THE SECOND MRS. HOCKADAY by Susan Rivers

May 12, 2017

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Placidia Fincher becomes the second Mrs. Hockaday when, at age 17, she marries Major Gryffith Hockaday. He is almost twice her age, recently widowed and left with a very young son. She agrees to marry him and the next day they return to his home, a 300 acre farm in South Carolina. The Civil War is raging, and after a couple of days of marriage, the Major returns to his post leaving his teenage bride in charge of his home, his baby, his farm and his slaves.

The Major doesn’t return home for two years, spending much of that time in a Union prison. Upon his return he learns that his wife has become pregnant and had a baby during his time away, the baby died and she is accused of murder and on her way to jail. There are a lot of plot lines threaded throughout, and a number of characters so I had to pay close attention to keep it all straight.

This is an epistolary novel, written in letters, journal entries, etc. which always gives a very intimate, voyeuristic feeling to the reader and this is no exception. There are some very dark chapters, as is to be expected during war time in the South, but it is restrained. The violence is there but is not gratuitous and is never over the top. The book is loosely based on a true incident, and the writing style is interesting and seems accurate to the time period although the lack of some punctuation is difficult at times.

One of the things I liked best about this book was that it’s a woman’s perspective of the Civil War, and the difficulties that women faced were very different from the men. A most compelling read and an excellent debut novel.

5/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

THE SECOND MRS. HOCKADAY by Susan Rivers. Algonquin Books; First Edition edition (January 10, 2017).  ISBN 978-1616205812.  272p.

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MY GRANDMOTHER ASKED ME TO TELL YOU SHE’S SORRY by Fredrik Backman

April 17, 2017

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Backman surfaced in America as the author of the word-of-mouth-runaway-bestseller-turned-into-an-Oscar-nominated-film, A Man Called Ove. It’s been on the bestseller lists for a couple of years now with no sign of letup. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry joined it well over a year ago.

If you haven’t read this Swedish author, let me start by saying if the only Swedish author you are familiar with is Steig Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) just put that out of your mind. Larsson may have been Sweden’s biggest selling author but Backman is pushing him off the list. Backman is the yin to Larsson’s yang, the lightness to his darkness, and I, for one, most welcome this new voice.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is written from the point of view of the granddaughter, Elsa. She’s seven years old and beyond precocious, and her grandmother is her best friend. They share a secret language, stories about the Land-of-Almost-Awake and all the kingdoms within. Elsa doesn’t really have any other friends, her grandmother is her world. She basically puts up with her mother. 

When her grandmother passes away, Elsa is devastated. Then she learns her grandmother has left her a sort of scavenger hunt, a series of letters that she wants Elsa to deliver for her. Letters of apology.

This is a hard book to describe. The plot doesn’t really matter; suffice it to say there are some people who don’t like the fact that the narrator is a child. Get over it – it’s so worth it. All the people who live in apartments in the house with Elsa’s family are unique individuals, to say the least. And eventually it all makes sense.

Backman has a unique voice and I think you either love it, and then you will love all his books no matter the subject or protagonist, or you don’t. And I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t (at least not yet).

4/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

MY GRANDMOTHER ASKED ME TO TELL YOU SHE’S SORRY by Fredrik Backman. Washington Square Press; Reprint edition (April 5, 2016).  ISBN 978-1501115073.  372p.

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COOKING FOR PICASSO by Camille Aubray

March 5, 2017
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I admit I fell for the title of this book, thinking it would be a foodie book. It really isn’t, although food does play a part. But it is more a family saga, moving between small towns in France and New York, spanning almost a hundred years.

It starts just before World War II when Ondine helps her mother with the cooking and cleaning in the family’s cafe. She is just sixteen years old when an important artist rents the house down the road for the summer. The mysterious “patron” wants his lunch delivered every day, and Ondine rides her bike with her basket of food for Picasso.

He is laying low, caught in a mess – he’s married and has mistresses, all of whom are goading one another. Ondine eventually models for him, and he promises her the painting. But Picasso takes off without giving it to her.

Ondine’s parents try to marry her off to the town baker, thinking his influx of money will help the cafe. But Ondine is waiting for her boyfriend Luc, gone off to sea to make enough money to marry her. Eventually she ends up in New Rochelle, New York, with her own restaurant. Things go awry and she moves back to France with her daughter, in search of the painting that was promised her.

There are two story lines going on here. Ondine’s granddaughter returns to France to try and find the Picasso, so it moves back and forth between timelines, and the mystery makes for a very entertaining and interesting read. There is a bit of romance as well, but it feels more like a device to further the plot.

Historical novels based on someone famous have become quite popular. Fans of Paula McLain (The Paris Wife) or Nancy Horan (Loving Frank) will probably enjoy this book, although I don’t know how much of it is historically accurate. Perhaps the bits about Picasso and how he lived are the most authentic but it is all interesting. I found it a bit slow in the beginning but it picks up once the dual story line kicks in, ended up being a terrific read. Book groups will find much to discuss here.

3/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

COOKING FOR PICASSO by Camille Aubray. Ballantine Books (August 9, 2016). ISBN: 978-0399177651. 400p.

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SMALL GREAT THINGS by Jodi Picoult

November 2, 2016
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Let’s start out with the fact that I loved this book. I read it in one sitting on my iPad, and had no idea it was almost 500 pages because the pages just flew.

If the title seems familiar, it is because it was taken from a very famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote:

“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”

This is a book about racism and inclusiveness. Written by a white, privileged woman mostly for other white, privileged women and anyone else who likes a good read with a lesson. There is a strong message here and Picoult delivers it without hitting anyone over the head, but rather by showing, more than telling, if that makes sense.

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse in New Haven, Connecticut. She grew up in Harlem, the daughter of a maid who pushed her to be more. Ruth was a smart girl who ended up with a scholarship to the Dalton School, followed by college and finally nursing school at Yale. She is a bright, dedicated nurse who takes pride in her work; in fact, she thinks of it as a calling.

Until a white supremacist family demands she be taken off the care of their newborn son. A note is placed in his file that states no African Americans are allowed to touch the child. This is a small hospital and the note hurts. But Ruth is a pro, so when an emergency takes the other duty nurses to the operating room leaving her in charge of watching the baby after his circumcision, she resents it but knows she has no choice. And then the unthinkable happens.

The baby appears to be in respiratory distress. Does Ruth try and save the baby, ignoring a direct order from her supervisor? The child dies, and the family decides that Ruth is the reason. The hospital is happy to have someone to blame that leaves them in the clear, and Ruth is arrested and charged with murder.

Ruth lost her husband in Afghanistan and has struggled to raise her son. He’s at the age where he is applying for college and the only money she has is tied up in his college fund, so she has no choice but to use the public defender as counsel.

Kennedy is a white woman, married to a doctor and able to do the work she loves – she also has a calling. She’s never tried a murder case but something about Ruth just makes her want to try, and she does. Along the way, Kennedy and Ruth become friends, and they both learn quite a bit from each other.

We also learn about white supremicsits like Turk, the father of the baby, and how they are recruited, trained and sometimes even have their lives turned around again.

All of these characters are fully dimensional which totally draws the reader in. There are major themes about parenting, the law, power, privilege and race. A lot of it is very uncomfortable to read, and I admit to crying more than once. It feels like an important book, and was extremely thought provoking but more than that, I needed to talk about it. As I was reading it, I told my husband about it, my daughter, my boss and my co-workers. Book clubs take heed, you will not want to miss this one. In fact, the publisher has thoughtfully provided a readers’ guide already.

I loved this book and will be reading it again. Picoult’s publicist had sent me an email about it, that said, in part, “Some books leave you thinking. This one gets you talking.” It’s gotten me talking for sure and I have a feeling I won’t be shutting up anytime soon.

Don’t miss it.

11/16  Stacy Alesi AKA the BookBitch™

SMALL GREAT THINGS by Jodi Picoult. Ballantine Books (October 11, 2016). ISBN 978-0345544957. 480p.

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SECRET SISTERS by Jayne Ann Krentz

December 8, 2015
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Madeline was a young girl at her grandmother’s hotel when a guest assaulted her. Her best friend, Daphne, woke up to see Madeline being dragged away and got help in time to save her friend. It was a night none of them would forget.

Many years later, Madeline is running her grandmother’s hotels, but that hotel, the scene of the crime, has been abandoned all these years. There is a caretaker, and when Madeline’s grandmother dies, she has to go settle up the estate, including that hotel.

No one ever knew about that night, and it’s been twenty years since Madeline and Daphne were together, but circumstances bring them back and the friendship picks up as if it had been two weeks. Madeline brings along her chief of security, Jack, and he brings his brother along to help with the tech stuff.

An attempted murder and a new romance make the pages fly by in the latest entry from one of the doyennes of romantic suspense. This was my first Jayne Ann Krentz book, and now I know why she has been on the bestseller list for so many years. This is an entertaining read for sure.

 

12/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

SECRET SISTERS by Jayne Ann Krentz. Berkley (December 8, 2015).  ISBN 978-0399174483. 352p.

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Guest Author: Julie Buxbaum

December 7, 2015
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Q & A with Julie Buxbaum

Your previous novels, After You and  The Opposite of Love were written for adults. Why did you transition to Young Adult?

Ironically, I transitioned into writing for young adults when I finally felt like a grown up, which I’ll admit happened a bit later than I care to admit. But one day I woke up and realized I was married, with two kids, a writing career and a mortgage, and so all of those big life questions I’d had for years—who was I going to be?–were fixed. I had grown into my future, if that makes sense, which is a terrifying thing to realize. And so of course, I desperately missed the magic of being a teenager, when everything is still an open question and unanswered. I figured it was finally time to revisit those years in fiction.

What is your favorite part of writing and the most difficult part?

I love those rare quiet moments when you nail that perfect sentence. It doesn’t happen often. There are whole days, weeks even, when I don’t love what I’ve put down on the page, but when I think I’ve gotten it right, there really is no better feeling in the world. The most difficult part for me is when I’m in-between projects. I always look forward to this time, since I use it as an opportunity to catch up on reading and movies and television—to basically refill my creative well—which sounds fun in theory. In practice, I always end up feeling unmoored when I’m not writing.

Did you find it difficult to find your “teenage” voice? Why or why not?

Surprisingly, not at all. It felt strangely natural for me. Clearly, I’m really just a sixteen year old trapped in a 38 year old’s body. I’m living Freaky Friday.

What was your favorite scene or character to write?

I loved writing the messages between SN and Jessie. They are fun and silly at first and slowly morph over time to show a real connection between these two strangers. I love how our words on paper (or I guess the screen) can really reveal who we are, even sometimes when we don’t want them to.

Why do you think so many adults are reading Young Adult literature now?

Honestly, I think it’s because some of the best, sharpest, cutting edge writing is coming out of the YA world these days. Why would anyone want to miss out?

What is your best advice for hopeful YA writers?

Read widely. Seriously, read everything you can get your hands on. And then sit your butt down and write. And then write some more. Let yourself be bad at it. Everyone is at first.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I enjoy nothing more than a good Taylor Swift pajama dance party with my kids.

What are you working on now?

I just sent my editor a rough draft of my next YA novel. So really, I’m just sitting around waiting to hear what she thinks. It’s terrifying. And I’ll probably get carpel tunnel syndrome hitting refresh on my email. My iphone is like: “what part of ‘updated just now’ do you not understand?!?”

 

About the Book

What if the person you need the most is someone you’ve never met?

Julie Buxbaum mixes comedy and tragedy, love and loss, pain and elation, in her debut YA novel whose characters will come to feel like friends. Tell Me Three Things will appeal to fans of Rainbow Rowell, Jennifer Niven, and E. Lockhart.

Everything about Jessie is wrong. At least, that’s what it feels like during her first week of junior year at her new ultra-intimidating prep school in Los Angeles. Just when she’s thinking about hightailing it back to Chicago, she gets an email from a person calling themselves Somebody/Nobody (SN for short), offering to help her navigate the wilds of Wood Valley High School. Is it an elaborate hoax? Or can she rely on SN for some much-needed help?

The thing is, Jessie does need help. It’s been barely two years since her mother’s death, and because her father eloped with a woman he met online, Jessie has been forced to move across the country to live with her stepmonster and her pretentious teenage son.

In a leap of faith—or an act of complete desperation—Jessie begins to rely on SN, and SN quickly becomes her lifeline and closest ally. Jessie can’t help wanting to meet SN in person. But are some mysteries better left unsolved?

 

12/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

TELL ME THREE THINGS by Julie Buxbaum. Delacorte Press (April 5, 2016).  ISBN 978-0553535648. 336p.

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MAYBE IN ANOTHER LIFE by Taylor Jenkins Reid

November 9, 2015
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I didn’t realize how much I missed reading chick lit until I read this. Now it’s probably called women’s fiction since chick lit appears to have disappeared from book vernacular, but however it is being characterized, it’s a fun read, and an interesting one.

I love those books that ponder the road not taken; one of my favorites is What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarity (2011.) That book looked at woman who forgets the previous ten years of her life. This book looks at the future instead of the past, and it’s just as intriguing.

Hannah Martin is twenty-nine years old and still searching for…something. Her parents and sister moved to London while she was in high school, leaving Hannah to live with her best friend Gabby back in Los Angeles. She graduates from college and starts drifting from city to city, job to job, boyfriend to boyfriend – her last being Michael, a married man with two children, but never forgetting her first love, Ethan. They broke up during college but both still harbor the feeling of unfinished business.

Hannah decides to move home to L.A., and Gabby offers up her guestroom. Gabby is married to Mark, who Hannah likes well enough, and they all get along. Shortly after arriving, they go out to a club where Hannah runs into Ethan. Later that night, Gabby tells her she needs to get home and Hannah needs to decide whether to go home early with Gabby, or hang out with Ethan for a while longer.

The book then moves forward in two storylines; one in which she goes with Gabby, the other with Ethan. Told in alternating chapters, Hannah is living two different lives, a sort of choose-your-own-adventure with amazingly different results.

This was an engrossing story and a real page turner. I was torn between which life I thought she should be living, up until the very last page of the book. Reading this is like going on a roller coaster through Hannah and Gabby’s lives, and these characters were so well developed and likeable that I didn’t want the ride to end.

11/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

MAYBE IN ANOTHER LIFE by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Washington Square Press (July 7, 2015).  ISBN 978-1476776880. 352p.

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FOOD WHORE by Jessica Tom

October 29, 2015
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A Novel of Dining and Deceit

I do love me some foodie fiction so I was very excited to hear about this debut novel. Jessica Tom is a food blogger from Brooklyn, NY who blogs about dining in New York and also posts her own recipes. I poked around her site and found out the original title was “Bad Taste” which I have to say I much prefer. Food Whore will be a turnoff for some people and I wasn’t particularly enamored of it. But the publisher was, so there you go.

The book centers around Yale graduate Tia Monroe who has been accepted into a graduate food studies program at NYU. She moves to NYC as does her boyfriend, a botanist, who lands the job of his dreams. Tia has applied for an internship with her idol, Helen Lansky (think Ruth Reichl) and brings a gift of cookies for her. She is waylaid by Michael Saltz, the uber powerful NY Times restaurant critic, who tosses the cookies and keeps her from Helen.

Saltz is enamored of her palate and facility with language and offers her a deal she can’t refuse. His palate has gone awry; he has lost all sense of taste. He offers her an unlimited budget and access to a personal shopper at Bergdorfs, lunches and dinners at the best and hottest restaurants in NY in exchange for her writing his reviews (that he revises at will) and she is sucked in. He dangles the internship with Helen as she struggles to resolve the internship she’s been assigned at one of New York’s finest restaurants – in the coat room.

This tangled web eventually closes in on Tia, but not before she ruins several relationships along the way. The publisher is promoting this as “The Devil Wears Prada meets Kitchen Confidential,” which certainly got me to read it, but it is more about the evils of ambition then what really goes on…where? In a restaurant? At the New York Times? At the graduate school of New York University? Really none of those, so that was a bit disappointing. Nonetheless this was a good story, it drew me in even though I really didn’t like any of the characters. I know I was supposed to forgive Tia, even understand why she did what she did, but maybe I’m not the most forgiving person because I couldn’t.

10/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

FOOD WHORE by Jessica Tom. William Morrow Paperbacks (October 27, 2015).  ISBN 978-0062387004. 352p.

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A WINDOW OPENS by Elisabeth Egan

September 30, 2015
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If you love charming, quirky novels, you have come to the right place! This book is being compared with Where’d You Go, Bernadette and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, two of my favorites, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m happy to say it ranks right up there with them.

Alice Pearse is happily married with three young children. She is the part time books editor at the fictional woman’s magazine, You. She is an avid reader and a true book lover, which I could totally relate to.

Alice’s husband Nicholas is a lawyer who comes home one day and tells her he’s not making partner, had a hissy fit at work and is opening his own office. And by the way, would she mind getting a full time job until he gets his business going?

Alice finds what she thinks will be the perfect job as “arbiter of taste” for a new start up, a book/reading salon that sounds too good to be true – and of course it is. While she struggles to get with the technology and fit in with all the nerds at work, she also has to deal with her father, who suffers a serious setback in his fight against throat cancer.

Nicholas steps up to do more with the kids, the cooking and the housework. Babysitter Jessie puts in more hours but Alice’s best friend owns a traditional, small bookstore and considers Alice as having made a deal with the devil, straining their friendship.

Alice soldiers on as best as she can, and we can’t help rooting for her in this delightful debut novel. The techie nightmare she finds herself in is uncannily like the recent NY Times story about what it’s like to work at Amazon.com (while this book was written more than a year before that article appeared along with its subsequent publicity.) The characters are wonderfully drawn and we can’t help but care about them. It is a fast read and frankly, I couldn’t put it down. Book clubs will love it as much as I did.

9/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

A WINDOW OPENS by Elisabeth Egan. Simon & Schuster (August 25, 2015).  ISBN 978-1501105432. 384p.


THIS IS YOUR LIFE, HARRIET CHANCE! by Jonathan Evison

September 25, 2015
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This book was recommended to me by the same person who recommended one of my favorite books of 2014, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. I was told it was a charming, quirky book, which are hard to find and something really I love. Like Fikry. Or The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Or Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.

I didn’t love this one so much. It was quirky for sure, but really could have used a bit more charm, which I found lacking.

The story revolves around the eponymous Harriet Chance, a 79 year-old widow. Her husband has died but still visits her on occasion, to the displeasure of the angels and her children and pastor, who thinks she’s losing it. She finds out that her husband has won a cruise to Alaska and she takes it as a sign that she should go. She invites her best friend, who cancels at the last minute and eventually her estranged daughter shows up on board. And slowly,  Harriet finds out that much of her life and the people around her have been full of secrets and lies.

The book is a series of short chapters that jump around to various specific days in Harriet’s life showing her at different ages. The chapters do not move chronologically but are nonetheless easy to follow. Harriet is an odd duck at best, as are her husband, family and friends, which adds to the quirkiness of the story. But I just couldn’t get attached to her, and without that, the story just meanders pointlessly. It was a fast read, and I’m not sorry I read it but it was a bit of a letdown.

9/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

THIS IS YOUR LIFE, HARRIET CHANCE! by Jonathan Evison. Algonquin Books (September 8, 2015).  ISBN 978-1616202613. 304p.

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