The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger is a straightforward, suspenseful thriller about two smart women independently searching for truth in the corrupt world of offshore banking. What ensues is murder, mayhem and deceit. Read this when you are in the mood for a believable, well-paced mystery that takes you around the world. It is a cross between The Firm by John Grisham and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. In fact, I found the absence of an unreliable narrator totally refreshing. Best paired with a double bacon cheeseburger with fries and a spicy, full-bodied glass of wine from Corbieres.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a National Book Award Finalist, is an epic multigenerational saga that traces one family’s rise from poverty in Korea and Japan during the 20th century. It is about family, love and sorrow in the face of imperialism, immigration, war and survival. Read this when you are in the mood to immerse yourself in a thick, sprawling tale of four generations set in a faraway country. It is a cross between The Pillars of Earth and The Joy Luck Club. Best paired with kimchi, fried oysters and shishito peppers. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/5
Limelight by Amy Poeppel is about a middle-aged suburban mom, Allison Brinkley, who moves to Manhattan from Dallas and serendipitously becomes the personal assistant to an unpredictable, rowdy and talented pop star, Carter Reid. The story builds to a crisis when Carter refuses to honor a Broadway musical contract and Allison must do everything she can to change his mind. Read this when you are in the mood for an emotionally intelligent comedy about parenting set in the world of New York City theater. It is Carrie Bradshaw meets Parenthood and Justin Bieber meets Broadway. Best paired with a turkey-and-brie panini and banana milkshake. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/5 XO, Tara
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang is romance fiction at its best. Stella is a gorgeous, socially inept economist determined to become good in bed. Michael is a sexy tailor with abandonment issues who moonlights as an escort. Together, they throw each other completely off-balance and it is pure, sparkling entertainment. Read this when you are in the mood to be seduced by a steamy, guilty pleasure of a novel. It is a reverse gender Pretty Woman. Fifty Shades of Grey meets The Rosie Project. Best paired with a bowl of perfect, skinless yellow-green grapefruit slices.
White Houses by Amy Bloom is a fictional retelling of the middle-aged, adulterous love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. It is the raw and astonishingly candid story of a poor white girl who overcomes poverty, bigotry and sexual abuse to become an acclaimed journalist and the lesbian lover of the First Lady of the United States. Read this when you are in the mood for a gritty and feminist perspective on a hidden chapter in history. It is Bastard out of Carolina meets The Paris Wife with a dash of Thelma and Louise. Best paired with horseradish cheese, sardines and sidecars.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a quirky romantic comedy of a novel. It is about a cranky 39-year-old widower who owns a failing bookstore on an invented island off the coast of Massachusetts. Read this when you are in the mood for a window into one man’s grieving process and a testament to the redemptive power of love. It is a Fredrik Backman’s Man Called Ove meets Taylor Jenkin Reid’s One True Loves. The personal book reviews that start each chapter are icing on the (bibliophilic) cake. Best paired with a frozen carton of vidaloo and a glass of merlot. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/5
Where do I begin with this little book. This gorgeous little book.
Sarah Winman’s 213-page third novel, Tin Man, is the intense yet understated story of a love triangle, intimately told and beautifully rendered.
The first half of the book is narrated by Ellis, a middle-aged widower who works nights in an Oxford car plant. His present day is dark and lonely compared to the memories he revisits of his past with childhood best friend, Michael, and late wife, Annie.
The novel’s second half is told from Michael’s point of view. Here we see the boyish relationship between Ellis and Michael intensify into a teenage love affair over nine days in the south of France. It is Bridges of Madison County-esque in the best possible way.
At one point, Michael is reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and describes it as “a poem about grief.” He might as well have been describing Tin Man itself. Be still my broken heart.
Winman’s tender observations about relationships—“He built the fires and Annie opened the wine, and the years rolled out. Thirteen, to be precise. Thirteen years of grapes and warmth."—and stunning descriptions of scenery—“petals of pink and white and fuchsia fall on me and I imagine myself a garlanded pyre alight under the fiery sun.”—make this novel simultaneously haunting and beautiful. I found myself glued to every riveting page.
The ending did leave me bewildered though and I can’t tell if that’s good or bad or some ungodly combination of both.
Best paired with a tray of bread and fruit and cheese and an opened bottle of Chianti Ruffino.
With her latest novel Alice Hoffman revisits the world she created in Practical Magic (also a film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman). Only this time she goes back a generation—from Sally and Gillian Owens to their aunts’ coming of age in 1950s New York.
Rules of Magic is a standalone prequel. It focuses on Franny, Jet and charismatic baby brother Vincent as the trio discovers their ill-fated family history and supernatural powers. It is magical realism at its best: black cats, potions, presentiments, enchanted bars of soap, a family curse and a secret book of spells. Honestly, I haven’t been more taken with a family of witches since I read The Witching Hour by Anne Rice in the food court at the mall during lunch breaks from a college summer job.
I adored each of the three siblings, no small feat. Franny with her pale skin and blood-red hair and strange kinship with birds. Jet, beautiful and shy, able to know the thoughts of others. Vincent, fearless and charismatic, a gifted musician.
The cast of supporting characters is equally exquisite. The family matriarch Maria Owens who famously escaped Salem’s gallows three hundred years before. Aunt Isabelle who made “the most basic and reliable love potion … from anise, rosemary, honey, and cloves boiled for nine hours on the back burner of the old stove.” Cousin April who on the one hand “dressed as if ready for Paris” and on the other hand played “strip poker in the garden” on the other hand.
The Rules of Magic is beautifully written: “everything smelled of mint and regret.” It is also well-rounded. Romantics will be charmed by the star-crossed love stories while philosophers will enjoy the search for “answers to questions too difficult for mortals to comprehend.”
This coming October I will definitely be reading Practical Magic because I miss The Owens witches already.
Best paired with vegetable stew and a plum pudding, along with freshly baked rosemary bread and glasses of lemonade flavored with verbena.
I am not going to get into too many of the fascinating and at times jaw-dropping details of Tara Westover’s life here, because she has written about it beautifully in her memoir Educated, but I will say this: GO READ THIS BOOK. It will change the way you look at religion and resilience and redemption. I’m not even close to exaggerating. This book is perspective shifting.
Westover is the youngest of seven children raised by Mormon survivalists in the hills of Idaho. Her father runs a junkyard and her mother is an unlicensed midwife. The family struggles with poverty and domestic violence (of which Westover is a victim) and refuses to have anything to do with western medicine, formal education or the government.
Westover attends ballet class in “jeans … and steel-toed boots” while the other girls wear “white tights and tiny ballet shoes the color of taffy.” She doesn’t even have a birth certificate until the age of nine. “I remember the day it came in the mail. It felt oddly dispossessing, being handed this first legal proof of my personhood: until that moment, it had never occurred to me that proof was required.” Her childhood is marked by grisly accidents, dysfunctional nurturing practices and troubling, paranoid rants.
But she gradually makes her way out of all of it. She teaches herself to take the ACT, gains acceptance as a freshman to Brigham Young University and sets foot in a proper classroom for the first time at age 17. There she is shocked to learn that Europe is more than one country and that the Holocaust happened at all. She goes on to earn a fellowship at Cambridge and a doctorate at Harvard.
However, the divorce from her upbringing is slow and painful; and therein lies the essence of this story. “I might have resented my upbringing but I didn’t. My loyalty to my father had increased in proportion to the miles between us.” Educated is, at its core, about overcoming obstacles and outgrowing your roots while remaining fiercely loyal to your family.
Many thanks to those of you who read and discussed this unforgettable book with me for Book Club: Lauren, Kelly, Jen, Heather, Ali, Wendy and Megan. For the rest of the year, when someone asks me for a book recommendation, I will say: GO READ EDUCATED.
Best paired with home-canned peaches stockpiled for the End of Days.
The life of a goddess of magic (best known for turning men into pigs) is the subject of Madeline Miller’s second novel, Circe. The book is bold, riveting, intimate and imaginative.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is its narrator: a woman who is both immortal and outcast. We follow Circe from her lonely childhood as the mediocre daughter of Helios, the sun god, to her exile on the island of Aiaia. She meets a lot of legendary creatures along the way: the Titan Prometheus, the monster Scylla and the goddess Athena to name a few of my favorites.
However, it is the romantic relationships between Circe and a handful of gods and mortals (including Odysseus the hero of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey) that are a highlight of the book for me. “Less than a month we had spent together, yet he seemed to know me better than anyone who had ever walked the world.” Or this: “There are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.” Back handspring into my heart.
Circe’s sympathy and understanding of mortals produces a stunning theme of the book. “Those frail bodies of theirs took relentless attention, food and drink, sleep and rest, the cleaning of limbs and fluxes. Such patience mortals must have, I thought to drag themselves through it hour after hour.” We see our human selves through the eyes of gods, and it is breathtaking.
Miller’s writing is clean with a touch of poetry. “It was a trick of his, to set a sentence out like a plate on a table and see what you would put on it.” The setting is lush and enchanted, filled with “gaudy roses” and “meadows of thyme and lilac” and “frogs cry[ing] from their mud.” And while most of the characters and plot will be familiar even to the most cursory fans of Greek mythology, the raw evocation of Circe’s inner life—her thoughts, feelings and motivations—makes the story original and compelling.
Best paired with roasted fish on stick-ends, cheese and toasted barley, fruits dried and fresh.
Calling The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne a masterpiece of American fiction is not an exaggeration. IT IS PHENOMENAL. Seriously, whole nights of sleep have been ruined by this book.
I will admit that its sheer size (almost 600 pages) intimidated me, but I made a commitment to read it because of its laundry list of awards and one of the most gripping first sentences in a novel to come along in years. It is now destined to be one of my favorite books of the year, maybe even of all time.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies is narrated entirely by Cyril Avery, a brilliantly flawed and hopelessly endearing character. We follow his life story from 1945 to 2015, from Shame to Exile to Peace (the titles of the three distinct parts of the book), as a gay man coming of age in Catholic Ireland. We bear witness to the “dishonest portraits of [himself]” and to the extreme loneliness of his early sexual encounters. “I had never looked into anyone’s eyes before. I could remember some faces, some haircuts, some shoes, but the color of their eyes?”
But it is not all hell and damnation. Cyril’s carefully honed voice can be snarky, petty, literal and self-absorbed making this book as laugh-out-loud funny as it is heartbreaking. Take the mother and son who live next to him as a child: “the former entirely mute, the latter completely blind—and yet between them they monitored our comings and goings with all the efficiency of a government intelligence agency.” Or Mr. Denby-Denby whom he worked alongside in the sixties: “a rather flamboyant fellow … his hair in a bouffant style … a curious shade of sickly yellow, more a chartreuse than anything else, although his eyebrows were closer to maize.”
The Heart’s Invisible Furies is dedicated to John Irving and it did remind me a bit of A Prayer for Owen Meany, though I couldn’t tell you exactly why. Maybe it’s that both novels share the same basic premise: “Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing.”
Best paired with an enormous steak bleeding onto the plate followed by cream buns and coffee in an Irish tearoom.
No one stops in the nondescript town of Belleville, Delaware until two strangers do. It is the summer of 1995. Polly Costello is a mysterious redhead on the run from her past and Adam Bosk is a private detective with improbable good looks. Both harbor secrets and an undeniable attraction to each other. Then someone dies and a seductive thriller ensues.
Sunburn combines the cynical attitudes and sexual motivations of 40s film noir (imagine James M. Cain’s The Postman Rings Twice) with the domestic unease of a woman who deserts her family (think of Anne Tyler’s novel The Ladder of Years). It is not one of those mysteries that feels recycled, impractical or incredible. Instead it is sultry, cagey and uncommonly clever.
The story is both character-driven and plot-driven, making it a standout in the saturated psychological thriller genre. Lippman is a master at slowly revealing information and tying up all the loose ends. I savored every page including the really satisfying ending.
The feminist theme of a dark, sexy woman outmaneuvering the men in her life is a delight and the stunning cover art perfectly suits the book's overall femme fatale vibe.
Best paired with the most perfect grilled cheese and tomato sandwich (the brown stripes on the buttery white bread perfectly symmetrical, finely chopped bacon inside). On the side: fries made from fresh potatoes then sprinkled with rosemary and a cup of homemade aioli.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng starts with the pivotal moment of Izzy Richardson, the youngest of four siblings, burning down her family’s house by setting “a small crackling fire … directly in the middle of each bed” like “a demented Girl Scout.” Why did she do it? Readers will spend the rest of the novel finding the relatively satisfying answer this question.
Fans of Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, will recognize the familiar plot device of opening with the tragic climax and then slowly unspooling the mystery of what happened in the months leading up to it. This time the canvas is larger though. In Little Fires Everywhere we deal with not a single family but an entire town—impeccable and immaculate Shaker Heights, Ohio in the late nineties, to be exact.
Although many subplots are explored—race, class, the private lives of teenagers—Ng shines brightest when describing the love of a mother in its multiple forms. “To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once.”
For all of its strengths (fluent prose, engrossing plot, specific and real characters), the novel is missing something. It’s a little too neat, as if Ng filmed her story in black and white instead of eerie shades of gray. I wanted to empathize more with both points of view, struggle to take a side. All in all, Little Fires Everywhere is a perfectly pleasant read and a more ambitious book than its predecessor.
Best paired with mimosas, poached eggs in puddles of velvety hollandaise and a three-tiered pink-and-white cake, draped in fondant and topped with a sugar figurine of a baby holding the number 1 in its chubby hands.
Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan is so intimate, moving and hilarious that it is as if When Breath Becomes Air had been written by Nora Ephron.
After the unthinkable loss of her friend Liz followed by the unbearable loss of her father Greenie, both to cancer, Corrigan desperately wants to deserve her own life and the people in it. She starts to think a lot about the power of words and ultimately the twelve phrases that make love and connection possible. Each phrase is an essay in this book.
In the chapter I Was Wrong, Corrigan has a total parental meltdown that involves a dog, poop and an unflushed toilet. Evidence that she and I would be fast friends in real life.
My favorite phrase is No. It’s such a trope to coach women on how to say no without feeling guilty, but Corrigan is better than anyone else at teaching this particular lesson. She uses her mother as an example. “Very few people I’ve known are able to set themselves free the way my mother has. Liberated by the simple act of saying no.”
The essay on Yes is actually a running list of things Corrigan will always say yes to. “Salted caramel, salted rim, salty jokes” among them. More evidence that she and I would be fast friends in real life.
More than anything else this book reminds me of a C.S. Lewis quote that my dear friend Dina introduced me to: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
Many thanks to another dear friend Lauren for gifting me this book. Best paired with a Red Lobster poor of icy cold Sauvignon Blanc.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is my favorite kind of book: literary, provocative and compulsively readable. A February Book of the Month selection and Oprah’s latest book club pick— it lives up to the hype.
Roy Hamilton is a black man born on the wrong side of the tracks who makes good with a college degree and sales career. His wife, Celestial Davenport, is beautiful and smart, from an upper-class family in Atlanta. Together they are a golden couple with a bright future. Then Roy is misidentified, wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison; and their marriage is tested.
As Roy works to adjust to his new reality, he clings to Celestial like a life raft. “You don't know how demoralizing it is to be a man with nothing to offer a woman.” But Celestial struggles to put her life on hold while she waits for her man. “I know you're innocent, there is not one doubt in my mind, but I also know that you're not here.”
An American Marriage is intimate and heartbreaking. Their story is “too tender to explain to strangers.” It is equal parts of hope and pain, like life. Jones does a fantastic job of creating gorgeously flawed characters who each win you over. Roy with his childhood, like a sandwich “with no meat hanging of the bread.” Celestial with her “scotch-and-Marlboros alto,” her voice “like the middle of the night.” There is no right or wrong side.
Jones’ writing is the type of subtle, well-crafted prose that you’ll want to read out loud to anyone within earshot. “When I was mad, I didn’t raise my voice. Instead, I lowered it to a register that you heard with your bones, not your ears.” Chills, I tell you.
Best paired with a feast of short ribs, mac and cheese, and corn pudding with two slices of wedding cake that has been sitting in the freezer for 365 days as dessert.
Other People’s Houses centers on the inhabitants of a closely-knit neighborhood in a hip part of Los Angeles. There, Frances Bloom discovers her neighbor Anne, one morning, lying naked on the living room floor with a man who is not her husband.
Luckily for Anne, Frances is the one person you’d want by your side in a crisis. Still, a smart and glossy dramedy ensues. There is much soul-searching and life lesson-learning by Frances, Anne and the other members of the neighborhood. But this is so much more than just another precautionary tale or voyeuristic look behind closed doors. It is immensely enjoyable.
Abbi Waxman is a master at delivering heartfelt musings with wry humor, such as: “it was one of the paradoxes of parenting that the children you wished you had were actually the version of your own children that other parents saw.” Or: “I had no idea how much mind-numbing, repetitive detail went into just keeping them alive.”
Waxman is adept at serving up a knowing slice of life “in all its imperfect, fractured, embarrassing glory.” Her tongue-in-cheek observations—“Marriage had so little to do with the bedroom, and so much to do with every other room in the house.”—and rich figures of speech—“There were drifts of clutter in every corner, like sticks and leaves in the edges and eddies of a stream.”—make this novel a wry and amusing examination of affluent suburban life.
If you can’t wait until its publication in early April, you can read Waxman’s first novel Garden of Small Beginnings now.
Best paired with a venti Americano and tiny tartelettes, each one folded like origami, filled with fresh figs and mascarpone.
Note: Net Galley and Berkley Publishing Group provided Booktenders Review with an Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own!
So many of my favorite book bloggers and bookstagrammers recommended Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine but it fell flat for me, despite its premise.
This thriller has a fascinating setup: Gina Royal, a mousy Midwestern housewife, discovers her husband is a serial killer when a car drives into their garage and exposes his latest victim. “I’d been a tool, like the saws and hammers and knives in his workshop. I’d been his camouflage,” she reflects.
With her husband incarcerated, Gina reinvents herself as Gwen Proctor—a badass, gun-carrying mom—and settles in a remote town. But just when she thinks her kids might be able to experience a normal childhood, a body turns up in the lake behind her house.
As much as I looked forward to the Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs meets Sarah Connor from the Terminator framework, the book lacked substance for me. For the majority of it I felt like I was witnessing an action movie—graphic and shallow with no real character development or surprise.
If you're looking or a satisfying novel about a psychotic serial killer, I highly recommend You and its sequel Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes instead.
Best paired with liver and onions, served with a nice pinot noir.
If you’ve ever looked out of a plane window while flying over the ocean and shuddered to imagine dropping out of the sky, Castle of Water by Dane Hucklebrige will bring those visions to life.
Barry Bleeker has just quit his job in New York City finance to pursue art full time, and Sophie Ducel is a Parisian architect on her honeymoon. When their single-engine Cessna 208 crashes in the middle of the South Pacific, they are the sole survivors, two strangers who become stranded on a deserted island that is as beautiful as it is treacherous.
To survive, Barry and Sophie must recreate civilization from scratch—collecting clean water, hunting for food and building shelter—which is fascinating in and of itself. But the heart of the novel is the friendship that develops between Barry and Sophie amidst unbearable loneliness, near starvation and terror of never being rescued. Both characters are deeply flawed and profoundly likeable.
The story is told in mesmerizing prose “amid the blue honey water and white sugar sands.” Huckelbridge expertly uses nature and color as characters. We witness a “cotton candy-colored sunrise,” “a flamboyant, sorbet-shaded sunset” and the moon as “a pearly chaperone.” Insert an animated gif of me wiggling my fingers with unrestrained excitement.
Ultimately the book reminds us that even at moments of maximum crisis—companionship, optimism and love can restore us all. Best paired with a starchy bunch of bananas, a gulp of fresh rainwater and zero packages of astronaut ice cream.
This was a gift from my dear friend Dustin who didn't even know that one of my reading goals for 2018 is to go beyond my usual genres of contemporary, women’s and historical fiction. Well, he couldn’t have done a better job of introducing me to fantasy fiction.
I literally devoured this novella. As in, I read all 175 pages in one sitting. That never happens. To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson is easily one of the most imaginative stories I've ever read, and my only regret is that I didn’t savor it more.
The story centers on an Emperor who survives an assassination attempt with his body intact but his mind erased, and the master Forger, Shai, who is tasked with Forging a new soul for him before the public finds out. So Frankenstein meets Katniss Everdeen, sort of.
The book is gripping and philosophical. “To Forge something you had to know its nature, its past.” It is also fable-like in its insight into the human condition. "Copy an image over and over on a stack of paper and eventually the lower sheets will bear the same image, pressed down. Deep within."
To read this book is to think hard about art, and the human capacity to make things anew. “The table’s dull grey splintery cedar became beautiful and well maintained, with a warm patina that reflected the light of the candles sitting across from her.” Sanderson’s imagery has been known to make grown men cry.
The next time you are faced with a free Sunday afternoon, get lost in The Emperor’s Soul’s lyrical prose and page-turner of a plot. Best paired with a strong drink, medallions of elk and bunches of fruit.
Want a playful, irreverent and funny new read to dive into?
Check out Class Mom by Laurie Gelman, a gossip-packed satire about suburban parenting in America. Written in an easy girlfriendly style, it provides humourous insight into what a power-crazed group parents of kindergartners can be.
Jenn Dixon, the narrator, is the most lovable and subversive class mom ever. A low-level bitchiness thrums throughout her emails to the other kindergarten parents, becoming one of the book’s indispensable pleasures. For example:
If you’ve ever seen The Hunger Games, you’ll have an idea of what I went through trying to make everyone happy with these conference times.
Here is how it shook out. If you don’t like what you get, well, good luck finding someone who cares.”
Gelman has penned a modern-day epistolary novel with several sets of major characters and a narrative scattered with a variety of marriage, friendship and parenting issues. It is full of moms and dads with emotional issues, a teacher with ethical ones, and contentious goings-on at a school.
The laugh-out-loud scenes will make you feel deep gratitude for your room parents. If you’re a room parent, this screwball comedy may just make you feel understood for the first time.
Best paired with a glass of Oregon pinot noir, chicken, mango chutney, green beans with pesto and parmesan, and basmati rice.