Whoever said growing old gracefully was easy has not met the residents of Pine Haven Estates, a retirement community in Fulton, North Carolina. Decisions regretted and bittersweet memories are countered with surprising friendships and old fashioned orneriness. The confederate jasmine and wisteria arbor may shield the cemetery next door, but Pine Haven residents know it is the next stop. Oh well, such is life and death in Jill McCorkle’s stirring new novel, Life After Life, where the challenge to keep from disappearing meets the desire to embrace life at any age.
McCorkle, whose previous five novels were New York Times notable books, has loaded this, her first novel in 17 years, with quirky, well-drawn characters from both in and out of the retirement village. Making sense of it all is hospice volunteer Joanna Lamb, who ensures that dying residents are not forgotten. Arriving after her own tough spell, Joanna is there for their last day in the sun, "one more song, word, sip of water" before they pass. So she holds the hands of the dying and writes in her journal touching, eloquent remembrances of those who have died. For the eccentric group of residents still around, life remains a journey defined by their own choices. A former lawyer who feigns dementia, a retired school teacher who thinks everyone is really eight-years-old at heart, a Jewish resident from up north who wonders how she ended up in "the land of quilts and doilies," are among the repertoire of voices. Youth, too, passes through Pine Haven, as seventh grader Abby prefers the residents to spending time with friends her own age, and a tattooed young mother named CJ does pedicures to escape her own past.
At times witty and other times poignant, McCorkle's brief narratives show off her penchant for short story form, along with the soul-searching that takes place when the life one has always known coalesces with the realities of aging. Fans of this southern writer are likely welcoming her return.
Mike Greenberg is best known as one-half of ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning. But here, in his debut novel, All You Could Ask For, Greenberg leaves sports behind and hits a home run with this powerful novel about three women connected by cancer. Meet Samantha, Katherine, and Brooke, who share Greenwich, Connecticut as their hometown but are all at different places in their lives. Samantha is twenty-eight and two days into her honeymoon she discovers pictures of a naked woman in her husband’s email. Nude photos are also on Brooke’s mind. At forty, and after fifteen years of marriage and two kids, she is trying to muster the courage to present her husband with a personal portfolio featuring her and not much else. Finally, there is Katherine, a high-powered executive with a fabulous lifestyle. Her only problem is that her boss is the man who broke her heart eighteen years ago. Each woman works through her issues and gradually reaches resolution and happiness.
Those flashes of bliss are soon shattered as each receives a diagnosis of cancer and must face the disease head on. It is through a support group message board that the three meet and share their anger, fear, and hope for the future. The posted messages add more depth to each of these women as their innermost thoughts are revealed. These realistic, modern women struggle with the disease, treatment options, and side effects, yet they are strong and courageous. As their friendship grows, so does their spirit as each resolves to experience more “best days” of their lives. Perhaps the women’s voices are so honest because Greenberg, like so many of us, has personal experience with cancer and wrote the book to honor the memory of a close friend. Greenberg and his wife are donating all of the author proceeds to The V Foundation for Cancer Research.
Housesitting is a rather ambiguous sort of activity. It isn’t really a proper job but it still comes with enough responsibilities to prevent the time spent from ever truly transforming into a vacation. Some people are better at handling this tension between obligation and pleasure than others, and occasionally accidents happen. A crystal glass might become broken, or a nick or two may appear in a previously flawless expanse of plaster. But take a particularly fragile home and add a more-than-usually disorderly house sitter and you don’t just face an accident or two; you court utter disaster. Will Wiles, in his debut novel Care of Wooden Floors, hilariously portrays the panic, guilt, and misery that one such hapless house sitter experiences during the gradual devolution of his friend’s pristine flat into complete chaos.
Wiles’ protagonist, who remains unnamed, is doing a favor for Oskar, an old school chum, by staying in his flat for a few weeks while he travels to LA to finalize his divorce. The house sitter, who is from London, takes an instant dislike to the (also unnamed) Eastern European city that the flat is in and is less than attentive to the many notes that the persnickety Oskar has left regarding the proper care of his two cats, his grand piano, and his precious pale wooden floors. Less than twenty four hours into his stay, Oskar’s meticulously maintained home has already been marred by the faint blush of a tiny wine glass stain, one that Oskar is sure not to miss. And that is just the beginning of a slowly escalating week of mishaps and casual negligence that contains as many surprises as it does calamities. This madcap misadventure is sure to delight fans of Matthew Dicks’ Something Missing, as well as psychological drama aficionados and screwball comedy enthusiasts.
Actress Nia Vardalos won seemingly overnight stardom and acclaim with her first movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which she also wrote. Although she seemed on top of the world, there was one thing missing from her life—a child. Married to fellow comedic actor Ian Gomez, Vardalos tried for over a decade to become a mother. In the funny and touching new memoir Instant Mom, she chronicles the journey that led the pair to the adoption of their daughter, and shares with the reader the transformative experience that is motherhood.
Despite the title, there was nothing “instant” about Vardalos’ becoming a mother. Much of her professional success in life, she admits, is due to her stubborn nature and her refusal to take “no” for an answer. She admits to translating the meaning of the word as “try a different way.” Five years of devastating miscarriages led her to many more years of IVF treatments and even attempts with a surrogate. She kept this personal heartbreak hidden from the media even as millions embraced her as an actress they could immediately relate to, a Greek-Canadian girl next door.
Vardalos’ humorous, approachable tone makes Instant Mom a page-turning read, and when she decides to explore adoption via foster care, you know that this will finally be the answer. When she receives the phone call confirming that they have been approved to adopt a three-year-old little girl, she and her husband have just fourteen hours to prepare for her arrival. From this point, the book becomes a love story, one filled with trial and error as well as joy and frustration as the family gets to know one another and settles into the routines of everyday life. Instant Mom is a memoir of hard-earned motherhood with just a dash of Hollywood name-dropping, a book with wide general appeal.
Letting it Go is Miriam Katin’s gorgeous new graphic novel, in which she tries to come to terms with her past as a Holocaust survivor. Due to her past, Katin had come to despise all things German. When her son moves to Berlin, she realizes she must somehow come to terms with Germany if she is to maintain a relationship with her son.
Born in Hungary during the Second World War, Katin eventually immigrated to Israel in 1957 where she worked as a graphic artist for the Israeli Defense Forces. She went on to work for the MTV Animation and Disney Studios. She wrote her first graphic novel, We Are On Our Own, at the age of 63. Although Katin is writing about very heavy subject matter, the overall tone and art remain fairly light and at times, humorous. At once literary and accessible, Letting it Go reveals Katin’s daily life with her husband in New York while calling on the likes of Kafka to reveal her inner fears.
Done in colored pencil, Letting it Go works exceedingly well as a graphic novel. Katin is able to reveal details and nuance in her art, letting us inside her psyche. The mostly panel-less comics flow nicely with the fairly free-form text. The mix of black and white and color also nicely juxtaposes past and present. Like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, this would make an excellent introduction to nonfiction graphic novels.
Blue Balliett has created an unforgettable character in Early Pearl, the eleven-year-old heroine of Hold Fast. Early’s life is happy despite a lack of money. Her parents, Dashiell and Summer, and her four-year-old brother Jubiliation form a tight-knit family that enjoys reading, words, and puzzles. Dash works as a shelver in the Chicago Public Library with a dream of one day becoming a librarian. Sum stays at home to take care of Jubie, but once he starts school, she wants to work with kids who need help. They all long for a home of their own someday, but until then are content in their cozy apartment on Chicago’s South Side.
All that changes when Dash suddenly vanishes and the Pearl family is shattered. Forced to retreat to a shelter, Sum grows depressed, Jubie sick, and Early is anxious and determined to find out the truth about her father. Early becomes desperate to hold her family together and find her father. She realizes that he hasn’t left without a trace, and with the help of her dad’s former teacher, tracks down the patterns and rhythms of Dash’s days prior to his disappearance.
Early is a wise and spunky young girl; Balliett infuses the story with the poetry and spirit of Langston Hughes, as evidenced by the book’s title, which is from his poem "Dreams". This is also an interesting glimpse into life as a shelter kid and offers an honest look at homelessness. The mystery will keep readers engaged, especially with the public library at the center of an international crime ring. Enjoy getting to know this most special Pearl family, which is blissfully reunited despite great obstacles, thanks to the persistently clever Early who followed her heart and held fast to her dreams.
Blending engaging, energetic illustrations with an accessible plot and appealing characters, acclaimed cartoonist Michael Fry offers a refreshing new take on some timeless issues in middle school in The Odd Squad: Bully Bait. Nick has got to be THE shortest twelve-year old on the planet. Well, at least the shortest in Emily Dickinson Middle School. Being short isn’t always bad...at least when the school bully Roy stuffs Nick in his locker, it’s a roomy fit. But then being short isn’t Nick’s only problem.
Nick’s mom and dad have split up. Roy regularly terrorizes him at school. He doesn’t really fit in anywhere, not even with the Unsociables. Worst of all, Becky, his would-be girlfriend has begun hanging out with the abominable Roy! Not everything is rotten though, like Mr. Dupree, the seriously weird janitor who quotes Shakespeare and tells strange truths disguised as lies. Then there’s his mom and Memaw who love him. Best of all, Nick has a cool virtual alter-ego, Max. Max gets to torment Roy through texts and is Becky’s virtual BFF. Nick’s school counselor, Dr. Daniels, has had enough of the bullying. She’s recruited Nick and two other misfits, Molly and Karl to join the lamest club ever - Safety Patrol. Molly, the tallest girl in school, and Karl, the weirdest, aren’t prime friend material as far as Nick is concerned. They have a common cause, though, and together the three devise a plan to stand up to Roy. In the process, Nick learns some surprising information about Roy – and about himself.
Fry takes on a potentially problematic combination of delicate issues in Bully Bait, including both physical and virtual bullying, "peer allergies", challenging family situations and more. What he delivers is a story that is humorous and light, without sacrificing realism or a powerful underlying message. Look for the second installment in The Odd Squad series in September.
Revenge might be a dish best served cold, but for Celia Door it will certainly feel warm and comforting when it finally arrives. In The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, Karen Finneyfrock dives headfirst into the high school arena of mean girls and hidden truths. Celia was a normal teenager—average student, slightly unsure of herself but relatively happy—until two events occurred that upset her world. The first was the "trial separation" of her parents and the subsequent relocation of her father to Atlanta. The second was a mean-spirited prank by two popular girls that has socially-damned Celia, causing her to withdraw into herself and go dark, wearing only black and speaking to as few people as possible. As she silently plans her revenge, a new student named Drake, with a few issues and secrets of his own, slowly breaks through the cracks in her darkness.
Celia channels her feelings into her poetry notebook, and her poems add to the mood of the story in addition to playing an important piece of the novel’s plot. Author Finneyfrock is a Seattle-based poet, branching out here with her first novel, and is a promising new voice in realistic fiction for young adults. Poetic yet painful, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door is highly praised by best-selling authors Sherman Alexie and Ruta Sepetys.
How do you finally let go when you lose what matters most? This is the question asked by Barbara Taylor Sissel in her new novel Evidence of Life. When Abby’s husband Nick decides to take their daughter on a camping trip, Abby is thrilled that he wants to spend more time with his daughter. After they leave, the skies darken and the weather takes a turn for the worse. Roads are blocked with debris, major flooding ensues and emergency services warn travelers to stay off the roads. Abby receives a disturbing phone call from her daughter Lindsey, who tells her in a scared and distressed voice that they have traveled through San Antonio, Texas, a city far from their intended route. This is the last that Abby would hear from Nick or Lindsey.
Everyone is quickly presuming that Nick and Lindsey are dead, even though their bodies have not been recovered. Abby wants to give up the search and begin the grieving process, but there are too many unanswered questions. Her son Jake becomes distant, making fewer trips home from his college. Abby’s best friend Kate, though sympathetic, also seems to know more than she is telling. Nick was a lawyer on a high profile case and some suspect him of absconding with a great deal of money. Could Nick and Lindsey still be alive? Abby’s friends and family are skeptical and urge her to declare them dead and plan a memorial service, but Abby chooses a different path. She will keep searching until she uncovers the truth.
Evidence of Life is a suspenseful mystery with many twists and turns. Barbara Taylor Sissel creates an engaging main character in Abby, whose inquisitive nature pulls the reader through the story as we discover the truth along with her. Fans of Mary Higgins Clark will definitely find something to like in this novel.
Lauren Willig’s new stand-alone novel The Ashford Affair is a departure from her well-known Pink Carnation series. The story, which the Library Journal says combines an “Out of Africa sensibility with a Downton Abbey cast,” takes readers from the English countryside before World War I to 1920s Kenya and 1990s New York City. Clementine “Clemmie” Evans is a successful, overworked attorney whose personal life is a mess. As Clemmie’s ninety-nine-year-old grandmother Addie nears the end of her life, Clemmie stumbles upon a secret from Addie’s past. A family member hints to Clemmie that there may be more to the story than meets the eye, and Clemmie begins to investigate Addie’s life story. Addie grew up in England on her uncle’s estate as a poor orphan taken in by her rich family. Addie and her effervescent cousin Bea grew up to be best friends and close confidants, but with time came change. As Clemmie learns about Addie’s past, it begins to influence her own future. The Ashford Affair is a multi-layered love story that will enchant fans of Kate Morton.
What are the odds that two authors would leave behind their popular series and write stand-alone novels set in the same place in the same time? While at a conference, Willig met her friend Deanna Raybourn for cocktails. When the discussion turned to their work, both were surprised to discover that their latest projects were set in 1920s Kenya. Raybourn’s new novel, A Spear of Summer Grass, is the story of Delilah Drummond, a socialite whose family banishes her to Kenya to avoid a scandal. Delilah quickly connects with a group of British ex-pats, but a murder within her group forces Delilah to make an important choice. These two novels are a perfect pairing for a literary getaway.