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Archive for the ‘Women's fiction’ Category

This post illustrates the wonderful community of readers. This book was recommended to me by Cindy in a comment to my October post on Plague: A Very Short Introduction. I don’t know Cindy except through her comments, so thank you Cindy! I thoroughly enjoyed Year of Wonders. I checked it out on CD to listen on my commute, but had to scramble to find the book because I couldn’t wait over the weekend to find out what happened. It is the first book by Geraldine Brooks that I have read, so I will be looking for more of hers in the future.

The year is 1665 and Anna Frith is a widow, less than twenty years old with two young sons. She was married to a miner who was killed by a explosion in his mine.  She supports herself by working at the rectory and the local manor house as well as managing her garden, sheep and chickens. The rector recommends a lodger for her to take in and she jumps at the chance for extra cash. The young tailor who comes to stay is a wonderful man and a romance is brewing until he suddenly takes ill, develops an excruciatingly painful, apple-sized  buboe on his neck, and dies with “plague tokens” all over his body. The plague spreads, and decimates the village, while some people react with kindness and some lash out in fear. Even the kind people react in ignorance, because no one knows what causes the plague and how to fight it. With disease, death, love, loyalty, betrayal, romance, sex and history, Year of Wonders is a compelling read.

Geraldine Brooks says that Year of Wonders is based on a real village in Derbyshire, England called Eyam. When this “Plague Village” was struck with plague in 1665 it shut itself off from its neighbors. No one can now say with certainty how the plague arrived and how many died, but the sacrifice recorded in the scant facts still echoes down the years. In the Afterword to the book Geraldine Brooks says she was drawn back to Eyam and its history for years; “it was this story above all others that I longed to tell.”

This book is rich in well researched historical detail and will appeal to anyone interested in history, particularly of  the Middle Ages.  It is also wonderful women’s fiction as Anna is an incredibly strong woman who faces unbearable loss, but grabs life and lives it to the full. She is an imaginary character, but certainly one who feels real. Because of its basis in a disease, I also recommend this emotional read to people who are interested in medical non-fiction that examines the historical impact of infectious disease like  Plague: A Very Short Introduction and  The Ghost Map

Check the WRL catalog for Year of Wonders

Or place a reservation for the Gab Bag.

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Today’s review is from Nancy in Circulation Services:

“There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.”

Joshilyn Jackson grabs you with her opening line and has you chasing her words through a wonderfully funny, exciting, eye-opening, and suspenseful journey. Her frequent “Southernisms” will keep you in stitches no matter what part of the country you’re from, and for those of us born and bred below the Mason Dixon Line, you’ll catch yourself acknowledging your Southern Belle tendencies with an uncontrollable smiling nod.

Arlene Fleet has fled her home town of Possett, Alabama, for the big city of Chicago in hopes of escaping a tiny little mistake made in her sophomore year of high school… killing the senior star quarterback and dumping his body over a cliff. Her pact with God is that if he will let her get away with this small error in judgment by not letting the body be found, she will keep three promises: never tell a lie no matter the cost, stop fornicating with every boy that crosses her path, and never return to her hometown of Possett. Ten years later, fate steps in as her African American boyfriend declares “I want to meet your family or it’s over.” One by one her promises are challenged, leading her back to Possett and the array of special family and friends. This good-hearted group includes her Southern Baptist, Bible toting Aunt Florence, her slightly “touched” crazy mother, a family tree of happy racists, and her unconditionally loving best friend Cousin Clarice. With her past catching up with her, the future seems too scary to face. Arlene remembers and reveals the events of her life that tell the story of the murder but keep the reader guessing until the end as to what really happened that night.

The story covers tough issues such as sexual abuse, teenage promiscuity, and a bit of racism mixed with denial, and in the same light expresses the strong bond between best friends and family. It’s a story of self awareness, soul searching, and acceptance of differences that will make you sad, angry, and relieved, while allowing you to laugh out loud at the antics and expressions of the eclectic characters you will come to love.

The audiobook, read by Catherine Tabor, a Georgia native, captures the diction and accent of the Alabama southerner. gods in Alabama is truly brought to life!

I recommend this first work of Joshilyn Jackson as well as her next book, Between Georgia. Another great read or listen!

Check the WRL catalog for gods in Alabama.

Check the WRL catalog for gods in Alabama in audiobook format.

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Yesterday I blogged on Anne of Green Gables, today I am looking at the eighth book in the series, Rilla of Ingleside. It was published in 1921, thirteen years after Anne of Green Gables in 1908. Some people say that L. M. Montgomery only wrote sequels to Anne of Green Gables because a contract with her publisher required it, and consequently the rest of the books aren’t as good. Perhaps none of the other books have the spark of  Anne of Green Gables, but I think they have a charm of their own as they cover Anne’s growing and grown years, her marriage, the birth and childhood of her children. In this library they are all shelved in the children’s section, but I have certainly enjoyed them and gained much from them as an adult.

Rilla of Ingleside has the distinction of being one of the saddest fiction books I have ever read. It is set during World War I as Anne has become middle-aged and discovers a few grey hairs. Her children are grown or nearly grown with her youngest, Rilla, just turning fifteen. Because the Anne of Green Gables series was first written over a hundred years ago it is also historical fiction with an authenticity that modern books set in the past can only hope to match. The characters travel by horse and buggy because that is the only possibility. Marilla and Anne wash and dry the dishes by hand and then “scald” the dish-towels because there are no automatic washing machines lurking behind the scenes. Most importantly for Rilla of Ingleside, L. M. Montgomery lived through the exact events she described and probably based much of the book on diaries she kept at the time. These details give the book an immediacy that some historical fiction lacks.  The women characters are busy with knitting socks, running Red Cross drives and rationing, while the men disappear off to war one by one, sometimes forever.

When we are looking back on the history of almost one hundred years ago, there seems an inevitability to it. Of course the Germans didn’t win WWI. Of course the war ran from 1914 to 1918 and of course the Americans entered the war in 1917. When L. M. Montgomery was a young mother in 1914 there was nothing inevitable about it. She was terrified that the Germans would win (what this would have meant for Canada is uncertain). The characters of Rilla of Ingleside wait with anticipation and often dread for the newspaper to arrive. One of the events recounted with horror is the Battle of Verdun in 1916. I had heard of this battle but was vague about the details. I looked  it up online – a luxury Montgomery couldn’t imagine when they had to wait three or four days for printed news. I tried to put myself in their place and tried to imagine the unimaginable–that a battle was raging that caused almost 700,000 battlefield deaths. Such a thing had never happened before. The young men fighting and dying at Verdun were born in 1900 or earlier. Today in 2012 they would almost certainly be dead, but their suffering and early deaths still matter. Rilla and her family were also convinced that the war had to mean something important.

A minor character Mr. Meredith says of the war, “I think it is the price humanity must pay for some blessing–some advance great enough to be worth the price–which we may not live to see but which our children’s children will inherit. ”  Now we are up to the children’s children’s children’s children, but I am not sure if we can claim that humanity has gained a great blessing from the slaughter of World War I. Rilla’s brother, Walter, challenges that “We must make it impossible for such things to happen again while the world lasts.” This book was written before the slaughter of World War II, so sadly, I think that Walter would consider that we have not lived up to his challenge.

Check the WRL catalog for Rilla of Ingleside.

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I love my job and one great aspect is exposure to all sorts of literature and encouragement to read things I don’t normally read. Romance is a genre I haven’t tried since I read Sloppy Sloshers  (as my Grandmother called her Regency Romances from authors like Georgette Heyer) as a teenager. I selected The Shunning by the complex method of walking along the Books on CD shelf and looking on the spine for a little red heart indicating romance.

Katie Lapp is 22 years old, which is old to be unmarried in her small Amish community. She is soon to be married to widower Bishop John, who has five small children from his first wife. Things already sound challenging, but Katie looks forward to becoming stepmother to five sweet children. What makes things difficult is that Katie has always been a rebel by Amish standards. She likes to sing songs that aren’t in the official Hymn book and has even hidden a forbidden guitar that belonged to her first love Daniel, who drowned on his nineteenth birthday. A shocking event on her wedding days leads Katie to be shunned by the Amish Community. No one is allowed to communicate with her in any way or they risk being shunned as well. Some of the saddest scenes are when Katie sits down to eat her dinner in her family kitchen, but at a separate table. Even her sweet and previously loving mother won’t talk to her.

For the Amish the event of Shunning is meant to be so horrible that the shunned person will fall back into line and do what the community requests. Katie finds the experience miserable but will she confess and repent? A revealed family secret, plus a growing feeling that she might not belong with the Amish leads Katie to consider the huge and desperate step of leaving the community.

The mystery in The Shunning was a bit predictable since I guessed two important secrets early in the book. The story moves at a moderate pace, which gives plenty of time to really care about the characters and their fates. Every character is nuanced. Bishop John is physically attracted to Katie, which is slightly creepy given their difference in age, but he is shown as a kind man who loves his children and will be a kind and loyal husband. Even the children are fully drawn characters. Although I selected The Shunning by the Romance sticker, I felt that the romantic elements aren’t extremely significant. The Amish are portrayed sympathetically and presumably realistically as the author Beverly Lewis grew up near Amish communities in Pennsylvania. I found the closeness of the families appealing, but was shocked by the harshness of their shunning.

The book was made into a movie in 2011. Like many adaptations, it misses the subtlety and depth of the book, but it was great to see what the Amish houses and community looked like – not quite what I pictured.  It has two sequels, The Confession and The Reckoning  which are currently on my bedside table waiting to tell me what happens to Katie and her family.

I recommend The Shunning if you are in the mood for a slower read with a glimpse into a contemporary and nearby, but exotic lifestyle. Try reading it  on a hot day when you need cooling off, as most the action occurs in a chilly Pennsylvania winter.

Check the WRL catalog for The Shunning.

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I enjoy Susan Mallery’s books and was very happy when I saw she was starting a new  series.  Barefoot Season, a Blackberry Island novel, came out a few months ago.  This looks like a fluffy summer romance, but it isn’t.

Michelle Sanderson returns home to the Blackberry Island Inn to claim her inheritance and recover both physically and emotionally from the trauma of serving in a war zone.  But instead of peace, she finds unwanted physical changes to her childhood home.  Her recently deceased mother had made several unwise financial decisions while renovating the inn, and Michelle is facing foreclosure if she can’t catch up on the bills.  To top it off, her ex-best friend, Carly, is living in the owner’s suite and is firmly entrenched in running the business.

Despite Michelle wishing she didn’t need Carly’s help to run the Inn,  she comes to realize that Carly has good ideas about how to bring in new business.  And Carly realizes that working with Michelle isn’t as unpredictable as working for Michelle’s mother.  She learns to trust Michelle at her word.  As the women work to get the Inn back in the black, they also rebuild their own lives and start to rebuild the friendship they once shared.

Barefoot Season is less “romancey” than Mallery’s Fool’s Gold series.  There is a romantic element, but this novel is more about women’s friendships and healing wounds from the past. One of the things I particularly liked about this book is Michelle’s recovery from PTSD.  Michelle isn’t infallible, and it takes time for her to realize that she needs help.  That plotline added a particularly poignant depth to the story.

Check the WRL catalog for Barefoot Season

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A teenage girl shoplifts a too-tight, red, sleeveless turtleneck from Walmart. Immediately afterwards, the only adult in her life (who turns out not to be her mother or official stepmother) drops dead in the checkout line. This roller-coaster start sets the tone for this stirring tale of Lutie and her young brother, Fate, as they struggle to survive alone.

The plot bounds along as appalling events follow closely one after another. The children end up living on the streets of Las Vegas where they are prey to a parade of unsavory characters who seem to offer a helping hand but really want to exploit them. Teenage Lutie is often flawed, sometimes to the point of not being likable, but I realized that she has adult responsibilities without any help or guidance. Ultimately, she knows she loves her shy, bookish brother and wants to do what is best for him. A series of plot twists and turns ensue including Lutie’s forays into child prostitution and drugs. I found this very plausible and and also very disturbing.

Lutie and Fate’s desperate situation and downward spiraling luck drew me into their story, but I found it increasingly difficult to believe that they would ever extricate themselves from the mess their lives had become. Readers of Billie Letts’ other novels, such as the popular Where the Heart Is, know that she leans towards tearjerking but heartwarming endings, and Made in the U.S.A. follows that pattern. Who knows, maybe some of the exploitative strangers are genuinely kind? And maybe Lutie will find a practical use for her gymnastic talents?

This book is for you if you like a fast-paced, human interest novel with strong, quirky characters, that shows the dark side of life but ultimately has a joyous ending. I was glad that their story ended how life should proceed rather than what often happens to the many real Luties and Fates alone and lost on city streets.

Check the WRL catalog for Made in the U.S.A.

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It’s interesting to me how “women of a certain age” are becoming younger every year.  How does that happen?  And when the “middle-aged woman” of the title turns out to be your own age, you start to wonder…

Anyway.

The question Rose Lloyd faces is one that practically defines humanity: how does one start over in the face of loss? Over the course of her life, Rose has faced every kind of loss—the death of a beloved father and the imminent demise of her mother; the growing up and away of her own children; and a traumatic parting of the ways with the man she thought her soulmate. Now, the ultimate loss: her identity as a wife and a professional woman. Her husband leaves her for another woman, and the publisher of the newspaper where she edits the book section decides he wants a younger, fresher product to capture younger, fresher subscribers. Those betrayals are concocted by the same person, Minty, the young assistant she groomed and with whom she traded confidences.

And with the divorce settlement, she faces the loss of the house she has lovingly neglected, the garden she has painstakingly cultivated and the health insurance she’s relied on to care for her mother. In short, after every major prop in her life is stripped away she continues to lose the smaller ones that enabled her to build a comfortable life. Rightfully, she wonders if something else she has taken for granted will disappear and leave her completely vulnerable.

Another woman (or another author) might plot some delicious strike that would discredit Rose’s husband, humiliate his young lover, publicly expose the newspaper as a fraud teetering on financial ruin. Rose doesn’t even consider this. Instead, she begins rebuilding in the small ways that demonstrate the core strength of her character. As she reflects on and remembers her life, the reader comes to understand that only through her pain and previous losses has she developed the strength to start over.

There are no simple solutions in this story. Rose rightfully accepts that she contributed to the plateau her marital relationship had reached. Their easy partnership belied the growth her husband felt she was missing in him, but the price of that growth is painful to see in him. Minty (and what a perfect name for a seemingly callow young woman) is not a two-dimensional homewrecker. Rose watches as her children make their own relationship mistakes, but will neither rescue them nor chastise them; they have to grow up on their own. And the steps Rose begins to take offer no guarantees, but the sensation of being forced out of a role she had taken for granted offers its own kind of happiness.

Elizabeth Buchan has perfectly captured each of the characters, making them individuals whose joys and conflicts play out in the story. A couple of subplots also place Rose and her family in a three-dimensional world where actions have consequences that ripple in unexpected ways.  Those qualities may be fleshed out in the sequel to Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, Wives Behaving Badly, so readers interested in post-chick lit might want to check that out as well.

Check the WRL catalogue for Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman

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“‘They enter at this table as children and they leave from it as grandmas,’ Aunt Paula said with a wink. ‘The circle of factory life.'”

This is the world Kimberly Chang finds herself in when she and her mother emigrate from China to America, and so begins her new life as a sweatshop worker in New York. But Kim is a smart girl, and she has no intention of either her or her mother leaving the sweatshop as a grandma. Instead Kim starts to live two lives, beginning her journey out of the sweatshop.

Acting as her own personal superhero, by day Kim works and studies hard, getting herself into a prestigious private school on scholarship. By night she slaves away in the sweatshop, snipping ends and bagging clothes at 1.5 cents per item. (By the way, that’s 200 items for a $3 cup of coffee!) She goes home to an apartment with no heat, broken windows, and rats and roaches. Night after night and day after day, Kim does this to break free of the abject poverty in which she and her mother live. Not easily deterred and refusing to be trapped, Kim sets aside her own desires to put the needs of her family first, having faith that the reward will be worth it in the end.

This is an amazing story of what one can do with talent, drive, ambition, and sheer determination. It is also the story of the sacrifices an immigrant child may make in order to live and survive in two very different worlds.

Check the WRL catalog for Girl in Translation.

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This historical novel, with a supernatural twist, is set in China in the late 1600s, during thirty years of violent transition between the Ming and Qing dynasties. In the social disorder, See writes, women left their homes, traveled, wrote about what they saw. Thousands of women became published poets and writers. The three women whose lives are embellished in this novel published The Three Wives’ Commentary, the first piece of literary criticism by women ever to be published.

Is this why I enjoyed the book? No. I liked it because it was about ghosts.

Chen Tong (Peony) falls in irrevocable, life-changing love with a man that she meets twice, for about ten minutes. OK, she is 15. Then her father arranges a marriage for her, and because she is 15, it never occurs to her for a single moment that he might have arranged her marriage to the guy she’s in love with. She starves herself in protest, and by the time she figures out her error, it’s too late. No wedding and a funeral.

Improper attention to her burial rites consigns Peony to a precarious existence as a hungry ghost.  Meanwhile, in the world of the living, her former fiance marries her rival, a spoiled young woman whom Peony begins to persecute and even possess—using her to continue her own writings, a commentary on love—and opera—that she started during her brief life. Yes, she’s a ghost writer. Literally!

There’s something psychologically very satisfying about these interactions between the living and the ghosts, families literally haunted by their ancestors, second and third wives persecuted by the legacies of the first. I loved the details about the afterlife. Death, it turns out, is a lot like life, and it requires a lot of stuff. Peony’s family burn clothing at the grave to keep her warm, food offerings to keep her strong, spirit money to use as bribes. You still have to fill out forms to get permission to do things: “With men there’s always a bureaucracy,” Peony’s deceased grandmother explains.

In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced readers to nu shu, the secret characters that women in China once used to write to one another. Peony in Love has the same powerful themes of women’s strength and independence and of finding a voice through writing. Plus idealized romantic love, tragic deaths, and revenge—now that’s opera!

Check the WRL catalog for Peony in Love.

WRL also owns the audiobook.

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Here’s another story where many characters come together and influence each other’s lives in unexpected ways.

The Beach House takes place on Nantucket in the summer.  The house in the title is owned by eccentric Nan Powell, a 65-year-old widow and longtime resident of the village.  She finds out the money she had counted on has run out. In order to save the family home, she decides to accept boarders.

Enter Daniel, Daff, and Nan’s son Michael.  Daniel and Daff are recently separated from their spouses.  Michael is trying to get out of a relationship.  All of them come to Nantucket for escape.

This fast-paced, engaging novel tells the backstory of each character and shows how Nan, meddling slightly in their lives, is able to provide the perfect environment for happiness and rediscovery.

This is a terrific summer read—not only for the vacation setting on Nantucket, but for the multiple storylines. There’s so much to discover about each of the characters, the book will keep your interest throughout a day at the beach.  And even though some of the plotlines are serious, Green resolves the dilemmas in a satisfying and uplifting way.

Check the WRL catalog for The Beach House.

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My colleague Connie from Outreach Services kicks off the week with this review:

The Sweet By and By explores the relationships between five very different Southern women and the lasting effect they have on each other.

Lorraine is raising her daughter, April, while working as a practical nurse in a North Carolina health care center. She is especially close to Margaret, a woman who is trying to cope with all the attendant aspects of aging, and Bernice, a woman who is living in her own world.  Enter Rhonda, a young hairdresser who gets to know these women as she earns extra money on weekends working at Ridgecrest Nursing Center.

We learn a little about each of their lives, and a lot about how we live and die… and the impact we can have on one another. I listened to the audio version of this book and enjoyed hearing each woman speak in her own dialect. I slowly got into the characters, and by the end, I wanted to keep them around to enjoy a little longer. I think you will, too.

Book clubs will find it reminiscent of other selections like The Help, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, The Friday Night Knitting Club, or The Persian Pickle Club.

Check the WRL catalog for The Sweet By and By.

Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of The Sweet By and By.

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Here is one of the few works of fiction that I have read recently and thoroughly enjoyed.  I finished the book in less than a week, which is an accomplishment for someone who has several books sitting on a side table half read.  I get bored easily.  What drew me to this work was the title.  I have re-read Little Women multiple times since middle school, and was three quarters of the way through again, when I found this little gem.  Those who have read Little Women will find that The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott feels very familiar.  Both books are based on Louisa’s life experiences.  McNees conducted thorough research of Alcott’s life and studied texts about nineteenth-century New England living to create this realistic and believable work of historical fiction.

Louisa was the second of four daughters born to Bronson and Abba Alcott.  Bronson was a philosopher and friend of the well known Transcendentalist figures Emerson and Thoreau.  He spent much of his time reading and contemplating, rather than working to support his family.  The five women of the household became very resourceful—working and relying on handouts to survive.  During the summer of 1855, when Louisa was 22, the Alcott family moved into a relative’s home in Walpole, New Hampshire, because of their financial difficulties.

McNees notes that very little is known about the events of the family’s summer in Walpole, so she chose that period to create a secret love affair between Louisa and a fictitious male character.  This romance tests Alcott’s desire and determination to become a writer.  In real life, Louisa had no known lovers.  However, it is believed that after she became famous she may have burned many of her letters in order to protect her privacy.  It is plausible that if Louisa was involved with someone she would have destroyed any traces of it.

For those readers who enjoy the fairy tale ending, like myself, you will be disappointed.  Obviously, Louisa doesn’t end up with the love of her life.  On the other hand though, some might say that Louisa’s life as a famous writer was the real happily ever after.

Check the WRL catalog for The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

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Nan feels as if she is drowning in the routine of her life.  As she sits across the table from her husband, Martin, she feels a howl rise up in her.  She tries to tell her husband what she is feeling, but there are no words.  So she leaves him a note, hops in her car, and begins driving.

I read reviews of The Pull of the Moon for my book group discussion and I loved the way Publishers Weekly referred to the format of the book. The reviewer wrote, “She chronicles both the geographical terrain and her inner landscape in further letters to Martin and to her grown daughter, Ruthie, and in a journal that has the tone of an adolescent’s diary.”  Isn’t that a much more eloquent way to write that Nan wrote about where she was and how she was feeling?

Nan’s adventures are very ordinary: eating at a diner, meeting someone from a trailer park, getting her hair cut, stopping by a mall, and talking to a woman at an old farmhouse.  She does it all by herself and in the process is able to examine how she “lost” herself to the expectations of being a wife and mother.  She writes about how her own needs were diminished in the face of the needs of others.  And she observes how many women are facing that same problem.

The book provided lots of jumping off points for discussion in my book group.  Several of the women said they didn’t think they would have the courage to leave all that was familiar and travel alone without a destination in mind.  And we had quite a lot of speculation about how Martin reacts to his wife’s disappearance, and what happens when she returns home.

I didn’t close the book thinking that Nan regretted her choices in life; she was just ready to change its direction.  It was inspiring to read about Nan’s courage and self-reflection.

I discovered after our book group met that Berg included “Martin’s Letter to Nan” in her short story collection, Ordinary Life.  Check this out as well for another perspective on Nan’s journey.

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The first time I heard about anorexia was in the early 1980s when Karen Carpenter died at 108 pounds. A co-worker of mine who was then in her late forties told me she’d gone to college with a girl who consumed only lettuce and coffee because she didn’t want to gain weight. The girl was finally admitted to a hospital, but it was too late; she died. My co-worker said that the girl, like others with anorexia, was frightfully skinny but was convinced she was overweight.

Lesley Fairfield, an artist and children’s book illustrator, battled anorexia and bulimia for thirty years. With powerful black, grey and white drawings, she has created a hard-hitting graphic novel based on her experiences.

Anna is a normal young girl who wants to be a writer. When she hits adolescence, though, she starts to see herself differently.  When she looks in a mirror, her reflection is much chubbier than she really is. She meets a boy named Tim. They have a few dates, but Anna is convinced that if she gains any weight, he won’t like her. Tim eventually notices that she has a problem with her body image and tries to help, but Anna is in denial. She can’t concentrate on classes, and drops out of high school. After trying to help and not getting through to Anna, Tim breaks up with her. This pushes Anna into depression.

She moves out of her parents’ home and gets a job waitressing with other skinny waitresses, all of whom seem to have issues with eating. Walking alone one day, she “meets” an entity in the loose shape of a woman called Tyranny, really another part of herself, who bullies her into seeing herself as too fat when she’s really too thin. Anna’s whole life revolves around food, thinking about it and not eating it, or sometimes going through binges followed by purging. Tyranny is always there, making her feel miserable and distorting her perception.

One day, Anna’s mother comes to visit and immediately sees that Anna needs help. She gets Anna checked into a hospital, and with the help of doctors and of other patients in similar situations, Anna is able to see that she really does have a problem.

Powerful and realistic, this short book is recommended to anyone who wants to understand eating disorders and body image problems. It’s shelved in the Young Adult graphic novel section, but adults are sure to get a lot out of it, too.

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helpIt’s the early 1960s and 22-year-old Skeeter returns home after graduating from Ole Miss.  She doesn’t have any prospects for a job, which makes her unhappy – and she doesn’t have any prospects for a husband, which makes her mother unhappy.  In between Junior League meetings and visiting with her married friends, Skeeter wonders what to do with her life.  She sends a letter to an editor in New York who tells her to write about something she knows – and Skeeter makes a bold decision to talk to the black maids in the community to tell their side of working for the white families.

Her first ally is Aibileen, the maid of one of her best friends.  Aibileen’s son was recently killed in a mill accident.  Something inside her died with him, and she’s less cautious than she used to be about giving her opinion.  She loves the little girl she looks after, but she knows that there’s a limited amount of time before that little girl will look at her, see her dark skin, and believe the stories that white folks are better than black.

Aibileen’s best friend, Minny, is one of the best cooks in the county.  But Minnie did something “Terrible Awful” and has been fired from her job.  The only person she can get to hire her is the wife of Mister Johnny.  But because of who she married, Miss Celia is outside the close-knit circle of Junior Leaguers despite all her attempts to be accepted.

The author uses Skeeter’s book about the black maids’ experiences as the vehicle to tell the stories of the women in Jackson, Mississippi on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement.   Some moments are laugh out loud funny, others gut-wrenchingly awful and sad – but what makes it linger is the feeling that any of these stories could be the stories of real people during a difficult time in our history.

Several bookgroups, including mine, have selected this book.  It is good fodder for an interesting discussion on relationships between women and between races.  My group was sorry to see it the book end, we wanted to continue to read about what was happening in the lives of these remarkable characters we came to care about.

Check the WRL catalog for The Help

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actorHale’s latest novel, The Actor and the Housewife, is a fun romp that explores the age-old question: Can women and men be friends – and if so, can they be best friends – without wrecking their marriage?

Through a series of charming coincidences, stay-at-home mom  Becky Jack, meets her favorite actor, Felix Callahan, while in Los Angeles pitching a screenplay she wrote.  At first she’s in awe of the handsome man (though he couldn’t tell because she was busy insulting him).  But after she gets her wits together, she enjoys bantering with him over dinner.  In fact, she hasn’t recalled having that sort of easy back-and-forth silliness with anyone since her high school days with her best friend, Augie, and she can’t wait to tell her husband all about the encounter.

Imagine her surprise when Felix calls a few days later to see how she’s doing. There’s an awkwardness because Felix doesn’t fit into her “mother of four” lifestyle in Utah – and she definitely doesn’t fit in with the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” in LA.  But they enjoy each other’s company and an unlikely friendship grows.

Becky’s “regular” life, including her husband’s jealousy over this friendship, get in the way of keeping in touch.  But Felix and Becky manage to quickly reconnect regardless of how long it had been since they last spoke.  And when the unthinkable happens to her marriage, Felix is there to pursue whether there’s something more than friendship waiting for the two of them.

The book was entertaining, and yet surprisingly thought-provoking.  On the surface it’s a terrific light read, wouldn’t it be fun to be best friends with the star you admire on the silver screen?  But underneath that plot are questions about friendship, marriage, faith, family… not enough to drag the story down, but enough that I kept thinking about the book long after I put it down.

Check the WRL catalog for The Actor and the Housewife.

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sweethushHush McGillen Thackery is a mother, a woman, a lover, a widow, a farmer, a liar, a fighter, and a pillar of her community. While individually all these words give a sense of the character she is, it is the combination of these roles that ultimately make her a force to be reckoned with. In Sweet Hush, the reckoning comes when her soon-to-be Harvard graduate son Davis drops out of school and comes home with a new wife who just happens to be pregnant. Did I mention that Hush’s new daughter-in-law, Edwina Jacobs, has dropped out of Harvard too and just happens to be the daughter of the President of the United States? Needless to say, the problems that follow are great as the in-laws feud, secrets are unburied, the paparazzi descend, and Hush begins to fall in love with the man sent to uncover her past and retrieve Edwina.

Readers will be drawn to this story for Smith’s rich and varied characters as Hush and the First Lady battle for their children’s love, affection, and loyalty while trying vainly to keep their battle out of the spotlight of the media. Set against the backdrop of the North Georgia mountains, the story gives a different view of southern living as Smith brings to life the small town workings in the hills and valleys of the mountains.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the North Georgia mountains to appreciate the orchards, wineries, and wellspring of history. Though I’ve not made it back, every time I open a Deborah Smith book I am transported back to that place and can settle myself in for a night of really good reading.

Check the WRL catalog for Sweet Hush

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wiggsThe cover of Susan Wiggs’ book screamed “beach read” to me so I had to grab it when the weather started warming. But Just Breathe is more of a “woman at a turning point in her life” story than what I would call a light beach read – but it is very satisfying and I’m glad I picked it up.

Sarah Moon is a cartoonist living in Chicago with her husband, Jack. Her comic strip (called “Just Breathe”) reflects her own life – including the fertilization treatments she’s going through so they can have a baby. When Sarah makes an unexpected stop at her husband’s latest work site, she finds her husband in the arms of another woman. As Sarah struggles to understand what happened to their marriage, she realizes she hasn’t been happy in a long time. She decides to go back home to the small town she grew up in.

While finding a lawyer, finding a place to live, finding friends – and finding out that last fertility treatment worked (twins!) – Sarah realizes that the place she was so desperate to leave wasn’t so bad after all. And it doesn’t hurt that Will Bonner, the All-American high school jock she used to make fun of, is attracted to her.

Sarah and Will’s relationship is complicated by her pregnancy, his teenage daughter, and an arson investigation. But even though it’s messy, they both end up willing to take a chance on love.

Check the WRL catalog for Just Breathe

If you like Just Breathe, you might also try Cathy Lamb’s The Last Time I Was Me, Deborah Smith’s The Crossroads Café, or Barbara Samuel’s Lady Luck’s Map of Vegas.

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