Friday, December 27, 2013

Lookaway, Lookaway

Lookaway, Lookaway
Author: Wilton Barnhardt
St. Martin's Press, 2013
368 pages

I first heard about Lookaway, Lookaway from a review in one of our local magazines back in the spring, just prior to the book's release. I knew I'd read it since it's set in Charlotte, a city I know well from living here in the mid-1980s and again since 2010. The author is a North Carolina native.

Lookaway, Lookaway focuses on the Johnsons, an "old Southern money" family living in the Myers Park neighborhood of Charlotte. For those of you who don't know Charlotte or its neighborhoods, Myers Park is an affluent area just south of downtown where the average home price is over $700,000. It's a beautiful, with broad avenues shaded by huge old oak trees. In other words, the perfect location for a family like the Johnsons with their Civil War gun collection, fancy monogrammed silverware and dinner parties.

The family is led by the very determined Jerene, whose sole responsibilities seem to be: 1) keeping up appearances and 2) overseeing the family's art collection at The Mint Museum. Her husband Duke, an attorney who hasn't worked in years, is obsessed with a Civil War-era ancestor and with participating in Civil War re-enactments. Their four adult children are as different as night and day and each have their own struggles. Annie, the eldest, is an overweight, loud-mouthed rebel who wants nothing to do with her family's wealth. Joshua is gay but deep in the closet. Bo is a minister on an upward trajectory in his denomination and a wife who feels more comfortable feeding the hungry than dealing with church politics. And Jerilyn, the youngest, is a sorority girl who feels like she's the only one left who can possibly take her mother's place as the family matriarch.

Two other characters who add a lot of spice to the story are Jerene's brother Gaston, an alcoholic who writes Civil War-era romance novels, and Dorrie, Joshua's best friend. Gaston and Duke have been best friends for decades; Dorrie, who happens to be African-American and a lesbian, often stands in as Joshua's girlfriend.

Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character, starting with Jerilyn, whose story about leaving home to attend the University of North Carolina immediately pulled me in.

The author clearly knows Charlotte, and isn't shy about inserting references to the city's rapid growth and the impact this is having on the environment as well as the culture. Lookaway, Lookaway puts a mirror in our faces and what we see in the reflection is Change with a Capital C. If you're a fan of southern fiction, you won't want to miss this one.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Storyteller

The Storyteller
Author: Jodi Picoult
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2013
480 pages

Of all the books I read this year, The Storyteller was my absolute favorite. It has all of my favorite book genres (historical fiction, mystery, contemporary, supernatural twist) wrapped up into one package. But most of all it's just good writing and a good story. Or stories.

Main character Sage Singer is a baker in New Hampshire, working the night shift so she doesn't have to interact with people. A person with scars on the inside and out, Sage goes through life as invisibly as she can. She lives with the guilt of surviving the accident that caused her scars and the death of another person. Reluctantly, she attends grief counseling sessions. There she develops a sort of friendship with an older gentleman. Their relationship intensifies when he shares stories of his earlier life in Nazi Germany and Sage begins to wonder who he really is. Meanwhile, a third storyline about a teenage girl living near a small European village being terrorized by a supernatural creature weaves through Sage's modern-day story and her friend's World War II-era story.

The Storyteller is a ultimately about forgiveness and redemption of the characters and ourselves. Once you get into it, it's impossible to put down. Highly, highly recommended -- this is the book I sent to my reading buddies in Austria and Belgium this year. I hope they'll like it as much as I did!

Jericho

Jericho
Author: Ann McMan
Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company, 2011
412 pages

I'm not a huge fan of the romance genre, but sometimes it's refreshing to break out of your comfort zone and try something new. On the advice of a friend, I gave Jericho a try. I was really surprised with how much I enjoyed it.

I love the southern Appalachian mountains, and the main locale of the book is a tiny mountain town in western Virginia called Jericho. The descriptions of small town life were spot on, and the local characters reflected a rural/small town diversity that exists but is rarely shown in works of fiction. I appreciated this busting of stereotypes.

The main characters are Syd and Maddie, but I see Syd as being the "main" main character. As the book opens, she's in the process of moving to Jericho, where she plans to take an 18-month position as a librarian. This move is a big deal for Syd, as she's freshly divorced and at a sort of crossroads in her life. Maddie is a very attractive physician who lives in an awesome house and is friendly with everyone. The two women develop a quick friendship and their lives become intertwined through a series of events that are at times painful, and other times hilariously funny.

Three other characters that bring a great deal of life to the book are David, Michael, and Pete. David and Michael are a couple who own the local inn, which contains an awesome restaurant, of course. Long term friends of Maddie's, they add a lot of humor in tense situations, and they have Maddie's best interests at heart. Pete is Maddie's totally awesome dog, who steals several scenes and is the kind of canine companion that everyone wishes they had.

Jericho is a fine read, and one of the most well-written LGBT-themed books of any genre and probably the best romance novel I've ever read. Kudos to the author for focusing first on friendship, and on nailing the geography and culture.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Promise Not To Tell

Promise Not To Tell
Author: Jennifer McMahon
William Morrow, 2008
250 pages

This is a book I'd been wanting to read for quite a while when I finally picked it up. It's my first introduction to Vermont-based author Jennifer McMahon, and let's just say it now: I was blown away with the writing and the story.

Main character Kate Cypher has returned to her old childhood home -- a former hippie commune in Vermont -- to look after her elderly mother, who has dementia. The murder of a local girl on the very night that Kate arrives brings back memories of a similar and still unsolved murder some thirty years earlier, where the victim was Kate's neighbor and secret friend Del. As the only female being raised in a poor farming household, Del was ostracized and bullied for being different. In the decades since her murder, Del has become of sort of legend, and many believe that her ghost still wanders the woods at night. Some even think Del's ghost is responsible for the killing of the most recent victim.

The story bounces back and forth between the 1970s and the early 2000s, and as we get deeper inside Kate's head, we realize just how responsible and remorseful she feels about Del's death and how this tragic event has impacted her life. The plot twists as we meet characters as they were "then" and "now" with some surprises. Promise Not To Tell isn't just a whodunnit, it's a fine example of literary fiction, and I look forward to reading more from this author in the future.

Practical Paleo

Practical Paleo: A Customized Approach to Health and a Whole Foods Lifestyle
Author: Diane Sanfillipo
Victory Belt, 2012
432 pages

I've been a bit slow to embrace the Paleo lifestyle, but about a month ago, I decided to go for it. My first "Paleo purchase" was this book, which I chose based on the 1000+ five-star reviews on Amazon.com. But when the book finally landed in my hands, I was impressed with its sheer beauty as much as the wonderful content within.

This could be my favorite cookbook ever. Only it's not just a cookbook. It's a mission statement and a manifesto. A call to action!

Practical Paleo is full of useful and interesting information. Sure, there's the explanation of what Paleo dieting is all about (and why you should try it) but there's plenty more: how to shop for groceries, regulating blood sugar, 30 day meal plans for various health conditions such as fibromyalgia, kitchen basics (how to chop an onion), and tons of delicious recipes. My favorite so far? That would be a tie between the pumpkin pancakes, the bacon-wrapped smoky chicken thighs, and the vanilla bean tahini truffles.

Those 1000+ five-star reviews don't lie. If you're into Paleo -- or interested in it -- this is the book to get.

Swimming With Sharks

Swimming With Sharks
Author: Nele Neuhaus
Translated from German by Christine M. Grimm
Amazon Crossing, 2013
564 pages

Hello. I'm back! It's true that I've been absent since April . . . did you miss me? Thank you for your patience. :)

I'm not quite sure how I first heard about German author Nele Neuhaus, but at the time her books hadn't been translated to English yet. Over the course of a couple of years I kept checking Amazon to see if translations were available, and one day I found not just one but two books! I bought them both!

This fast-paced thriller takes place in New York, where main character Alex Sondheim (a native of Germany) has just taken a new job with an investment firm. Alex is a rock star in her field and is maybe just a little too proud of her accomplishments, and she's definitely drawn to power. Perhaps that why she begins an affair with billionaire Sergio, who is rumored to be a mobster. But when she overhears a conversation between Sergio and one of the many shady-looking characters who always seem to be nearby, Alex sees the light.

Meanwhile, Mayor Nick Kostidis -- a former prosecutor -- has spent his career fighting corruption, and Sergio is enemy #1. Yet somehow, every time Nick thinks he's got something on Sergio, witnesses mysteriously disappear or change their stories. But if he plays his cards right, he may get Alex to fight for his side . . .

There were times I didn't like Alex at all and found myself getting very frustrated with her reasoning re: Sergio. I mean, seriously? She's so brilliant and successful, yet she allows herself to be controlled like that? Her relationship with Nick was a bit too predictable. But I can forgive all that because when it comes down to it, this was a fast read for 550+ pages and I didn't want to put it down.  

I paid US$3.99 for the Kindle version of this book -- I just checked and the price is still the same. So if you hadn't previously heard of Nele Neuhaus, this would be a good introduction to her work. Otherwise, definitely look for Snow White Must Die or Bad Wolf (the latter will be available in the USA in January 2014), part of her series (huge sellers in Germany) featuring two police detectives.