REVIEW: SLIGHTLY SOUTH OF SIMPLE, BY KRISTY WOODSON HARVEY

 

I am always eager to dive into a good book about family, especially one with Southern charm to add the topping on my day.

When Ansley Murphy moved her family to Peachtree Bluff, Georgia, due to financial losses discovered after her husband’s death, she made an independent life for herself and turned her love of interior decorating into a successful design business.

Slightly South of Simple shows the reader each of the well-developed characters through alternating narratives, but we primarily see them through the perspectives of Ansley and her oldest daughter Caroline. For a variety of reasons, all three sisters descend upon their mother’s house at the same time.

Pregnant with her second child, Caroline is devastated by her husband’s affair with a supermodel. She and their daughter Vivi take off for Peachtree Bluff, to heal and figure out what to do next. Caroline has some issues besides the advanced pregnancy and her separation from her cheating husband. We learn more about Caroline, as the story takes us from the present to the past and back. We feel Caroline’s present predicament, but are also gifted with a glimpse of the time back in college when she first met and fell in love with James Beaumont, whom she married only nine months later.

The other sisters are not as front and center in the story, but we do see them through the eyes of Ansley and Caroline. Emerson, an actress, seems to be overly absorbed in being extremely thin. What could be driving this behavior?

Sloane, the middle sister, is trying hard to support her military husband who is deployed more often than he is home, while raising their two sons on her own.

Ansley reconnects with her first love, Jack, just before her daughters all join her at the old home she inherited from her grandmother. Renovating that home helped her launch her business, and now she is fixing up Jack’s old boat.

I was intrigued by what had happened between Ansley and Jack all those years ago. He was her first love, but what had ultimately driven them apart? And what other secrets might they be holding onto? There were hints along the way about those secrets, and I knew that if they came out, nothing would ever be the same. A dilemma for Ansley, but moving forward might require the revelations that had kept them mired in the past. A fascinating peek into a family full of quirky charm and a propensity for telling it like it is with a dash of Southern gentility, I could not stop turning the pages until the very end. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: SWEET LAKE, BY CHRISTINE NOLFI

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Family traditions, especially those involving a family business, can make for lifelong competitors.

Such is the case for Linnie Mayfair and her older brother Freddie.

Treat and Sarah Mayfair did not realize that they were creating a less than loving relationship between their son and their daughter. They thought they were doing what was right for the business and for the family. The family trust was structured in what they thought was a sensible way, but Linnie doesn’t agree. Can she learn to finally ask for what she wants and needs?

Sweet Lake is a charming tale set in small-town Sweet Lake, Ohio, and the Mayfair Inn is the family business which Linnie has been managing since her father’s stroke. When he turned the management over to her, and she began to slowly improve things, she had the expectation that she would retain control indefinitely. Her parents’ move to Florida seemed to reinforce that belief.

Then Freddie did something truly deceitful that further exacerbated the bad feelings, turning Linnie and Freddie into bitter enemies. Can Linnie ever forgive him? How will she manage to turn the inn into a thriving business when Freddie does his worst?

It might take a village to untangle the mess. How do the charming Sweet Lake Sirens, a group of midlife to elderly women, come up with a plan to bring the siblings together? What will Linnie’s secret admirer Daniel do to aid in the cause?

I love family drama, and there was more than enough keeping me turning these pages. I wasn’t sure how it would be sorted, but I knew that I was rooting for Linnie…and also hoping for a romantic connection between her and Daniel.

The author showed true-to-life characters with real life issues…and then offered us a glimpse of the characters struggling to make things right, just as real people would have to do. By the end, I was happy to learn that another book will follow. I am eager to revisit them all. Even Freddie. 5 stars.

cropped-again-5***

BOOKISH FRIDAY: “COMMONWEALTH”

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Welcome to another Bookish Friday, in which I  share excerpts from books…and connect with other bloggers, who do the same.

Let’s begin the celebration by sharing Book Beginnings, hosted by Rose City Reader; and let’s showcase The Friday 56 with Freda’s Voice.

To join in, just grab a book and share the opening lines…along with any thoughts you wish to give us; then turn to page 56 and excerpt anything on the page.

Then give us the title of the book, so others can add it to their lists!

What better way to spend a Friday!

Today’s feature is a recent purchase that I’m excited about.  Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett, is an enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives.

 

 

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Beginning:  The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.  Fix was smiling when he opened the door and he kept smiling as he struggled to make the connection:  it was Albert Cousins from the district attorney’s office standing on the cement slab of his front porch.  He’d opened the door twenty times in the last half hour—to neighbors and friends and people from church and Beverly’s sister and all his brothers and their parents and practically an entire precinct worth of cops—but Cousins was the only surprise.

***

56:  Patsy went off to get his water and Fix waited, opening his eyes so that he could watch her go.

“So then what happened?”  Franny said.  This was the deal of taking her father to chemo when none of the doctors spoke in terms of a cure:  this was the time she had, these were all the stories she was going to get.

***

Synopsis:  One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.

Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.

***

What do you think?  Have you read this book?  Does it grab you?

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REVIEW: FAMILY TREE, BY SUSAN WIGGS

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Growing up in Switchback, Vermont, Annie Rush had learned the love of cooking from her grandmother, and early on, she had a dream. Her childhood hobby, besides cooking, was taping herself cooking and talking about the process, as if on a TV show.

The family company, Sugar Rush, involved processing and distributing maple syrup.

Family Tree begins in LA, where Annie and her husband, Martin Harlow, produce a TV cooking show called The Key Ingredient. They have a beautiful home, and on the morning when we first meet Annie, she has just been interviewed by someone from People magazine.

And shortly afterwards, she discovers that she is pregnant.

Eager to share the news with Martin, she heads off to the lot, and approaches Martin’s trailer. In that moment, and in the subsequent ones, everything changes for Annie.

A year later, she is slowly coming out of a coma, with TBI, in a facility in Vermont. She has no memory, and it will take some time for her to piece together her life; it will take a while longer for her to realize how her fairytale story ended.

From there, our story sweeps back and forth, back to “then” and moving forward to “now,” pulling together the bits of the story of Annie’s life before college, and before she met Martin. Her love for her high school sweetheart Fletcher Wyndham seems destined to fail over and over again, as they constantly come up against bad timing.

The story captured my interest from the beginning, although I must admit that sometimes I wanted more time spent in the “now.” In the end, and somewhat predictably, we get a heartwarming resolution to the issues that interfered with Annie’s happiness, and we get to watch as she puts her new life together, “starting from scratch.” 4 stars.

ratings worms 4-cropped***

 

BOOKISH FRIDAY: “A MAP OF THE WORLD”

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Welcome to another Bookish Friday, in which I  share excerpts from books…and connect with other bloggers, who do the same.

Let’s begin the celebration by sharing Book Beginnings, hosted by Rose City Reader; and let’s showcase The Friday 56 with Freda’s Voice.

To join in, just grab a book and share the opening lines…along with any thoughts you wish to give us; then turn to page 56 and excerpt anything on the page.

Then give us the title of the book, so others can add it to their lists!

What better way to spend a Friday!

Today’s feature is a book I read a while ago, and recently downloaded for a reread.  A Map of the World, by Jane Hamilton (Oprah’s Book Club), is my favorite by this author.  I also have the DVD and watched it the other night.

 

 

 

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Beginning: (Alice)

I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident.  I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing.  You don’t necessarily sense the motion.  I’ve found it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life:  You slip around the truth once, and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling, for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.

(I just had to add the extra lines:  I loved the intricacy of these opening lines).

***

56:  I groped for Howard’s arm, his wrist, his suit coat, anything to grab hold of, and at the same moment something from behind that felt like a large vinyl purse poked me.

***

Synopsis:  From the author of the widely acclaimed The Book of Ruth comes a harrowing, heartbreaking drama about a rural American family and a disastrous event that forever changes their lives.

The Goodwins, Howard, Alice, and their little girls, Emma and Claire, live on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. Although suspiciously regarded by their neighbors as “that hippie couple” because of their well-educated, urban background, Howard and Alice believe they have found a source of emotional strength in the farm, he tending the barn while Alice works as a nurse in the local elementary school.

But their peaceful life is shattered one day when a neighbor’s two-year-old daughter drowns in the Goodwins’ pond while under Alice’s care. Tormented by the accident, Alice descends even further into darkness when she is accused of sexually abusing of a student at the elementary school. Soon, Alice is arrested, incarcerated, and as good as convicted in the eyes of a suspicious community. As a child, Alice designed her own map of the world to find her bearings. Now, as an adult, she must find her way again, through a maze of lies, doubt and ill will.

A vivid human drama of guilt and betrayal, A Map of the World chronicles the intricate geographies of the human heart and all its mysterious, uncharted terrain.  The result is a piercing drama about family bonds and a disappearing rural American life.

***

What do you think?  Do the excerpts grab you?  Does the blurb captivate you?

***

REVIEW: CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD, BY CAROLINE LEAVITT

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Beginning in the late 1960s, in a town near Boston, at a time of both innocence and tragic world events, Cruel Beautiful World explores love, obsession, family ties, and what happens when one’s choices lead to loss, disappointment, and even betrayal.

Sixteen-year-old Lucy Gold was loved by her parents, and then when they died suddenly when she was only five, she and her sister Charlotte were taken in by Iris, an older relative, who cherished and gave them all she had to give.

So why was Lucy drawn into the web of her high school teacher William Lallo? How was he able to seduce her into a life on the run, a life in hiding?

What happens to Iris and to Charlotte after Lucy is gone?

Alternate narrators offer up bits and pieces of the characters’ lives, sweeping back to the turn of the Twentieth Century, when Iris falls in love with a man named Doug, a man who would ultimately betray her in an unexpected way.

Much of the story takes us into Lucy’s new life in Pennsylvania farming country, from the beginnings of her hideaway with William. We watch as the romantic illusions that had captured her so completely disintegrate. The illusions were soon replaced by isolation, fear, and ultimate loss.

I enjoyed the characters and their complexities, and how some of them managed to find ways to pick up the pieces, starting over again and again. We connect with Iris, Charlotte, and then there was Patrick, who ran a farm stand in Pennsylvania. Each of them brings the story to a place where we can examine their hopes, dreams, and costly errors in judgment. Can they move on? Will there be hope in this world they have created for themselves? A 5 star read for me.

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***My e-ARC was received from the publisher via NetGalley.

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REVIEW: UNTETHERED, BY JULIE LAWSON TIMMER

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Set in small town Michigan, Untethered paints a picture of an idyllic life for Bradley and Char, with Bradley’s daughter Allie as the centerpiece of their family. Allie’s mother Lindy is conveniently absent, living the California life.

But from the first page, the family is torn asunder in the aftermath of Bradley’s accidental death, leaving behind the sadness and the sense of a family adrift. Packing up Bradley’s desk, going through memories together, and trying to accept the condolence calls and casseroles, Char’s new life feels empty. Who is she, if not Bradley’s wife and Allie’s stepmother? Now that she has “lost” these roles, she is vulnerable to Lindy’s sudden demands for Allie, as well as to Allie’s behavior, which has turned distant, sullen, and rude. Her grades are slipping, she has chosen questionable new friends, and nothing Char can do seems to turn things around.

What is more challenging is that everyone seems poised, waiting for Lindy to call the shots regarding Allie, while she passively controls all of them when she keeps changing her mind. Yet when Allie visits her for spring break, she is mostly absent every day until late at night. Char feels at the mercy of Lindy’s whims, and believes that Lindy’s behavior is creating a wedge between her and Allie.

Allie has a unique bond with a ten-year-old girl named Morgan, adopted out of foster care. Morgan has mental health issues and a dramatic (and annoying) way about her. When Allie began tutoring her, they connected. Their relationship becomes a focus later in the novel when something happens to the girl. Something that will stun them all. Will Char and Allie’s bonding moments over Morgan’s trauma help connect them again? Will Lindy use the episode to tear them apart even further?

It was easy to empathize with Char, but she did have a tendency to sit back and let others call the shots, even the teenager, whom she seemed afraid to cross. The way she dealt with Lindy seemed too conciliatory, and I often wanted to yell at her. Allie’s rudeness and passive-aggressiveness was annoying, but she also seemed to be calling out for someone, anyone, to take control. Lindy, of course, was so unlikeable that I hurried through the pages that showed her condescending attitudes and inability to remember the names of everyone that she had known for years. She had a way of putting everyone down, which may have been a way of covering her insecurities in the mothering role.

Themes of blended families, the broken foster care system, and abandonment did keep me engaged, and I enjoyed the story. But after the intensity of Allie and Morgan’s traumatic episode, the ending was wrapped up a little quickly, fast forwarding to two years in the future. I would have preferred being shown how the events unfolded, but the conclusion was a satisfying one. 4 stars.

ratings worms 4-cropped***