What I am Reading – Reconstructing Amelia

“I still maintain that the times get precisely the literature that they deserve, and that if the writing of this period is gloomy the gloom is not so much inherent in the literature as in the times.” ― Bill Styron

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight is a difficult book to read and may leave you feeling very sad. So now I have warned you. I think it is an important book because it is a cautionary tale for the times in which we are living.

This is the story of a single mother (Kate Baron) and her daughter (Amelia). Kate is a rising star at a New York City law firm and Amelia is an honor student with a bright future attending a prestigious private school in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She is headed to a selective summer program at Princeton. Both do their best to excel. Kate strives to make sure her daughter’s future is secure only to tragically lose touch with her in the present.

The story is told from the alternating points of view of mother and daughter. Kimberly McCreight very effectively uses social media in the form of text messaging, Facebook, blogging and online videos to move the plot forward. In doing so, she drives home the terrifying fact that in today’s world of cyber bullying there is no place children are safe. You many never look at a gaggle of teenage girls madly texting away on their cell phones in the same way again.

Reconstructing Amelia impresses me as a writer because I found the voice of Amelia to be so true. McCreight takes you into her world: the parties, the boys, the academic competition and the girls. Any reader who is, or once was, a girl, can immediately relate to Amelia’s desire to be accepted. The inherent cruelty of girls in a group is instantly and painfully recognizable as is the reality that even the nicest girl can be mean or do something very stupid in the effort to belong.

Kate learns, as so many of us do, mistakes we make in our past have a way of following us through life. In the real world, there are no “do overs”.

Some of the plot twists ask a lot of the reader, but I believe the characters of Amelia and Kate more than compensate for that. McCreight keeps you hanging on their fates throughout the book. Kate Baron does things that at times make me want to shake her; I also understand why she does them. She loves her daughter and misguided though she may be, that remains apparent to the reader, if not always to Amelia.

Amelia Baron has lingered in my mind long after I finished this book. As a reader, there is no higher compliment I can pay to a writer.

I hope you find the book worth reading.

Picture of Reconstructing Amelia



What I am Reading – The Lawgiver


“I felt there’s a wealth in Jewish tradition, a great inheritance. I’d be a jerk not take advantage of it.” Herman Wouk

I should begin this review with a confession. I don’t like novels set in the Old Testament. I’m not completely sure why but I suspect it’s based on having been a Catholic schoolgirl in the days when the Bible was definitely off limits as literature.

When I learned that Herman Wouk had a new book coming out last year, I was intrigued because The Winds of War and War and Remembrance are two of my favorite novels. I was disappointed when I learned The Lawgiver was about Moses. I planned on giving it a pass. Then, I happened to hear Mr. Wouk interviewed on NPR by Scott Simon.

Remember, Herman Wouk will be ninety-eight years old in May.  It crossed my mind on learning he had a new book that it might have been written by someone else. The NPR interview dispelled that theory pretty quickly. Listening to Wouk from the perspective of an aging “new” writer, he was an inspiration. Wouk made me feel that I had all the time in the world to become a successful writer. I decided, subject matter aside, I would read The Lawgiver.

The Lawgiver is an entertaining story about a group of Hollywood types: director, producer, movie stars, and scriptwriter coming together to make a movie about Moses. The heroine, Margolit Solovei, is assigned the task of writing the movie script under the watchful eyes of Herman Wouk. In this role, he goes to some lengths to point out that the Moses movie has already been done.  Wouk casts himself in the role of a non-fictional character  in The Lawgiver in the same way he did so effectively with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and others in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

The Lawgiver unfolds almost entirely using letters, emails, memos and Skype transcripts flying back and forth between the characters. While the format severely limits exposition, the reader comes away with a wonderfully complete picture of both the characters and the plot. This has been done before with success. What makes this effort so stunning is that a nonagenarian is employing this device. Herman Wouk is the author of seventeen prior novels demonstrating he is a master of prose. I couldn’t help feeling he was really enjoying himself proving “the old guy” was still capable of learning some new tricks.

Herman Wouk was married for sixty-six years to Betty Sarah Wouk who served as his agent and first reader. She died suddenly in 2011 during the writing of The Lawgiver. She is also a non-fictional character in the story. If for no other reason, Wouk’s depiction of her makes this book worth reading. The Lawgiver is not my typical book, but the power of the writer’s personality compelled me to read it. I was not disappointed.

Image of IPad displaying The Lawgiver

Herman Wouk’s latest 


What I am Reading – Mrs Queen Takes the Train

It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards, says the White Queen.” Lewis Carroll

December is the month for fun reads so I’m happy to recommend Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn.

This is a book about The Queen. Yes, the one who comes immediately to mind when the word queen is mentioned:  Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

The author, William Kuhn, is a biographer and a historian. Mrs Queen Takes the Train is his first novel.

He begins with a deceptively simple idea. What if The Queen decided one day to take the train, like any other passenger? Mrs Queen Takes the Train describes exactly what happens when she does. The story begins with Her Majesty waging war with her computer, ultimately resorting in a fit of temper, as we all have at one time or another, to shutting down and rebooting. She finds herself becoming sad  and decides to ward this feeling off by  thinking of happier times including voyages spent on the now retired royal yacht, Britannia.

How presumptuous of the writer to climb into the head of the sitting monarch, but what fun he has with it. He provides a window into her thoughts on a variety of topics including her late daughter-in-law, wayward children, and demanding spouse with such skill that you almost believe that you really do know what she is thinking.

This is a queen who does yoga and sneaks expensive cheese to her beloved horse whose name is also Elizabeth. When she decides on the spur of the moment to pop up to Edinburgh in the company of the clerk from the cheese shop to visit the Britannia, a quietly desperate chase by five of her loyal attendants ensues. The results are both poignant and hilarious.

The portrait that emerges of this eighty-six year-old lady in a Hermes headscarf is so very appealing that you will find yourself wanting this to be The Queen. Regardless of how you feel about the Royals, you can’t help but like her, as she makes her way through her kingdom meeting some of her less fortunate subjects.

This book would be a wonderful stocking stuffer for anyone on your list who is a Royal Watcher. You might enjoy it, too. I know that I did.

Picture of Mrs Queen Takes the Train

The Queen viewed in a different light.




What I am reading – So Far Away

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.”  – Havelock Ellis

Meg Mitchell Moore tells a story within a story in her novel So Far Away, seamlessly integrating the past with the present. This is a book about women. The men are consigned to play supportive roles. The writer effectively captures the voice of each generation even though these voices span more than a hundred years and cross social classes.

A story of mothers and daughters, one who has lost her child and one who is losing hers. This book will ring true with any mother, but especially single mothers, who have raised a teenage daughter alone.

Kathleen Lynch, the main character, is an archivist working at the Massachusetts Archives in Boston when Natalie Gallagher, a lonely teenager from Newburyport, walks into the Archives looking for information for a school project. Kathleen lives a small life that is centered around her job, and her aging dog. She is not getting any younger herself and is haunted by the loss of her daughter, Susannah. A loss she feels is somehow her fault. In her mind, she is constantly trying to figure out what she should have done differently.

The character of Natalie brings to the reader a chilling insight into the devastating impact of cyberbullying. I felt myself overwhelmed by the desire to do something to help this girl but at a loss as to what I, or Kathleen Lynch, could do.

Sprinkled throughout the book is the story of a “bridget” the name by which all female Irish servants were called. The character’s name is actually Bridget O’Connell. A fact her employer finds vastly amusing. Bridget’s story captures the immigrant struggle and accurately depicts the hardships of the life of an Irish serving girl in Boston, as well as both the good and bad characteristics of human behavior that never seem to change.

Apart from the excellence of Moore’s writing, there are personal reasons that So Far Away caught my eye. The main character and I share a first name, I was once the single mother of a teenage daughter, and my grandmother, Catherine O’Connor, was a “bridget” in a large house in Boston.

So Far Away is a nuanced book. Look a little deeper when you read it. I thought the actions of the minor character, Elsie, were especially interesting.  A great book, I strongly recommend it.


Another great cover...


What I am reading – Seating Arrangements

Happiness will never come to those who fail to appreciate what they already have.” –Source Unknown

Weddings and funerals never fail to bring out the best and the worst in people. Maggie Shipstead’s delightful novel, Seating Arrangements, is no exception. Written from the point of view of the bride’s father, Winn Van Meter, the novel is about a WASP wedding set on an island, Waskeke, off the New England coast. Done before? Certainly, but Seating Arrangements brings its own twists and turns to a story that has been used so often it is a cliché. I promise you that Shipstead’s plot will keep you from being bored.

The bride, Daphne, is gloriously and unrepentantly pregnant – about seven months – which requires last minute alterations to the wedding dress. It is not, however, Daphne’s pregnancy that causes the angst in the novel, but the much-discussed abortion of her younger sister, Liva. See what I mean?

There are lots of elements of satire here, at times veering close to slapstick. The names alone take you to a place where I have never lived: Biddy, Oatsie, Piper, Greyson and Mopsy. Really. Naturally, everyone went Ivy, predominantly Harvard and Princeton. And of course, there is the drunk but very witty aunt of the bride, Celeste, to keep things from getting too stuffy. Throughout the book, Winn’s main preoccupation is being accepted as a member in the Pequod, the private golf club on the island. A prize that, despite his obviously stellar  (at least to him!) credentials, has so far eluded him.

It would be easy at first glance to dismiss this book as so much fluff, especially if you consider things like the exploding whale, but I urge you not to. The book’s appeal lies in the search for happiness that can be seen in all the main characters. A search that strikes a cord, even if you have never known anyone who actually wears red pants embroidered with white whales. Maggie Shipstead, as every writer should, shows you which of her characters are able to adjust in ways that allow them to seize happiness when they see it and those who can’t. No matter where you come from, this should feel familiar to you.

Who doesn't love a wedding?

(I apologize for the lateness of this post. As they would say on Waskeke, I was “indisposed” for a few days.)




What I am Reading – Wife 22

A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” — John Steinbeck

Facebook has become one of the most polarizing forces of our time. People are convinced that society is either being completely connected, or destroyed by the use of social media. No doubt advanced degrees are being earned from dissertations built around it as I type this. I have found almost no one who is either neutral or unaware of it.

Alice Buckle, the heroine of Melanie Gideon’s novel, Wife 22, is lonely. Alice feels that she is becoming invisible. She worries that her marriage to William, an advertising executive, is growing stale. Their sex life certainly has. She begins to realize that most of their communication is now taking place on Facebook through comments, likes, and chat.

Shortly after Alice conducts a Google search on “Happy Marriage”, a request turns up in her email from the Netherfield Center asking her to participate in an anonymous survey examining the state of marriage in the 21st century. Alice is in, and Wife 22 is born.

The novel is based around what Alice, as Wife 22, reveals to Researcher 101. Their relationship moves from email to Facebook where each sets up a page using the names of fictional literary characters to meet up and chat.

I don’t enjoy books consisting of strings of email messages. However, I found Wife 22 to be an engaging novel containing enough actual prose between the email messages and Facebook postings to keep me reading.

Gideon’s characters are good. It would be hard not to like William, who is fighting his own midlife demons. Nedra, Alice’s best friend, provides the voice of reason as she pulls Alice’s head down from the clouds where it usually floats.

This is a light-hearted book but if you take a second look, it does ask deeper and somewhat disturbing questions. Are we becoming disconnected? Is communicating with the people we love who live in the same house or city with us through social media a good thing? As a writer, I admire Melanie Gideon’s clever use of the tools of social media to create both a good story and to prod the reader to ask those questions.

Last night I went to out to dinner with my husband. We did not have our phones with us. At the table next to us two young women were sitting across from each other, busily texting. I wondered if it was to each other. Either way, they were not talking.

Read Wife 22. If you are on Facebook, you will enjoy it. If you are not, it will give you more ammunition.

Get off Facebook and read it.



What I am Reading – Abdication

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” – William Shakespeare

The strength of historian Juliet Nicolson’s novel, Abdication, lies not in the plot but in the sense of  the very specific time and place it brings to the reader.

The story opens with the death of King George V and the passing of the throne of England to his son Edward VIII known to his friends as David. Like most historical fiction, Abdication, is a story layered within a story, written in a way that the fictional characters merge seamlessly with those who were actual people.

Nicolson introduces us to the fictional Evangeline Nettlefold, Wallis Simpson’s childhood friend from Baltimore. Evangeline, an overweight spinster who has come to England to stay with her godmother, Lady Joan Blunt, serves as a foil for the new King’s married mistress. Wallis Simpson is portrayed true to history as brittle and scheming as she plots to find a way to land the most sought after man in England. This friendship, initially cast in a positive light, sours in a way that does not flatter either of the two women.

Nicolson uses the fictional characters, May Thomas, Sir Philip Blunt’s driver and the idealistic Oxford student, Julian Richardson, to flesh out the portrait of an England ripe for change in the years just prior to the Second World War.

Abdication skillfully weaves British Nazi sympathizer, Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, and the growing fear of the Nazis into the story providing insight into why the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as David and Wallis would later be known, would long remain controversial figures on the world’s stage.

Seventy-six year have passed since Edward renounced his throne in order to marry the American divorcee from Baltimore. Having lived through the saga of Charles and Diana, it is difficult for us to imagine what the flap was about.  Abdication provides a window into the morals and temper of the time in which their story unfolds.

As a young teenager, I read A King’s Story, the memoirs of the Duke of Windsor. (I told you that I read anything and for some reason the book was on the shelf in my home when I was growing up.) So of course I had to read this book.

If you like Downton Abbey...





What I am Reading – Beach House Memories

To me, the glass is half-empty some days and half-full on others. Sometimes it’s bone-dry. Or overflowing. – Mary Alice Monroe

The first of June has always meant summer to me even though I realize the official start signified by the Summer Solstice is later, not until June 20th here in North America. I thought I would recommend a delicious beach read from Mary Alice Monroe. Beach House Memories is the prequel to The Beach House, first published in 2002, followed by its sequel, Swimming Lessons.

Beach House Memories slowly unveils the answers to the questions the reader is left with after reading The Beach House. The trilogy is set against the background of the plight of the endangered loggerhead sea turtles on the Isle of Palms, one of the barrier islands off the coast of South Carolina. The story centers around the passion of the main character, Olivia “Lovie” Rutledge, to rescue them. It should come as no surprise that saving the sea turtles is also a passion of  the writer, Mary Alice Monroe. The story is filled with fascinating facts about these noble creatures and the lengths they will go to ensure their species survives.

Lovie is an elderly lady, as she was in The Beach House, when this book opens but very soon the reader is back in 1974 and we meet Lovie when she was a young Charleston matron living a very correct life as the wife of Stratton Rutledge. Stratton is the son of an old and very proper Charleston family with a home on Tradd Street and everything that comes with it.

This is women’s fiction at its best. Mary Alice Monroe is a master of  the genre. Beach House Memories explores the relationship between Lovie and her husband, her two children, her mother, and her friends.

This is also a love story. Stated more clearly, it is a story about the people and the turtles that Lovie Rutledge loves and it explores the decisions she makes in order to remain true to those loves.

Beach House Memories stands alone. You don’t have to read the other two books in the series to understand and enjoy it. I bet you will though. Once you meet these characters you will want to know more about them. You can read it anywhere but, if you can, take it to the beach. The sound of the ocean is the perfect soundtrack for this story.

I hope you like it as much as I did. Prepare yourself to fall in love with the sea turtles.

A great book to take to the beach














What I am Reading – I Couldn’t Love You More

To be sure a stepmother to a girl is a different thing to a second wife to a man! Elizabeth Gaskell

What would you do if your daughter and her half-sister, your stepdaughter, were in danger and you could only save one of them?  This is the question that Eliot Gorden must answer in I Couldn’t Love You More.

This is a timely story recommended by Jodi Picoult about what it means to be a stepmother, a role in which many women find themselves today. Eliot, unlike the stereotype made infamous in fairy tales, is a great mother to the three Delaney sisters, Charlotte, Gail, and Hailey. Her instincts are those of a mother and she treats them all as if they are her own. What remains true is that she is not the two older girls’ mother. Beth, the ex-wife of Eliot’s partner, is.

Any women who has ever been a stepmother, no matter how well-loved, has been told, “You’re not my mother.” This is brought home to Eliot in a devastating way as she attempts to deal with the sudden reappearance of her first love, Fin Montgomery and what this means to her life.

The relationship Eliot has with her mother, Dolores, and with her two sisters, Sylvia and Maggie, forms the background of this book. Jillian Medoff makes these relationships, messy, volatile and very real. The three adult Gordon sisters provide the perfect balance for the three young Delaney girls and serve to remind us of the almost unbreakable bond that exists between sisters regardless of how different they are or how well they get along.

I admire Medoff’s courage as she plotted this story through several unexpected twists and turns not all of them happy ones. In the “Interview with the Author” at the end of the book, she tells the reader that she has one daughter and two stepdaughters. It was clear to me early in the story a stepmother wrote this book.

This is a book that will make you question what you think you know about being a stepmother. I think you will come to agree with me that it’s not for the faint of heart.

I Couldn't Love You More

A Great Beach Read







What I am Reading – An Unexpected Guest

The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames.” Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

I bought An Unexpected Guest written by Anne Korkeakivi for two reasons: I fell in love with the cover and the story is set in Paris. I have tried to explain the affect that my trip, two years ago, to Paris had on me, but words always seem to fail me. You have to go. If you already have, you know what I mean.

An Unexpected Guest takes place over the course of one woman’s day. Clare Moorhouse, the wife of the British minister in France, second only to the British ambassador, learns at the last minute, due to the illness of the ambassador, she is expected to host a dinner at her home for the permanent under-secretary. If it goes well, it will result in the likely appointment of her husband, Edward, as ambassador to Ireland, a position that he has waited for and richly deserves.

Clare knows her job well and organizes this crucial event like a general mounting an army about to go into battle. Reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, we see her efficiently dealing with difficult servants, surly French flower vendors, last minute guests, and the unexpected arrival of her troubled younger son as she goes about her day. There is, however, much more going on with Clare.

Edward describes his wife as “Tall, cool, white, smooth and wonderfully classic.”  Dressed in her beige cashmere cardigan, fountain pen in hand, carefully writing the place cards for her dinner, Clare is all that. The reader also knows from the first paragraph of An Unexpected Guest, that Clare is darker and more complicated. With skillful use of flashbacks, Korkeakivi tells the story of the young Clare who meets and  falls in love with Niall, “some cousin” from Ireland who is staying at her uncle’s home for the summer.

Slowly, Clare’s youthful mistakes, mistakes that carried her to 83 Portobello Road, Dublin are revealed. As the clock ticks relentlessly down toward her dinner party, her past sins race to catch up with her.

I always know that I am reading a great book when I start to read faster. This was the case with An Unexpected Guest. The pace quickens as the story builds toward a surprising and (for me) deeply satisfying climax underscoring, that, while we cannot undo the mistakes of the past, we can, if we choose to do so, learn from them.

I hope you enjoy it.

An Unexpected Guest

Enjoy the Paris scenes...