UNSHELTERED by Barbara Kingsolver

October 16, 2018

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From the publisher:

The New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards—including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize—returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

How could two hardworking people do everything right in life, a woman asks, and end up destitute? Willa Knox and her husband followed all the rules as responsible parents and professionals, and have nothing to show for it but debts and an inherited brick house that is falling apart. The magazine where Willa worked has folded; the college where her husband had tenure has closed. Their dubious shelter is also the only option for a disabled father-in-law and an exasperating, free-spirited daughter. When the family’s one success story, an Ivy-educated son, is uprooted by tragedy he seems likely to join them, with dark complications of his own.

In another time, a troubled husband and public servant asks, How can a man tell the truth, and be reviled for it? A science teacher with a passion for honest investigation, Thatcher Greenwood finds himself under siege: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting work just published by Charles Darwin. His young bride and social-climbing mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his worries that their elegant house is unsound. In a village ostensibly founded as a benevolent Utopia, Thatcher wants only to honor his duties, but his friendships with a woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor threaten to draw him into a vendetta with the town’s powerful men.

Unsheltered is the compulsively readable story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey, navigating what seems to be the end of the world as they know it. With history as their tantalizing canvas, these characters paint a startlingly relevant portrait of life in precarious times when the foundations of the past have failed to prepare us for the future.


Anytime Kingsolver publishes a book, it is an event, especially a new novel, and this one was worth the wait. That said, it probably helps that my politics align with hers. If you are unfamiliar with Kingsolver, she gently weaves issues throughout her novels. She is adept at doing so without hitting the reader over the head with a sledgehammer; it’s more like a Nerf bat.

The book moves back and forth between centuries, and I loved the device she used of taking the last words of one chapter and making them the chapter name of the next. It was surprising easy to follow both storylines, which isn’t always the case. The characters lead both storylines and they all were well developed – I expect no less from this author and she does not disappoint.

Kingsolver looks at healthcare, the environment, climate change, racism and the politics of the day, the current administration included. Again, subtlety is the game here but her points are well made and well taken. This should be a terrific book for discussion, although they may be heated discussions – and there is nothing wrong with that. Highly recommended.

10/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

UNSHELTERED by Barbara Kingsolver. Harper (October 16, 2018). ISBN 978-0062684561. 480p.

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A SPARK OF LIGHT by Jodi Picoult

October 2, 2018

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From the publisher:

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of Small Great Things returns with a powerful and provocative new novel about ordinary lives that intersect during a heart-stopping crisis.

The warm fall day starts like any other at the Center—a women’s reproductive health services clinic—its staff offering care to anyone who passes through its doors. Then, in late morning, a desperate and distraught gunman bursts in and opens fire, taking all inside hostage.

After rushing to the scene, Hugh McElroy, a police hostage negotiator, sets up a perimeter and begins making a plan to communicate with the gunman. As his phone vibrates with incoming text messages he glances at it and, to his horror, finds out that his fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside the clinic.

But Wren is not alone. She will share the next and tensest few hours of her young life with a cast of unforgettable characters: A nurse who calms her own panic in order to save the life of a wounded woman. A doctor who does his work not in spite of his faith but because of it, and who will find that faith tested as never before. A pro-life protester, disguised as a patient, who now stands in the crosshairs of the same rage she herself has felt. A young woman who has come to terminate her pregnancy. And the disturbed individual himself, vowing to be heard.

Told in a daring and enthralling narrative structure that counts backward through the hours of the standoff, this is a story that traces its way back to what brought each of these very different individuals to the same place on this fateful day.

Jodi Picoult – one of the most fearless writers of our time – tackles a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel. How do we balance the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the unborn they carry? What does it mean to be a good parent? A Spark of Light will inspire debate, conversation…and, hopefully, understanding.


So the good: it is no exaggeration to say that Picoult is fearless in taking on abortion. She does a very good job of exploring and explaining all sides of this controversial issue. It is well written, well researched, and the characters – and there are many – are well developed, even memorable.

What I didn’t love about it was the timeline. The story moves backwards in time, albeit for a good reason; the ending, which I loved, was a shocker. And it did force me to read very carefully and think about what I was reading and where I was in the story, so maybe that was the point?

The subject matter alone makes this a worthwhile read, but I didn’t like it as much as her last book, Small Great Things. Then again, I think that was her best book so maybe I should just cut her some slack. After all, Picoult has consistently written excellent books, year after year, and this one certainly is as well, plus it is sure to loved by book groups.

All that said, people who support the “right to life” may not be happy. Just FYI.

10/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

A SPARK OF LIGHT by Jodi Picoult. Ballantine Books (October 2, 2018). ISBN 978-0345544988. 384p.

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THE LOST FOR WORDS BOOKSHOP by Stephanie Butland

July 26, 2018

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Loveday Cardew is the character at the heart of this sweet, yet melancholy story. Loveday has always found solace in books and lucky for her, she works as a bookseller, her dream job; in fact, she has the first lines of some of her favorite books tattooed on her body. She’s worked for Archie, a charming curmudgeon, for ten years, since she was 15 years old and got herself out of the foster care system. She has had a traumatic life with some serious family issues that she slowly reveals, that mystery keeps the pages turning. Plus she is so endearing that we can’t help but root for her.

Loveday has never had a real relationship with a man, and then there are two men pursuing her, and she’s not sure how to handle it. To say she is close-mouthed hardly touches the surface, she literally reveals nothing about herself until she is forced into it.

I loved these characters and while this was a sadder story than I was expecting, I couldn’t put it down. To watch this young woman grow is both unexpected and beautiful, and a joy to read.

7/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

THE LOST FOR WORDS BOOKSHOP by Stephanie Butland. St. Martin’s Press (June 19, 2018). ISBN 13: 978-1250124531.  368p.

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ALL WE EVER WANTED by Emily Giffin

July 6, 2018

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This deep dive into a suburban community torn apart by a teenage girl’s half naked photo is a bit of a departure for Giffin, but she does a damn fine job of it.

Nina Browning married well. Growing up in a middle class family did not prepare her for the life that happens when her husband Kirk sells his high tech startup for some serious money. Kirk was brought up in the country club set, and has no trouble processing their new found wealth. Their only disagreements concern their son, Finch. Nina is afraid he is getting spoiled and does her best to ground him, while Kirk’s basic philosophy is if we can afford it, who cares.

Lyla is a scholarship student at the exclusive private school Finch attends. Self conscious of her status, Lyla has a huge crush on Finch so when he invites her to a party, she lies to her father and goes. Lyla’s dad, Tom, is a carpenter and a single parent who may struggle a bit raising his only child, but he is a good father.

Lyla gets drunk at the party and when a picture of her passed out on a bed, her breast exposed, is sent to a few students, of course it goes viral and the next thing she knows the whole school knows about it.

When Nina finds out she is devastated to learn that Finch is the one who sent out the pic. Kirk, on the other hand, figures he can just bribe his son out of trouble. Tom is furious and can’t understand why Lyla doesn’t want to pursue the culprit.

This is a story that seems like it could happen almost anywhere today. Giffin really explores all sides and writes a very compelling novel that would make for a very interesting book discussion. I couldn’t put it down. If you like Jodi Picoult, you will like this book. I sure did.

7/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

ALL WE EVER WANTED by Emily Giffin. Ballantine Books (June 26, 2018).  ISBN 978-0399178924.  352p.

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THE MUSIC SHOP by Rachel Joyce

July 2, 2018

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From the publisher:

“An unforgettable story of music, loss and hope. Fans of High Fidelity, meet your next quirky love story.”—People

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE TIMES (UK)

It is 1988. On a dead-end street in a run-down suburb there is a music shop that stands small and brightly lit, jam-packed with records of every kind. Like a beacon, the shop attracts the lonely, the sleepless, and the adrift;

Frank, the shop’s owner, has a way of connecting his customers with just the piece of music they need. Then, one day, into his shop comes a beautiful young woman, Ilse Brauchmann, who asks Frank to teach her about music. Terrified of real closeness, Frank feels compelled to turn and run, yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems, and Frank has old wounds that threaten to reopen, as well as a past it seems he will never leave behind.

Can a man who is so in tune with other people’s needs be so incapable of connecting with the one person who might save him? The journey that these two quirky, wonderful characters make in order to overcome their emotional baggage speaks to the healing power of music—and love—in this poignant, ultimately joyful work of fiction.


Every year the American Library Association encourages a summer reading program. This year’s theme is “Libraries Rock!” so I leaned in with some music programs including a book discussion featuring The Music Shop.

Rachel Joyce had a couple of hits on her hands with the Harold Fry books (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryThe Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy,) but I couldn’t get into the first one and didn’t bother with the second. So I had some trepidation about choosing this book. But my BFF Judy loved it and I trust her so I selected it for the summer reading book discussion. Ultimately, I am very happy that I did.

It is, as the publisher explains, both a love story and a journey through music, and it is the journey that kept me turning pages. I did find it slow going through a good chunk of the book, and to define these characters as quirky is to practically redefine the word.

The main character, Frank, is obsessed with music and vinyl records, in particular. The book is set mostly in the 1980’s when CDs were first becoming popular. Frank refuses to carry anything other than vinyl, which becomes a problem for distributors after a while. He also has his own unique filing system – he groups albums together by how he thinks they go together. He has an innate sense of music and can see the music that people need. For instance, a man comes in asking for Chopin, but Frank knows he needs Aretha Franklin’s “Oh No Not My Baby”.

We learn about Frank’s most unusual childhood, which explains a lot of his passion. Kit works for Frank and he is a bumbling, not very bright, but sincere young man. The folks who own the neighboring shops are also eccentric, to the point where there doesn’t seem to be a single character who seems “normal”, whatever that is, or even believable. A little believability would have been a nice touch here or there.

When Ilse comes into their lives, she makes quite an entrance – she faints dead away. Eventually her music lessons with Frank leads to them falling in love but neither will admit it. Ilse is scared due to her backstory, and Frank has serious trust and commitment issues due to his own life experiences.

But what brings them together is the music, and the music is what makes this book worth reading. I learned a lot, and I was delighted to find the author created a playlist to go along with the book. You can find it on Spotify (free accounts available) or on YouTube. Penguin UK has a wonderful page set up with some quotes from the book and the music discussed:

https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/book-talk/soundtrack/2017/the-music-shop-playlist/

You can get a real feel for the book on that page and see what I’m babbling about. This is a wonderful book to discuss, and ultimately an unusual and lovely read.

7/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

THE MUSIC SHOP by Rachel Joyce. Random House (January 2, 2018).  ISBN 978-0812996685.  320p.

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MANHATTAN BEACH by Jennifer Egan

April 22, 2018

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I confess that I never read the Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad by Egan. Its desription as a novel of interlocking stories just didn’t appeal so I came to this book with an open mind. It has won numerous awards and accolades, including the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, was a New York Times and Washington Post Notable book and it made many of the best books lists in 2017. So I had high expectations, and it mostly met them.

Manhattan Beach is a neighborhood in Brooklyn, and this book is a historical look at the area. Anna Kerrigan is a young girl when her father takes to a business meeting at the home of Dexter Styles, who lives in a large house on the beach. Anna is mesmerized by the sand and sea, and Styles enjoys her pleasure in it.

Anna’s father had been ruined in the Great Depression, and the family lives in a small apartment. Anna enjoys spending time with her father, but he stops taking her to business meetings and then disappears a short time later, leaving her with her mother and sister. Her sister suffers from some sort of paralysis and brain damage, but Anna and her mother lovingly take care of her.

Years later, Anna gets a job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard during the war, when women are allowed to hold the jobs that only men once held. She sees men diving in the water off the yard and wants to learn to do that, but that is one line women cannot cross. Nonetheless, her boss gets her an interview but the man in charge is more interested in humiliating Anna than hiring her. Much to his surprise, she passes the tests for divers but he still doesn’t want her. She persists, and eventually becomes the first woman diver, repairing ships to help win the war.

Anna’s personal life is a bit of a mess. She lives with a friend’s family, and rarely dates. But one night she goes to a nightclub and finds out that Dexter Styles is the owner. He becomes intrigued with her and their relationship turns the story on its head.

This is a fascinating look at the roles of women during the Depression and the war, and the lives of sailors, politicians, and gangsters and how their lives intertwine. Anna is a terrific character and moves the story along. A very interesting and enjoyable read, especially for book groups.

4/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

MANHATTAN BEACH by Jennifer Egan. Scribner; First Edition edition (October 3, 2017).  ISBN  978-1476716732. 448p.


SOCIABLE by Rebecca Harrington

March 27, 2018

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The premise of this sophomore novel by Harrington (Penelope) is that journalism is dying and millennials will save it. To do that they will have to fit some work in between parties, fighting with friends, romance, and in this case, surviving a bad breakup.

Our heroine is Elinor Tomlinson, a vapid, immature twenty-something working as a nanny. Her boyfriend’s mother, a well respected journalist, recommends her for an opening at a second tier online news magazine. Elinor stumbles through the interview spouting generic nonsense and gets the job, creating viral content for the web. She is probably better at her job than the two men who want to mentor her, yet she doesn’t seem to like her job very much. Her boyfriend dumps her, and she just wallows in self pity.

Readers may be able to empathize with the breakup if they can slog through the changeable points of view, the too-brief attempts at humor, hash tags and even comments addressed directly to the reader. ©Library Journal, 2018

This book sounded so good from the publisher:

The Assistants meets The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. in this exuberant comedy of manners set in the world of Internet media, a brilliantly irreverent novel about what it means to be young, broke, dumped, and scarily good at creating viral content.

Um…not so much. Very disappointing read.

3/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

SOCIABLE by Rebecca Harrington. Doubleday (March 27, 2018). ISBN 978-0385542821. 256p.

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THE RECIPE BOX by Viola Shipman

March 22, 2018

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Sam Mullins grew up on the northern shore of Michigan on her family’s orchard, and couldn’t wait to leave and make her own mark on the world. She went to culinary school in New York and landed a much coveted job – baking for a television celebrity chef in his restaurant/bakery. Except he’s a jerk and can’t even cook, and when the head chef quits, Sam is picked to create something wonderful for the Good Morning America team that will be filming in the bakery that morning. She does, and everyone loves it but her boss – he trashes her grandmother’s beloved slab pie and orders her to make something else. Finally growing a spine, she, too, quits.

Sam heads home to the family orchard and bake shop where her grandmother and mother rule supreme. They are delighted she has shown up for a visit but she doesn’t tell them why she’s suddenly home, at least not for a while.

The recipe box is a family tradition. On each daughter’s 13th birthday, they are given a wooden recipe box filled with family recipes going back generations. The key to the box is worn on a chain around the neck, close to the heart. When Sam went off to culinary school, she left her recipe box at home but now she is feeling the pull of family and all that means.

In a side story, there is a produce delivery man she has been chatting with every morning of her working life in New York City. After turning down several invitations to date him, they remain friends. After she gets home, he tells her he’s taking a few days off and wants to see the Michigan she loves. This romance adds a bit more story to the story, as it were.

Every chapter is named after a recipe and the recipes are all included. Most are desserts but there is at least one savory dish as well.

The book held my attention but it verged on being sickeningly sweet, if you’ll pardon the pun. It actually felt smarmy at times and way too heavy handed and I just don’t like being manipulated. The story was good, I didn’t need to be hit over the head about the importance of family and tradition and love on every page. All that said, it moved me to tears more than once and I couldn’t put it down, so I guess it was compelling smarminess, if you will. If you like reading stories about food and families, and don’t mind emotional minefields, this is the book for you.

I am planning on making that slab pie for sure, and probably a few of the other recipes as well.

3/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE RECIPE BOX by Viola Shipman. Thomas Dunne Books (March 20, 2018). ISBN 978-1250146779. 336p.


ALTERNATE SIDE by Anna Quindlen

March 20, 2018

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So Anna Quindlen finally decided to write a love letter to New York City. Manhattan, to be precise. And while she may point out its foibles and idiosyncrasies, even the bad stuff is wrapped up in love.

Nora and Charlie have been married for many years and have boy and girl twins in college and a dog. They live in a townhouse which is crammed in between the townhouses on either side of them, all on a dead end street in Manhattan, an almost unheard of thing in the city. This is a clannish group of New Yorkers who share a handyman and a small parking lot, overseen by George, the self-appointed street mayor, issuing coveted parking spots, warning about any infractions to the desired appearance of the block, and offering non-negotiable recommendations of flowers to plant and when to put out the holiday decorations.

Nora and Charlie consider theirs to be one of the better marriages among their circle of friends. They are well off, and attention to class distinction is paid here. Charlie is an investment banker, but his career has never taken off the way he thought it would and he dreams of leaving the city for greener pastures. Nora is the director of a small, private museum and loves her job, her family, and most of all, her home, but definitely feels that something is lacking in her life.

Then one of the neighbors, a wealthy attorney with a viscous temper, attacks the Latino handyman, beating him with a golf club and causing serious injury because his truck was blocking the parking lot. The neighbors are divided; was it provoked? Was it an accident? Charlie was a witness and stands up for his neighbor, but Nora heard the whole thing and knows Charlie is wrong. That incident creates a wedge in their marriage and in the neighborhood, causing feelings to shift and change and ultimately deteriorate.

An interesting look at friendship, marriage and class warfare within the city that never sleeps, with lots to talk about for book discussion groups. I didn’t love it, maybe because I need at least one character to care about, to relate to, and Nora just barely made the cut. I’m from New York and know people like her so I understood her, but also know I could never be friends with her, and fortunately that is not a deal breaker. The book did give me pause – and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Thought provoking for sure.

3/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

ALTERNATE SIDE by Anna Quindlen. Random House (March 20, 2018). ISBN 978-0812996067. 304p.


THE GREAT ALONE by Kristin Hannah

February 27, 2018

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I’m a long time Kristin Hannah fan. She started off  writing women’s fiction and I often recommended her books to Danielle Steel readers who wanted to step up a bit. Then she wrote The Nightingale, and never looked back. That book lingered on the NY Times bestseller list for well over a year, a real anomoly for fiction and certainly well deserved. The Great Alone debuted at number one on that list and I have a feeling this book, too, shall linger.

Leni Allbright is a young teenager who has lived a difficult life. Her father, Ernt, is a Vietnam war vet obviously suffering from severe PTSD, undiagnosed and untreated at that time. Her mom, Cora, loves her husband madly and truly seems to understand the demons that drive him. He can’t hold a job, he drinks to much, and he has black moods on a regular basis. Leni has a harder time, but knows her father loves her. Leni and her mom are very close, unusually close for a child that age, but the family constantly moves, often several times a year, due to Ernt’s troubles, so Leni and Cora cling to each other.

Ernt receives a letter from the father of an old army buddy of who had died in the war, informing him that his buddy has left him 40 acres and a house in the wilds of Alaska. This book opens in 1974 in the pre-cruise era, and even the cities in Alaska weren’t all that populated. Ernt decides this is just the break he needs and he loads his family into an old VW bus and they make the drive from Seattle to Alaska.

They arrive in the tiny town and are amazed – the main street has a general store and a bar and not much else. The population is in the double digits and everyone who lives there is living off the grid – no electricity, no running water, just spectacular vistas and a very hard life. Fortunately, they arrive in spring so they have the summer to prepare for the long, hard winter. Ernt seems happy, and Cora and Leni are enjoying learning to hunt, how to can fruits and vegetables for winter, how to smoke fish and so forth. Leni goes to school in the one room schoolhouse and makes her first real friend. But as darkness falls on Alaska, so does Ernt’s mood.

This is a fascinating look at a life most of us would never experience, living entirely off the land and bartering for whatever else you need. It is also a coming of age story, a story about the effects of war, about an abusive marriage, anarchy, and more. While the storyline is nothing like The Nightingale, it is about two strong women and the life they build, something Hannah excels at. This is not a happy story, but a dark, searing one that will be staying with me for a very long time. It is such a gripping novel that I just couldn’t put it down and I can’t wait to talk to someone who has read it – it will make a fabulous book discussion. Don’t miss it.

2/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE GREAT ALONE by Kristin Hannah.  Holtzbrinck Publishers; First Edition edition (February 6, 2018).  ISBN 978-0312577230. 448p.

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