November 5th – The Coroner’s Lunch

I’m in a weird place where every book I pick up fails to grab me. I’ve tossed aside two this week, both of which came highly recommended. I’m sure it’s me. Or the lost hour. Or the darkness. Or the 7000 pieces of Halloween candy I’ve consumed since Saturday.

In any case, while flailing around for something new I stumbled upon a new entry in one of my favorite series. Talk about thrilled! The book, Six and a Half Deadly Sins, by Colin Cotterill, is number ten in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series. I love these books. Seriously. When I discovered that the author, a Londoner, lives in a thatched bungalow on a beach in Thailand with his wife, his laptop and six deranged dogs (his words), I loved the books even more. Although maybe that was jealousy? Not that I want anything to do with deranged dogs….

It is 1970s era Laos and Dr. Siri Paiboun, also in his seventies, is appointed National Coroner. He’s not a pathologist and longs for retirement but in newly communist Laos The Party comes first. In the morgue, Dr. Siri is surrounded by a collection of misfits, all of whom use caustic wit to stay sane in the face of  incompetent bosses, zero funding, terribly antiquated equipment and a paranoid and illogical regime.

In the first installment, The Coroner’s Lunch, the wife of a prominent politician turns up dead and Dr. Siri is convinced she’s been murdered. But getting to the truth won’t be easy. Siri and his co-workers will face government secrets, spying neighbors, victim hauntings, Hmong shamans, botched romances, and other dangers all while struggling not to let the investigation upset The Party. This is not work for the faint of heart.

Cotterill’s wicked, wry dialog is delightful as is his ability to weave together the tragedy and beauty of Laos in a turbulent decade. He deftly combines mystery, political commentary and humor in a tidy little package. I always come away from these books feeling as if I’ve traveled somewhere very far away. I encourage you to start at the beginning. You won’t regret it.

Have a great weekend!

Beth

October 29th – The Royal We

Wit’s End October 29th

I missed last week because I was on the road. And when you’re on the road you don’t necessary want to read anything too heavy (emotionally, physically, whatever), right? Enter The Royal We recommended by my friend Kim (thanks Kim!). This novel, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, reimagines the royal romance of Kate and Wills with Kate as Rebecca from Ohio and the House of Windsor masquerading as the House of Lyons.

Rebecca, or Bex as she’s known, shows up as an exchange student at Oxford and straight away meets the handsome, dashing Prince Nick. So what that he’s a prince? He’s not her sovereign. Of course, Bex’s casual American ways captivate His Highness, a boy on the brink of manhood who has lived, by necessity, a sheltered existence with a cold father and a mysteriously absent mother.

As romance blossoms, Bex is drawn into Nick’s world and we get to go along for the ride, wide eyed and innocent. The authors do a nice job illustrating the frequent horrors of relationship lived out under the constant scrutiny of paparazzi. Our appetite for titillating tidbits about famous people is insatiable and this novel nicely reminds how this urge can compromise our most basic humanity.

There’s no shortage of dazzle and intrigue and excess. But there’s also a dark side and the mystery of Nick’s missing mother and these plot turns keeps the novel from becoming simply a voyeuristic stroll through unfamiliar terrain.

Ultimately, this is one woman’s journey to finding herself, served up with a life altering side of romance. If you were in the mood for fun, I’d give this one a go.

Bonus book! I recently read The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate for an elementary school book club. This breathtakingly beautiful novel is recommended for grades 3-7 but really it’s for everyone. Ivan the Gorilla narrates the story from behind the glass walls of his enclosure, a depressing cage in a shopping mall where he’s lived for decades with an elephant and a stray dog as his only companions. He’s accustomed to being stared at and, lately, ignored because he’s not really as cute as he once was.

Everything changes when a baby elephant arrives and Ivan finds himself desperate to make good on a promise to an old friend to free them from the mall. With an economy of words and tremendous spirit, Ivan illustrates the power of unexpected friendships and how hope and art can keep a soul alive in the most trying of times. This is really a remarkable book and you can finish it in an hour.

Happy Halloween!

Beth

October 15th – Oh! You Pretty Things

After last week’s book, I craved something light and fluffy and Shanna Mahin’s Oh! You Pretty Things fits the bill. This book falls in the boss-revenge genre (remember The Devil Wears Prada?) but is made even more titillating by its Hollywood setting.

Jess Dunne, slightly overweight and pushing thirty which in Hollywood means you might as well be dead, is dazzled and awed by the very town that wants nothing to do with her. She’s obsessed with celebrity culture and wants in, no matter the cost. And once she begins working as a personal assistant to A-list actress Eva Carlton, she achieves that status but there’s a price. A talented cook, Jess is reduced to accommodating Eva’s every whim and fancy. And there are many. And they change. All. The. Time. But Jess is willing to overlook the challenge that is Eva in order to maintain her place in the inner circle. While Mahin serves up a number of juicy secondary characters, the soul of this book is the relationship between Eva and Jess. In the end, Jess wants something from her boss that is beyond the limited emotional range of such a fabulously famous person.

Mahin’s pitch perfect depiction of Hollywood and its native’s floats this novel above others that have tried the same thing. She succeeds because her details must come from an insider, they are that good. And we, awash in a culture that worships celebrity even as we are simultaneously disdainful of it, feel a twinge of what Jess feels: we want in, if just for a moment. This is classic escapism even if the ending is a little too convenient.

Ok. I’m hoping you can indulge me for just minute while I freak out over Season One of Serial, the podcast from the producers of This American Life (one of my favorites!). This was all the rage last year but I’m just getting around to it now and while I’m only on episode six, I’m sneaking around trying to find ways to plug in and listen.

Hosted by Sarah Koenig, Serial tells one true story over the course of the season. In 1999, Adnan Syed was arrested for the murder of Hae Min Lee, a classmate of his at their Baltimore high school and an ex-girlfriend. Ultimately, Syed was convicted for the crime without a shred of physical evidence. The reexamination of this crime is fascinating and terrifying and once you start listening, it’s incredibly hard to stop! If you’re in the car, at the gym, staring into space, bored at work, whatever, give it a listen. I’m curious what you think.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

October 8th – Descent

This week’s selection is Descent, by Tim Johnston and let me just put this out there: it’s agony. I’m talking pain and suffering. In heaping doses. I put it down a number of times, proclaiming to any who would listen that I was done, couldn’t take another page. But then there I was, standing in the hallway, in the kitchen, outside in front of the mailbox, clutching this novel, not breathing.

The book jacket calls Descent a ‘literary thriller’. Yes. I had to look that up too because it seems to imply a great story and great writing cannot co-exist and that feels like creative snobbery to me. Johnston’s book is ripped from the headlines but he has the heart of a poet and writes as such. We should be grateful, even if we kind of hate him for it.

Angela and Grant Courtland take their eighteen year old daughter Caitlin and fifteen year old son Sean from Wisconsin to Colorado for vacation. Caitlin is a college bound track star and desperate to test her strength against the mountain trails and the altitude. Sean begrudgingly accompanies her, on a mountain bike so he can keep up, into the Rocky Mountain wilds. When Sean is struck by a car on a remote mountain road, Caitlin drives away with the man to get help and is abducted.

What follows is the dreadful unraveling of a family as they search for their lost child and sibling. We see these stories in the news but Johnston takes you close, right down the rabbit hole, pinning you to the floor. He forces you to keep your eyes open, even as you murmur to yourself ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’

I recommend this book but won’t take the blame.

On another note, I’ll be at the Great Valley Book Festival this weekend talking about creative inspiration. Join me if you can!

Have a great weekend!

 

 

October 1st – The Daylight Marriage

It’s October, and in a month where black cats and ghosts reign supreme, we’re going to talk about A Daylight Marriage, by Heidi Pitlor. This slim, psychological thriller left me physically uncomfortable, squirming in my seat and looking for a fast exit. It’s a little like being stuck in an awkward conversation with a person you’ve actively been avoiding, with no obvious escape. I’ll be honest – I don’t know if I liked it but I couldn’t put it down, that’s for sure.

Hannah, an upper class beauty, marries Lovell, a geeky introverted scientist. They move to the Boston suburbs, have two kids and soon their marriage is on the rocks. She’s lonely and unfulfilled and he hides in his work, paying scant attention to his wife and children. We’ve seen this before but what Pitlor does with it is utterly original.

After a particularly bad argument, Hannah disappears and Lovell is forced to recount the details of their marriage through the hazy gauze of memory as he searches for an explanation. Pitlor contrasts Lovell’s process with Hannah’s movements on the day of her disappearance. I read this book while working on a novella, part of a holiday collection coming soon, that also considers how our most seemingly insignificant choices can have enormous power. Pitlor illustrates this beautifully and chillingly. Of course, a person can get stuck in this idea at which point even a task as simple as feeding the cat causes paralysis.

The mystery of the missing Hannah coupled with the exploration of a dark and tumultuous marriage make this quick read a pulse racer. By the end you know what’s coming but that doesn’t mean you want to look.

Sticking to the Halloween theme, I just started a reread of Stephen King’s Firestarter, first published in 1980. Still terrifying. In case you were wondering.

What’s your favorite scary book? Let me know!

September 24th – Station Eleven

This week’s title is Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. Ms. Mandel is a lyrical writer, even when her subject is a bunch of post apocalyptic Shakespearean actors and musicians traipsing around what’s left of North American civilization. The combination makes for compelling stuff.

The story starts with an actor’s death during a performance of King Lear, on the eve of the arrival of the Georgian flu, a pandemic that will devastate the human population. On stage that night is a little girl who will not only survive the flu but will end up performing Shakespeare with this wandering troupe for the next twenty years. The novel flashes between the present and past, illuminating thin yet critical connections among characters, all linked by the dead actor.

This book is not devastating like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or as detailed and complex as the father of all pandemic books, Stephen King’s The Stand. Nor does it have the zombie angle so I won’t compare it to World War Z, another well known entry in this fairly overheated genre (we’ll talk about the popularity of end of the world books another time because if we get started the world could end and we’d still be here talking). So why couldn’t I put this one down?

Turns out it’s those connections, those tangled tenuous exceedingly fragile links between friends and strangers that Ms. Mandel weaves together so expertly, that kept me turning the pages. Station Eleven is almost more mystery than anything else and just like with any good mystery, I wanted to know what happened next. I needed to know. Curious to see what you think of it.

Spoiler Alert! – I’m going back to one of last week’s picks for a second – Wendy Mass’s A Mango Shaped Space – and if you want to read it and not have me ruin it for you STOP here. So after I finished, I gave the book to my ten year old son. He read it and then basically threw it at my head. “The cat dies, mom! Why did you make me read this?” I had terrible flashbacks of reading Old Yeller when I was a kid and felt kind of bad. “But then she gets that cute kitten,” I said in my own lame defense. “Mango’s baby.” He was not appeased. I’d say I’m in the dog house but really I’m in the dead cat house. Moving on…

So I have a question for you: have you read Go Set A Watchman? If yes, what did you think? If no, why not? I’m torn…..

Have a great weekend!

Beth

elizabeth@elizabethmaxwellauthor.com

(visit elizabethmaxwellauthor.com for all editions of this newsletter)

 

September 17th – The Fall, A Mango Shaped Space

When you write books for a living, people tend to ask you for reading recommendations. This is one occupational hazard I enjoy because I read a lot of books and when I love one, I want everyone to read it and love it, too.

As a bonus, when people pose the “What are you reading?” question I, in turn, get to ask them what they’re reading and this awesome circle of good books is created…

I’ve let this blog space sit idle for a long time because I don’t like talking about myself (seriously – I spend most days in front of my laptop alone – it’s just not that interesting) but I do like talking books so that’s what I want to do here. Nothing complicated. This is not the New York Review of Books. It’s just us making recommendations to each other so we don’t have to spend so much time on Amazon answering the dreaded question of “What should I read?” Because that’s a scary question. Really.

(and I’m not averse to throwing in some movie or TV recommendations because let’s face it, with so many options out there, the task of choosing what to watch is equally daunting.)

So anyway…

I finished two novels this week. John Lescroart’s The Fall  and A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass.

These books have nothing in common and I really enjoyed them both! I’m lucky enough to know John (we live in the same town) and he’s a wonderfully generous person and writer and spending time with his beloved characters is a joy. The whole gang is here: Dismas, Abe, Wyatt and newcomer Rebecca, Dismas’s sassy newly minted lawyer daughter. There’s a murder of course and lots of intrigue and legal wrangling but the true pleasure here comes from hanging out with characters who feel like old friends. I felt this way about Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books when I was in college. If you’re new to John’s work, maybe pick up an earlier one first.

Mango is middle grade fiction and is the selection for our elementary school’s book club (a parent and child read the book and both attend the book club meeting – it’s pretty awesome). It made me weep but I can’t tell you why because that gives too much away. Inside, you’ll find pets and extra sensory abilities and teenaged crushes and sibling rivalries and BFF’s who are suddenly not BFF’s and so on. It’s a quick read but very rich. If you like it, I’d also recommend A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban, which is similar in tone and style and also great read.

Got recommendations? Let me know. Email me at Elizabeth@elizabethmaxwellauthor.com. Or if you’d like to receive the newsletter version of this blog directly to your email, sign up for the Wit’s End Newsletter using the link to the right of this text.

And remember when you’re at your wit’s end, just stop and read for a while….

Kirkus Review (insert sigh of relief here)

KIRKUS REVIEW

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/elizabeth-maxwell/happily-ever-after-maxwell/

What if a novelist’s characters object to their storylines? Worse, what if they hijack the plot?

While other mothers in her posh neighborhood fill their days with Bikram yoga classes, Sadie Fuller secretly writes steamy romance novels. Divorced yet still friends with her gay ex-husband, she’s raising their 11-year-old daughter, Allison, with the help of Greta, their German housekeeper. As far as her own love life, well, at 46, Sadie knows she’s past her prime, so she places an ad on Craigslist for a Friday-morning, no-strings-attached lover, and Jason responds. He’s a kind attorney, eager for a sexual relationship since his wife stole his confidence by cheating on him with the tile contractor. It’s a stable life, if a little lacking in excitement. Yet one morning, Sadie discovers an extra 1,500 words have mysteriously appeared in the novel she’s writing. She’s sure she didn’t write those words. She’s sure there was no witch named Clarissa in the story last night. And she’s sure she doesn’t know the impossibly gorgeous man who seems to be suffering from amnesia in the baby-products aisle at Target. The gorgeous man is, indeed, Aidan Hathaway, the hero of Sadie’s novel, and Sadie’s life turns upside down as she tries to explain him to nosy neighbors and jealous Jason, not to mention bewildered Greta. Allison is smitten and couldn’t care less where Aidan came from. As a romance novel hero, Aidan relies on steamy glances and suggestive comments, neither of which helps Sadie crack the mystery of why he’s here, much less how to send him back into the safe pages of her book. Debut novelist Maxwell and Sadie herself deftly bend the rules of genre fiction, letting the boundaries between reality and fiction shimmy and shimmer.

Clever, engaging and sparkling with wit.

Pub Date:March 4th, 2014
ISBN:978-1-4767-3266-4
Page count:320pp
Publisher:Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:Feb. 4th, 2014
Kirkus Reviews Issue:Feb. 15th, 2014

Booklist Review

http://www.booklistonline.com/Happily-Ever-After-Elizabeth-Maxwell/pid=6446518

Happily Ever After.
Maxwell, Elizabeth (Author)
Mar 2014. 320 p. Touchstone, paperback, $15. (9781476732664).

New to the romance genre, Maxwell cleverly takes on its classic tropes in this novel about an erotic romance author whose fictional characters come to life. Sadie Fuller is a slightly frumpy divorced mom with an 11-year-old daughter, gay ex-husband, and a no-strings-attached weekly date with fun-but-flabby Jason. With K. T. Briggs as her pen name, she plumbs women’s wildest fantasies in her racy novels.

Things get interesting when a strange passage appears in her latest manuscript, followed by the materialization of the hero, Aidan, at the local Target. Though Sadie is not sure how her fiction has become her reality, she sets out to help Aidan find his love interest, Lily, and break the spell cast by Clarissa, a witch Sadie created during her brief foray into paranormal romance.

This light and funny contemporary tale is made even more interesting by how it subverts elements from the popular erotic, paranormal-themed romance novels. Even the expected happy ending has a clever twist.

— Aleksandra Walker

How to survive a remodel on one bottle of wine or less (per day..and you don’t have to share)

So this morning, like a million mornings before, I get up to do a 5:30AM boot camp. Despite all the standard time nonsense, it’s still dark and I stumble into the bathroom and get dressed and put my contacts in the wrong eyes. While this is bad (I can see if I do Clint Eastwood), it’s not as bad as showing up with your clothes inside out, which happens with alarming frequency. And these people are driving. Be careful out there, friends.

But now I need my water bottle, except my house looks like this…IMG_9985

 

 

…so where the hell is the water bottle? After a minute of panic, I give up, instead hoping to find the cat food. The cat is sad. Very very sad. She’s experienced a severe downgrade in accommodations and after 19 years considers telling me to go fuck myself. But remembering I’m the one with the treats (when I can find them) she settles for refusing to look at me or pose for a picture. This is all I’ve got of the cat.

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My ride comes to ferry me off to boot camp. I grab a water bottle from the trunk of my car. It’s from a soccer game. Probably one in August and I think I see algae growing in the bottom but it’s dark so I can’t be sure. We go to boot camp. Is the modern human meant to do 4000 squats while holding weights up in the air? Really? And the thing with the squat jumping jacks?  Our leader smirks in the corner. We exist for his amusement. Plus my head hurts because I’m not sure how one survives a remodel without drinking too much. And last night I drank too much.

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I go home. It’s still dark. The house is still a wreck. Only fourteen (estimated HAHAHA) weeks to go.  This is what our living space looks like.

photo 1

I have lived in smaller spaces. Of course, those small spaces had floors and, you know, running water and shit. But still, I can tolerate a lot. I trekked to Mt. Everest and went 21 days without a shower and no oxygen. Besides I’m armed with the essentials. The espresso machine. Don’t even kid around here, honestly.

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The electric skillet. There are kids involved after all and eventually they will weary of cold cereal served at every meal.

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The grill and specifically, the burner…that I didn’t know I had until…well, yesterday? I should’ve cleaned it. I didn’t clean it.

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Surrounded by such bounty (I’m reading Little House on the Prairie with my daughter so really what the hell do I have to whine about? I don’t have to send Pa 800 miles to get me a sack of cornmeal) I was feeling cocky last night and made pork chops with apples and onions. It was going great until the sun went away at, like, 2:15 and my grill light failed and finding a flashlight?? Oh, how you make me laugh! So maybe the pork chops were overdone because I couldn’t actually see them in the dark. But the kids liked the mac and cheese because it came from a box so I had that going for me…which was nice.

Tomorrow night’s menu: fried rice with bits of overdone pork chop and probably some pine needles from the tree behind the grill…