Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Drop in the Ocean by Jenni Ogden

A Drop in the Ocean is one of those rare novels that you read to get to the intriguing ending while the journey leading you to that climax offers fascinating characters, fine descriptive passages, and the beauty of an exotic locale. Only an author like Jenni Ogden who has degrees in both zoology and psychology and who has lived off the grid on an island off the coast of New Zealand could write this novel. The story begins when Anna Fergusson, a neuroscientist, leaves Boston when the funding for her Huntington’s disease research dries up after many years. Anna’s just turned 49 and she’s an introvert with a capital “I.” Losing her funding means losing her identity as she has very few friends and avoids romantic entanglements. After a friend shows her an advertisement, she impulsively moves to a cabin on a remote island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for one year where she plans to write a book based on her research and figure out what to do with the rest of her life.

Turtle Island isn’t the quiet oasis Anna expected to find. In addition to nesting sea turtles and a plethora of colorful and noisy birds, it’s the home of islanders who coax her out of her own shell. Pat, a woman in her early sixties, soon becomes her friend and guide. Pat understands Anna’s fear of snorkeling too far from shore because Anna has told her about her father having died when she was twelve when they were on a diving trip in Belize. So Pat is careful to show Anna beauty near the safety of the sand.
“We were over a ring of corals – red, orange, white, and fluorescent blue – and immediately below me was a large anemone with two clownfish backing in and out of the poisonous tentacles, warning me off. A shoal of black-and-white-striped fish floated by, and their name floated through my head from all those years ago – moorish idols. Nipping at the corals were myriads of other small fish: silver, blue, striped, yellow, orange, red.  I focused on a white-and-yellow fish and tried to remember the pattern of black stripes crisscrossing its side so I could look it up later. One of those impossible butterfly fish. Dad’s voice again.”

Tom, the quiet, single-minded turtle whisperer, attracts Anna with his attention to the turtles, his humor, and his determination. She seems to be falling in love him and with island life, but all isn’t as it appears. Both of them have reasons to hide in their shells and those motives will have readers flipping the pages to see where they lead them.

Anna’s Boston friend had suggested her destination partly because she knew that Anna’s deceased father was Australian. Anna’s search for his roots offers a side story that enhances the novel. When Anna drives to the area where her father grew up, she finds:
“A stream chuckled quietly alongside the track and a skylark was singing somewhere in the blue. Ghost gums were scattered randomly across the paddocks, their brilliant white trunks indescribably beautiful in the winter light. As I slowed to negotiate a large puddle, a white and yellow cloud of sulphur-crested cockatoos erupted out of a tree and flew into the air, their loud screeches echoing around the valley."

A Drop in the Ocean will keep readers guessing about the ending until the last page and the epilogue offers possibilities for an endless and spirited book club discussion. The well-defined characters, especially Morrie, a portrait of joie de vivre despite his handicaps, set this novel apart from other “escape from life” narratives. It’s easy to see why it won a Gold Medal IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award). Choosing this title for your book club will please both those looking for summer escape and those who want something with heft to discuss. This debut novel is available both as a an original paperback or in an electronic edition.

Summing It Up: Read A Drop in the Ocean to enter an exotic world on a remote barrier island where a woman encounters her fears and endeavors to find herself.  Relish the rich, evocative sentences that offer a Technicolor view of island life teeming with exotic species. Learn about the lives of nesting turtles. Explore a remote island through characters whose inner lives show in their actions and development in the capable hands of an author who brings her own experience in clinical psychology and living off the grid to life in this poignant tale.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast/Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: May 3, 2016
Awards: Gold Winner, IPPY Award, 2016 for Australia/New Zealand – Best Regional Fiction
Author Website:
Interview with the Author:
A Reading Group Guide is contained in the novel.
What Others are Saying:
“Reading A Drop in the Ocean was everything a reading experience should be, endearing and enduring, time spent with characters who seem to be people I already knew.”  —Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times #1 best-selling author of The Deep End Of The Ocean, Oprah’s first book club choice

 "A novel about turtles, the fragility of life, and the complexity of love, A Drop in the Ocean will transport you to remote islands with its lyrical natural imagery. This is a story to savor, discuss, and share.”
—Barbara Claypole White, bestselling author of The Perfect Son

“In A Drop in the Ocean, protagonist Anna Fergusson learns that love is about letting go. Jenni Ogden takes us on a sweeping journey, rich with unique characters and places, moving backward and forward in time, to reach this poignant and heartfelt lesson.” —Ann Hood, New York Times best-selling author of The Knitting Circle, The Red Thread, and The Obituary Writer

Monday, May 9, 2016

Eliza Waite by Ashley E. Sweeney

Eliza Waite is the tale of a pioneer woman with unyielding resolve. Her name is a clue to her existence. She’s had to wait to awaken to life emotionally and sexually as well as to valuing herself as a person. She waits to travel, to ply her trade as a baker, and to live an unconventional life that will bring her happiness. The novel begins at the end of the nineteenth century after the death of Eliza’s minister husband and her beloved son on remote Cypress Island in Washington’s San Juan Islands archipelago. Eliza is an intelligent, capable woman – characteristics not appreciated by her husband or most of her neighbors.  She loves reading and once she devours Kate Chopin’s stories and her ground-breaking novel The Awakening, Eliza begins to envision her own awakening. 

Eliza is pursued by a successful local man, yet she can’t make up her mind about him and once more her name comes into play as the act of waiting changes her destiny. She decides to leave the island as Kate Chopin’s words “free, free, free!” resonate within her and she realizes that for the first time in her life, she’s free to make her own decisions without the interference of any man. 

In addition to reading, Eliza finds comfort and purpose in baking. She’s known for her scones, coffeecake, and other baked goods. Eliza’s precious recipe cards provide a way to escape the area and the lack of reasonable prospects there. Soon she’s among the travelers heading north to the Klondike region of Alaska. With less than fifty dollars in her pocket, she opens The Moonstone CafĂ©, a bakery, in Skagway where hopeful miners begin embarking on their search for gold. She names her bakery after a moonstone, an agate, she found on the shore of her former island home. When she found the moonstone she put it to her eye and thought about seeing the world through it, about having a different perspective. She saw that its edges were blurred, yet its center was clear.

While most of the characters in the novel are fictitious, several historical figures appear including James Randolph “Soapy” Smith, Frank Reid, E.A. Hegg, and Harriet Pullen. They along with characters Sweeney imagines including prostitutes, con men, miners, and an enterprising madam populate the novel and help Eliza succeed in finding her own clear center and acting according to what she can see within herself

Eliza’s adventures and her awakening are enlivened by real diary entries and authentic pioneer recipes evoking this unique era in American history.  Debut author Sweeney also uses weather to foreshadow Eliza’s moods and to echo the actions in the book. Overcast skies, dappled sunlight, aching cold, and the mists off the bay all help draw the reader into Eliza’s life and her changing story. 

Summing It Up: Read Eliza Waite to enter the gold rush period of American history led by a woman whose appetite and ambition allow her to become whole. You’ll feel the bitter cold settle in the remote setting, taste the freshness of Eliza’s blackberry scones, and cheer for Eliza as she finds love and purpose beyond her imagining.  If you enjoy well-researched historical fiction with plenty of engaging plot twists, you’ll love Eliza Waite. This novel is available as an original paperback and in an electronic version making it one that you can immediately select for your book club.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: May 16, 2016 (but it's available now)
Author Website:
What Others are Saying:
“Sweeney’s debut novel is a beautifully written work of historical fiction tracing one woman’s life in the wilds of nineteenth-century America. Readers will be immersed in Eliza’s world, which Sweeney has so authentically and skillfully rendered.”  —Booklist

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

It's almost Mother's Day!

It’s almost Mother’s Day and that means it’s time to think about what to buy your favorite mother, aunt, or grandmother.  Here are some of my recent choices that just might make her day. The right side of this page offers links to the websites and pages of some of the best independent bookstores where you can find these gems and where they’ll wrap them for you as they offer great advice about other books your mother might enjoy. Men: this makes Mother’s Day giving very easy. I’ve also included links to full reviews of any books already reviewed on this site. Make your Mom happy, buy her a book!

Everything Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave is my choice for the reader who loves a magnificent story with beautiful language and a lasting message. The World War II setting is so real you’ll feel the hairs on the back of your neck rise as you live through the Blitz. This book would be an excellent selection for any mother who belongs to a book club. G/GPR/PP/SN, BC

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson is for the woman who adored Downton Abbey and who loves a book that both entertains and educates. It’s also for the reader who loves to find parallels between past events and those of today. GPR/PP/SN, BC

Becoming Grandma by Leslie Stahl is for the grandmother or grandmother-to-be who can’t quite believe how happy she is. GPR/SF/SN

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer is for the mom who wants to read a fabulous thriller with engaging characters. Moms will identify with eight-year-old Carmel’s mother’s quest to find her daughter when she disappears from a British festival. The novel showcases not just a mysterious disappearance but also the ways a mother and daughter might survive such a wrenching separation. It also features a complicated and evil villain which always adds to the enjoyment of any mystery.  GPR, BC

Love That Boy by Ron Fournier is for the mom who understands that love is always unconditional and who might want to share this gem with the fathers she loves. GPR/SF/SN, BC

Furiously Happy: a Funny Book about Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson is for the mom who relishes sarcasm and doesn’t like to read sentimental books. Furiously Happy is for David Sedaris, Tina Fey and Augusten Burroughs fans. It’s a searing memoir of living through depression and mental illness as seen through Lawson’s irreverent lens. Who’d think you could snort out loud when reading (or listening) to someone telling about living in darkness. Buy mom the audio version to hear Lawson’s perfect rendering. S, BC

The Charm Bracelet by Wade Rouse is for the mother who wants a
light, romantic read that’s just predictable enough to make her happy. She'll read about three generations of women linked by the stories their charm bracelets reveal as they look for happiness. D

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is for the mom who loves historical fiction based on real people and who lists The Nightingale and Sarah’s Key among her favorites. It’s for the mom who likes her historical novels supported by meticulous research. GPR/PP/SN, BC

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dimitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson is for the history and music loving mom or grandmother especially if she has a fifteen to twenty-year-old child or grandchild she might want to encourage to read it with her. I recently led a book discussion of it and men and women of every age enjoyed it. It’s also a title with parallels to today. It's written for ages 15 - 20, but adults love it. DC/G/PP/SN, BC

Monday, May 2, 2016

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven is a shimmering, magnificent novel that takes the all-too-familiar aspects of World War II and magnifies their significance with laser-like precision. It was tempting to read it quickly as I was completely caught up in the story
and the lighthearted banter encouraged my page turning. However, Cleave’s exquisite sentences and the shattering events of the war prompted a more prudent pace to savor every single word and action. Cleave doesn’t simply tell about the war, he makes his readers feel the moral conflicts war imposes on everyone as well as the hope and love that help them persevere.

In 1939, as London ships her children to the countryside to avoid the bombings of the Blitz, eighteen-year-old Mary North begins teaching students that no one in the rural countryside wants. Her upper-class family disapproves of her efforts to educate the left-behind children of color, the disabled, and the otherwise undesirable waifs. Mary’s boyfriend, the affable and kind Tom Shaw, a school administrator, reluctantly supports her efforts and when she’s attracted to his best friend, Alistair Heath, the burden of her guilt exerts a palpable influence over her. 

Cleave captures London during the Blitz with word pictures that imbed the reader in the city as he shows how each character meets it.  When Alistair arrives in London on leave, he finds an altered city.
He walked north from the station – at noon, by his watch – but no clocks struck. The bells were blanketed in their belfries, to be rung only if the enemy invaded. Such plans were a comfort to civilians, he supposed, although having met the Germans in their present humor, Alistair felt it unlikely that bells would make much difference whether silenced, rung or melted down and made into metal plates for tap shoes. 

Mary and her close friend Hilda live charmed lives. Their wealth and friends in the right places protect them from most problems but even they see a different London during the Blitz:
Their road was blocked by rubble, and the driver pulled up. Hilda opened the door, and hot air rolled in, heavy with soot and sewage. Everything smoked or steamed, as if one had crossed into a tropic of disaster. From the gaping fronts of bombed-out houses, the dazed locals stared. Mary stepped out of the cab into a puddle that leached foul smelling mud through her shoe and into her stocking.  

Once Alistair departs again to serve on the tiny island of Malta, Mary and Hilda begin work on an ambulance crew rescuing victims of the Blitz. Mary’s stubbornness tears her apart as she corresponds with Alistair and finds herself conflicted in her relationship with Tom. Her attachment to Zachary, a ten-year-old Negro boy she teaches, also brings problems and Tom isn’t entirely sympathetic. Cleave’s words sear the attitudes of the times into the reader:
The smoke was lifting after the night’s conflagrations but the air was still blunt with haze. The sun was a flat white disc. Zachary and Mary walked with arms linked while the people they passed looked knives at them. Mary made sure to smile back brightly. It was simply a peculiarity of the British that they could be stoical about two hundred and fifty nights of bombing, while the sight of her with a Negro child offended their sensibilities unbearably. 

Loosely based on Cleave’s grandparents’ lives, the author of the acclaimed Little Bee pens a dramatic, stark, winning novel. (Visit Cleave’s website for a beautiful archive of photographs of the time.) His own grandfather served in Malta, “the most stubbornly defended island on earth” where he was assigned to mind Randolph Churchill, the prime minister’s capricious son. He was to keep Churchill out of trouble. Alistair doesn’t have a Churchill to coddle, but he does serve with an upper-class man whose view of the world needs to evolve. The novel’s title first appears when Mary writes Alistair: “I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season.”  So, both Mary and Alistair “soldier on” and try to be brave and to forgive themselves as well as those they meet despite the lack of courage they sometimes encounter.

When Mary’s mother talks to her about her reckless behavior in teaching Negro children, Mary accosts her for her lack of honesty, but her mother comes back with “I shan’t rise to that. The young see the world that they wish for. The old see the world as it is. You must tell me which you think the more honest.”  The beauty of this book lies in Cleave’s ability to see every character as a nuanced human being trying to be brave despite the consequences.
This is a novel that shows the reader a world in which love redeems even those who make bad choices. It’s a world Cleave envisions when he transforms his title by writing: "It was a world one might still know, if everyone forgiven was brave."

Summing it Up: Everyone Brave is Forgiven is my kind of novel. It shows its readers the world that wartime exposes – a world in which survival often trumps morality and choices are seldom simple. Yet, it’s primarily a novel of love and redemption and that’s why I adored it. This is the book I’d give my parents if they were alive. This is the book my father, who spent the early part of the war isolated in Iceland before he saw action in France and Germany after the D-Day invasion, would feel told the stories of his men. This is the book my mother would have adored for its language, its romance, and its ability to make sense of life.

Rating:  5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast/Gourmet, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: May 3, 2016
Author Website:
What Others are Saying:


Shelf Awareness: “Magnificent and profoundly moving…This dazzling novel of World War II is full of unforgettable characters and the keen emotional insights that moved readers of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee.”