are hard for lawyer Brendan Keegan. But so are regular days — not because he’s divorced and a recovering alcoholic but because he has an autistic 4-year-old son, Peter. “One day you had a toddler who’d always been a little colicky, but who smiled when he saw you. The next day you had a changeling, a child carved of wood who screamed if you touched him and whose eyes were always fixed on some bright horizon his parents could never see.”

This Christmas might be different, though, thanks to Brendan’s childhood friend Tony Kemper, a former 70s punk rocker whose glory days are long gone. Currently unemployed and broke, good-humored Tony moves in with Brendan and Peter, bringing his goofy obsession with Chip Crockett, the iconic host of a long-ago children’s TV show.

Hand’s short novel was originally serialized online in 2000, and is being issued as e-book for the first time. Proceeds are being donated to Autism Speaks in honor of Anne Marie Murphy, a special education teacher who was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. Be sure to read Hand’s Author’s Note at book’s beginning, as well her original Afterword.

mansellJill Mansell writes British chick-lit with flair, and in her new Don’t Want to Miss a Thing (Sourcebooks, digital galley), she puts her own spin on the single-guy-with-baby tale. Dexter Yates suddenly discards his London playboy lifestyle when he decides to care for his late sister’s eight-month-old daughter Delphi, but he still causes quite the stir when he moves to a quaint Cotswolds village (is there any other kind?).

Next-door neighbor Molly is a successful cartoonist and seems to be a perfect match for Dex, except for the local lord courting her and a local doctor pursuing Dex. Miscues, misunderstandings and mishaps ensue as Mansell juggles several  love affairs. Happy endings guaranteed.

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My recent appetite for books is bordering on the insatiable. No sooner do I check out a new book from the library or receive an ARC in the mail than I read about another title I that sounds great or someone mentions a book not yet on my radar. It reminds me of when I was a kid and would go to the library and check out a stack of books and read them one after another. The only problem with reading as fast as I can is that the blogging goes a bit by the wayside. But here goes:

Ashley Judd has a new TV series about an ex-CIA agent who is also a mom, so I can totally see Judd playing Kate Moore, the winning protagonist of Chris Pavone’s clever first thriller, The Expats (Crown; library hardcover). When Kate’s husband gets a high-tech job in banking security in Luxembourg, she happily ditches her CIA job — which hubby Dexter never knew about — and moves overseas to be a full-time mom to two young sons. But she soon tires of domestic chores, and begins eyeing another American expat couple with suspicion. Something about Bill and Julia doesn’t ring true. Are they assassins targeting a government official from their neatly situated apartment, or is Kate just paranoid? Maybe they’re after her and her old secrets. Surely they’re not trailing geeky Dexter. What could he be hiding?

Pavone shifts back and forth from present-day Paris to Luxembourg two years ago, sometimes flashing back to Kate’s career as a spy. Pay attention. Things start slowly, but before long, Pavone hits the black-diamond trail with all its risky twsts and heart-stopping turns. Both he and Kate are real pros at the espionage game. I hope there’s a sequel.

Peter Robinson, author of the excellent and long-running Inspector Alan Banks series, goes the stand-alone route in the absorbing Before the Poison (Morrow; review copy), which favorably reminds me of both Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine’s novel A Dark-Adapted Eye and the Kenneth Branagh film Dead Again. Chris Lowndes, a 60sh Hollywood film composer still grieving for his late wife, returns to the Yorkshire Dales of his youth, buying a big old country house. Even before he learns its peculiar history, he finds Kilnsgate curiously atmospheric, as if past events have left trace memories, which Chris is now reading.

Or is he just suggestible by nature, especially after learning that Kilnsgate was once home to Grace Fox, who was hanged for poisoning her doctor husband in the early 1950s? The more Chris learns about lovely Grace, the more convinced he becomes that perhaps she didn’t commit the crime for which she was executed.

Robinson neatly juxtaposes Chris’ first-person narrative with a rather dry account of Grace’s trial and the events leading up it, and then with Grace’s surprising journal entries chronicling her experiences as a World War II nurse in Singapore and the South Pacific. No wonder she haunts Chris’ imagination if not the halls of Kilnsgate itself. As for Chris, he’s an intelligent observer who likes classical music, fine art, good food, old movies and Alan Furst’s espionage novels. Mmm, I’d hit him up on Match.com, not that I’ve ever been there.

I’ve always been quite fond of Hamish Macbeth, the red-headed Scottish constable featured in more than two dozen nimble mysteries by M.C. Beaton. Hamish has a checkered romantic history, but he’s between lady friends in Death of a Kingfisher (Grand Central Publishing; digital galley from NetGalley). Not surprisingly, he’s attracted to pretty albeit married Mary Leinster, a newcomer to Lochdubh who has turned beautiful Buchan’s Woods into a tourist attraction, Fairy Glen.

But someone is up to mischief and then murder at Fairy Glen, heralded by the hanging of the gorgeous kingfisher who nests there. Then a bridge collapses, and the body count mounts as various characters meet their maker in extraordinary fashion. Death by rocket-propelled riding stairlift through the roof may seem a wee bit over the top, but the conclusion, involving international spies, is even more far-fetched. But still good fun.

Joshilyn Jackson’s A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley from NetGalley) is one of those good Southern novels with many funny characters and funny stuff going on, only “funny” is more “funny peculiar” than “funny ha-ha.”

Ginny Slocumb is nervous. She was 15 and unwed when she had her daughter Liza, who in turn, was 15 and unmarried when she gave birth to Mosey. Now Mosey is 15, and Ginny, known as Big, is wondering when Mosey might be expecting, except that her awkward, endearing granddaughter doesn’t have a beau, just a friend who is a dorky boy. And it may be that fate has already dealt the Slocumb women their 15-year-blow. Liza, a former drug addict, has been crippled by a stroke, and when Big decides to dig up the backyard willow tree for a swimming pool, the bones of a baby are unearthed. Where did they come from? Big has her suspicions, but Liza remains locked in her secret world, and the truth may destroy the family.

The three main characters take turns with the narrative, and Jackson creates three distinctive voices. She also is very good at evoking the sultry Mississippi heat and the class suffocation that stifles the town. A snobby matriarch borders on the cliche, and some secrets fail to surprise, but a lonely girl from the wrong side of town tugs on Big’s heartstrings.

Open Book: I’m nowhere near finished, so look for Part II in a couple of days.

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