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

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

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

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

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fikryIf bookstores attract you like magnets, you’ll find Gabrielle Zevin’s charming novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin, review ARC) absolutely irresistible. “No Man is an Island. Every Book is a World.” So says the sign over the door of Island Books, housed in a Victorian cottage on a fictional New England island. Alas, owner A.J. Fikry seems to have forgotten the sign since his young wife died in a car accident and his business took a nosedive. He fends off friends, like the police chief with a taste for crime fiction. He pushes away his sister-in-law, the disappointed wife of a philandering author. He even makes free-spirited Amelia, the new sales rep for Knightley Press, depart in tears. But just like in a storybook (!), A.J.’s pleasure in life, love and books will be renewed with the arrival of an unexpected package. Not all at once, though, and not without tears. Bittersweet proves sweet.

northangerJane Austen had some fun writing Northanger Abbey, but Catherine Morland always struck me as a ninny. I like her much more as Cat Morland in Val McDermid’s clever update of Austen’s Gothic satire, Northanger Abbey (Grove Atlantic, digital galley). This home-schooled daughter of a Dorset minister loves novels, especially paranormal fiction like Twilight and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (wink wink). Cat’s horizons broaden when family friends invite her to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where she becomes BFF  with socialite Bella Thorpe, who is crushing on Cat’s brother, and meets enigmatic Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. Gee, she’s awfully pale, and something weird is going on at the Tilney family estate, Northanger Abbey. McDermid, an award-winning crime novelist, sticks to the bones of Austen’s plot but fleshes it out with modern details. If it reads a bit like a YA novel, that’s ok; Cat is just 17. Still, I could have done without slang expressions like “Totes amazeballs.” So last year.

chestnutFans of the late Irish writer Maeve Binchy will welcome Chestnut Street (Knopf Doubleday, digital), a collection of stories about the neighbors of a middle-class Dublin street. Binchy wrote the stories over a period of years, sticking them in a drawer with the idea of a book in mind. Approved by her husband, the writer Gordon Snell, the stories vary in length and complexity, but the characters are familiar types from previous Binchy books, ordinary folks facing domestic crises and misunderstandings. There’s the teenager who’s unexpectedly pregnant like an aunt before her, who went to America and visits once a year. There’s the divorced mum who minds her tongue and allows her grown daughter to make her own decisions. There’s the mistress who belatedly realizes her predicament, the stingy uncle and his estranged niece, the spiteful woman who resents her friendly new neighbor, the four strangers who meet in a takeaway on New Year’s Eve and reunite every year thereafter. Several stories beg to be longer. Oh, it would have been grand to have a Binchy novel about the visiting friend who becomes the street’s favorite fortune teller after picking up on the local gossip.

Nohopestreett everyone can see the titular building in The House at the End of Hope Street (Viking Penguin, paperback review copy), a whimsical literary confection by Meena van Praag. But young Cambridge grad student Alba Ashby, overwhelmed by a stunning personal and academic betrayal, is welcomed to 11 Hope Street by landlady Peggy Abbot, who tells her she can stay 99 nights. As former residents whose portraits hang on the walls — Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Dorothy Parker, among them — can attest, the house will work its peculiar magic during this time. Van Praag reminds me of Alice Hoffman as she recounts Alba’s time at Hope Street, which overlaps with that of actress Greer, disappointed in love, and singer Carmen, who has buried a dark secret in the garden. Did I mention the portraits talk to one another and a pretty ghost hangs out in the kitchen?

jasmineDeanna Raybourn, author of the popular Lady Julia series, has another smart heroine in aviatrix Evangeline Starke, who narrates the winning City of Jasmine (Harlequin, digital galley). Five years after losing her husband with the sinking of the Lusitania, Evie is flying around the world in her plane The Jolly Roger, when she receives a recent photograph of the presumed-dead Gabriel Starke. She immediately heads for Damascus, with her eccentric aunt and a parrot in tow, to find Gabriel, who once worked an archaeological dig in the area. If he’s alive, she just might kill him — for abandoning her after four months of marriage. Action and adventure, romance and history, secrets and spies! Ah, good times.

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sleepA year after reading the short stories in Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, I’m still haunted by her weirdly wonderful — or wonderfully weird — tales.  “Reeling for the Empire,” in which Japanese girls turn into grotesque furry silkworms, spinning thread out of their hands, still strikes me as the stuff of nightmares. So I made sure to read Russell’s new digital novella Sleep Donation (Atavista, purchased e-book) during the daytime. Even then, I think some of it seeped into my restless dreams.

But, hey, at least I can sleep and dream, unlike many  of the people in Sleep Donation, where the Americas are undergoing an Insomniac Crisis in the near-future. You can die if you can’t sleep, like Trish Edgewater’s sister Dori, whose mind was crushed by waking moments. “Once sleep stopped time for Dori, she could not dig herself out. She was buried under snowflakes, minutes to hours to months.

“The official cause of death was organ failure.”

It may sound relatively peaceful, but it wasn’t, and it’s because Trish can recount Dori’s agonizing Last Day with such immediacy that’s she’s a prize recruiter for Slumber Corps, the non-profit that encourages healthy dreamers to donate sleep to terminal insomniacs. The system — with its Sleep Drives to recruit donors, its Sleep Vans, where their dreams are painlessly siphoned, and its Sleep Banks, where donations are processed and tested for nightmares — works well for the most part, like the blood banks of our time. But there’s never enough good sleep to go around, and the number of insomniacs needing transfusions continues to grow. On the outskirts of town, the sleepless seek relief at the Night Fair, paying fortunes for potions or a prime spot in the Poppy Fields.

At first, Trish’s discovery of Baby A, a universal donor, seems like a miracle. But Trish wonders how much sleep the poor child can give, as do her parents, Justine and Felix. Will their generosity with their daughter’s sleep last until researchers can synthesize the perfect artificial sleep? How many times can Trish recount Dori’s story before it’s just another story? And what of Donor Y, whose tainted sleep has led to a nightmare contagion resulting in elective insomniacs and suicides? What is so awful about his dreams that people refuse to go to sleep ever again?

Russell’s world-building is impressive, as is her verbal dexterity. Her imagination is simply fantastic, Ray Bradbury on speed. “It is a special kind of homelessness. . . to be evicted from your dreams.”

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In honor of Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, I’m reposting “Terms of endearment,” which I wrote last year upon the publication of her last book.

Alice-Munro1I always read the cartoons in The New Yorker first, except when there’s a short story by Alice Munro. She comes first, always. But as I noted in a 2001 column for the Sentinel, “Let us now praise Alice Munro,” I’m running out of ways to do so without repeating myself.

In 1990, I called her “the most generous of storytellers. She can capture an entire life within a few pages, and many of her stories open to encompass more stories, other lives.” Four years and another collection later, I noted that “love and loss, fate and choice are the seeds with which she sows a rich harvest.” Her 1996 Selected Stories was “a cause for celebration,” as were subsequent collections by this “Canadian Chekhov.” I rather regret that last rave because really there’s no comparing Munro to anyone but herself.

Her new collection, Dear Life (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), is everything I’ve come to expect from Munro and more. This time, the remarkable stories of seemingly unremarkable lives that suddenly turn on a dime — “Amundsen,” “Haven,” “Train” — are followed by a section dubbed “Finale.” Munro explains, “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.”

Well! Because Munro’s stories often deal with the memory of events in small-town and rural Ontario where she grew up, I’ve often wondered how autobiographical they might be.  Munro, however, has always said she makes things up, although she did draw on her family’s Scottish immigrant history in writing The View from Castle Rock.  Still, it’s interesting to read the pieces in Dear Life as both story and memoir, trying to discern the difference.

Really, I can’t tell. The lives of Munro’s characters are rarely tidy, emotions are always mixed. She’s expert at mining “the truth in fiction.” Her narrators can be unreliable, although, as a writer, she is essentially astute. So, does it really matter that the young schoolteacher in “Amundsen,” who is courted and then jilted by a doctor, is wholly invented, or that the girl in the last story is Alice recalling an incident told by her mother? Both have the quality of lived experience.

“We say of some things that they cannot be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.”

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vampslemonWhat if? That’s the question fiction writers start with. What if there’s a stranger in the backyard? What if the stranger looks like a bear? What if the stranger-bear is really from outer space?

You think I’m pushing the envelope? Hardly, at least not compared with Karen Russell, who writes wonderfully weird — or just weird — short stories juxtaposing the everyday with the extraordinary. As such, she’s working in the same genre-bending mode as writers as diverse as Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Manuel Gonzales and George Saunders.

Thre were touches of magical realism in Russell’s glittering first novel, Swamplandia, about the decline of an old-time Everglades gator-themed park. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, it grew out of one the tales in her first short story collection, St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves.  The eight stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove find her layering the super on the natural with startling results.

In the title tale, the elderly man in the Sorrento grove who looks like an Italian grandfather is really a vampire, who, along with his bat-flying wife, sinks tiny, razor-sharp fangs into “bracingly sour” lemons to slake a more monstrous thirst. Clyde relates his strange history, his courtship of Magreb, their search for a vampire analgesic. But things are changing. Clyde can no longer fly and he knowingly eyes the collarbone of a teenage girl.

In  “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” eleven former presidents are reincarnated as horses living out their days in a stable with a fenced pasture. It is, possibly, Hell. Although Rutherford, “a skew-ball pinto with a golden cowlick,” debates this with the other presidents, he thinks that if they “could just reach consensus that this is Heaven. . .we could submit to it, the joy of wind and canter and the stubbed ashy sweetness of trough carrots, burnished moons, nosing the secret smells out of grass. I could be free to gallop.”

The president-horse saga is as funny as it is affecting. Rutherford wonders if the turkeys in the barn also “have human biographies hidden beneath their black feathers. The presidents spend a lot of their time talking about where the other citizens of the Union might have ended up. Wilson thinks the suffragettes probably came back as kicky rabbits.”

But Russell also can go dark, as in “Proving Up,” about Nebraska homesteaders trying to make it on the tallgrass prairie during a drought. And sometimes she mixes it up, as in “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic,” which I can’t begin to describe. Go, krill!

Her verbal dexterity at manipulating reality, mixing the mundune with the miraculous, fairly dazzles in the haunting, horrific “Reeling for the Empire,” in which Japanese girls recruited as workers at Nowhere Mill turn into grotesque, furry silkworms spinning thread out of their hands. One girl, though, remembers her humanity even as she instinctually begins to weave the black fiber of a cocoon. And once again, Russell weaves themes of transformation, flight and freedom.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Knopf). Russell, who grew up in Miami, will speak Thursday evening (Feb. 14) at Rollins College as part of Winter with the Writers. More info at http://rollins.edu/winterwiththewriters. Also be sure to catch my former colleague Matt Palm’s Feb. 8 interview with Russell in the Orlando Sentinel, http://tinyurl.com/aq3cjab.

errantryI’m rather weirded out by weirdness at the moment, but I also want to recommend three more new collections I’ve been reading: The Miniature Wife and other Stories by Manuel Gonzales (Riverhead, purchased digital edition), Errantry: Strange Tales by Elizabeth Hand (Small Beer Press, purchased paperback) and Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders (Random House, digital edition, gift). More fantastic fiction.

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DearI always read the cartoons in The New Yorker first, except when there’s a short story by Alice Munro. She comes first, always. But as I noted in a 2001 column for the Sentinel, “Let us now praise Alice Munro,” I’m running out of ways to do so without repeating myself.

In 1990, I called her “the most generous of storytellers. She can capture an entire life within a few pages, and many of her stories open to encompass more stories, other lives.” Four years and another collection later, I noted that “love and loss, fate and choice are the seeds with which she sows a rich harvest.” Her 1996 Selected Stories was “a cause for celebration,” as were subsequent collections by this “Canadian Chekhov.” I rather regret that last rave because really there’s no comparing Munro to anyone but herself.

Her new collection, Dear Life (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), is everything I’ve come to expect from Munro and more. This time, the remarkable stories of seemingly unremarkable lives that suddenly turn on a dime — “Amundsen,” “Haven,” “Train” — are followed by a section dubbed “Finale.” Munro explains, “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.”

Well! Because Munro’s stories often deal with the memory of events in small-town and rural Ontario where she grew up, I’ve often wondered how autobiographical they might be.  Munro, however, has always said she makes things up, although she did draw on her family’s Scottish immigrant history in writing The View from Castle Rock.  Still, it’s interesting to read the pieces in Dear Life as both story and memoir, trying to discern the difference.

Really, I can’t tell. The lives of Munro’s characters are rarely tidy, emotions are always mixed. She’s expert at mining “the truth in fiction.” Her narrators can be unreliable, although, as a writer, she is essentially astute. So, does it really matter that the young schoolteacher in “Amundsen,” who is courted and then jilted by a doctor, is wholly invented, or that the girl in the last story is Alice recalling an incident told by her mother? Both have the quality of lived experience.

“We say of some things that they cannot be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.”

Read Full Post »

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