I devoured A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne as if the pages were made of dark chocolate sea salt caramel. It is a terrifically-conceived and masterfully-executed psychological thriller about a handsome and manipulative sociopath named Maurice Swift who wants to be a famous novelist. The problem, you see, is that Maurice has no imagination, so he has to steal his story ideas and he does this in the most twisted and depraved ways possible. Read this when you’re in the mood for an addictive, chilling satire of toxic ambition in the publishing world. It is Less by Andrew Sean Greer meets You by Caroline Kepnes. Best paired with seven pints of beer, two double whiskeys, a single malt and a glass of Baileys.
Nina Riggs died of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 39, and The Bright Hour is the poetic memoir that chronicles the last two years of her life. It is the bittersweet perspective of a dying wife and mother of two young sons. Read this when you’re in the mood for a book crammed with life’s big questions. Nina’s explorations into spirituality, truth, music and literature will prompt you to consider what it means to be human. It is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi meets Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan. Best paired with a kilo of rib eye, cooked sanglant, as they say: bloody.
Kya is an abandoned child in the remote marshlands of North Carolina, and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is her fictional coming-of-age story. She survives by eating mussels-in-grits, befriending the gulls and boating into town for essentials. You can tell this novel is written by a wildlife scientist; it is a celebration of nature. Then Kya’s private world is disturbed—first by a love triangle, then by a murder mystery. Read this when you’re in the mood for a book with very strong sense of place and a refreshingly straightforward approach to crime fiction. It is Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel meets To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Best paired with chicken-fried steak, mash and gravy, turnips, coleslaw, biscuits, pecan pie with ice cream. Amen.
It is the 1920s and Aiden Bishop has been invited to a masquerade ball at a decaying mansion in the English countryside. A murder will occur there and he will have eight chances to solve it. Only he wakes up in a forest with no memory of who or where he is. So begins The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle—the twisty-turny, mind-boggling debut novel from Stuart Turton. Read this when you’re in the mood for what the author calls a “time-travel, body-hopping murder mystery”. It is Dark Matter by Blake Crouch meets the board game Clue. Agatha Christie meets the late 90s television show Quantum Leap. Hansel and Gretel meets Downtown Abbey. Best paired with a pot of tea and a tray of scones with butter melting off the side.
Ten-year-old Daniel Sempere visits the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and discovers the last surviving copy of a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. This singular event launches a decades-long bold adventure to uncover the secrets and tragedies in Carax’s life. It is a labyrinth of a main plot jam packed with rich side stories and supporting characters. Read this when you’re in the mood for a slow burn, devilish literary mystery set in Barcelona during the twentieth century. The perfect October read, it is The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield meets The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Best paired with a well-endowed omelette sandwich, a chocolate bar and a triple coffee heavily laced with rum and sugar.
Yejide and Akin are a young happily married couple in Nigeria who swear off polygamy until infertility strikes and a second wife is forced on them. Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s unforgettable debut novel Stay With Me examines a marriage as it deteriorates in the presence of secrets, jealousy, betrayal and grief. Read this when you are in the mood for a heartbreaking story of love, sacrifice and hope told in spare and shimmering prose. It is The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison meets American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Best paired with rice cooked in earan leaves and topped with bits of smoked fish and cowhide in a palm oil stew.
Kate DiCamillo is back! Her latest novel begins with twelve-year-old Louisiana and her granny heading north in the middle of the night, leaving Florida and her friends and a cat and Buddy the one-eyed dog behind without telling any of them good-bye. Louisiana’s Way Home (due out October 2) tackles the most complex of issues such as abandonment and loneliness with DiCamillo’s signature humor and tenderness. Read this when you are the mood for a modern-day fairy tale with a plucky heroine and great cast of supporting characters including a motel owner with hair perpetually in curlers, a church organ player who smells like unshared caramel candy and a small town boy with a pet crow named Clarence. It is Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White meets Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson. A heartbreakingly irresistible read aloud that you will enjoy as much as your kids do. Best paired with bologna and orange cheese and mayonnaise on white bread with pineapple upside-down cake for dessert.
Sarah Jessica Parker has a brand-new publishing imprint and its first acquisition is A Place for Us. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel is about a Muslim couple who immigrate to California from India. It explores how their three children balance Eastern tradition with present-day American culture in very different ways. Read this when you are in the mood for an emotional family epic that grapples with some of the most visceral and raw questions of our time. It is a Bollywood-esque Romeo and Juliet with a touch of Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman. SJP’s impeccable taste clearly extends from fashion to literature. Best paired with chicken tikka masala, biryani and saag paneer. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/5
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.