How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

how-to-start-a-fireBook – Best friends and college roommates at UC Santa Cruz in the early 1990’s, Anna, Kate and Georgianna share adventures, life-stories and secrets. Anna is the ringleader, who makes up games for every party they attend. A risk-taker and at odds with her austere, wealthy family, her life begins to spiral out of control. Kate is reserved and follows Anna’s lead. She hides herself in obsessive research about various and random topics, including mushrooms, redwoods and planets. George loves nature and becomes a forest ranger. A beauty, she easily attracts the attention of men, but often settles for unsatisfying  relationships.

Twenty years after college, the women find themselves retracing the paths their lives have taken. The story alternates between their viewpoints and bounces back and forth from the past to the present. I slowly discovered that one evening in particular influenced the lives of all three. I liked getting to know these characters and how their interests, talents and personalities threaded through their friendship. Lisa Lutz also wrote the popular Spellman Files series.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

Book-  Despite living in a small Texas town collectively obsessed with football and the local Miss Clover City beauty pageant, Willowdean Dickson has managed to carve out a niche away from all that, looking to her deceased shut-in aunt Lucy for guidance. This is no mean feat, given that Will’s (or Dumplin’, as her mother calls her) mother is a former Miss Clover City winner and current pageant bigwig. However, the pageant draws Will into its orbit. First her best friend Ellen begins to hang out with pageant hopefuls, creating a distance between herself and Will where none existed before. Then Will enters a secret affair with the laconic Bo, an enigmatic-but-hot fast food coworker whom she’s crushed on for months.

Though Will is a bigger girl, she has up to this point in the story projected confidence. However, Bo’s keeping her a secret, and her niggling suspicion that her mother is ashamed of her, damages her confidence. In a wild bid to prove to herself to herself and to do what her aunt Lucy had always dreamed of doing, she, and a ragtag band of other unlikely candidates, enter the Miss Clover City beauty pageant. What follows is a campy high school coming-of-age experience reminiscent of Hairspray. Perhaps the best, most refreshing thing about Dumplin’ is that, unlike other stories in this vein and much like real life, the fat protagonist is allowed to remain fat; she doesn’t magically lose weight the moment she locates her self-confidence.

The All You Can Dream Buffet by Barbara O’Neal

Book – The All You Can Dream Buffet by Barbara O’Neal is a warm and cozy book that proves it is never too late for a do-over.  Complete with actual recipes throughout the story, this novel is a great feel-good read.

Lavender Brown is a popular food blogger and the dedicated owner of the serene Lavender Honey Farms.  She has dedicated everything she has to her life’s work, and she’s proud of all she’s accomplished.  At the same time, Lavender knows she isn’t getting any younger, and she’s concerned that her business will fall into the profit driven hands of her relatives.  Lavender decides to invite her three close food blogger friends to the farm, in hopes that one of them will be a perfect match.

Ginny has been made famous by her scrumptious recipes and photos as a food blogger.  But her success has turned everyone in town against her, especially her husband.  Stuck in a place with no friends and an unfulfilling marriage, Ginny sets off on a whirlwind adventure with endless hope and possibilities.

Ruby is struggling to come to turns with a miserable break-up with her ex-boyfriend.  Pregnant with his child, Ruby prays that this trip to Lavenders farm will be her saving grace.

Val has recently lost her husband and two daughters to a tragic accident.  She is struggling to hold on to her remaining daughter, and hopes that Lavender’s paradise can help bring them back together.

A cute story, stock full of friendship, drama, romance, and a hint of spice.

 

The Cure For Dreaming by Cat Winters

the-cure-for-dreaming-cat-wintersBook – Cat Winters weaves a tale to delight readers with her latest novel, The Cure For Dreaming.  Without even taking a peek into the pages of this book, the cover art alone sparked my curiosity immediately.  The dust jacket depicts a woman laying on her back, levitating above a chair, with spiraling rings overlaying the image.  Quite hypnotizing, you might say.  A perfect scene to preview the story that lies within.

The setting is Oregon; the time is 1900.  Olivia Mead is an independent and strong-willed young woman, fighting the patriarchy as a suffragist, much to her father’s dismay.  He would rather have a quiet, submissive daughter, someone to be seen and not heard.  But it seems Olivia’s rebellious streak will not be tamed…until hypnotist Henri Reverie comes to town and starts stirring things up.  Detecting an opportunity, Olivia’s father hires the young illusionist to prevent his daughter from speaking her mind, to suppress her fight for women’s rights.

Much to Olivia’s surprise, Henri has actually given her the ability to see people for what they truly are, yet without the ability to speak a word of her visions as she begins to see people manifested as good or evil.  Overwhelmed by the nightmarish sights around her, Olivia is more determined than ever to make her words known.

Cat Winters blends history with fantasy, entwining feminism and mystifying illusion to create a story that will charm readers of all ages.

 

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, and The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

Books – With the centennial of WWI upon us and that of the Russian Revolution soon to come, the last imperial family of Russia has been a popular subject recently.  Two important histories were published in 2014.

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport, a book for adult readers, is an intimate and personal family history that accomplishes the difficult task of making its royal subjects individual and relatable.  As the title suggests, its highlight is the degree to which it addresses with the four Romanov grand duchesses–Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia–as unique personalities, avoiding the tendency of onlookers (during their lifetimes and since) to lump them together into one unit.  The treatment of the family, its personalities and their actions, is neither sentimental nor condemnatory, providing a detached authorial perspective that allows readers to make up their own minds.

The Family RomanovThe Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, intended for teen audiences and up, distinguishes itself from The Romanov Sisters by the strength of its narrative thread and breadth of its scope.  Rather than limiting itself to the Romanovs, The Family Romanov features a series of “Beyond the Palace Gates” sections that describe broader events in Russia and the world.  Even for older readers who may have some familiarity with the history of the period, this context is a thoughtful addition that enriches the story.  Fleming is also adept at exploiting the inherent tension of her tragic subject to keep readers on edge and eager to continue.  That said, Fleming has much more of an authorial agenda than Rappaport.  Readers of The Family Romanov will emerge with a very clear sense of her opinions and point of view (not necessarily either a good or bad thing).

Both books are well-written, deeply researched and engaging; I would have no hesitation in recommending either one.  If I were forced to choose between them, however, my verdict would come down in favor of The Family Romanov, whether for adult, tween or teen readers.  It is more readable and memorable, and the added background into the lives of everyday Russians and famous historical figures outside the royal family adds an extra layer of depth.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

sharpBook – Gillian Flynn is becoming a household name, due to the success of the recent film adaptation of her suspense novel, Gone Girl.  But before Gone Girl took over the big screen, Gillian debuted her first novel, Sharp Objects.  

Sharp Objects is a phenomenally demented mystery.  It centers on reporter Camille Preaker, a woman still struggling with her past and a tormented inner self.  When an assignment sends Camille back to her childhood home to cover the murder of two young girls, she is forced to confront everything she tried to leave behind.  Back in her childhood home, things are not as they appear and Camille soon discovers that there is far more at stake than simply uncovering the truth behind the murders.

I strongly believe the power of Gillian Flynn’s writing comes from her leading ladies.  In each of her novels:  Gone Girl, Dark Places, and Sharp Objects, it is the strong female lead that first pulls you into her dark world.  There is something sinister about all of these women and the pasts that burden them.  In Sharp Objects specifically, it is the relationships between the women that I found most compelling, and again, sinister.

Dark and emotional, I couldn’t put this book down.  I discovered Gillian Flynn awhile ago, when I was going through an intense murder-mystery phase.  As a reader who generally favors fantasy and romance–more lighthearted tales–Sharp Objects was a gulp of fresh air into this wonderful genre, and I encourage booklovers of all genres to give it a shot.

Also, as a side note to all the Gillian Flynn fans, get psyched, because both Dark Places and Sharp Objects are scheduled to hit the screen!  The film adaptation of Dark Places recently finished shooting and is set to be release in August of 2015.  The cast looks wonderful, starring Charlize Theron; from first glance, it seems that this film will not disappoint.  Meanwhile, Sharp Objects will be produced as a television series by Entertainment One, though there is still limited information regarding the specifics of the project.  Just knowing that there are TWO more Gillian Flynn projects coming out…there’s a lot to be excited about!

 

 

 

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

miniBook – In 1686, eighteen-year-old country girl Nella arrives in Amsterdam to begin her life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. She doesn’t know him well and finds his household strange and unwelcoming. His sister, Marin, runs the household and seems to lead a pious, austere life. The servants, Otto and Cornelia, are friendly, but cautious. In addition, Johannes is often absent and when he’s home, he’s preoccupied. Then, Johannes presents Nella with an extravagant wedding gift, a miniature version of their house. Nella is confused and overwhelmed by the gift, but with little to occupy her time, decides to begin furnishing it. She hires a miniaturist through the mail, and when the contents start to arrive, she is both fascinated and terrified. The miniaturist seems to be able to not only replicate their household down to the last detail, but also seems to be able to predict the future. As events begin to unfold, Nella struggles to figure out what’s real and what is an illusion. What I found most interesting about this book was the historical detail. Events transpire to illuminate both the lifestyles and attitudes of Amsterdam during this time period. The characters were interesting and complex. This story was full of secrets and intrigues and kept me guessing until the end.

The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe

girlsBook – Lorrie Ann and Mia have been friends since they were young girls. Lorrie Ann seems perfect, the “good girl” from a bohemian and loving family. In contrast, Mia struggles to deal with her mother, who’s often drunk, haphazardly babysits her younger brothers and describes herself as having a “little black stone for a heart.” Despite their differences, the girls share everything and know everything about each other. Then, tragedy strikes Lorrie Ann’s family and events begin to spiral. As the story unfolds over the next fifteen years, Mia is forced to examine her beliefs about her friend, motherhood, families and about what it really means to be “good.” I found this debut novel to be thought-provoking and the characters were interesting. I reflected on the reliability of our memories and how the years and maturity can alter them. This book was realistic in that situations weren’t always resolved in the nicest or easiest way and different characters offered viewpoints, giving varying angles and “truths.”

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

big littleBook – Big Little Lies, by the author of the bestseller The Husband’s Secret, tells the story of the events leading up to a shocking death at an elementary school fundraiser. The tale revolves around a trio of women whose children are starting kindergarten at Pirriwee Public School in Australia. On orientation day we are introduced to Madeline, who is bold, humorous, and maternal. “Oh Calamity!” The husband who walked out on her and their newborn daughter years ago has moved to Pirriwee Penisula with a new wife, and their daughter will be attending kindergarten with Madeline’s youngest child. Then we meet Jane, a young single mother whose vulnerability stimulates Madeline’s protective instincts. Lastly Celeste is introduced. She is beautiful and wealthy but somehow disengaged from life.

The friendship of these three women is galvanized when a kindergarten incident fractures the school community. The story is infused with delightful humor about all the little absurdities of parental life and school society. In addition, the author is artful in her presentation of serious social issues such as domestic abuse. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Caroline Lee. Her lively Australian accent boosted the humor and helped me to visualize the characters and their life in an ocean-side locale. Big Little Lies is likely to be a movie as well, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon have picked up the screen rights.

The Matchmaker by Elin Hilderbrand

matchmakerBook – Dabney Kimball Beech is the enthusiastic Director of Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce. Married to a famous economist  and professor, she has built a full life promoting the island and making a home for her husband and daughter, Agnes. She also has a gift for matchmaking, as over forty couples can attest. She sees a mysterious pink haze for a loving match and a bilious green haze when trouble will follow. When Agnes falls for the rich and controlling CJ, she ignores her mother’s warnings against the match. Then, Dabney’s first love, Clendenin Hughes, arrives back on Nantucket after being gone for more than twenty years. Dabney is forced to confront feelings she thought were behind her, even as events around her begin to spiral out of control. This novel explores love, friendship and second chances. I enjoyed spending time with these characters. It’s a great book to bring to the beach. Hilderbrand has written several novels, including Beautiful Day and Silver Girl.