The Way Life Should Be by Christina Baker Kline
Christina Baker Kline is best known for Orphan Train, her bestselling historical novel. Her new book, A Piece of the World, received lots of publicity, but I overlooked this appealing contemporary novel, published in 2007, until another librarian recommended it to me. Angela Russo, 33, an event planner in New York City, loses her job and heads to Maine to visit Rich, a guy she’s met only once. There’s not much to do on Mount Desert Island in the fall (except Acadia National Park, which barely gets a mention), and Angela starts working with Flynn at the local coffee shop. She rents a tiny shack, adopts a dog, and starts baking muffins and scones for the coffee shop. Angela inherited the gift of cooking from her Italian nonna, and hosts a few Italian cooking classes. Rich clearly isn’t her soul mate, but she’s surprisingly content. Back home in New Jersey for Christmas to visit her ailing nonna and the rest of her family, Angela has to decide whether to follow her head or her heart. Recipes are included, and they sound delicious. This is a good readalike for The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, by Louise Miller, although Kline’s book is more cheerful.
Every year, November and December bring a new assortment of winter holiday stories. Most, but not all, are about Christmas, are usually short, and they are featured in a library display called “Heartwarming Holiday Stories.” If you’re looking for a pleasant holiday read, you’ll find plenty of books to browse. Here are short reviews of three new selections:
Christmas Caramel Murder by Joanne Fluke
In another delicious winter holiday mystery, cookie baker Hannah Swensen is looking back at the previous winter, telling a newcomer to Lake Eden a story about her business partner Lisa. Lisa is worried that her husband Herb is out late “working” every night, and is really upset when she doesn’t get to play Mrs. Claus to Herb’s Santa in a local Christmas show, and the very flirty Phyllis wears a rather revealing costume at the dress rehearsal. Shortly afterwards Hannah and Lisa find a body in a snowbank, near a bag of caramels that Lisa made. Hannah, an experienced amateur sleuth, works with detective Mike to find the killer. I didn’t try any of the dozen recipes included, but they sound delicious. A nice touch is that Hannah dreams of her father as the ghosts in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and the ghosts give her some helpful hints. Suzanne Torren is an excellent narrator for the audiobook version.
Amish holiday stories are very popular here, and this book features two novellas. In The Midwife’s Christmas Surprise by Marta Perry, young midwife Anna Zook is having trouble getting accepted in her Amish community as more than an assistant midwife. She is stunned when her friend’s son, Benjamin Miller, returns from three years in the “English” world. In A Christmas to Remember by Jo Ann Brown, storekeeper Amos Stoltzfus is led to an injured woman by a little girl who can only tell them their names. Linda has lost her memory and can’t remember where she was taking the little girl. Short and sweet holiday romances make for a quick read.
Twelve Days of Christmas by Debbie Macomber
Julia works at a large department store, volunteers at a Boys and Girls Club playing piano, and needs to develop a popular blog for a chance at a corporate social media job. Julia’s friend encourages her to write about her grumpy neighbor Cain, and do something kind for him every day during the Christmas season. Cain turns down chocolate chip cookies and a free drink at his favorite coffee shop, so the kindness campaign is not starting out well. Then Cain gets sick, Julia meets his grandfather, and her blog takes off. What will happen if Cain finds out that she’s writing about him? This is a fun, heartwarming story with a little romance, and I didn’t mind that it was a bit predictable. Brenda
After You by Jojo Moyes
Lou Clark, featured in the very popular novel Me Before You, is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. After some travel in Europe and a longer stay in Paris, she’s bought a flat in London but has barely furnished it, and is working at an Irish pub at an airport. Lou is still smart-mouthed and there are a few funny scenes, but her life is pretty blah. Then troubled teen Lily breezes into her life, and Lou has a bad accident. This leads her to reconnect with her parents, and finally start going to a support group. Then she meets a cute paramedic named Sam, who she confuses with his brother. I would definitely recommend reading the poignant Me Before You first. Not a lighthearted book, I’m glad I read this mix of humor, sadness, family life, and romance.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman
Elsa is a seven-year-old living in an apartment building in a Swedish city. Elsa is too smart to fit in, and her best friend is her eccentric grandmother, who makes up fairy tales. When her grandmother dies, Elsa is sent on a quest to find and deliver letters to the residents of her apartment building, including a huge dog. The story is bittersweet, with funny and very sad moments. I skimmed some of the short fairy tale sections, but overall found the book charming and hard to put down. The characters are quirky and memorable, especially Elsa’s divorced parents and a man called Wolfheart. Some reviewers have compared the author to Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman.
Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett
Amy Gallup is a published writer, but has had writer’s block for twenty years. Living with her basset hound Alphonse in a small house in southern California, she teaches writing. Some unsettling events with her last group of aspiring writers led Amy to teaching exclusively online. After an accident knocks her unconscious, she gives an interview to a local reporter, but can’t remember what she said. The newspaper account of the interview is hilarious, and helps jump start her career. Carla and other members of the writing class want her back, longtime agent Maxine keeps calling, and Amy starts writing stories. Getting her fifteen minutes of fame, Amy is booked for interviews and talks around the country, and comes out of her hermit’s shell. I loved that she insisted on taking her dog with her on tour, and that she doesn’t buy into the hype of marketing and branding one’s writing. The people in her new writing group are memorable, as are some people she meets on her travels, as well as the handful of people in Amy’s past that she recalls for the reader, especially her former husband Max. A book about writers and writing doesn’t sound compelling, but I found it alternately touching and very funny.
Many readers of the bestselling novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry have wanted to read more about Harold, Maureen, and Queenie. Finally, we have a companion novel told from Queenie’s point of view. Twenty years after she left the brewery, Queenie is living by the sea in a small bungalow with a unique sea garden, decorated with rocks, driftwood, flowers, and even seaweed. Illness forces her to move to St. Bernardine’s Hospice. Queenie is clearly very ill, as are the other residents, but they gradually bond and become a family, especially while they are waiting for Harold Fry to arrive. We learn about Queenie’s past, how she liked to dance, her sorrows and her big secrets. Queenie’s affection for Harold is not a big surprise, but her friendship with Harold’s son David is unexpected, as is the guilt she feels about keeping the friendship from Harold. The focus of this story is daily life at the hospice, which is surprisingly uplifting reading. Queenie’s story is definitely bittersweet, and may move the reader to tears. I suggest this for readers who would enjoy a character-driven novel that is reflective, at times emotionally intense, and always memorable. Other reviewers have said that this novel can be read on its own, but I would read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry first.
First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen
First Frost is a pleasant, mostly gentle read that may make you hungry. I didn’t realize at first that it’s a sequel to the author’s first book, Garden Spells, set ten years later in Bascom, North Carolina. Claire is living in the house she inherited from her Waverley grandmother, but now makes candy with edible flowers instead of catering. Her niece Bay enjoys helping out, but Claire is increasingly tense. The Waverley women all have minor magical talents. Elderly cousin Evanelle gives people unusual gifts they may need later, such as a spatula. Claire’s affinity is for flowers and cooking, while her sister Sydney is a wonderful hair stylist. But Claire’s young daughter seems quite ordinary. Bay knows where some people and things belong, making her a great organizer, but when she gives Josh a note telling him that he belongs in her life, he doesn’t know how to respond. When a stranger in town tries to convince Claire that she’s not really a Waverley, it takes the magic of first frost, when their apple tree blooms, to set things to rights. It’s nice to visit with the Waverleys again, and Bay is an appealing narrator, but I wanted more back story to remind me what happened in the first book. Actually, I’d really like a book set earlier than First Frost. Complaints aside, this was a very enjoyable book to read, and I will probably re-read Garden Spells.