BOOK REVIEW: MERRY & BRIGHT, BY DEBBIE MACOMBER

 

Merry Knight is pretty busy these days. She’s taking care of her family, baking cookies, decorating for the holidays, and hoping to stay out of the crosshairs of her stressed and by-the-book boss at the consulting firm where she temps. Her own social life is the last thing she has in mind, much less a man. Without her knowledge, Merry’s well-meaning mom and brother create an online dating profile for her—minus her photo—and the matches start rolling in. Initially, Merry is incredulous, but she reluctantly decides to give it a whirl.

Soon Merry finds herself chatting with a charming stranger, a man with similar interests and an unmistakably kind soul. Their online exchanges become the brightest part of her day. But meeting face-to-face is altogether different, and her special friend is the last person Merry expects—or desires. Still, sometimes hearts can see what our eyes cannot. In this satisfying seasonal tale, unanticipated love is only a click away.

 


My Thoughts: From the first page of Merry and Bright, I was swept away into this romantic tale of finding love in the 21st Century, with online dating sites proliferating all around.

I also enjoyed the play on the characters’ names: Merry Knight works for Jayson Bright…and their worlds could not be more different. At work, he seems cranky and stressed and a little bit annoying, with his stick-to-the-rules regime.

After her mother and brother create an online profile for Merry, she finds herself connecting and regularly chatting with someone named Jay…who, coincidentally, also shows his dog as his profile photo.

What will happen when the two decide to meet? Merry can’t believe what she discovers as she approaches the Starbucks meeting place. How could she have been so naïve?

In the rest of the story, we see how misunderstandings, near misses, and unexpected events bring them to a point of reexamining what they thought they knew. Delightful holiday feels in a setting I love: Seattle. 4.5 stars.***

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REVIEW: THE RULES OF MAGIC, BY ALICE HOFFMAN

 

For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man.

Hundreds of years later, in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, when the whole world is about to change, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique. Difficult Franny, with skin as pale as milk and blood red hair, shy and beautiful Jet, who can read other people’s thoughts, and charismatic Vincent, who began looking for trouble on the day he could walk.

From the start Susanna sets down rules for her children: No walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic. And most importantly, never, ever, fall in love. But when her children visit their Aunt Isabelle, in the small Massachusetts town where the Owens family has been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong, they uncover family secrets and begin to understand the truth of who they are. Back in New York City each begins a risky journey as they try to escape the family curse.

The Owens children cannot escape love even if they try, just as they cannot escape the pains of the human heart. The two beautiful sisters will grow up to be the revered, and sometimes feared, aunts in Practical Magic, while Vincent, their beloved brother, will leave an unexpected legacy. Thrilling and exquisite, real and fantastical, The Rules of Magic is a story about the power of love reminding us that the only remedy for being human is to be true to yourself.

My Thoughts: In the early part of The Rules of Magic, when Franny, Jet, and Vincent were children, I struggled to stay interested. I only connected with the story when the characters grew into adulthood. The magic, curses, and potions were the least interesting aspects for me. I did enjoy the setting and the era: Manhattan in the 1960s, with a short summer visit to Aunt Isabelle’s home in Boston. Massachusetts was a dreaded place, according to their parents, who clung to the old stories of witches being burned at the stake there.

The children, however, loved the relative freedom of Aunt Isabelle’s home. Her rules were simple: 1) Do as you will, but harm no one; 2) What you give will be returned to you threefold; 3) Fall in love whenever you can.

As we follow the adventures of the siblings, we learn a bit more about the ways they strive to avoid love…and how they each fail at it in some way or another. Tragic things do happen around love, but is it because they allowed love into their lives, or because they are human?

Would they find their own answers? Would they finally come to terms with the love issue? How does this prequel set things up for Practical Magic, the story that follows? 4 stars.

***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: BEACH HOUSE FOR RENT, BY MARY ALICE MONROE

When Cara Rutledge rents out her quaint beach house on Isle of Palms to Heather Wyatt for the entire summer, it’s a win-win by any standard: Cara’s generating income necessary to keep husband Brett’s ecotourism boat business afloat, and anxiety-prone Heather, an young artist who’s been given a commission to paint birds on postage stamps, has a quiet space in which to work and tend to her pet canaries uninterrupted.

It isn’t long, however, before both women’s idyllic summers are altered irrevocably: the alluring shorebirds—and the man who rescues them—begin to draw Heather out of the shell she’s cultivated toward a world of adventure, and maybe even love; at the same time, Cara’s life reels with sudden tragedy, and she wishes only to return to the beach house that had once been her port amidst life’s storms. When Heather refuses to budge from her newfound sanctuary, so begins the unlikeliest of rooming situations. While they start out as strangers, as everything around the women falls apart they learn that the only thing they can really rely on is each other.

And, like the migrating shorebirds that come to the island for the summer, these two women of different generations must rediscover their unique strengths so by summer’s end they, too, can take flight in ways they never imagined possible.


My Thoughts: I was drawn into the story of Primrose Cottage and the dynamics of a Southern family. I could envision that hard-boiled patriarch accustomed to dictating the lives and choices of the women. It struck a familiar tone with me, having experienced some of these things, even though I grew up far away from the South.

But the people born in the South sometimes migrate to other places, carrying their values with them. That was what my grandparents did, and how their values impacted my life.

When Cara Rutledge and Heather Wyatt joined forces, they discovered how to begin new journeys. Would Heather find what she needed and learn to stand on her own two feet? Would love be part of her new journey? What would Cara do in her new life, once she moved beyond the grief?

A delightful story of loss, friendship, and new beginnings, Beach House for Rent captivated me throughout. 4.5 stars.***My e-ARC came to me from the publisher via NetGalley.

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?

***

REVIEW: NELL, BY NANCY THAYER

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Nell and Marlow St. John had been a golden couple: he, a famous director, and she, a talented actress. Could their life get any better? But then the children came along. First, Jeremy, and two years later, Hannah.

Life gradually changed for them, and then, unexpectedly, Marlow left Nell for her best friend Charlotte. In some ways, she felt more betrayed by Charlotte than she did by Marlow.

Five years later, Nell is still alone, struggling financially, working in a high end boutique in Cambridge, and moving from one lover to another, never seeming to find The One. She just wants to love someone, and have him love her in return. Is that too much to ask?

When Nell’s boss Elizabeth asks her to manage the boutique on Nantucket for the summer, it seems impossible, but when Marlow agrees to take the children for two months, Nell sighs with relief.

Finding her groove on the island comes quickly, and almost immediately, she meets Andy Martindale. They quickly connect and he seems to be everything Nell has been looking for.

But why, after almost three months on the island, spending every free moment with him, has Andy not talked about a future together? Could her boss’s warnings have been true? That Andy is unable to make a commitment?

Nell is a very introspective tale narrated by the MC, a divorced woman struggling with single parenting, supporting herself, and trying to find love again. The story is set in New England, mainly in Arlington, Cambridge, and Nantucket, sometime in the 1980s. The themes are familiar, but Nell’s voice is very appealing. She could seem a bit narcissistic, focused on her issues constantly, but remember that this was set in a time before social networking, online groups, and all that those connections can bring. Isolation is more complete in such an era, and instead of writing a blog, a woman like Nell is forced to introspection during her time alone.

Which is why this story engaged me. Nell’s dilemma is an age old one, not easily corrected, and without the connections most of us take for granted these days. As I headed toward the book’s end, I suspected that Nell’s solution would probably be one of acceptance. And living in the moment rather than projecting into the future. But could there be surprises ahead?

While the book was not my favorite by this author, it had the ingredients I have come to count on: delving into familiar issues, while showing the reader what the life of the characters looks like, from all the messy details of daily life to the flaws and foibles that make us able to relate to them. A little predictable, but comforting, this one earned 4 stars.

REVIEW: A SMALL INDISCRETION, BY JAN ELLISON

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Annie Black’s world has turned upside down.

Years ago, she was a young woman living in Europe, enjoying her freedom, but also taking risks. Two men–her boss, Malcolm Church, and another man who was a photographer friend, Patrick Ardghal–were part of that world, and sometimes, even in her new and near perfect world, Annie has thoughts about one of them. But before, when she was still young, Jonathan Gunnhaugsson, an American doctor she met in Ireland, became the love that kept her warm and safe. And dispelled most of her thoughts about the past. Together they raised three children: Robbie, now 21; Clara, 9; and Polly, 6.

In the present, before life unravels, there is a secret and an indiscretion that comes out after a mysterious photo arrives in the mail. Almost as if a chain of events have been unleashed, there is a reveal, then a trip to London, and then a series of tragic happenings: Annie’s shop is mysteriously flooded, and then Robbie, who has been living on his own, but is home for a visit, has a horrible accident. And the young woman named Emme, who worked in Annie’s shop, was the driver. What will happen to Robbie, and will the mess that now defines Annie’s life sort itself out? Will her husband Jonathan forgive her for how the secret has impacted all of their lives? What did Annie really know, and what was buried in her subconscious?

A Small Indiscretion: A Novel is narrated in Annie’s first person voice, but sweeps across time, from the past to the present, and she describes events in an open letter format to Robbie. As the events unfold in a non-linear fashion, it seems confusing, but then, at the end, and as one more piece of the puzzle is presented, we begin to see that the circling is like a logical progression, in a way, and that what we may have guessed earlier is now brought into sharper focus and in a surprising new way.

And by that time, I loved this story so much and what it tells us about love, mistakes, and forgiveness. By the end, I felt I knew and cared about each of these characters, especially Annie and Jonathan. 5.0 stars.

REVIEW: THE MATCHMAKER, BY ELIN HILDERBRAND

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Dabney Kimball Beech had lived on Nantucket her whole life. In her childhood, she lived there alone with her father, after her mother abruptly left one day under circumstances that would forever impact Dabney’s life. Some believed that Dabney’s agoraphobia, which kept her from leaving the island, could be traced back to that abandonment.

As the Director of the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce for the past 22 years, and as the wife of brilliant economist John Boxmiller Beech (Box), some might say she has it all. Additionally, she has a reputation as a “matchmaker,” since she can detect a rosy aura around those who are “meant to be.” She has never been wrong, and all the couples she has matched are still together…if they are alive.

But despite her marriage and her ability as a matchmaker, her own heart has belonged to her first love and the father of her daughter Agnes: Clendenin Hughes, a journalist who left for Southeast Asia on assignment before he learned of her pregnancy and has never been back.

Until now. An e-mail telling her of his imminent return throws her into a tailspin.

What will happen between them when they see each other again? And what about Agnes, who is returning to Nantucket for the summer? Can she handle connecting with the father she has never met? Will everything spin out of control now?

The Matchmaker: A Novel thoroughly engaged me, and as I immersed myself in this book, which was also narrated by individuals that had been “matched” by Dabney, I enjoyed seeing how their stories offered a unique perspective on Dabney’s gift.

I was rooting for Dabney and Clen, and also hoping that Agnes would break up with her controlling fiancé C.J. It was intriguing how much these characters’ lives mattered to me, and I couldn’t stop turning those pages. But as a dark tragedy loomed over them, I had to reach for the box of Kleenex while I kept hoping for a reprieve of some kind.

A beautiful story of love, loss, mistakes, and second chances, I wanted more time and more magic for these unforgettable characters. Definitely a five star read for me.