Jennifer Weiner: Hungry Heart

Jennifer Weiner’s Hungry Heart carries the subtitle Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing, which pretty much describes the scope of the book, composed of memoir, essays, and a few articles from Weiner’s career as a journalist. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I picked it up in the writing section at Half Price Books, thanks to the subtitle, but it’s not a writing craft Hungry Heartbook at all. The sections about Weiner’s writing career are interesting, but the tales of her life and family are even better. Weiner has fought her weight all her life, but if you’ve felt like an outsider for any reason, you’ll identify with her. I’ve read several of her novels, and reading this sent me out to pick up a couple more, including her first, Good In Bed, now that I know how she came to write it (and the stunning advance she got for it, something pretty much unheard of in the current publishing market).

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Weiner is, as she says, a “proud and happy writer of popular fiction.” She is also something of a campaigner for gender equality in, say, the New York Times, meaning that women writers, and the fields they dominate, deserve equal treatment by reviewers, and she addresses those topics in the book.

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She also discusses her family: her ill-matched parents, her wandering and sometimes abusive father, her mother who came out as a Lesbian in her fifties, and her quirky siblings. “It is a truth universally acknowledged among writers,” she says, “that an unhappy childhood is the greatest gift a parent can provide.” I’m not sure I’d take that literally—I had a happy childhood with parents who were voracious readers and taught me to love books—but I have to agree that our childhood traumas, large and small, follow us through life. Weiner has built a successful career as a novelist on her own experiences, and it’s fascinating to look behind the pages at her adventures.

 

Spellbound Mysteries

Doom and Broom is the second installment in Annabel Chase’s charming Spellbound series. Emma Hart is settling into her new life in Spellbound, a mysterious town populated Doom and Broomby a wide variety of supernatural sorts trapped there by a curse so old no one really remembers the details. Emma, who didn’t even know she was a witch until she wandered into town and found she couldn’t leave (in Curse the Day), now has a house, a vampire ghost roommate (the previous owner), and a job as the local public defender.

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Her first court case involves defending a teenage Berserker accused of vandalism, but the real news in town involves the suspicious death of a soon-to-be-married female werewolf. Did Jolene commit suicide, or is there a more dastardly explanation?

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While investigating that, Emma also deals with her remedial witch training, especially the broomstick course, not easy for someone with a fear of heights. And then there’s harp therapy, ladies poker night, a sexy vampire named Demetrius, and of course Daniel the depressed fallen angel.

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The third book, Spell’s Bells, is every bit as entertaining, as Emma defends a lovesick Spell's Bellsbrownie on burglary charges and tries her hand at speed dating to meet a wereweasel (that dates goes about as badly as one might expect), all the while investigating the mysterious glass coffin holding a comatose dwarf named Freddie. She goes for a hike with a werelion named Fabio and visits a hilariously demented witch in the local retirement home.

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Lucky CharmLucky Charm is another delightfully funny entry, fourth in the series. While searching for a cure for the spell that has the town council behaving like children (and requiring constant supervision), Emma finds new ways to deal with her sometimes scary paranormal neighbors and learns a bit more about her own background. Chase continues to add new and interesting characters to her “cursed” town.

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There are five more books in the series. I think I’ll go download the next one.

 

Sally Kilpatrick’s Bless Her Heart

I’m not a Southerner by birth, but I’ve lived down South long enough to know just what a double-edged sword the phrase “bless your/her/his heart” can be. If you don’t already understand this Southernism, here’s a novel that will tell you all you need to know.

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Bless Her HeartSally Kilpatrick’s delightful Bless Her Heart begins with its protagonist, Posey Love, stuck in a ten-year train wreck of a bad marriage to a man who embodies everything wrong with the man as head of household, woman as submissive and obedient wife branch of conservative religion. In fact, Chad Love started his own ministry largely to take advantage of others.

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Posey, who wants a baby more than anything, has put up with her domineering husband for years, at least partly in reaction to her own mother, who has raised three children by three men to whom she was never married at all. But when Posey discovers in quick succession that Chad has been cheating (adultery and hitting are deal breakers even for Posey), run off with another woman, failed to make the car payment, and sold the house, she begins to take back her own life and finds out that hard as that is, she’s up to the challenge.

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As Posey grows into the person she was always meant to be, she takes some adventurous steps. Encouraged by her free-spirited younger half-sister, she sets out to not only give up something important for Lent (church!), but also to sample the Seven Deadly Sins, with generally hilarious results. Along the way she finds out that wishes can come true in very surprising ways.

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Bless Her Heart handles some very serious issues, ranging from emotional abuse to Alzheimer’s, with sympathy, understanding, and humor. Especially humor. The characters, from Posey’s rediscovered best friend Liza to her unconventional but wise mother Lark, are well developed and supportive, and Chad is a man the reader will indeed love to hate. It’s a joy to watch Posey climb out of her self-imposed shell and blossom.

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This is the fourth of Kilpatrick’s loosely related novels set in and around the town of Ellery, Tennessee. Don’t miss The Happy Hour Choir (with its heroine, Beulah Land), Bittersweet Creek (”Romeo and Juliet with cows”), and Better Get to Livin’ (the funniest love story ever set in a funeral home).

 

Heavenly Creatures Revisited

On a recent evening I started reading Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, by Peter Graham, and spent most of the next day glued to it. If you know the movie Heavenly Creatures, this is the rest of the story, about Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two girls in Christchurch, New Zealand, who in 1954 murdered Pauline’s mother. There was no doubt as to their guilt; the trial centered on questions of insanity.

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Anne Perry and the Murder of the CenturyAnne Perry’s identity as Juliet Hulme was revealed by the making of the film (although not by Peter Jackson, who did not want to expose either of the women). I had read many of Anne Perry’s mysteries before that, but I don’t think I’ve read one since. (She does not come off well in this book.)

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The book is very thorough and well researched, by a New Zealand lawyer with a long-time interest in the case. He goes into the backgrounds of the girls and their families, describes the killing and the trial in great detail, and follows up with the later lives of the two women and many other people associated with the case. I haven’t been so caught up in a book in quite some time. A fascinating look at the time and place, and some very strange psychology.

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After I finished the book, I found my copy of Heavenly Creatures on the DVD shelf and Heavenly Creatureswatched it again (I hadn’t seen it in several years). The movie is quite true to the actual story, with stunning performances by Kate Winslet as Juliet and Melanie Lynskey as Pauline (both film debuts) and some remarkable special effects work animating the girls’ fantasy kingdom of Borovnia and their infatuation with Mario Lanza. The film ends with the murder.

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The film centers largely around Pauline, as her diaries were available and were extensively quoted in the script. The original title of Graham’s book, So Billiantly Clever, came from Pauline’s writings, as did the phrase Heavenly Creatures. Juliet’s mother managed to burn Juliet’s diaries before the authorities asked for them. Graham’s book goes far deeper into the girls’ personalities and behavior, and makes it clear that Juliet, rather than Pauline, was the dominant personality in their fantasies, and a willing participant in the murder.

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Heavenly Creatures is an amazing film, but for the whole story, read Graham’s book.

 

More Mysteries (To Read!)

No technological enigmas today, just three very readable mystery novels.

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Maggie Doyle is back in a new adventure in Zara Keane’s The 39 Cupcakes. She’s settling into her new life as a private investigator on Whisper Island, just off the coast of Ireland, and into her growing relationship with Garda Sergeant Liam Reynolds (at least until his outspoken eight-year-old daughter comes to visit). The Movie Theater Cafe is hanging on (with a showing of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps) despite the opening of The Cupcake Cafe right across the road. And Maggie’s cousin Julie has recruited her to help chaperone thirty summer camp kids on a tour of an archaeological excavation.

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The 39 CupcakesPeople may call Maggie a Corpse Magnet, but it’s actually one of the kids who discovers the first body. Bones do turn up in archaeological sites, but not with modern dental work. With Reynolds technically on vacation, Maggie and her unofficial assistant Lenny are off and running on the investigation.

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The 39 Cupcakes brings back many of the characters from Maggie’s previous cases and adds a few new ones. The cast and the setting of these books is so much fun, and Maggie works her way through the mayhem around her with great humor, seeing her father’s country with American eyes, struggling to pronounce Irish names, and waiting for those official divorce papers.

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Fortunately we won’t have to wait too long for Maggie’s next case: Rebel Without a Claus, coming this holiday season.

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Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mysteries never spend much time on my TBR shelf. I’ve been a fan of the series since the first book, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, came out in 1977. Over the years we have met more and more members of Sharon’s large and increasingly The Color of Fearcomplicated family, and a number of them figure prominently in the latest installment, The Color of Fear. When Sharon’s visiting Shoshone father is attacked and beaten on a San Francisco street, the incident appears at first to be a random hate crime, perhaps related to other recent crimes against minorities. But when Sharon and her colleagues investigate, it appears there’s a lot more going on—and someone will go to any lengths to stop Sharon from finding out the truth.

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Sue Grafton also has a new mystery on the shelf, Y Is For Yesterday. I haven’t picked that one up yet, because I’m three behind—V, W, and X are still waiting for me. I’ve been reading Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone novels since A Is For Alibi (1982), and I will catch up. These are two series that will stay on my keeper shelf.

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I missed David Handler’s Stewart Hoag mysteries completely when they were published in the 1980s. I picked up the first one, The Man Who Died Laughing, when it popped up on an ebook sale email recently (I get far too many of those). How could I resist a mystery starring a one-hit wonder writer conned into trying his hand at ghostwriting? Not to mention the basset hound, Lulu.

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The Man Who Died LaughingIn The Man Who Died Laughing, Hoagy heads to California to ghostwrite the autobiography of famous comic Sonny Day. Much of Sonny’s story comes out in the form of interview tapes, but he’s reluctant to answer the one question everyone asks—what caused the public fistfight which ended his partnership with straight man Gabe Knight. That question seems to be at the heart of a whole string of drastic events: death threats, vandalism, arson, and finally murder. Someone clearly does not want the answer to become public.

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The book is set in the early 1980s, and many celebrities of the day wander in and out of the story (perhaps to assure the reader that Day and Knight are not based directly on any real people), lending considerable atmosphere to the setting. There’s quite a bit of wry humor, but the mystery is a bit darker than I expected. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I have another Handler tale (The Woman Who Fell From Grace) waiting on my Kindle. I’ll be watching for others in the series.

 

Natalie Meg Evans: The Wardrobe Mistress

Natalie Meg Evans’ latest novel is The Wardrobe Mistress, set in London shortly after the end of World War II. Vanessa Kingcourt, lately released from wartime service in the WAAF, her art college studies long ago disrupted by the war, returns to London for the funeral of the father she hasn’t seen since she was a small child. From that afternoon in the cemetery she finds her life intersecting with that of Commander Alastair Redenhall, a Naval officer married to Vanessa’s childhood friend, and a mysterious woman who was an associate of Vanessa’s father.

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The Wardrobe MistressRedenhall has inherited the theater where Vanessa’s father was working when he died, and hopes to reopen the damaged building and restore it to a working stage. Vanessa, driven by family mysteries and a hopeless attraction to the Commander, manages to land a job as the theater’s wardrobe mistress, a job she’s not at all qualified for.

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Vanessa is a determined protagonist, drawn into the world of the theater by curiosity about her father, a small-time actor who abandoned her and her mother for life on the stage, held there by her growing love of both the theater and Redenhall. People from her past and from the theater company, all of whom knew her father in one way or another, contribute clues in her search for the truth about her family.

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The shadow of war and constant danger hung over Evans’ previous novels, The Dress Thief and The Milliner’s Secret, set in Paris just before and during World War II. Without that element, The Wardrobe Mistress moves at a slower and somewhat less compelling pace. But it evokes the fascinating world of the theater (probably even more so for those more familiar with the works of Oscar Wilde than I am), and of a time when divorce was scandalous and very difficult, when homosexuality was a crime, and when nearly everything was rationed.

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Natalie Meg Evans’ novels, from the British publisher Quercus, are available as ebooks from Amazon, and on paper from the Book Depository in the UK (good prices and free shipping anywhere).

 

Gerry Bartlett’s Texas Pride

In Gerry Bartlett’s Texas Pride, Shannon Calhoun is reeling from the revelations dogging Calhoun Petroleum, not to mention the terms of her father’s will, which have her working in a cubicle in the public relations department of the now-shaky family business. How is she going to tell her contacts in the world of high society fund raising that Calhoun can no longer afford to support their causes?

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Texas PrideThings only get stranger when Shannon walks into her sister’s office to see Billy Pagan, the boyfriend she dumped in college, now a high-powered criminal attorney brought in to help with Calhoun Petroleum’s legal woes. The old sparks are still there, but have Shannon and Billy grown up enough to fan those embers into a lasting fire–without burning each other?

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Texas Pride is full of action, from motorcycle gangs to an airplane crash, moving from high-rise Houston to rough neighborhoods and biker bars, and a cast of characters ranging from Billy’s orange-haired grandma to his Harley-riding investigator. But at the heart of the book are Shannon and Billy, searching for a path through life that they can travel together.

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It’s always fun to read a book set in a familiar place, and those of us in the Houston area will enjoy looking in on the city, the oil industry, and even an East Texas Indian reservation and casino. Gerry Bartlett is a life-long resident of the region, knows it well, and clearly enjoys writing about it.

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More books set in the world of the Calhouns, featuring some characters we’ve met and some we haven’t, will becoming from Kensington next year. I’m looking forward to more Texas suspense.

 

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