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A Nostalgia for Laughter

Mention Carol Burnett’s name and the response will likely be a smile, a chuckle, or a flat-out laugh from anyone recalling favorite moments from the variety show.

Carol Burnett’s In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox, a memoir of her career during The Carol Burnett Show, elicits much of the same reaction.

The book chronicles the humble beginnings of the show, most memorable moments from its 11-year run, and how each of the original cast members joined. From the unknown Miss Firecracker Vicki Lawrence to heartthrob Lyle Waggoner to known comedian Harvey Korman, each was originally brought onboard to fill a specific character type. Yet as the series blossomed, so did their roles.

Burnett also shares little known tidbits about the series. For instance, who was aware that Harvey Korman mentored the inexperienced Vicki Lawrence? Ms. Burnett knows what the reader will be most interested in and shares the scoop behind the show’s most memorable moments, including Bob Mackie’s infamous curtain dress in the legendary “Gone With the Wind” parody, “Went With the Wind,” and the cast’s uncontrollable laughter during the improved Siamese elephant monologue.

Yet Burnett isn’t shy about the failures of the show. She reveals the night she had to fire Harvey Korman for being rude to guest stars Petula Clark and Tim Conway (who didn’t become a full-fledged member of the cast until season nine). There were some skits the writers planned to continue but never caught fire. The comedy sketches too golden to be discontinued such as “The Family” and the soap opera and film parodies are discussed. She shares the comedy genius of Tim Conway rehearing the scenes one way and performing them differently in the live taping of the show.

Carol Burnett’s accounts of the founding days of her show, coupled with behind-the-scenes access, cause the reader to reminisce about the days when television rabbit ears reigned supreme.

A light, breezy read, Burnett’s memoire shouldn’t be read in public for fear of being publicly humiliated. Outbursts of laughter will undoubtedly fill the reader with a broad-faced grin –and a tug to the ear.

By Dana Horbach


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Shakespeare Retold

Last year marked the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

Throughout the centuries, Shakespeare’s works have endured and have inspired numerous incarnations. His comedy, Taming of the Shrew, undergoes a modern retelling in Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler’s latest, Vinegar Girl.

The familiar characters are present, complete with contemporary names, motivations and sensibilities. Katherine is Kate Battista, a teacher’s assistant who lives with her widowed father, a scientist on the verge of an academic breakthrough, and her vacuous younger sister, Bunny (Bianca).

In the play, Bianca’s desire for marriage sets forth Petruchio’s wooing of Katherine. In the update, Kate’s father hits a brick wall with his research when the visa of Pyotr’s, his prized research assistant, is set to expire within months. The solution is for Pyotr to marry an American to keep him in the country long enough to finish his research. Dr. Battista’s excuses for Pyotr’s intrusions on Kate’s life are obvious to the reader while Kate arrives late to the party.

Once the cards on the table, readers may feel Kate acquiesces to her father’s plan too readily. Tyler’s take on the story is less comedic and her Kate is less acerbic and more likeable than Shakespeare’s Katherine. The trading of barbs also comes through in a more friendly fashion. Petruchio’s motives were also less noble than Pyotr’s as the latter feels almost victim-like in his aspiration and devotion to Dr. Battista’s work. Tyler’s conclusion should arrive as no surprise for those familiar with Shakespeare’s original.

A rainy Florida afternoon is all one needs to start and finish the work. Shakespeare’s five-act formulaic structure remains and the use of Kate’s point of view throughout the story might have been the impetus of heroine’s lack of temerity.

Frankly, Tyler’s story is more for those who possess a knowledge of Taming of the Shrew; otherwise its ending will seem to have materialized from nowhere. Tyler, however, understands her readers are savvy enough to expect more than just an updated setting. As with the anyone who attempts to reinvent Shakespeare for the 21st century, comparisons will be made and this is no exception.

A plus to reading Tyler’s latest, however, is that any reader always has an encore – simply by re-reading Shakespeare’s play.

By Dana Horbach


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An Exclusive Club

In Kate Andersen Brower’s First Women ten unique women grace history and form an exclusive club.

Some are meek and disappear into their role; others believe they must be part of the spotlight.

These women are the wives of U.S. presidents. While their place in history is secured, the part they have played is often not so vividly recalled. In First Women, Brower raises the curtain on the most famous ladies in American history.

From Jackie Kennedy, the first first lady to be born in the twentieth century, to the current Michelle Obama, the country has had ten first ladies: five Democrat and five Republican. These women are bonded together through an experience alien to the rest of the population. Unexpected friendships that cross political lines have been forged such as those between Lady Bird Johnson and Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan and Jackie Kennedy.

On the other side are bitter rivalries from ladies of the same political persuasion in Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.

The job is full of tradition. It’s custom for the president to leave a note for his successor while the outgoing first lady gives a tour to the incoming one, which can prove an awkward situation for one-term first ladies.

These ladies must also act as gracious diplomats as they host visiting dignitaries. Yet the true influence that these women wield is a bit of a mystery. Who knows what is said between the president and first lady in their time alone? From Jackie and Nancy’s glamorous redecorating of the White House and the folksiness of Rosalyn to adversity in Betty’s life, each of these women leave a different and lasting legacy.

Through extensive interviews with former first ladies and their staff members, Kate Anderson Brower goes behind the scenes to show what makes these ladies tick. She digs up the dirt on who was loved and who was feared by the East and West Wing staff. The book is not salacious tabloid fodder. Rather, it’s a deep profiling of these remarkable ladies who can only be understood by those who have lived this life.

To quote Laura Bush, while the American people elect the President, “we were elected by one man.”

In this unique election year, their stories are important to contemplate.

By Dana Horbach


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A Love Story Unhinged

Boy meets girl. Girl flirts with boy. Boy falls madly in love with girl. Boy kidnaps girl.

In Perfect Days, Brazilian author Raphael Montes offers a surreal Brazilian journey that isn’t your typical love story.

Teo Avelar seems like the perfect son. He takes care of his handicapped mother and is on the cusp of a career as a doctor. His best friend is Gertrude, who offers a one-sided relationship that defies description. Teo’s life changes, however, when he meets Clarice, an aspiring screenwriter.

Clarice represents everything he is not: outgoing, impulsive, and carefree. Teo, however, observes her through rose-colored glasses and ignores their lack of compatibility. When the object of his affection fails to reciprocate his feelings, he lashes out. Unable to curtail his impulses, Teo chaperones Clarice on a disturbing odyssey that mirrors her uncompleted screenplay. Once they spend time together, he reasons, she will love him. Teo’s every deed delivers him down a darker path, a proverbial grave from which he will be unable to extract himself.

This read-in-a single-sitting story reveals itself one piece at a time. Author Montes wisely writes the story in Teo’s point of view and does not fall into the trap by using first person narration as many conventional writers would. In Teo’s world, he never believes himself to be a bad person because his love of Clarice is what propels him. He escapes each roadblock as he deflects the law, former lovers and Clarice’s aversion to his intentions.

Teo’s psychological underpinnings are fascinating. Raphael Montes resists the temptation to delve into horror or blatant gore. The reader is aware of Teo’s unhinged grasp of reality and may see him as the Stephen King version of Don Quixote, a delusional man battling windmill beasts. There is a lack of sympathy for Teo, but one will keep turning the pages to see where he strays next.

The book will be passed from reader to reader because the last page sends a chill down the reader’s spine.

Perfect Days may not be a flawless story, but its Hitchcock-like ending makes it the perfect novel for book discussion groups to debate.

By Dana Horbach


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A Breath of Unconvention

A trio of New Jersey sisters throw conventional gender roles to the wind in 1914.

In doing so, they stand their ground against a vile human being in Girl Waits With Gun, a fictional novel by non-fiction author Amy Stewart. As with the heroines of the story, this book defies convention. The cover suggests a cozy mystery. But there is no corpse or mystery to solve. The novel can best be described as sophisticated Chick Lit based on real events. Even that description does not accurately reflect the inside pages.

The story begins in 1914 with a ride into town by the Kopp sisters: Constance, Norma and Fleurette. Their carriage collides with an automobile belonging to Henry Kaufman, a man whose occupation is less than reputable. The Kopp sisters live and work alone on their farm, and the physical damages to their cart and themselves hinder their livelihood. After several demands for reparations are ignored, the Kopps find themselves terrorized by the Kaufman gang. Some threats are subliminal; others are blunter. The insinuations are clear.

Perhaps, if the ladies found husbands, these single women might not be such easy targets for Kaufman. Finally, the eldest sister, Constance, must take matters into her own hands. Constance becomes the matriarch of the family and assists the police in order to protect her younger siblings from the garish Kaufman Gang. Her sisters, Norma, who has the unusual habit of collecting newspaper articles, and the dreamy Fleurette, whose head is in the clouds, are not considered normal by the day’s standards. The oldest Kopp sister, gangly and awkward, is not without her flaws. Not considered prime marriage material, she must make her way through life by her grit and determination.

Known for her non-fiction works, Amy Stewart offers us this fictional tale based on a mere newspaper clipping. She fleshes out the story about the Kopp sisters using historical records. Constance Kopp is the narrator, and Ms. Stewart is able to portray her as vulnerable and plucky at the same time.

In short, Girl Waits With Gun, is a breath of fresh air – a clever recitation that shows that these early twentieth century ladies were not content to stay home.

By Dana Horbach


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A Lost Tudor Princess Found

While the story may feel strangely familiar, her name is not.

A fiery redheaded beauty seemingly destined for the English throne in the 16th century, but her life is beset with tragedy, politics and treachery.

It’s the history of real life Lady Margaret Douglas and it’s chronicled in Alison Weir’s biography, The Lost Tudor Princess. From Margaret’s Scottish roots through her years as a lady-in-waiting for many of Henry VIII’s wives, Alison Weir’s well-researched biography will make readers wonder why they had not heard of this Tudor princess in their European history class.

Margaret, the niece of Henry VIII, was used as a bargaining chip early in her life. She was on both sides: a user and one who was used. Her proximity to the crown, third in line to the throne to be exact, made her hand in marriage a valued one. In an era where matches were made for political advancement, Margaret was lucky enough to marry one she loved. Yet her loyalty to the two Marys, Queen Mary I and Mary the Queen of Scots, caused tension with Elizabeth I. Throughout the tumultuous relationship with Queen Elizabeth I, the clever Margaret nevertheless seemed able to manipulate the queen for her own gains.

A Catholic in the time of Protestant rule, Margaret was never apologetic about her faith. Her biography illustrates that politics have changed very little over the centuries. Ultimately the impact of her machinations reverberated through English history as it was Margaret’s intervention that secured her grandson, James, his place on the throne.

The depth of Alison Weir’s research is commendable and awe-inspiring. A walk-on player in past biographies, Lady Margaret is given her deserved due in The Lost Tudor Princess. Within its pages, Weir uncovers Margaret’s youthful poetry and letters she sent to Queen Elizabeth during her tenure at the Tower of London. In doing so, Ms. Weir breathes life into a larger than life woman overshadowed by her contemporaries.

Under different circumstances, many may have found themselves chanting, “Long live Queen Margaret.”

By Dana Horbach


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Another Pendergast Series Is Launched

Percival Lake is at his wit’s end.

With his priceless wine collection has been stolen and the town’s sheriff is unwilling to track down the culprit, Lake turns to the ever enigmatic Special Agent A.X.L. Pendergast, whose only request is a bottle of Haut-Braquilanges wine as his fee. A skeleton hidden behind a bricked alcove then sends Pendergast on a deadly hunt. What he unearths in the small village of Exmouth, Massachuetts is more disturbing than the run-of-mill psychopaths Pendergast is accustomed to chasing in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Crimson Shore.

Literature aficionados will spot the nuggets of the authors’ influences: The Cask of the Amontillado and Moby Dick. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will notice the similarities between Pendergast, the American F.B.I. Agent, and his British counterpart. (The writers, however, do not pander to the audience. On the contrary, they share their enthusiasm of the genre with the reader.)

The odd but worldly Pendergast takes his ward, Constance Greene, along for the ride. Constance’s point of view is reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Watson. While she’s in awe of the seasoned investigator’s insights and methods, the authors allow her to grow by placing her in the foreground. Struggling to adapt to the new world she is thrust into, Constance applies “What would Pendergast do?” to the investigation. The dichotomy of the half century age difference between Pendergast and Constance is handled with delicacy as the elder learns from the younger.

From the sheriff and Lake’s girlfriend to a wiccan coven, no shortage of suspects exists in Crimson Shore. A conclusion seemingly reached at the two-thirds mark of the book is turned on its head as the last third delves into non-stop action and a cliffhanger of an ending. Pendergast and Constance are faced with an unrelenting evil force, which is the substance of nightmares. The final act is written with such glee and frenetic pacing the reader forgives gaps in logic.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have written an admirable first entry in another Pendergast series. Although this first book doesn’t demonstrate the strength or impact of the previous Diogenes or Helen Trilogies, the story is strong enough to bring the reader back for a second helping of Pendergast and Constance Greene.

By Dana Horbach


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Bosch Returns from Retirement

Harry Bosch returns for his twentieth adventure in Michael Connelly’s “The Crossing.”

Suspended from the LAPD and forced into retirement, Bosch’s future is unclear until his half-brother, “Lincoln Lawyer” Mickey Haller, offers him a one-time job opportunity as investigator. He’ll be poking into a high-profile murder case involving the death of a prominent Los Angeles citizen who was married to a sheriff’s deputy.

Haller’s client, reformed gang member Da’Quan Foster, swears he’s innocent despite DNA placing him at the scene and having no alibi. Bosch has heard this speech before from the defense: every suspect claims he was framed. Could it be that he stumbled on the one case where the accused is innocent? Reluctantly, he agrees to look into the case and brokers a deal with Haller: if Bosch suspects that Da’Quan is guilty, he walks as investigator.

After more than 30 years on the force, Bosch knows he could be branded a traitor once his involvement in the case becomes public. He is working for the other side, much to the chagrin of his daughter. Bosch’s strength in dissecting a crime scene, however, leads him on a path to conspiracy. The bodies pile up as Harry deconstructs the puzzle. What he unearths threatens to expose police officers. Meanwhile his loyalty to his former life crumbles under the weight of the investigation.

Part-time Tampa resident Michael Connelly scores again by juggling his two star protagonists. To enjoy this novel, one does not need to have read the previous 19 Bosch or five Haller stories. It’s a compelling mystery from its beginning to its satisfying conclusion.

Although this is foremost Bosch’s show, Connelly allows Haller to shine as well. Each brother skirts the law in his own way. Further, Haller and Bosch are unamused by the other’s tactics while justifying his own because his side is righteous. Adding to the drama, the novel’s police procedural and courtroom scenes are handed with a surgeon’s precision. Also never failing is Connelly’s vivid descriptions of Los Angeles, which make the reader see and smell the City of Angels.

Connelly’s latest, with its engrossing pacing and the discovery of the crossing – “motive and opportunity,” according to Bosch – culminates with a showdown the reader has come to expect from this author.

By Dana Horbach


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Winning Holiday Gifts in Books

Thoughtfully selected books make wonderful gifts that can be enjoyed again and again.

Contenders for 2015 book awards make ideal choices.

This year’s winners and finalists include excellent selections for the fiction lover. Among them is the recipient of the Man Booker Prize, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Inspired by the 1976 home invasion of singer Bob Marley, James creates multiple voices to give life to a forceful novel that delves into a volatile time in Jamaica’s postcolonial history, one with a long shadow of evil.

Fates and Furies, National Book Award finalist, is another suggestion. In a masterpiece about love, creativity and power, author Lauren Groff dazzles with an examination of the two sides of a marriage. The second half of the book turns the first half on its head. Stunning revelations suggest the heart of a couple is their secrets.

Put the winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel on your list for fans of thrillers and mysteries. Written by William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace is a moving mystery focused on the price of growing up. The summer of 1961 represents a grim awaking for teenager Frank Drum. When tragedy strikes his family, he finds himself in a world full of secrets and betrayal.

If your gift recipient prefers non-fiction, two awardees are sure to please. One is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, The Pope and Mussolini The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe. David Kertzer investigates the Vatican’s long controversial alliance with Mussolini in this sophisticated, revelatory work bolstered by meticulous scholarship.

The other is naturalist Helen Macdonald’s memoir. H is for Hawk, deservedly the Costa Book of the Year. Devastated by the sudden death of her father, the author adopted a goshawk and began the challenge of taming this vicious predator, an undertaking that changed her life.

Other finalists for the National Book will captivate the young adult readers on your list. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is a cleverly presented, emotional story. Convinced that a rare jellyfish sting caused her best friend to drown, seventh-grade narrator Suzy Swanson sets out to prove her theory. Her mission becomes a journey of self-discovery.

In addition, teen history buffs will enjoy Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin. Sheinkin’s riveting, provocative work chronicles what whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, a figure central to the Pentagon Papers, risked to uncover a government conspiracy.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson will resonate with middle grade students. Woodson’s multi-award winning memoir-in-verse depicts her early childhood as an African American growing up in the 60s and 70s. She weaves a mesmerizing tapestry of place, time, family and self to give a poignant perspective on the times in which she lived.

Also keep in mind master storyteller Pam Muñoz Ryan’s exquisite fusion of music, folklore and realism. Illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova and narrated in fairytale-like style, Echo recounts the story of three children in grim circumstances who discover the power of music to change lives. It was the winner of the Kirkus Prize.

Consider Caldecott winners if you are looking for books for children. Doubly honored, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen, is both a Caldecott Honor Book and an E.B. White Read-Aloud Award winner. This artfully simple story, written for grades P-1, is full of visual humor as it shadows two boys digging to find “something spectacular.” The unexpected ending makes for great discussion.

For older elementary children, consider The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art. Author Barb Rosenstock tells the fascinating story of Vasya Kandinsky, who even as a young artist experienced colors as sounds. Mary GrandPré’s whimsical illustrations evoke Kandinsky’s bold, creative artistry.

So head to your favorite bookstore or let your fingers fly online. Any of these books will make the holidays special for the readers in your life.

Editor’s note: After many wonderful reviews, WOW book reviewer Carol Collins puts down her pen this month. We thank her for dedication and wonderful insights over the years!

By Carol Collins


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A Brutal Homecoming

Hope crumbles to disappointment and despair for an outsider and his family in The Black Snow, by Paul Lynch.

The opening words, “It was the beginning of darkness,” foreshadow the arc of the troubled story.

When Barnabas Kane and his family return from the United States to his roots in Donegal, he is charged with optimism. But life turns cruel when the family’s barn goes up in flames, trapping inside both their cows and their farmhand. Barnabas is heartened when his neighbors join in trying to extinguish the blaze, but he becomes alienated when his requests for help in rebuilding the byre are rebuffed.

As the Kane family becomes convinced their struggles to recover are being undermined, Barnabas reacts with combativeness, further isolating himself. The family disintegrates even as the walls of the cow barn are rebuilt. In the midst of implacable adversity, his wife’s spirit is smothered by their uncertain future and his son is burdened with a fearsome secret. Relentless misfortune builds to a final catastrophe.

The brilliance of the book lies in the story, but also in Lynch’s words. The narrative is bleak, yet the descriptions are lush. Some authors write books that urge the reader to rush through, gobbling page after page. An out-of-the ordinary writer, however, can craft prose so mesmerizing the reader slows to read it, sentence by sentence. I repeated phrases aloud to savor the music of the words and the expressiveness of the imagery. Lynch’s metaphoric descriptions, bringing sinister life to smoke and fire, are particularly evocative. “[He] caught sight then of the smoke, saw how the curling cat’s tail had thickened into a spiral of dark slate. [He heard] the fire’s own sounds, the deep purring of contentment, as if fire was something that sat compact and waiting in a coiled malevolence and reveled being let out.”

The Black Snow affected me more than any novel I have recently read. When I finished the last paragraph, I sat transfixed. Lynch’s tale is disturbingly brutal, but genuinely human. It will haunt you and leave you thinking.

By Carol Collins


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The Long Shadow of War

Sara Novic’s brutal but exquisite debut novel is a gripping portrait of conflict and its consequences.

Girl at War tells the tale of a schoolgirl immersed in her country’s civil war; a decade later she is tormented by what she has seen and done.

At the start of the Yugoslavian hostilities, Ana Juric is a carefree 10 year old living in Zagreb. She finds the trappings of war more fascinating than treacherous. “The police built the sandbag walls [and] by the end of the week we’d absorbed the sandbags into our playscape.”

Soon the war becomes real when the family takes Ana’s critically ill sister across the border for a MediMission flight. On the perilous journey home, Chetnik paramilitaries slaughter Ana’s parents. She escapes only to stumble into a town whose name she never learns and become an accidental soldier.

After the town falls, Ana makes her way to Zagreb and to the United States, where she reunites with her sister. A feel-good tale might end with the reunion, belying the enduring effects of wartime.

Yet this narrative jumps forward ten years to Ana, sleepwalking through life as a college student in Manhattan. When she becomes mentally exhausted from explaining her history, she creates a less complicated back-story. Even her boyfriend doesn’t know the truth.

The fall of the twin towers shocks Ana from her somnambulance. She makes a much-postponed return trip to Croatia to face what she left. While revisiting her past, she realizes “in the end the guilt of one side did not prove the innocence of the other.”

As a first time author, Novic shines. In particular, Ana’s voice is spot-on. Her restrained, matter-of-fact style as a child soldier is perfect to both describe chilling incidents and elicit their mind-numbing effects. In addition, the sections set in wartime Croatia soar and are filled with riveting characters. Although the stateside scenes are not as compelling, they detract little from the overall strength of the novel.

The impact of Girl at War transcends its plot to tell a story with universal meaning. A memorable story, it may take your breath away.

By Carol Collins


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A Familiar but Fascinating Yarn

No surprise here. Anne Tyler’s 20th novel is captivating, insightful and funny.

A Spool of Blue Thread chronicles the lives of three generations of the Whitshanks, an ordinary yet quirky family.

The spacious house Red’s father originally built for someone else has always been home to Red, Abby and their children. As the health of the elder Whitshanks fails, the family must figure out what to do about the Whitshank house and living arrangements for Red and Abby. When the grown children get together to make plans, old grievances resurface: namely, Amanda is too bossy, Jeannie too sensitive, Denny is just plain unreliable and Stem isn’t even a real Whitshank. In addition, secrets unravel.

These secrets surround treasured family stories. Foremost is the Whitshank creation myth that relates how Red’s father Junior “fell in love with a house” and schemed to move his family into it. The story is cherished and oft told. Yet, when Tyler lays out the back story, it turns out lived family history is murkier than the myth.

Finally returning to the present, the last brief section unspools the full arc of the Whitshank story. The ending is hopeful but, as in life, not tidy.

One strength of Tyler’s novel is the author’s masterful chronicling of family life. Her story rings true and in her characters readers can see reflections of their own parents and siblings. I especially liked Tyler’s dry humor arising from keen-eyed observations of her protagonists. Abby’s musings are delightful: “Maybe she and Red could die at the same time. Say, on a plane. They could have a few minutes’ warning, a pilot’s announcement that would give them a chance to trade last words. Except that they never flew anywhere, so how was that going to happen?”

Additionally, while Tyler’s novels have been called “artificially sweet,” A Spool of Blue Thread is full of authentic sentiment without being sentimental. Tyler calibrates light and dark to avoid romanticizing her characters’ struggles with loss and change.

Settling into Tyler’s warm, witty and wise story is as comfortable as visiting an old friend, one with gossip to share. A Spool of Blue Thread is an ideal addition to anyone’s summer reading list.

By Carol Collins


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What a Tangled Web…

The transformation of a woman from a small-town girl into professional jewel thief lies at the heart of Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm.

The novel opens with Grace, a gifted liar and an expert at deception, hiding under an assumed name while working off the books in a Paris atelier as an antiques restorer. Meanwhile, her young husband, Riley, and Alls, his accomplice and best friend, are being released from prison in Tennessee after serving three years for a daring museum robbery masterminded by Grace.

Scherm’s tale then shifts back and forth among Grace’s life in Tennessee, her relationship with Riley, the world of art appraisal, and the results of a heist gone wrong. In the hands of a less adept writer, this approach might disrupt the narrative. Yet Scherm maintains momentum while adopting a convoluted style to match Grace’s ambiguous nature.

At each stage in her metamorphosis, Grace constructs a web of lies to remake herself. She discovers, “When you stopped trying to be one perfect person, you could be many.” First, she molds herself into a small-town sweetheart, next assumes the persona of a New York art student, then becomes an amateur crook and finally takes on the identity of jewel thief.

Despite being flawed, Grace’s character is often sympathetic and always compelling. Scherm paints Grace as a chameleon who knowingly deceives friends, family and colleagues but fools even herself. It is easy to root for her and hope that she will learn that the worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves.

The author excels at not only creating recognizably human characters, but also at building controlled suspense. The intricate plot slowly develops tension, waiting for Grace’s crimes and betrayals to catch up with her.

One potential shortcoming of the novel is Scherm’s extensive descriptions of antiques appraisal and restoration. The details could be distracting. For me, however, they clarified Grace’s motivation. Vivid depictions of the objects she covets suggest she confounds the things she loves with love itself.

A thriller, character study, and love story, Unbecoming deserves a sequel. When Grace fully embraces her gift for making the counterfeit seem authentic, she’s a delightfully wicked protagonist I’d enjoy meeting again.

By Carol Collins


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Bringing to Life a World War I Disaster

Readers expect exceptional storytelling from Erik Larson and his latest won’t disappoint.

Larson’s Dead Wake is an exceptional story well told. It chronicles the final voyage of the Lusitania, the British ship torpedoed by a German U-boat with the loss of more than a thousand lives, including 128 Americans.

Yet, this gripping tale is more than a straight retelling of the Lusitania’s fate. Larson brings the account to life by weaving together tiny, personal details. Parallel narratives from the ship, Unterseeboot-20, the White House and Room 40, the center of British covert intelligence, transform Dead Wake into a riveting human-interest story.

Chapter by chapter, the facts connect to explain why a “Greyhound of the Sea,” captained by an experienced seaman, found itself in an inconceivable yet inescapable predicament. An unfortunate convergence of events alone could have placed the Lusitania in the torpedo sights of the German predator. The ocean liner should have been hours closer to its destination, but was late embarking, and, as an economical measure, was moving at reduced speed. At the same time, after an unsuccessful hunt for “tonnage,” the U-boat’s captain changed direction to slink home. A break in heavy fog off the coast of Ireland finally brought the ruthless cat and unsuspecting mouse face to face.

Larson, however, constructs a convincing case that something more sinister was in play. Despite a warning from the German Embassy that travelers sailing in the war zone “do so at their own risk,” the Cunard Line did not alter the liner’s itinerary. In addition, even though the British knew the likely path of the U-20, the Admiralty did not provide the Lusitania with a military escort. And after the disaster, a cruiser sent to rescue victims was called back to port. The evidence suggests more than hubris or miscommunication. It points towards governmental intrigue.

As a master of seamlessly integrating research into his storytelling, Larson crafts nonfiction that flows like fiction. Rich details from journals, survivor depositions, and even intercepted telegrams create an engrossing work brimming with fascinating political, military and social information.

For fans of Erik Larson as well as any reader who enjoys historical nonfiction, Dead Wake will not disappoint.

By Carol Collins


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A Pair of Puzzles

Mystery lovers are in luck with the publication of two fresh novels.

Each opens with a body, and by the end, unearths shocking secrets. Yet between the first and last pages, authors Paula Hawkins and Celeste Ng devise gripping mysteries in very different ways.

In a dark tale Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train recounts interlinking tragic stories of three women. Rachel is an alcoholic, obsessed with her former marriage. Megan has a past filled with secrets. While Anna, the wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, is smugly blissful in her new life.

Rachel, the primary narrator, is miserable. To compensate for her unfulfilling existence, she builds a fantasy world populated by the families she passes on her daily train trips to London. When Megan, the wife of one couple, disappears, Rachel goes to the police with something she saw from the train. This decision enmeshes her in the investigation while exposing her alcohol-soaked memories as unreliable.

The Girl on the Train is a taut, fast-paced mystery. Hawkins crafts a plot both chilling and electrifying as she ingeniously shifts the line between truth and lie to muddy the water.

In contrast, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is a slower paced mystery. The narrative paints the emotionally complex portrait of the Lees, a Chinese-American family that does not fit into small-town Ohio in the 1970s.

By every appearance, the cherished middle child, Lydia, embraces the unrealized dreams of her parents. Her accounts of a busy social life thrill her father while her stellar grades in science satisfy her mother. But when her body is found in a local lake, long-kept secrets drive a wedge into the fault lines within the family.

What at first looks to be suicide becomes murkier as the story unfolds. Mysterious circumstances surrounding Lydia’s death offer other possibilities. The puzzle lingers, creating tension that carries the reader through to the final pages.

Using exquisite prose and well-developed characters, Ng lays out the book’s central tragedy, which may not be Lydia’s death after all.

Although notably different in point-of-view and style, both mysteries are compelling. The decision will not be which novel to read, but which to read first.

By Carol Collins


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Homegrown Heroes

It is no surprise The Boys in the Boat has spent 37 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers List.

Sportswriter Daniel James Brown’s real-life saga of determination and teamwork exhibits all the drama of a gripping novel.

The book chronicles the heroic pursuit of an Olympic gold medal by the University of Washington's 1936 eight-oar crew. At first taking on Ivy League challengers and then the gloried German team, these boys from farms, logging towns and shipyard communities recast the sport, riveted Americans and stunned the world.

Brown forges his story from parallel events. He conjures up youthful dreams of the team members in contrast to the economic horrors of the Great Depression and juxtaposes the evolution of a world-class Washington crew team against the Nazis’ preparations for the games. The narrative builds to a hold-your-breath climax at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

In this character-centered book the author draws from the boys' own journals, newspaper reports and photos to weave individual stories into the larger account. He includes cameos, including British boat-maker George Pocock and UW men’s varsity coach, Al Ulbrickson. But at the heart of the tale is the life of Joe Rantz – a farm boy without prospects. Rantz relies on a part-time job at the boathouse to stay at the university, a position requiring him to earn a place on the rowing team. What starts as a necessity becomes a passion as he is drawn in by the discipline and challenge of the sport.

Despite offering an engaging story, The Boys in the Boat has weaknesses. Vivid details of the art and craft of rowing and boat building are at first fascinating. But repetitive technical descriptions become tedious, slowing the pace of the book. Omitting redundant minutia would create a livelier story.

Additionally, although Brown is an effective storyteller, he is less adept at presenting “life lessons.” His use of Pocock’s pithy observations, particularly as chapter epigraphs, comes across as preachy. A subtle approach would be more convincing.

Yet even with its shortcomings this book tells a wonderful story. Once you read it, you’ll want to recommend it to your friends.

By Carol Collins


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Four Love Stories in One

In interlocking novellas, Naomi Wood gives life to the women who loved and lost the legendary author, Ernest Hemingway.

Mrs. Hemingway is written in a singular style, narrated by his four wives. Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer, Martha Gellhorn, and Mary Welsh each start their section of the book with the end of the relationship. They then shift back to crucial moments on the path from lover to spouse. Using snippets of dialogue and quotations from biographies and letters, the well-researched narrative imaginatively fuses facts with fiction. Wood is so skillful I was never sure what I could find on Google and what she’d invented.

Hemingway’s wives are at the heart of the novel. Wood shines by creating equally sympathetic characters with individual personalities. Hadley, the first wife, was older, quiet and generous while the second wife, Pauline, was young, rich and flirty. Martha, a glamorous, brilliant war correspondent, became Hemingway’s third wife and Mary was so devoted she abandoned her career as a journalist to become the final wife.

As in life, Hadley, Pauline, Martha and Mary appear in each other’s chapters. The tension between the women’s tolerance toward each other and their competitiveness for Hemingway’s affection is captivating. Constant underlying conflict maintains narrative momentum across an expansive time frame from the 1920s through the 1960s.

Wood depicts Hemingway as a man of contradictions, his need for excitement a counterpoint to a longing for the steadiness of marriage. Each wife provided the stability, each mistress, the exhilaration. The paradox framed their existence. Every Mrs. Hemingway believed her love story would last forever. Each was mistaken.

Wide-ranging settings add dimension to the novel by contrasting the couples’ lives. Through understated prose and deft images, Wood evokes a vivid sense of Antibes, Key West, Cuba, the Spanish Civil War, and Paris and England during World War II.

In a magnetic account of passion, love and heartbreak, Mrs. Hemingway offers fresh perspective on the complicated, intertwined lives of the acclaimed author and his wives. Whether you are a Hemingway fan or just enjoy a good story, it should be on your reading shortlist.

By Carol Collins


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A Passionate Reimagining

Some novels are difficult to classify. Lily King’s Euphoria is one.

King is a virtuoso at combining history, character analysis, romance and adventure to blur fiction genres and create a tightly written, witty, intensely smart tale.

Euphoria is a historical novel based on Margaret Mead’s 1933 anthropological research in New Guinea. Initially, the author closely follows recorded details of the collaborative field experience of Mead and both her current and future husbands. But King moves beyond the facts to devise a riveting story with a strikingly different ending.

Nell is a best-selling, controversial American ethnographer. She is married to Fen, a less productive fellow researcher, jealous of Nell’s success. In a chance encounter Nell and Fen meet English anthropologist Bankson, who has become isolated and frustrated by his solitary work. When Bankson persuades Nell and Fen to study an interesting new tribe several hours upriver from him on the Sepik River, the emotional and professional divide between Nell and Fen widens, putting in motion actions that have disastrous consequences.

Yet, this book is also an insightful character study. The use of Bankson’s retrospective narration interleaved with excerpts from Nell’s journals keenly portrays Nell, Fen and Bankson as both scientists and very human beings. The author contrasts the philosophies of Nell and Fen that typify their interactions with the remote tribe they are studying. She also focuses the tangled love story on the professional aspirations and personal passions that both link Nell, Fen and Bankson and end up endangering their careers and lives.

The novel’s storyline generates relentless suspense. I was riveted from the opening paragraphs. King’s masterful foreshadowing ensures the reader knows something bad will happen – just not what. I found the immersive sense of place fascinating. Vivid depictions of both the backwater living conditions of Nell, Fen and Bankson and of the customs and rituals of the indigenous people of New Guinea transform the ordinary into peculiar and make the strange seem reasonable.

This is the best sort of book – a novel of ideas whose plot, characters and setting absorb and transport the reader. At times, you may wonder, “Could this part really happen?”

But you will always want to keep reading.

By Carol Collins


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Picture Perfect Holiday Picks

Picture books can make us wish we were kids again.

This year my holiday gift-giving suggestions include picture books for children and teens. Yet the selections will amuse and captivate adults as well.

Traditional picture books are short and engaging while blending stories with art. Here is a sampling of my favorites.

Press Here, written and illustrated by Hervé Tullet, defies categorization. It is an interactive book without tabs, windows or flaps, yet it’s as engaging as an iPad app without a single electronic component. Press the dots, tilt the book or shake the pages to see what happens next. This book will bring a smile to most any kid – or adult. It’s recommended for ages 4-8 but fun for anyone.

In the next story, a box of crayons goes on strike. When Duncan gets ready to color, the crayons are missing. Instead, he finds hand-written notes explaining why each crayon has had enough! Every hilarious epistle matches one of Duncan’s drawings, illustrating how the young artist has misused the crayon. The Day the Crayons Quit, written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, is a funny and fresh addition for children 3-7.

Most of us know Keith Richards as a member of the legendary rock band, The Rolling Stones. He shows a different side as the author of Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar. His daughter, Theodora, illustrates this tender story of the bond between Richards and his grandfather with charming pen-and-ink collages. A bonus CD features the author reading his story and playing a sample of “Malagueña,” the first song he learned from his grandfather. It’s suggested for preschool and early elementary ages.

Anyone who has struggled to write an essay or story has likely turned to Roget’s Thesaurus for inspiration. The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, by Jen Bryant, is the story of how young Peter Mark Roget came to create his book of lists, which evolved into the essential reference work. Melissa Sweet’s elaborately designed illustrations layer watercolors over a patchwork of classic images and old-time fonts, drawing the reader back again to each page. It’s perfect for the upper elementary reader.

The final two recommendations are not typical of the genre. They are longer and targeted to preteens and teens. Nevertheless, they are essentially picture books with illustrations that enhance the story or add depth to the text.

A Caldecott Award winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, is the basis for the 2011 magical film, Hugo, a tale of mystery. The novel, set in Paris in the 1930s, is just as enchanting. Selznick’s sections of silver-toned pencil drawings, interleaved with narrative, bring the feeling of a silent film to the page.

In The Story of Buildings: From the Pyramids to the Sydney Opera House and Beyond, Patrick Dillon celebrates what ingenious architects and builders designed and constructed. Stephen Biesty's meticulous illustrations integrate with the text to invite readers to start wherever they wish. Reminiscent of David Macaulay’s books, The Story of Buildings may be intended for junior readers, but it will engage grownups.

Make your gift of a picture book memorable by adding a promise to read it together. Milk and cookies optional!

As a holiday treat, four readers can win one of the featured books – Press Here, Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar, The Invention of Hugo Cabret or The Story of Buildings. To enter the drawings, e-mail by Dec. 10 with the subject, “Book Drawing,” and include the name of the book you want.

By Carol Collins


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Stories That Satisfy Like Novels

Short story collections are always a nice change of pace, especially when there is little time for leisurely reading.

The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol is a perfect choice during the start of the busy holiday season.

The title of Antopol's collection is a play on words. Several characters are dissidents, one even a target of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. But in most of the stories, to be "un-American" means to lack a sense of being anchored in America, to be suspended between cultures.

Antopol crafts deeply sympathetic characters. Each struggles to find his or her place when the past exerts a burden on the present. “The Unknown Soldier,” set during the McCarthy era, centers on a Russian-American apolitical communist. His effort to parlay his Russian persona into a film career backfires, sending him to prison for contempt of Congress. The title character in “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story” escapes a forced labor camp in a harrowing underground flight to join teen partisans in Belarus during World War II. And in "Retrospective” an Israeli man returns to Jerusalem to settle the estate of his American wife's grandmother. The secret that comes out leads him to reexamine the estranged relationship with his wife.

This collection of stories is unusually cohesive. Although the times and places are different, an underlying theme links the pieces. Each story is a complete work, while conceptually connecting with the other tales.

This work could be uncomfortably heavy. Antopol, however, is a master at using witty dialog to counterpoint the weightiness of the content. When one character describes the grilling he once endured in Czechoslovakia, he remarks, “Did they really believe sleep deprivation would crack a father with a newborn?” And a young woman explains to an older man how she knows he’s divorced: “You have that look about you. Like you just ran out of a burning building.”

Engaging story lines and depth of characters make the individual stories in this collection satisfying. The universal themes of family dynamics and hope in the face of unfulfilled expectations unfolding in fresh settings make The UnAmericans altogether memorable.

By Carol Collins

Carol Collins is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Flavia in Fine Form

My favorite pre-teen sleuth is back.

Amateur detective extraordinaire Flavia de Luce returns in The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley’s sixth novel in the series. Flavia lives with her two condescending sisters on an aging estate in post-WWII England. Her free-spirited mother, Harriet, disappeared in a mysterious accident when Flavia was a baby. Her detached father leaves Flavia with little guidance except her own intelligence and curiosity.

In five earlier novels, 11-year-old Flavia ingeniously helped solve a half-dozen deaths. In this novel the mystery is personal. Her long-lost mother is coming home. When the story opens, the de Luces are convened at the train station awaiting Harriet’s remains. While Flavia focuses on the train’s arrival, a stranger surprises her with a cryptic message that “the Gamekeeper is in jeopardy.”

As Flavia deciphers the clue and investigates her mother’s life, she realizes her family is startlingly complex. She learns the youngest daughter has marked opportunities and obligations. This revelation explains her father’s seeming disinterest. He was leaving her to explore her own interests. Moreover, Flavia’s discovery suggests her mother was carrying out a vital mission when she died.

A strength of the book is Bradley’s deft development of even his secondary cast, including Flavia’s annoying cousin Undine, a “curious, nitpicking little creature.” But Flavia is the star. Her chatty observations create a keen and whimsical voice that made me laugh: “Feely had the knack of being able to screw one side of her face into a witchlike horror while keeping the other as sweet and demure as any maiden from Tennyson. It was perhaps, the one thing I envied her.”

This novel is a turning point, marking the end of Flavia’s childhood. The story line provides a satisfying conclusion to the first part of the saga and sets a course for future installments. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches was to be the final book in the Flavia de Luce series. Bradley is now slated to write four more.

Flavia Number 7 will be released in 2015, affording plenty of time to read the rest of the mysteries. Spending the next few months lost in Flavia’s world is a delightful prospect.

By Carol Collins

Carol Collins is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Truth That Surpasses Fiction

It’s magic when an author can write a nonfiction book that reads like a novel.

Katherine Boo brilliantly succeeds in Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. But there is nothing magical about the lives she depicts in this story of Annawadi, a squatter slum at the edge of the Mumbai International Airport and nearby luxury hotels.

Boo, an investigative journalist, lived in Annawadi for more than three years. She observed, interviewed and videotaped the residents. She also analyzed thousands of official documents. The resulting book follows the fortunes of a group of these slum dwellers.

Few living in this squalid neighborhood ever leave. Getting out of poverty requires strategies such as finding an unfilled economic niche or a political patron.

Abdul is a refuse buyer whose entrepreneurship brings his family modest prosperity. Regretfully, “…fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided.” When Abdul’s mother decides to install a shelf on the wall separating their living area from a contentious neighbor, she initiates events leading to a catastrophe. That evening, the police arrest Abdul, falsely charging him, his father and sister with murder.

Asha, an ambitious slum leader, assures the family that a donation can help them navigate the justice system. Asha has taken a different tack to improve her life. She is the village fixer who aligns with local politicians, mirroring their corruption. For a stack of rupees, she promises to make trouble go away, sometimes creating the problems she is being paid to fix.

The question Boo raises of class structure in Annawadi is thought provoking. She wonders why common interests and enemies do not bind together those affected by the graft-laden political, legal and social systems. Boo does not deliver an indictment or offer solutions, but lets the story speak for itself.

Boo’s choice to write her account of Annawadi as a story creates a connection to the residents that makes them come alive. Abdul, Asha and their fellow slum dwellers are deeply human beneath the superficial squalor. Their lives captivated me. I wanted to know what happened next.

I couldn’t put the book down.

By Carol Collins

Carol Collins is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Put This Book in Your Beach Bag

Charming perfectly describes Gabrielle Zevin’s latest novel.

Her engaging plot, endearing characters and lively dialogue create a memorable book.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is the tale of an independent bookstore on a Nantucket-like island and the grumpy, not-so-old owner. Not yet 40, Fikry has had his share of heartbreak. He’s lost his wife, Nic, in an auto accident and finds his other love, Island Books, sliding towards bankruptcy. Life hits a low when his valuable copy of Poe’s Tamerlane turns up missing. Never mind that he rarely locks his door, let alone the book’s glass case.

Fikry must reinvent his life when a stranger leaves a mysterious package in the children’s section of his unlocked store. The attached note says, “This is Maya…. I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things.”

When the precocious toddler is about to head to foster care, Fikry decides to raise her himself. This commitment forces him out of his self-imposed isolation and leads him to reconnect with those he has pushed away. Amelia, the publisher’s rep, Lambaise, the well-meaning police chief, and Ismay, his meddling sister-in-law, each play a special part in the lives of Maya and her adoptive father as they solve the mystery of her parentage and the puzzle of the missing book.

In a bit of irony, a visitor to Island Books would not likely find The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry on its shelves. Fikry "rarely responds to [books with] gimmicks of any kind." What might keep this novel off Fikry’s buy list, however, adds to the charm of the story. Zevin cleverly uses Fikry’s comments on classic works of fiction to head each chapter. These snippets both illuminate Fikry’s personality and set the stage for the next part of the story.

This affectionate portrait of a man – one who faces loss by rekindling his passion for literature and finds redemption through unexpected love – is a big-hearted delight. It’s just the thing to curl up with on a rainy afternoon or toss in your bag for a day at the beach.

By Carol Collins

Carol Collins is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Books Go to the Movies

In 2014 a bumper crop of films adapted from books is coming to the silver screen.

This collection of more than 40 movies includes classics like Far From the Madding Crowd, sequels such as Mockingjay, and favorite children’s books including Paddington Bear.

This exceptional number of books-to-films raises a question: should you first read the book or see the film? An unscientific survey of a local book club and other lit-lovers suggests that reading the book first is a better experience.

If you agree, here are four books you might want to read before the film versions arrive at your favorite theater:

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a witty, wildly popular novel whose themes of love, adversity and self-discovery vault it beyond its young-adult classification. A full review of the book appeared in the August 2013 WOW. This book comes to the movies on June 6.

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais tells the charming story of an Indian teenager with natural culinary talent who finds that the hundred feet between an upstart Indian restaurant and an established French one is a nearly unbridgeable divide between cultures. Mouth-watering references to recipes ranging from traditional to molecular gastronomy create a must-read for foodies. The film comes out Aug. 8.

Gone Girl is one of two books by Gillian Flynn being made into a movie this year. The counterpoint narratives of a husband whose wife is suddenly gone and the missing wife herself create a tension that doesn’t let up. This thriller is a page-turner. The movie is being released on Oct. 3.

In Unbroken Laura Hillenbrand relates the true account of Louis Zamperini, a teenaged juvenile delinquent who transforms himself into an Olympic runner. He later becomes a World War II hero when his plane crashes into the Pacific and he survives more than two years as a Japanese POW. This extraordinary story is filled with ingenuity, courage and heart. The movie is set for release on Christmas Day.

These books are certainly worth reading. Will the films based on the books be worth viewing? That decision is yours, maybe with a little help from

By Carol Collins

Carol Collins is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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John Doe in North Korea

Adam Johnson’s Orphan Master’s Son uses the Hermit Kingdom’s casual cruelty and absurdity to craft a riveting political thriller.

Johnson’s novel tells the story of Pak Jun Do, an orphan who navigates the North Korean bureaucracy while searching for identity and love.

Jun Do is assigned the worst jobs – kidnapper, radio operator and spy – before being sent to Prison 33. The gulag’s deprivation and brutality force inmates to surrender their identities. In a twist that directs the trajectory of the story, Jun Do maintains his own identity by escaping in the clothing of a military hero, Commander Ga.

Once Jun Do assumes the identity of the commander, the party ostensibly welcomes him. He is initially less welcomed by Commander Ga’s wife, Sun Moon. By the end of the story, Jun Do sacrifices his personal identity for the woman who comes to love him.

Two contrasting narrators illustrate one of Johnson’s major themes: the primacy of the interests of the state over the individual. “Where we are from,” says one character, “…the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

The first narrator is the voice of the loudspeakers that continuously deliver propaganda. The official version of Jun Do’s biography, delivered in installments as the Best North Korean Story, is comical. The other narrator is an interrogator who justifies his auto-torture machine as a less cruel way to obtain the biography of each detainee. His attempt to extract the life story of the ersatz commander becomes an obsession.

Although some readers may find the switch between voices confusing, this non-linear mosaic creates a sense of what Jun Do experiences as he searches for his own identity. The juxtaposition of the horrific and the farcical creates a novel that is both intense and funny.

Johnson’s extensive research undergirds the novel. The story of Jun Do may not depict a replica of life in North Korea but it does portray the substance.

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is not hard to read, but it is difficult to absorb. Nevertheless, it is worth the effort.

By Carol Collins


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More Than Fan Fiction

It is not surprising that Jo Baker wrote Longbourn to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.

Longbourn, after all, is the central setting of that novel. But it is delightfully surprising that what could have been mediocre fan fiction is a compelling historical novel in its own right.

Longbourn focuses on what goes on below-stairs, giving voice to the servants whose never-ending work supports the lifestyle of the Bennet family above. The heroine is the young housemaid, Sarah. Her pre-dawn to late-night drudgery leaves little time for dreaming and yet she hopes to better herself. She longs for "somewhere you could just be, and not always be obliged to do.” Ptolemy, the charismatic footman of the neighboring Bingley family, seems to offer that possibility with a plan to open his own business in London. Ptolemy captivates Sarah but the unexpected arrival of a new footman, James Smith, complicates her emotions and creates a love triangle.

The enigmatic Smith, who arrives seemingly out of nowhere, disappears just as suddenly. Sarah uses her quick wits and perseverance to unravel his mysterious past and find the connection among James and the other occupants of Longbourn.

Jo Baker’s thorough research gives the novel an authentic voice. Her fascinating observations provide a clear contrast between the lives of the Longbourn servants and their employers. Including a back-story for James, including a gritty, jarring description of his time as a soldier during the Napoleonic wars, adds depth to both his character and the narrative.

The book is not without its flaws. Ptolemy Bingley is a fascinating, colorful character but seems to be introduced only as a foil to James. He disappears from the story too soon. In addition, the ending seems shallow and rushed. The main characters deserve more.

If you are a veteran Jane Austen reader, this story envisions Pride and Prejudice with a fresh twist but without gimmickry. Even if are unfamiliar with Austen’s famous novel, Longbourn is a deft, witty tale. In either case, this engrossing look into the practical side of the Regency era is an excellent addition to your “want-to-read” list.

By Carol Collins


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A Primal Balance Between Tragedy and Comedy

It is no accident that We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, was named Best of 2013 by The New York Times Book Review.

This witty, unsettling tale of family, memories and the meaning of “human being” is a fine-tuned balance between tragedy and comedy.

Rosemary, the book’s irresistible narrator, starts in the middle. She explains if we knew the beginning, we might get the wrong idea about her sister, Fern. So, the story opens in 1996 with Rosemary, a bright but withdrawn college student. Her unlikely friendship with an impulsive drama major becomes the catalyst for unearthing memories that have long been repressed.

The story then shifts back to 1979. Rosemary is 5 when she is sent to visit her grandparents. The visit becomes a line of demarcation – before, happy parents, talented brother, and ever-so-fun sister; after, mother despondent, father drinking, brother withdrawn and…sister gone. Her parents simply say that Fern went to live on a farm.

Rosemary finally lets us in on what she has coyly hinted. Fern is a chimpanzee. Rosemary’s psychologist father brought the infant chimp home as half of an experiment in co-fostering. Rosemary was the other half.

Although the family never discusses what happened, Rosemary senses there is more to know. She also suspects she may be partly to blame for Fern’s departure. For the next 17 years, Rosemary wrestles with who she is and what happened while her brother, Lowell, hunts for Fern and eventually is hunted by the FBI.

The novel ends in 2012 when we learn the fate of Fern and of Rosemary’s role in her expulsion. I hoped for an ending that would bring closure but it seemed a little trite, even though it tugged at my heart.

The tragedy in this story is evident. The comedy lies in both Rosemary’s voice – witty, sardonic and full of candor – and her occasionally madcap escapades.

Fowler’s superb novel neither forces an agenda nor assigns the role of hero or villain. It simply asks us to reconsider our human chauvinism. I was absorbed from beginning to end.

Suspend your preconceptions and you will be drawn in too.

By Carol Collins


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Public Events and Private Lives

Three history-making moments that take span two continents and more than 150 years frame Colum McCann’s artful novel, TransAtlantic.

The book opens with the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. In 1919 British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown win the Daily Mail prize by piloting their modified bomber from Newfoundland to Ireland. The novel skips back in time to the travels of Frederick Douglass to Ireland in 1845 to promote his autobiography in support of abolition. George Mitchell is the third historical figure to cross the Atlantic. His is a tale of a reluctant diplomat who helps broker the momentous 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Each of these stories could stand alone. In particular, the account of Alcock and Brown’s flight is gripping. From the moment they take off from Newfoundland until they land in Ireland, I had my fingers crossed. With no modern technology and the wireless not functioning, Brown uses instinct and wizardry to navigate across the Atlantic.

There are many great storytellers. McCann’s real genius, however, lies in the connection he creates among his historical stories – the unique way he unites them into one grand narrative.

The lives of four generations of invented women are the strands he uses to braid historical and fictional truth together. Lily Duggan crosses paths with Frederick Douglass in Dublin while in service to Douglass’ host. Her daughter Emily Erlich and granddaughter Lottie Tuttle witness the flight preparations of Brown and Alcock. Lottie meets Mitchell at a tennis tournament during a respite in his negotiations. The novel culminates with Lottie’s daughter, Hannah Carson. Her story portrays how each intersection of the famous and the anonymous resonates across time and space.

McCann’s sharply etched writing is poetic. He describes the Newfoundland landscape viewed from the open cockpit of Alcock and Brown’s plane as “the wind combing tufts of grass into silvery waves, rivers vaulting the ditches, the long scarves of tar-macadam falling off into dirt roads.”

One flaw I might cite? What initially captivates, however, can occasionally seem belabored when he piles image upon image.

Yet McCann’s missteps are minor compared to the power of his sustained story telling. Ultimately TransAtlantic is a novel to savor.

By Carol Collins


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For the Book Lovers on Your Holiday Gift List

Part of the fun of the holiday season is selecting the perfect gift. This month I offer some suggestions for the book lovers on your list.

Mysteries and thrillers are always favorites. You might consider a number of new additions by well-established authors including The Hit by David Baldacci, Inferno by Dan Brown, Sycamore Row by John Grisham, and W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton. For something a little unusual, consider these series: The Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley features a bright, spunky pre-teen detective who pushes her way into the investigations of strangely macabre murders near her family’s estate in 1950s England. Bradley’s dry wit and Flavia’s endearing brashness make these books a fun read. Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, begins a three-book series of historical whodunits set in the 12th century. Franklin’s protagonist, Adelia Aguilar, is a medieval Kay Scarpetta who reads bones at the behest of King Henry II.

Collections of short stories make wonderful gifts for anyone who only has time to read in small bites. In her story collection, Dear Life, Alice Munro, recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, brilliantly clarifies how ordinary life can become extraordinary with an unexpected turn of fate. Another suggestion is Vampires in the Lemon Grove. This collection of wildly inventive stories by Florida native Karen Russell defies categorization with elements of fantasy, horror and even humor.

Many choices abound for the fiction fan. Westchase Book Club members recommend Canada by Richard Ford, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, and Someone by Alice McDermott. Canada is the haunting story of a young man coming of age in the midst of the chaos created by the adults in his life. Hosseini’s third novel beautifully tells interlocking stories of love, loss, loyalty and redemption across three continents and 60 years. Someone tells the deceptively simple story of one woman’s life. McDermott’s sense of place makes this novel immediately engaging.

If your gift recipient prefers non-fiction, options range from health to humor. Yogalosophy, by fitness expert Mindy Ingber, provides a daily plan to help readers become healthier and happier in 28 days. The program includes both recipes and workouts to help transform mind and body. In One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson creates an immensely readable history of an ordinary year that becomes funny and fascinating with his signature storytelling.

Book series make wonderful gifts for teens. The historical fiction of Michaela McColl is based on the childhood experiences of people “before they were famous.” Promise the Night is the especially fascinating story of Beryl Clutterback Markham, a girl who grew up to become the first pilot to fly solo from England to North America. Any teen who liked The Hunger Games trilogy should love the eight-part Wool series by Hugh Howey. This story of the dangerous dreamers in a post-apocalyptic world is filled with enough unexpected twists to keep you up reading all night.

Pre-teen readers also enjoy adventure series. Who could resist scaredy-mouse and newspaper publisher, Geronimo Stilton, the hero of the series named after him? These books are full of adventure while stressing values like friendship, honesty and loyalty. The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne follows the quests of siblings, Jack and Annie, through time and place as they solve mysteries and complete challenges. The settings of the stories provide a fun way to learn history.

The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett is a perfect holiday gift for preschoolers. In this lovely Christmas fantasy, Teeka discovers that patient teaching works much better than being bossy to train Santa’s reindeer to be ready to fly. Brett’s colorful, detailed illustrations simply glow. Another favorite selection for preschool children is The Napping House by Don and Audrey Wood. This cumulative story is a great read-aloud and the repeated phrases make it ideal for beginning readers.

Last, picture and coffee table books are special gifts because they can be enjoyed again and again. Animalia by Graeme Base is a non-traditional alphabet book for all ages. Intricate layers of meticulous drawings represent each letter and draw the reader back to the book to discover more details. If you know someone who enjoyed the recent film, Rush, consider Art of the Formula 1 Race Car by Stuart Codling, James Mann, Peter Windsor and Gordon Murray. The gorgeous photographs and expert commentary illustrate both the engineering genius and intrinsic beauty of these ultimate racecars.

I thank members of the Westchase Book Club, Leslie Spence and the Pellegrini family for their book suggestions.

Happy holidays!

By Carol Collins


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Missing in Seattle

Maria Semple’s novel is at times laugh-out-loud hilarious and at other times rather poignant.    

Where’d You Go, Bernadette weaves documents such as e-mails, magazine articles, blogs and even an FBI report together to tell the story of Bernadette Fox, her teenage daughter and her high-ranking husband, Elgin Branch, a star at Microsoft. Bernadette’s world resembles that of other Seattle moms, but she negotiates her days differently – at times with a lapse of sanity. Beneath the surface lies an intriguing story of a woman who has left her brilliance behind and retreated from the world.

Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, attends a private middle school in Seattle. Her parents have promised her anything she wants for graduation if she excels in all of her school subjects. The grading system is designed to encourage students, the lowest grade being “Working Towards Excellence.” Bee earns the highest grade possible in each of her courses, which at her school means that she gets an “S” for “Surpasses Excellence.” For her reward she chooses a trip to Antarctica. This adds new challenges for Bernadette, as she must do something she does poorly (function well in the real world) in order to plan the expedition.

Bernadette hires a virtual assistant to help her plan the trip, and this leads to more hilarity and a lot of unforeseen problems. As Bernadette’s past is unraveled and Bernadette also appears to be unraveling, she disappears completely. Bernadette has little good to say about other private school parents (“gnats,” as she calls them), the city of Seattle, and the entirety of Canada and its citizens, all of which help to reveal an unhappy woman.

The reality, however, is Bernadette is a likeable character who grows on you in a quirky sort of way – until you find yourself hoping that she is all right and will be found.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached at


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A Deft Turn at Playing Detective

J. K. Rowling is back in form.

While her initial novel for adult readers, The Casual Vacancy, received mixed reviews, her first murder mystery, published in April under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, is definitely worth the read.

The Cuckoo’s Calling has all the elements of a good detective story. There’s a scruffy investigator, a sidekick longing to solve mysteries, credible suspects, twists, clues, red herrings and a solution that you may not see coming but makes perfect sense in retrospect.

Rowling’s private eye hero, Cormoran Strike, is not doing well. He’s living in the grungy back room of his office after his girlfriend kicked him out. His creditors are becoming more demanding. Discomfort from his prosthetic leg is a constant reminder of his better days as a decorated Afghan vet.

Two events halt his downward spiral. First, Robin Ellacott, a new assistant, shows up. Then, John Bristow arrives, insisting that the police were wrong when they concluded that his biracial, adopted sister, supermodel Lula Landry, jumped to her death. He wants Strike to prove it was murder.

There are plenty of suspects – a rejected boyfriend and a racist uncle, among others. As Strike meticulously investigates Bristow’s copious notes and new evidence, he navigates a world of wealth, fashion, celebrities and hangers-on. With unexpected help from Robin, Strike uncovers discrepancies that lead him to finger the murderer.

Rowling vividly brings her characters to life. Envision Freddy Bestigui, Landry’s misogynistic neighbor: “His hair was gray and brush-cut; his face a crumpled mass of folds, bags and moles, out of which his fleshy nose protruded like a tumor.”

Rowling is particularly deft at developing the main characters, alternately adding and peeling away layers to reveal who they are.

Strike’s analytical approach creates a cerebral murder mystery rather than a page-turner. Lavish imagery sometimes slows the narrative but also creates a believable atmosphere.

Despite a few flaws, this is a satisfying detective novel. It also establishes Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott as an engaging pair of sleuths. I’m looking forward to tagging along with them in the next book, expected out in mid-2014.

By Carol Collins

Carol Collins is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Road Trip

Before this summer ends, many of us will take a vacation. For some, reading is a part of this tradition.

On a recent trip, I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin, 2012). If you haven’t read this book already, your adolescent children likely have. It’s a moving novel about two teens, Hazel and Augustus, who have cancer. Were I still a teenager, I would likely relate more to the protagonists, their angst, and their romance. Long ago, however, I forgot almost everything my 16-year-old self promised never to forget. The appeal of Green’s novel, however, is its ability to capture both the young adult reader and anyone who has ever loved a child. The Fault in our Stars devastated me as a mother, identifying with the parents in the novel, feeling their helplessness and imagining the unfathomable.

I read this novel briskly. I didn’t realize how emotionally invested I had become until I was suddenly wiping away tears, hoping my kids in the back seat wouldn’t notice. I was reminded of a long ago car trip from Indiana to Cape Cod with my family. I closed Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms after the last page, unable to suppress the sobs and hoping my parents in the front seat wouldn’t notice.

In such ways, reading can be a solitary pursuit or connect us to others. In The Fault in our Stars Hazel and Gus bond over literature, reading each other’s favorite books as a way to get to know one another. Later, as Gus reads aloud, Hazel thinks, “As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

There is profound pleasure in reading aloud. Many have been scared out of reading aloud at some point in school. Yet I read aloud when I’m alone, and, in one of my favorite traditions, with my husband on road trips. It keeps him awake while driving while I enjoy making up characters’ accents and voices. Already, when my son reads to me, I hear him put inflection in the right places and use different voices. He is listening. He is not just learning to read, but also to read aloud.  If you’ve never tried it (and don’t have a tendency toward carsickness), I highly recommend it for your next road trip.

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at

By Kathleen Pope


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An Unforgettable Novel about a Makeshift Family

For most, the events that shape our lives happen in our first few decades.

Graduations, career decisions, weddings, births usually take place in our teens, twenties or thirties. But, for William Talmadge, the title character in The Orchardist, life-altering events arrive when he is nearly 50.

By the turn of the 20th century, Talmadge has lovingly tended his fruit orchards in the isolated uplands of Western Washington for more than 40 years. An orphan before his mid-teens, he loses the rest of his family when his younger sister mysteriously disappears.

Life for Talmadge continues in solitude until the day two very pregnant and feral-like girls appear at the edge of his orchard. He treats them as he would un-tamed kittens. He leaves food and other necessities on the porch but otherwise ignores them so they can skitter to retrieve what they need when he leaves each morning to tend his trees.

The girls slowly come to trust Talmadge, while he comes to feel protective and responsible for them. He learns that these sisters, Della and Jane, escaped from unspeakable abuse by the owner of a frontier brothel. The arrival of their former tormenter leaves Talmadge as the guardian of Della and of Jane’s daughter, the girls’ surviving infant.

In her debut novel, Amanda Coplin, weaves a mesmerizing and haunting story of these events and the unforeseen consequences that forever change the life of this gentle man. The novel explores what comprises a family. Is it just blood or can it be assembled? The renewed possibility of family motivates Talmadge to attempt to rectify his losses and atone for his perceived failures by choosing actions that prove disastrous.

Coplin carefully frames characters and circumstances that are both beautifully fleshed out and authentic. I became so immersed in the story that I found myself entreating Talmadge and Jane when they were about to make ruinous decisions – as if they were actually in the room with me.

Although this book is melancholy, it is not depressing. Coplin’s exquisite prose and poetic writing create a poignant story that will take hold of and remain with the reader.

By Carol Collins


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Friendship, Family and Resilience in Post-Ponzi New York

Add Elinor Lipman’s newest, The View from Penthouse B, to your summer reading list.

If you are already a Lipman fan, I won’t have to say much to convince you. If you haven’t read any of Lipman’s novels, it’s time to get started!

The View from Penthouse B (2013, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt) is narrated by Gwen-Laura Schmidt, who at the novel’s start has been widowed for two years after her beloved husband’s sudden death. Still deeply mourning, Gwen-Laura finds those around her anxious to help her regain happiness, namely through dating. She cannot, however, fathom any aspect of intimacy with a man other than her late husband and attempts are met with humorous disappointment.

Gwen-Laura is not the only character struggling for secure footing. Her elder sister, Margot, is recently divorced from her adulterous obstetrician husband. Margot had no sooner launched an independent life by buying a Greenwich Village penthouse apartment, than she lost the remainder of her savings to the notorious Bernie Madoff. She now spends her days angrily blogging about the Ponzi scheme. Their younger sister, Betsy, suggests Gwen-Laura should move into Margot’s penthouse to help pay the mortgage. Shortly thereafter, Margot elects to take on a third roommate, Anthony, a young, handsome, gay man she meets after spontaneously joining a picket line in front of his former Wall Street employer. Anthony injects youthful enthusiasm into the apartment, and soon the roommates are a supportive trio.

I enjoyed this novel though it is not perfect. Some plotlines and characters are barely developed. I appreciate, however, that it can exist as both good fiction and a therapeutic exercise for its author, grieving the loss of her spouse. Gwen-Laura, her character, contemplates writing a novel in which she is the heroine widow who emerges recovered at the other end. She muses that to write herself as this person would make her happy. Of course, it is not this simple, and Lipman never tries to paint it so. She describes not only widowhood’s emotional turmoil but also divorce’s gray emotions, even when the betrayal is black and white. To write about such topics and still produce a novel that is sweet, hopeful and funny is quite an accomplishment.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Family: It Makes You and Breaks You

Warning – this one is a heartbreaker.

Now that you’ve been warned, you must acquire and read Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. Selasi’s first novel immediately joins the ranks of gorgeously written novels about immigrant families in America, such as Lahiri’s The Namesake and Verghese’s Cutting for Stone.

Ghana Must Go introduces the Sai family through flashbacks and memories, detailing their happy beginnings in Baltimore and Boston, where Kweku, the brilliant Ghanaian surgeon-patriarch works tirelessly to provide the “perfect” American home for his beautiful Nigerian wife, Fola, and their growing family. Fola has given up her own academic ambitions to marry the magnetic Kweku and raise their four children: Olu, the earnest and overachieving eldest; the twins, Taiyo and Kehinde; and the baby, Sadie. The story’s construction is reminiscent of a Jonathan Franzen novel: imagine if The Corrections was conjured by a cosmopolitan, internationally-educated woman of Ghanaian and Nigerian descent at a yoga retreat in Sweden (where Selasi has said she first had a vision of her characters).

From the opening pages, you know the Sai family does not remain intact; however, as Selasi evokes this home full of intellect, ambition, laughter and warmth, you wish you did not know what is to come. Despite what she has already told her readers, Selasi convinces us to feel connected to each member of the Sai family. The hope and love the parents have for their children is palpable. As Kweku and Fola Sai’s American dream cracks and crumbles, we mourn what could have been along with them. Salesi brilliantly describes the power one’s family has to create remarkable individuals while simultaneously inflicting irreparable harm.

After writing such an overachieving first novel, some authors have no other story left to tell. It remains to be seen for Selasi, but I hope she has more to say. There is a unique, intricate (but only seldom overwrought) loveliness to her writing and attention to detail.

I highly recommend, and will not soon forget, Ghana Must Go.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Family and Secrets

“Your absence is greater than your presence.”
Michael Hainey’s observation is a prominent theme in his memoir, After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story (Scribner, 2013). The author, deputy editor at GQ Magazine, was just 6-years-old when his father died suddenly at the age of 36. His father’s absence was a constant presence, haunting every stage of his life. Hainey’s memoir effectively braids those childhood memories with an investigation into his father’s death, forging a sensitive, heartfelt and intriguing book.

Hainey’s father, Bob Hainey, was assistant chief copy editor at the Chicago Sun Times in the 1960s. Michael grew up with the story his mother was given: On April 24, 1970, his father collapsed on the street near the newspaper’s offices and was dead from a heart attack or stroke by the time the police arrived. Michael, however, has suspicions. During his high school senior year, he reads his father’s obituaries at the library and finds inconsistencies. Two local obituaries report he died while visiting friends in a location far from the Chicago Sun Times building. He wonders why his uncle, also a well-respected newspaperman, arrived that morning in 1970 to tell his mother what had happened, rather than the police. The journalist in Michael was able to smell half-truths and cover-ups. Pursuing small leads and clues about his father death soon becomes an obsession.
The reader’s anticipation about Michael’s quest is central to the memoir’s enjoyment; further details would simply spoil the suspense. Nevertheless, while the dead ends he encounters would frustrate the most dedicated investigator, Michael does learn the truth. Just as important, however, is the self-examination it sparks in him.

My only complaint about the memoir is that Hainey leaves some emotional corners partially unexplored − such as his somewhat distant relationship with his brother and his full reaction to the truth. Yet he adeptly shares his insights into the life of his remarkable mother. This ultimately is the heart of the memoir: Michael’s memories of growing up without a father and his mother’s experience as a young widow raising two young sons alone. Hainey sums it up best himself by observing, “Here I am − a son who went looking for his father, and found his mother.”

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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A Modern Quest to Solve an Ancient Mystery

Nearly two years ago Amazon announced that they had starting selling more e-books than print books.

Are print books doomed? Is there a necessary dichotomy between old technology and new technology? In Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan considers these questions through a modern-day adventure story.

Recently fired as a Web designer, Clay Jannon wanders the streets of San Francisco keeping an eye open for Help Wanted signs. One such sign draws him into a most unlikely bookstore. After a brief interview, Clay takes the night position.

What a strange store! Hardly anyone enters except for some odd customers who regularly come to borrow books from high up in the dim back section of the store. When Clay ignores instructions never to look inside these books, he discovers beautifully printed volumes written in some kind of code.

Convinced that the store must be a front for something sinister, he challenges three geeky, resourceful friends to join him on a quest to solve this mystery. Their adventure takes them cross-country to the headquarters of a secret society that has been trying to crack the code for hundreds of years using traditional research methods. After a close call in which he is nearly discovered, Clay and his quirky friends return to the Bay area and Google-land to attempt to break the code themselves using modern technology. The question of who wins and what the decoded message says kept me reading to the end.

The quest in this book may not be as heart-stopping as those in some recent action-adventure mystery stories, such as the Dan Brown series. Sloan’s clever, charming narrative and very hip, passionately engaged characters, however, more than make up for a lack of spine-tingling moments.

One distraction is the book’s epilogue. It is almost as if Sloan ran out of book before he ran out of story so felt obligated to spell out his moral rather than providing the opportunity for the reader to extract the meaning himself.

Despite these couple of minor drawbacks, this first novel is warm, witty and full of serious fun.

If mysteries captivate you, you find quirky characters appealing, and you like a rollicking story, then Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store is a place you will want to visit − even with a Kindle in your hand.

By Carol Collins


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Love Don’t Come Easy

Midway through this month lands Valentine's Day, the country’s most despised holiday.

We’ve all experienced heartbreaks, big or small. This month I set out to find a love story palatable for those who fall outside the sparkly bubble of hopeless romantics – those with heads stubbornly upon shoulders and heels solidly on ground. After a few false starts, I found The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, by Jan-Philipp Sendker (Verlags, Random House, 2002; translated from German 2006). Along the way, I also discovered a remarkable true story about love, told in verse: Stag's Leap: Poems, by Sharon Olds (Knopf, 2012).

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is narrated by a young attorney, Julia, who travels to Burma to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance. Shortly after her arrival in her father's hometown, she encounters a mysterious man named U Ba, who can tell her the story. Little else can be explained without spoiling the quiet suspense that builds as the reader learns what brought Julia's father to New York City from his remote village and the secret of his disappearance. For some, the book will unreasonably stretch the limits of believability. At its end one might even have unanswered questions and feel somewhat unsatisfied, but the story is meant to have a magical, fairy-tale quality. Sendker creates a fable like those Julia's father used to tell her, ones "that seldom had happy endings," which her mother found "cruel and brutal." The complexity of loves portrayed, however, will satisfy both romantics and realists.

Stag's Leap is a book of Sharon Olds’ poems chronicling her husband’s departure for another woman after 30 years of marriage. While at times Olds’ pain and personal details proved uncomfortable, I was spellbound by her vivid images of sadness, betrayal, disappointment and insecurity. Yet instead of being a dark and depressing collection, her verse is quite hopeful, occasionally quirky and funny – perhaps a balm for a broken heart.

After initially feeling she could not write about this time in her life, Olds ultimately published the collection 15 years after her husband left. The reader is left with a full spectrum of emotion, from initial shock to eventual acceptance; the empowerment she gained; and even the love that, though vastly changed, remained.

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at

By Kathleen Pope


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A Burden of Historical Guilt

M. L. Stedman’s debut novel, The Light Between Oceans: A Novel (Scribner, 2012), was recently received the 2012 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Historical Fiction.

As another reviewer has suggested, however, a better category for this book might be Historical Guilt. This beautifully written page-turner has at its heart a complex moral dilemma whose resolution is complicated by such a heavy burden.
Tom Sherbourne, craving quiet and routine after the horrors of World War I, accepts a position as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an island a half-day’s journey from the western coast of Australia. Then, on one of his infrequent visits to Partaguese, the nearest mainland town, Tom is captivated by Isabel, whose zest for life energizes him. They marry and settle into life on the island.

Isabel loves Janus Rock as much as Tom, and only wishes for a baby to make their family complete. After several miscarriages, Isabel is filled with loss while Tom tries to find some way to “make it right.” When a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a crying baby, Isabel convinces herself that the baby is a gift from God. With great effort, she convinces Tom that the mother must have drowned and that he shouldn’t report the boat.

For two years Tom finds great joy in raising little Lucy with Isabel. Yet even with no one to judge, Tom struggles with his decision. He can no longer ignore its effects when the family returns to the mainland for a vacation and he discovers others who have been devastated by their choice. Tom wrestles again with “how to make things right.” In the end he takes drastic action.

The Light Between Oceans is truly engaging. The author has crafted memorable, complex characters who subtly mature during the story. While flawed, they drew me into their lives and their struggles. I rooted for each of them – even when their wishes and choices were at odds.

The story could have been sensationalized and the ending formulaic, but Stedman avoids a tidy conclusion. Sometimes I put a book down for a while because I don’t want it to end. With this book, I was afraid of how it would end.

So tantalizing a read it is, you may find yourself staying up late into the night to finish it. I certainly did.

By Carol Collins


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Books for Gifting

December is a month when I think about books I like to give others

My favorites this year are a mixture of old stand-bys with a few new finds.

For the fiction or mystery fan consider Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012). I haven’t read a better book in a long time. It is a meticulously written and should surprise even the most jaded fan of suspense.

For Nonfiction or history fans purchase The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (2011). A 2012 Pulitzer Prize and the 2011 National Book Award winner for Nonfiction, it’s a fascinating story about the rediscovery of classical literature and thought at the beginning of the Renaissance. Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (2011), tells the story of the American ambassador to Germany and his daughter in the early 1930s. Larson is a consistently excellent writer of nonfiction in a narrative style.

For sports fans pick up Next Man Up by John Feinstein (2005). As he has done before, Feinstein spent a year embedded with the owners, coaches, and players – this time on the Baltimore Ravens in 2004. The result depicts the travails of individuals interwoven with detailed insight into an NFL team.

For a chick-lit alternative consider poet Mary Karr’s three memoirs, The Liars Club (1995), Cherry (2000) and Lit (2009). They’re brutally honest and frequently hysterical and you’ll often wish parts weren’t true.

For younger children my current favorite is Peter Brown’s The Curious Garden (2009), both for its gorgeous, colorful illustrations, as well as its empowering message.

Among my favorite books to introduce to voracious young readers who have “read it all” are the Madeleine L’Engle science fiction/fantasy quintet: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters and An Acceptable Time; and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.

We have many local authors in our midst! Dominic Pavlinic has written a children’s book with a message about empathy called Nicky and the Starfish, based upon a story his father told him growing up. The text and illustrations are simple and adorable, and it has become one of my 3-year-old daughter’s favorites. My kindergarten age son and I first read A Mouse’s First Christmas: A Holiday Tail by C.G. Barrett last December. It is one of the first chapter books we read together before bedtime and we both enjoyed this truly charming book. We plan to read it again, one chapter per night, during this year’s holiday season. For adults, the Westchase Book Club read Todd Paul’s first novel, Steel Dragon: An Alex Steel Mystery, for one of our meetings earlier this year.

For young readers The Penguin Classics’ colorful and ornately decorated clothbound hardcover editions and the related Puffin Classics clothbound editions are lovely, reasonably priced gifts. The available titles expand every year.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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A Town Without Magic

The author of Harry Potter has delivered her first book written for adults.

You could say that expectations are high for The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown and Company, 2012). Like the Harry Potter novels, the book is going to have people talking. Whether it will be kind is quite another matter.

Rowling’s setting is a small English town named Pagford. She takes great pains to juxtapose its beauty with the ugliness, inside and out, of its inhabitants and the political struggles within its parish council. The story begins with the sudden, tragic death of parish council member Barry Fairbrother, who, as his name suggests, is a good, thoughtful man. His death creates a “casual vacancy” on the council. Its filling is of profound importance within the town’s local politics, particularly regarding decisions about a low-income housing project. The novel relates the events that unfold in the town following Fairbrother’s untimely death.

Rowling’s new novel has it merits. It certainly affirms her gift for writing. She has an amazing talent for creating perfectly worded descriptions of people, places and situations. Those who have read the Potter books may have a slight advantage knowing who will be despicable (one character bore a strong resemblance to Dolores Umbridge, for example). She writes well-paced chapters that flow to the next.

Despite these merits, one might still find it hard to keep reading. A question for Potter fans: did you ever wish you could hear Ron’s uncensored, pubescent fantasies about Hermione? Me neither. That is the problem, perhaps unfair, Rowling faces. She likely hopes this novel will be considered independently of her past works. Yet The Casual Vacancy is frequently and intentionally disturbing, in graphic detail. Though the Potter books have also been criticized for being dark, here Rowling unapologetically uncorks real-world horrors for her adult audience. This book is certainly not for children, and it might not be for some adults either.

I, however, admire and enjoy Rowling’s writing. I hope she has many more novels in her – including one about the adult world inhabited by grown-up Harry, Ron, and Hermione. In the meantime, I’m willing to follow her to Pagford, while still hoping she might one day take me back to Hogwarts.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Mothers, Mentors, and Mentalists

In the era of e-books, are we less likely to judge a book by its cover?

While the curb appeal of a book is far less important for me than word of mouth or a review, I was drawn to Heidi Julavits’ The Vanishers (Doubleday, 2012) because of its cover: a carpet of brilliant flowers into or from which the title and author’s name are sinking or rising. After finishing it, I find it encapsulates my impression of the book – a collection of appealing concepts nestled in lovely execution, whose meaning I don’t entirely understand.

I hesitate to recommend The Vanishers without reservation. It will not be for everyone. Julavits tells the story of Julia Severn, who, at the start, is a student at an idyllic yet eerie enclave of psychic “academics” in New Hampshire. At the outset, when we still have an expectation of clarity, Julia tells us: “…this is not just a story about how you can become sick by knowing other people. This is a story about how other people can become sick by knowing you.”

I clung to this thought like an anchor, as I tried to follow the twisting, dream-like plot. It’s told via Julia’s first-person account, and the line between what is happening within Julia’s mind versus “reality” seems constantly blurred. The presence of “psychic regressions” and “astral projections” further casts doubt upon whether characters are alive or dead, visions or actual, present or past.

As Julia’s story progresses, it becomes increasingly surreal and bizarre, often frustratingly so. Julavits’ writing, however, is filled with subtle humor. The paranormal aspects of the plot also add uniqueness and excitement to the author’s meditation upon loss and despair, female relationships and rivalries, and others’ effects, often subconscious, upon our psyches.

The Vanishers is a more challenging read than its pretty cover would suggest. It’s also sure to elicit a spectrum of responses – from the polarized “loved it” or “hated it” to my own gray fascination tinged with ambivalence.

I recommend it, reassured that in this day of e-readers, few of you are likely to track me down and throw the book at me in anger.

Your iPad is too expensive for that.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Back to School

If the new school year has made you nostalgic for your school days, I recommend The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan (Hyperion, 2012).

The Red Book is a novel about Harvard graduates returning for their 20-year reunion. The title describes a bound volume published for each class in which alumni write brief essays about their lives. Through the class of 1989’s Twentieth Anniversary Report, we first meet the protagonists, four former freshman suitemates: Clove, a commune-raised, now fabulously wealthy (but recently laid off) Wall Street executive; Mia, a failed actress turned stay-at-home mom/wife of famous movie director; Jane, prize-winning journalist and Vietnamese orphan with a tragic life; and Addison, privileged, prep-schooled, floundering for direction and living off dwindling family trust funds.

The novel’s structure is ingenious – each character is introduced via his or her essay in the Report. The essays provide concise character development, delivering detailed information which would take many more pages to reveal via dialogue. After finishing a chapter, it’s hard not to keep reading to see whom we might meet next and how they interact. Kogan certainly keeps a reader turning the pages.

This novel’s greatest pleasures are its fully-formed, always flawed characters. Kogan reveals much about her ambitions for the novel when Addison recalls advice she gave her husband, a struggling and emotionally distant writer: “….he’d have to give his readers the subtextual nuance – pain, joy, fear, love, feelings for heaven’s sake – underlying his characters’ physical traits, actions, and words…..a quick glimpse, now and then, inside the multilayered morass of his characters’ hearts.”

Each individual in The Red Book has layers to be revealed, some tragic, some endearing, and some downright unlikable; but Kogan is careful to write complexity into even the more peripheral characters.

Probably too much happens in The Red Book, and it would not suffer from having fewer characters or surprises. Kogan, however, succeeds in accurately portraying friendships, marriage, family, careers, success and aging; all in the context of today’s changed economic reality. It’s all there, most eloquently expressed in Kogan’s own words: “…the disappointments, the broken vows, the friends and family laid to rest; the loves lost, the pounds gained, the compromises and the sad surprises and the football-size lemons swallowed whole.”

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Pre-Teenage Pre-Wasteland

“No one was wounded. No one was dead. It was, at the beginning, a quite invisible catastrophe. I think this explains why what I felt first was not fear but a thrill.”

Thus recalls Julia, the narrator of Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, The Age of Miracles (Random House, 2012), reflecting upon the announcement that the Earth’s rotation was slowing down.

Walker’s story is told by a future Julia, reflecting back upon the first year of the slowing, the year she was in sixth grade. Julia’s 11-year-old thoughts and insecurities are pitch-perfect. The author does not just create a passable sixth grader’s voice; she reminds the reader what it felt like to be a pre-teen – forging both a coming-of-age tale and brilliant science fiction.

Walker makes meticulously real the consequences of the slowing, from the first extra hours of day and night to the eventual prolonged periods of darkness and sunlight. Walker’s ability to keep the tale simple and true makes it all the more jarring and affecting. It is stunning partly because it feels like it could happen at any moment.

The novel’s title, on one level, refers to the year of the slowing, when everything changes both dramatically and gradually for all Earth life. The title, however, also refers to Julia’s first year of adolescence. In fact, Walker’s only explicit reference to the title regards this tumultuous time of life rather than the miraculous external events: “This was middle school, the age of miracles, the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove.”

Julia experiences the cruelty, rejection, loneliness, and heartbreak almost universal among girls. Yet in her case it’s compounded by calamitous environmental changes, profoundly affecting children and adults alike – and signaling a future filled with uncertainty.

After finishing The Age of Miracles, as I often do when haunted by a particularly good book, I paged back through it. In the “About the Author” section, I happened upon what might be the biggest miracle of all: Walker, a former editor at Simon & Schuster, wrote this novel in the mornings before going to work. Quite simply, this impressive debut novel is bleak, but lovely.

It should be read.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Poor Little Rich Girl

In honor of the summer solstice, I recommend Bond Girl for your beach bag.

Erin Duffy’s first novel (William Morrow (HarperCollins), 2012) is the story of Alex, the privileged daughter of an investment banker who achieves her dream of working for a top Wall Street brokerage firm. Though fiction, the story is infused with underlying, dirty truth in the vein of The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada. It reads like a peek into a world we aren’t supposed to see.

Most amusing are Alex’s colleagues, whose firm is a Neverland of badly behaved characters with bottomless wallets. Their bubble of excess, illustrating the saying “New York is a playground for the rich,” also contains relentless hazing, pranks, sexism and harassment. Duffy’s writing is strongest when recounting these high jinks and humiliations. When on her first day Alex is handed a metal folding chair to place behind people and watch them work, anyone can relate to the awkwardness. When, after several months, her colleagues scrawl her nickname, “Girlie,” on the chair with correction fluid, you understand it’s actually a mark of acceptance.

Though many of the supporting characters are endearing, Alex isn’t likable. Duffy occasionally explains a financial concept by having Alex ask for its clarification, leading the reader to wonder how she could possibly hold the job while asking such questions. The chick-lit romance threaded into the book also makes one question her judgment. Though she loses much of her naiveté, she remains fairly clueless.

Duffy’s intention may have been to point out that most Wall Streeters didn’t understand the recent meltdown. Yet during the years that fictional Alex was getting Christmas bonuses, eating fancy dinners and getting a car-service home after working late, I worked in New York City seven days a week for a small fraction of her salary. I simply can’t relate to her dismay when 2008 hits and she has to work weekends and forego trips to the Hamptons.

This is Duffy’s first novel, obvious in its unrealistic dialogue and simplistic characters. Yet her editors successfully transformed her 700-page draft into a fast-paced book that was fun and deliciously readable despite its faults.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Scandal in the Slippery World of Olive Oil

Everywhere we turn, news stories and books reveal the dark secrets of the food industry.

From pink slime to the questionable quality of school lunches, most of us want to know what we are putting in our mouths. We don’t like to be misled about something as basic as our food.
In his book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (W.W. Norton & Co, 2012), author Tom Mueller combines his personal experiences with interviews of olive oil industry experts. He regales the reader with the history of olive oil’s production and distribution and stories of fraud from ancient times to the present. It proves a fascinating amalgam of food memoir, consumer education, investigative reporting and history.

“When a product sells for a hundred dollars a gallon or more,” one source says, “the temptation to fraud must be nearly irresistible.”

Exposing a minor weakness of the book, Mueller repeats to the point of excess that “the deck is stacked against” those who attempt to increase or enforce regulation in the olive oil industry. Because of widespread fraud, many of us have only been exposed to olive oil cut with less expensive oils. Unable to recognize unadulterated extra virgin oil by taste, smell or sight, we continue being ideal victims. Aside from paying exorbitant prices for oil that is not what it claims to be, one might ask why we should care about the purity of extra virgin olive oil. Mueller compellingly argues why it matters. Most important, olive oil’s much touted antioxidant health benefits are not present in low-quality oils falsely labeled as extra-virgin olive oil.

The book’s strength lies in its simple revelations – such as the fact that olive oil is actually a fruit juice best used shortly after bottling. It is thorough, interesting and readable, though there are occasional disjointed geographic and temporal jumps. Mueller’s book, however, will ultimately inspire most readers to seek out true extra-virgin olive oil – or at least spend a long time standing in the oil aisle at the grocery store examining labels.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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The Power of Memory, Regret and Remorse

What captured me was Julian Barnes’ elegant description of adolescence.

“In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives – and time itself – would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted?”

In these three sentences, author Julian Barnes inks an essential truth about people on the precipice of adulthood, wielding their words and bodies without concern for consequences. Their artistry perfectly captures his novel The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Two of the most admirable achievements in writing are to tell a story without an excess of words and to keep a reader guessing until the last page. Here Barnes accomplishes both. The novel’s two chapters and 176 pages are little more than pamphlet size. Yet he’s packaged more insight and truth into them than are reflected in most authors’ oeuvres.

In the first chapter, we meet our narrator, Tony Webster, just after his childhood pals and he befriend a bright, new student named Adrian Finn in 1960’s England. Here Tony recounts his memories through his college years, after the friends have gone their separate ways. Tony warns the reader of the mutability of memory and the questionable accuracy of his narration. The enjoyable effect of this unreliable narrator device prompts one to read critically – and cherish the clarity and revelation to come.

The first-person narration reveals Tony’s personality and effectively evokes the setting, recalling other U.K. coming-of-age novels, particularly Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

In the second, final chapter, we learn the story is being told by an aged, retired Tony Webster, who ruminates on his youth from the vantage point of a man decades distant from his boyhood. His need to understand the past becomes more urgent and troubling after he receives an unexpected piece of mail. As Tony tries to piece together his memories, the reader eagerly waits for the final pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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A Zombie and Vampire-Free Tale of Survival

There is a special place in my heart for Young Adult (YA) literature.

Anne of Green Gables and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time still rank among my favorites. Reading the Harry Potter series aloud on road trips kept my husband and I spellbound in our 30’s. Later this month, the movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games hits theaters, which is sure to renew interest in her excellent trilogy.

The Hunger Games and Harry Potter are remarkable for their appeal across both generations and sexes. Yet young males are often a neglected group of readers. With the birth of my son, I recently decided to read outside my comfort zone to identify novels he might someday want to read. With this mission in mind, I recently chose Mike Mullin’s Ashfall (Tanglewood Press, 2011), named by National Public Radio as one of 2011’s top five YA novels.

Ashfall is the story of Alex, a 15-year-old boy from Iowa whose parents go out of town for the weekend. Unfortunately, that same weekend the Yellowstone supervolcano explodes. Without a cell phone, television or even radio, Alex tries to survive. While a common YA theme is apocalypse and young people fending for themselves, Ashfall is far more realistic than most. It does not shy away from violence as society rapidly breaks down; thus, it’s meant for an older YA audience. There is theft, murder and rape. Children, cute bunnies and golden retrievers meet sad ends. Alex is eventually joined by the resourceful Darla and romance ensues. As is the case in most YA novels, not even doomsday can impede teenage hormones.

Alex’s first-person narration reveals only what he can perceive and interpret from his surroundings. This perspective captures isolation, confusion and fear quite effectively. However, Mullin’s teenage voice can be flat and stilted. Sometimes meticulous details dampen the suspense while at other times dangers seem oversimplified. Though I’m not sure Ashfall’s appeal extends beyond its intended YA audience, it is a thoughtful tale of teens learning self-reliance. As a parent hoping to nurture a son’s love of reading, I appreciate authors – like Mullin – who are writing novels that can one day compete with video games.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Enchantment and Romance for the Sophisticated

Bookstores aren’t lacking in novels about magic. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, however, is an imaginative, welcome gem among the knock-offs.

We first meet Prospero the Enchanter (Hector Bowen) and his young daughter, Celia, when Hector takes custody of Celia after her mother’s death. He recognizes her innate magical ability and soon binds her into a contest with a pupil to be chosen by Alexander, a rival magician. Thus, two children are raised by magicians and prepared for a mysterious competition. Their guardians have different methods of teaching, each abusive in their own way. Hector cuts Celia’s fingertips repeatedly and breaks her wrist so she may learn to heal them. Alexander immerses his ward, Marco, in books and study without an ounce of affection. The plot is gradually revealed with some jumps back and forth in chronology. The venue created for Celia and Marco’s competition is a circus, Le Cirque des Rêves.

Though the author draws a parallel to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the tale is also reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell mixed with Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes – as well as a dash of several other novels, television programs and films. Morgenstern, however, sculpts gorgeous images with words, giving her novel a unique identity. Her descriptions of the circus engage multiple senses: “The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold.”

Morgenstern’s strength is her setting. Though there are many well-described characters, most are kept at arm’s length from the reader. I particularly wanted more insight into Celia and Marco, whose psychological scars from their cruel upbringing did not influence the plot as expected.

The novel’s intricate details lend itself toward a film adaptation, so it was no surprise to read the rights have been purchased. Though I would watch a big-screen translation, I can’t imagine enjoying it more than the book. Most of us are still susceptible to being drawn into a novel, and, as Morgenstern suggests, there is magic in storytelling that can transform and transfix a reader.

I was thus enchanted by The Night Circus (Doubleday, 2011).

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Ring in the New Year with Laughter

For me the time between Halloween and New Year’s Day is a blur of costumes, cooking, shopping, dragging dusty boxes out of the garage, finding babysitters and navigating family schedules.

So I generally choose to read something lighthearted with short chapters. This holiday season, I enjoyed reading two collections of autobiographical, humorous essays: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling (Random House, Inc. 2011); and Bossypants by Tina Fey (Little, Brown and Company, 2011).

Tina Fey, 41, is the creator and star of TV’s 30 Rock and former head writer for Saturday Night Live. Mindy Kaling, 32, has written for The Office since age 24, and also plays the role of Kelly Kapoor. As might be expected from two comedians, they throw around bad language like a sailor who’s dropped an anchor on his foot. There are stories and jokes that may not be for everyone.

The two books have much in common. They interweave witty observations and personal stories about growing up and navigating the entertainment industry. The children of hardworking, academic-oriented parents, both women were interested in pursuing a career in theater and comedy, but first graduated from prestigious colleges. Both found work in show business quickly, yet they share an endearing lack of pretension and a flair for self-deprecating humor.

Kaling’s voice is not unlike her character’s on The Office. Her tone is casual and reminiscent of a group of girlfriends gossiping about what they just read in People magazine, while completing a physics problem in Stanford’s science quad. Some may find Kaling’s style annoying, while for others it is clever and approachable.

Tina Fey’s style is more detailed and subtle, and her references are sometimes more esoteric. There is a heart and openness to her musings on motherhood and career that set her book apart. Her style befits the extra decade of career success and life experience she has had. Where Kaling discusses dating and romance, Fey talks about marriage, motherhood and running her own television show.

Both books are light and fun, but it’s also clear that true intellects lurk behind their humor. These are women who, without compromising too much, achieved success in comedy by believing in themselves – and embracing their “awkward” years.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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Jungle Thriller Leaves You Scratching for More

Too often readers must choose between a sloppily written novel with a compelling plot and a beautifully rendered novel with a meandering story.

Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder, (HarperCollins, 2011) didn’t make me choose. It is a novel of intelligent prose and, by the end, heart-pounding suspense.

Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, works for a pharmaceutical company and learns her colleague, Anders Eckman, has died. Dr. Eckman was sent to Brazil to track down the renowned Dr. Annick Swenson, an obstetrician who is developing a drug among a remote tribe and who has not been heard from in two years. Marina is Swenson’s former student, but a traumatic experience drove her from obstetrics residency to a more sedate, predictable career in the laboratory. Marina sets off for Brazil to complete Eckman’s unfinished task and learn the details of his demise.

Though the novel is ultimately a page-turner, this is not apparent early. Marina’s grief over her colleague and the trauma of delivering this unimaginable news to his wife is powerfully and painstakingly detailed; I even wondered when the book would finally head to Brazil. The deliberate pacing parallels Marina’s journey and, despite her foreboding, she finally departs. From this point, the plot accelerates through Marina’s memories, nightmares and fever dreams, until finally we plunge toward astounding revelations.

The novel is a scientific thriller, but Patchett does not drown the reader in extraneous detail. Instead her scientific knowledge is cleanly woven into the plot, touching upon bioethics, human research and the relationship between female physicians of different generations. An important theme is the blinding awe, romanticism and devotion within the student-mentor dynamic.

Patchett’s State of Wonder succeeds most as an adventure story. The heroine faces peril and confronts her greatest fears. A couple people have told me they disliked the ending. There were surprising aspects that I too found unsatisfactory and unsettling, but I still enjoyed the book. Controversial decisions by authors are the lifeblood of a good book club discussion. However one reacts to the last few pages, the journey there makes this book worth reading.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at


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