Category Archives: out of things to read

The Monday Book: VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler

This week’s review comes from crowd favorite Paul Garrett –

anne tyler

Dr. Battista, an obscure researcher of autoimmune disorders, has been slaving away in obscurity, almost forgotten by his employer, Johns Hopkins University. Now he feels he is on the verge of the breakthrough he has been searching for all his professional life. There is only one problem: Pyotr, his research assistant and right arm is about to lose his visa and be forced to return to the Eastern European country of his birth. Dr. Battista is terrified that all his work will go down the tubes (pun intended? Maybe, maybe not.) without Pyotr there. He hatches a plan to save his project and his lab assistant. All that has to happen is for Pyotr to marry Dr. Battista’s daughter.

Nobody thought to ask his daughter.

Kate Battista is a tall lanky girl approaching what used to quaintly be called spinsterhood. Almost thirty with no love interest and no prospects, she spends her days gardening, working as a teaching assistant at a preschool and looking after her widowed father and younger sister. She is awkward socially and has a habit of saying exactly what is on her mind, to the detriment of her relationships with just about everybody, especially the parents of the little crumb crunchers who are entrusted to her care.

Anne Tyler’s novel Vinegar Girl (Hogarth, 2016) Is a nod to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as the poor and equally awkward Pyotr, along with the help of his boss try to woo the standoffish Kate.

Tyler is one of the few authors (along with Kurt Vonnegut) who can make me laugh out loud.  Her tragicomic style is on full display as the characters careen from one mishap and plot twist to the next.  The rehearsal dinner scene alone makes the book worthwhile.

Unlike in T.C. Boyle’s preachy Tortilla Curtain, Tyler avoids the controversies of the American immigration system, preferring to stick to the Shakespearian template and leave the intellectual heavy lifting to others.

This is a small volume for Tyler, but she manages to pack it full of her normal cadre of oddballs, miscues and mishaps. The story ends with an odd (for today’s audience) soliloquy on the plight of men in society.

The book’s brevity may be the only drawback, as Tyler felt the need to add an extensive epilogue. Brief or not, Tyler fans won’t be disappointed.

 

 

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The Monday Book: SIGNS AND WONDERS by Philip Gulley

Signs-Wonders-150x226-98x148I picked up this book because it had a cheerful cover and I’d spent the day finishing a big crochet project, watching Netflix documentaries on: cyberbullying, Dunblane and Sandy Hook, and sex trafficking in the US.

I wanted cheering up.

It worked; this is a charming wee collection of short stories, a la Lake Wobegon, about the sweet and sour lives of people in a small town. Mostly Quakers. A bit longer on description than dialogue, it is not a book I would normally have gravitated to, but if you want a little sweetness with a sprinkling of salt, this is your read.

Stories range from why the local spinster won’t settle to why the local pastor figured out he should go on vacation with his wife. My personal favorite was the son of an alcoholic father who spends two hours stuck with him on the top of a Ferris wheel, and rides that ride for life figuring out what kind of father he wants to be.

Sweetness and light this book carries in spades, although some of the stories (the spinster for instance) have sharp edges. Overall, if you need a break, pick up a Harmony novel. (This is the third in the Gulley series, but they don’t need to be read in sequence. I found this charming without knowing the deeper background on characters found in the first one.)

Two helium balloons up for SIGNS AND WONDERS. It offers a much-needed lift.

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Filed under book reviews, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: WALKING ON MY GRAVE by Carolyn Hart

50065987_583494335446320_9215025291901009920_nThis week’s Monday book comes from Martha Evans Wiley, a fellow cat rescuer and margarita drinker. Here’s her review of Walking on My Grave by Carolyn Hart (actually a look at the whole series).

2017 Berkley Prime Crime

One of my great guilty pleasures is hunkering down with a new Carolyn Hart book, more specifically one in her Death on Demand series.  Hart’s written 26 cozies in this series, almost half of the more than 60 novels she has penned in her long career.

What I find most charming about this series is Hart’s gift for establishing a sense of place; set on Broward’s Rock, a wonderful island off the coast of South Carolina, each new book feels like coming home. Hart’s two protagonists, Annie and Max Darling, are transplants to the island having moved there when Annie inherited her uncle’s bookstore upon his mysterious death. Annie is compassionate to a fault –  her endless capacity to believe in the good in people balances well with her husband’s proclivity to be a little cynical. Her wonderful bookstore, the eponymous Death on Demand – “the finest mystery bookstore east of Atlanta” – gives Hart plenty of opportunity to show off her mystery knowledge, throwing loads of references to authors and their work, both past and present.

The latest installment, Walking on My Grave, follows much of the same successful formula that Hart has stuck with over the years. She is a master of the red herring, and it’s always fun to watch an enthusiastic Annie go head-long into impulsive schemes while Max tries to keep up with her. This time the story revolves around a rich older woman whose many heirs all have reasons to kill her – not the most original plot, but again, it’s the characters and setting that makes Hart’s work so much fun to read. She always includes a very handy guide to who’s who in the beginning, and often sprinkles sketches in the narrative to ensure that the reader isn’t left behind.

It’s not necessary to read  the series in order to enjoy it, but if you want to start at the very beginning, pick up “Death on Demand,” which sets up the setting and main characters. If you want to read just one, I recommend “The Christie Caper,” a heftier read than most of the others and a real treat for any Agatha Christie fan, or “Southern Ghost,” set in Beaufort, SC,  a wonderful trip to the old south with its dripping Spanish moss and antebellum houses.

As with any long-running series, there are some tropes – for a small island, there’s no end of people being introduced who are then murdered. Annie, Max and the gang don’t age at all, and they are curiously unaffected by any hurricanes or other weather events. But reality isn’t something I search for in a mystery, and I’m never disappointed in the adventures of Annie and Max. I’m already looking forward to my next trip to the island of Broward’s Rock.

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The Monday Book: DEATH ON THE MENU

The Monday Book is reviewed this week by Martha Evans Wiley.

Death on the Menu, by Lucy Burdette

Wendy knows my predilection for cozies and asked61ZCCieFZNL._AC_US327_QL65_ if I would like to review the newest release in the Key West Food Critic Mysteries, published by Crooked Lane Books. Although I haven’t read any of the earlier books in the series (there are seven), I soon found that isn’t necessary to enjoy the story.

Hayley Snow, the protagonist, is indeed a food critic who lives in Key West, and the setting is integral to the plot and the characters. Having never been to Key West, this was a vicarious journey through the historic architecture and tropical feel of the city for me.  Hayley lives on a houseboat with an elderly friend and gets around town on a scooter, quirky details that lend an air of authenticity to the overall exotic yet small-town feel of the locale. Along with the sights and sounds of a bustling community, Burdette focuses on the food, itself an important part of the Cuban culture. Whether we’re sampling restaurants with Hayley for a review or watching her caterer mother cook for a crowd, the food is almost as important to the story as Hayley herself – so important that the author includes recipes at the end for all the mouth-watering dishes she refers to throughout the book.

The story revolves around crimes committed during a conference planned to promote relations between the cities of Havana, Cuba, and Key West. There’s a lot riding on this, as anyone who keeps abreast of current events might imagine. Tensions rise, personalities clash, and throughout it all is the lingering pain and legacy of the mass emigration of Cuban refugees to the US in the 1990s, and the parallels to the current plight of the migrants on our southern border cannot be ignored.

Burdette at times gets carried away with filling the story with topical references that can distract from the meat of the tale. Former President Barack Obama makes an appearance, as do Jimmy Buffet and an NPR reporter. More germane to the subject matter are the gone-but-not-forgotten figures of President Harry S Truman, who lived in the Little White House where much of the action takes place, and literary giant Ernest Hemingway, whose legendary status still looms large over the island.

Hayley Snow is a likeable hero, with all the predictable foibles  of feminine amateur sleuths – headstrong, anxious, romantically involved with the local police chief, naive and yet loyal to the end. The characters are believable and for the most part endearing, and as mentioned earlier, Burdette’s descriptions of the Cuban food and the colorful beauty of Key West provide the real enjoyment of the book.

It won’t be long before  winter rears its cold head, and I for one plan to curl up with more of Burdette’s Key West mysteries for a snowy day escape.

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Day Two: SQUEEEEEverly

Farmington, Iowa to Sioux Falls, South Dakota

highway 2 mapSo there are a couple of things you need to know about our rag-tag band of Brits: Barbara is famous back in the UK, as in, can’t eat out without being approached for an autograph famous. Her husband Oliver is the calmest classic Englishman ever, complete with handlebar mustache, and Jack, well, y’all know Jack.

So when Barbara the “seen it all twice” star loses her cool, it is fun to watch. The words “Everly Brothers” send her into full meltdown fangirl mode. Which is extra funny because the unflappable Oliver is the one who met Phil during a filming–a fact he uses to great aplomb in scoring marriage points when needed.

We missed the Everly birthplace in Kentucky on the way out because it was west of our desired trajectory, but when I took coffee to the porch of the Farmington B&B and opened my laptop to plan our route across Iowa, the musical muses of mischief intervened.

Who knew the Everly brothers had a museum at their childhood home in Shenandoah, Iowa?

barn 1Iowa has three or four ways to cross it, the swiftest being Interstate 80. But across the bottom is a little thing called Highway 2, cleverly populated with unusual barns in a desperate attempt to get people to drive it. You know the tourism board is reaching when they tell you why a particular roof slant is “unique.”

But I wanted to drive it because, as one rather caustic Trip Advisor review pointed out, “The main selling point of Highway 2 is that it isn’t Interstate 80.” So it took about .2 seconds to convince Barbara that we wanted to go the slow route to Sioux Falls and enjoy the scenery, because at the far end of Highway 2 lay Shenandoah-gri-la.

everleyWe called the museum, as it looked like one of those places that closes if the volunteer’s granddaughter needs picked up from ballet lessons. This was fortuitous; when the volunteer heard Barbara’s enthusiasm, she offered “the works,” a tour of the home and an overview of relics collected from this corner of musical America.

We arrived in yet another dying small town’s main street, full of beautiful buildings with nothing in them, but the Depot Deli proved full of artifacts as promised; Barbara could scarcely eat for excitement.

At 2 pm our dignified diva left us in a mad dash, smoke curling behind her feet in Flintstone-esque fashion. Oliver came back from the loo, noted her absence, and said, “Ah, it’s open then?” We nodded. Oliver picked up his hat and followed his wife.

Post-tour and equipped with a guidebook gifted by “her new best friend” the volunteer,  Barbara entertained us with Everly Brothers trivia as we turned sharp north and headed up the side of Iowa, following the Lewis and Clark Trail toward Sioux Falls. The Brits had hoped to bag another state briefly in Nebraska, but we missed it by about five miles–which meant we also missed seeing my friend Kate Belt, who lives in the area. But by now Barbara had the guidebook memorized, so count your blessings, Kate.

Since we had crossed Iowa at an almost-perfect right angle, it took longer to, as Oliver put it, “get out.” The Brits now understand that some parts of America are indeed flat.

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The Monday TV show, which falls in a Tuesday this week…

800 wordsI’m sorry everyone; Jack is away and things are in transition here and getting the blog out has gotten weird. Sorry!

But I would like to recommend to you a Monday TV show about writing. We watch it on ACORN, so I’m not sure if it’s available on any other services. It’s called 800 WORDS and is about a columnist who moves his family from urban Sydney to rural Weld, New Zealand. The rural-urban split is fun, and the characters are wonderful: zany, sweet, and just this side of predictable.

My favorite part of the show is how George, the columnist whose wife died in a traffic accident, tops and tails the show with the column he’s writing. Remembering the days when I turned my life into fodder for newspaper columnizing (although I got 1,000 words, thank you) makes me laugh as he struggles to create metaphors for when life gets too silly: sex for fireworks, dolphins swimming away at sunset for loss. It’s hysterical.

And heartfelt. About the time you think, nah, it turns you to tears. The characters each struggle for something, want more than they have, are the stars of their own lives, and the ensemble casting makes a jumble of weirdos who mirror small towns everywhere.

I don’t know if it’s available outside of ACORN, but I highly recommend 800 Words for general viewing, and for writers. You’ll learn from it. And have fun in the process.

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Janelle Bailey’s Monday Book

518IrDgn2hLAs an English teacher for 25 years, I assigned a lot of reading to a lot of kids! One of them from a few years back recently messaged me on Goodreads to start a conversation about her own reading and mine; she also made a recommendation to me of something she’d really enjoyed. I saw it as not only fair but wonderful, to have a former student “assign” me some reading.
The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne was the book she recommended, and I am not disappointed to have taken her up on it, even though Lee Child’s cover blurb of “sensationally good psychological suspense” may have made me less likely, rather than more, to pick it up on my own.
The main character, Helena, is the product of an unusual–criminal, even–pairing. Her father kidnapped her mother at age 14 and literally “took” her for his wife; they lived together in seclusion in the northern woods of the UP (that’s the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, north of Wisconsin) and had then raised Helena there. His parenting practices are extremely questionable, yet Helena sure has little for comparison, given the circumstances. Her mother is not a lot better at it, given her young age, inexperience, and limitations placed on her by her “husband” and their lifestyle.
The novel begins, though, many years later, when Helena’s father escapes from prison. And oh, what tangled ways it moves from there, both in the current search as well as the revealing of the back story of Helena’s childhood and upbringing, chapter by chapter working through both time periods and also braiding in allusive excerpts to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale by the same title.
While some elements are completely dark and violent, others are homey, even–such as how Helena makes her living (I’ll let you learn for yourself by reading the book), and it doesn’t dwell but moves; it’s got a good share of hope and forgiveness and light.
Whether you are one who’d grab the first thriller you saw or one who would not…possibly at all, I think you’ll find the good writing and great storytelling here to be well worth your reading time.

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