Abby Plesser

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“Nothing happens by accident. I learned this the hard way, long before I knew that the hard way was the only path to true, certain knowledge. Early in my life, I came to fear the power of strange conveyances. Though I thought I always chose the safest path, I found myself powerless to avoid the small treacheries of fate. Because I was a timid boy, I grew up fearful and knew deep in my heart the world was out to get me. Before the summer of my senior year in high school, the real life I was always meant to lead lay coiled and ready to spring in the hot Charleston days that followed.”

So begins the first chapter of South of Broad, Pat Conroy’s lush, remarkable new novel set in Charleston, South Carolina, and spanning some 20 years from the late 1960s to the 1980s. Following a memoir (My Losing Season) and a homespun recipe collection (The Pat Conroy Cookbook), South of Broad is Conroy’s first novel in 14 years. And lucky for us, it’s another big, sprawling, heartbreaking novel, sure to please seasoned Conroy fans and new readers alike.

It’s said that great writers write what they know—and that’s certainly true of Conroy. As the son of a Marine colonel, Conroy channeled his experiences into his first novel, The Great Santini. Perhaps his most autobiographical work, it depicted a teenage son brutalized by a violent fighter pilot father. Childhood abuse and tragedy also haunt the Wingo children in the 1986 novel The Prince of Tides, most notably Savannah Wingo, who repeatedly tries to take her own life. Conroy’s own sister reportedly battled mental illness, and one of his brothers committed suicide. Though every Conroy novel is different, the themes of parental abuse, mental illness, forbidden love, Catholic guilt, reconciling one’s past with the present and, of course, the nature and meaning of Southern identity, come back over and over. And in South of Broad, Conroy artfully handles these seemingly unpalatable subjects once again.

Eighteen-year-old Leopold Bloom King, the son of Jasper and Lindsay King, is a deeply misunderstood teenager. Named after a character in Ulysses by his James Joyce-loving mother (who also happens to be the school principal and an ex-nun), Leo has spent much of his childhood trying to make sense of the suicide of the older brother he “idol-worshipped,” Steve, and his strained relationship with his icy, overbearing mother (who insists her own son call her “Dr. King”). Steve’s suicide shocked and devastated the King family, throwing Leo into a tailspin of anger, panic and depression.

After years of therapy and self-imposed exile, Leo vows that the summer of 1969 will be his fresh start. Over the course of the next few months, the once friendless Leo King meets and befriends an eccentric cast of characters. There is Ike Jefferson, the black son of the high school’s new football coach who is wary of getting close to whites in a time of racial tension; the orphaned siblings Niles and Starla Whitehead, assigned to Leo’s charge as they are begrudgingly integrated into the local high school; the beautiful Molly Huger, her entitled boyfriend Chad Rutledge and Chad’s tomboy sister, Fraser—members of the blue-blood Charleston elite, who seem almost untouchable to someone like Leo. And then there are the glamorous, flamboyant Poe twins—Sheba and Trevor—running from the demons of their family’s past and landing in the house across the street from the Kings. It is the Poe twins, with their mysterious, terrifying legacy, who will change Leo’s life—and the lives of those around them—forever.

It’s an impressive lineup of characters, and an ambitious, multi-faceted story of prejudice, privilege and love that moves from the heady days of a teenage Charleston summer to the bleak realities of AIDS-ravaged San Francisco. Conroy uses his many gifts as a storyteller and cultural observer to make South of Broad at once a complete portrait of a specific time and place, and also a classic, timeless coming-of-age story.

This is a novel for anyone who has had real, imperfect friendships, who has questioned themselves and their choices, and who has gone the distance (both metaphorically and literally) for someone they loved. Conroy is a master of American fiction and he has proved it once again in this magnificent love letter to his beloved Charleston, and to friendships that will stand the test of time.

 

 

“Nothing happens by accident. I learned this the hard way, long before I knew that the hard way was the only path to true, certain knowledge. Early in my life, I came to fear the power of strange conveyances. Though I thought I always chose the safest path, I found myself powerless to avoid the […]
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Like a lot of little girls, Amelia desperately wants a dog. But not just any dog—Amelia wants a small brown dog with a wet pink nose. Despite her constant pleading, her well-meaning mother and father insist that their family just isn’t ready for a dog. Then clever Amelia decides to change her line of questioning. She asks them, “If we did have a dog and he got lost, would we find him and bring him back?” Amelia’s parents assure their daughter that if they had a dog who got lost, they wouldn’t stop looking until they found him.

And so Amelia creates an imaginary small brown dog named Bones, who snuggles up next to her in bed, eats the green veggies she doesn’t like at dinner and takes walks with her after school. Colorful, multi-textured illustrations from Scottish artist Linzie Hunter perfectly complement the story, giving the reader various incarnations of the adorable dog of Amelia’s dreams. Then one day, Amelia wakes up to find that Bones is gone. In a panic, she asks her parents if they can go looking for Bones—after all, they did promise her that if they ever lost their dog, they would stop at nothing to find him. Amelia and her parents search the town, but they can’t find Bones anywhere. Finally, Amelia suggests that they try the local animal shelter and, wouldn’t you know it, at last Amelia finds her small brown dog with a wet pink nose. While they may not be ready for a dog, Amelia’s parents realize their daughter is, and they agree to take the pup home. Overjoyed, Amelia whispers in her new friend’s ear, “If anybody asks, your name is Bones.”

Popular children’s author Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen has created a whimsical and inventive story for the legions of children always asking their parents for a dog. Young readers will love this funny, easy-to-follow story and the mixed-media artwork that accompanies it; and parents—well, you will be glad Amelia had this idea before one of your children did.

Abby Plesser lives with her own small brown dog, Cooper, in Nashville.

Like a lot of little girls, Amelia desperately wants a dog. But not just any dog—Amelia wants a small brown dog with a wet pink nose. Despite her constant pleading, her well-meaning mother and father insist that their family just isn’t ready for a dog. Then clever Amelia decides to change her line of questioning. […]
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Mark and Karen Breakstone could be any other mid-40s couple. They met through a setup by mutual friends, fell in love easily and quickly, and are slowly checking the boxes toward domestic bliss: marriage, financial security and then, finally, a baby. But this is a story from “Mad Men” creator and writer Matthew Weiner, and fans of his iconic TV show know it can’t be that simple. Spoiler alert: It isn’t.

Mark’s career takes off in ways they couldn’t have imagined, and the Breakstones find themselves quite wealthy, establishing a posh lifestyle on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. After leaving her career to care for the baby, Karen finds herself resenting her husband, his success and little things about their marriage. Thankfully, Heather is an angelic, easy baby, and she grows into a caring, intuitive and beautiful young woman. She is both the glue that keeps her family together and the thing that might tear them apart, each parent vying for her attention and affection, even at the peril of their own relationship. And when Heather catches the eye of Bobby Klasky, a construction worker renovating their apartment building, things take a dark turn.

Bobby is a career criminal with a tragic past and a misanthropic present. Weiner tells Bobby’s story in parallel to the Breakstones’, switching back and forth between both narratives at an almost breathless pace. The novel seems to be building toward an inevitable, brutal end, and it is—just not in the way you might think.

Heather, the Totality is a sharp, slim page-turner, though much simmers underneath the surface of Weiner’s deft prose. In his portrait of an American family in crisis, Weiner makes us question ourselves, our motivations and just how far we would go for the people we love.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Mark and Karen Breakstone could be any other mid-40s couple. But this is a story from “Mad Men” creator and writer Matthew Weiner, and fans of his iconic TV show know it can’t be that simple. Spoiler alert: It isn’t.

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When we first meet college freshman Sharon Kisses, she’s a shy, uneasy scholarship kid from Kentucky. But then she meets Mel Vaught in sketch class—and her world is blown wide open. Confident and unapologetic, Mel recognizes and encourages Sharon’s artistic talent in a way no one has before. Like Sharon, Mel has come from humble and broken beginnings, and together they channel their personal pain into art.

Ten years later, Mel and Sharon are finding success as working cartoonists. Their first animated feature film—based on Mel’s childhood—is getting a good deal of attention. But then Mel gets disturbing news from home, Sharon has a health crisis and their work is put on hold. Once Mel discovers something Sharon has been hiding from her for years, things get even more complicated.

The Animators is a big, sprawling novel about art, love, family and loss. Kayla Rae Whitaker writes breathlessly and beautifully about the power of deep, true friendship and the ways in which people—and friendships—change over the years. She tackles the big questions, creating a novel that manages to be both thoughtful and thought-provoking. And while the plot occasionally dips into minutiae and melodrama, Whitaker’s deft writing keeps the pages turning.

It’s rare to find a novel that so accurately explores the creative process and the hold art can have over those who create it and those who consume it. Mel and Sharon jump off the page as real, fully formed characters, and spending time with them is total treat from beginning to end.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

When we first meet college freshman Sharon Kisses, she’s a shy, uneasy scholarship kid from Kentucky. But then she meets Mel Vaught in sketch class—and her world is blown wide open. Confident and unapologetic, Mel recognizes and encourages Sharon’s artistic talent in a way no one has before. Like Sharon, Mel has come from humble and broken beginnings, and together they channel their personal pain into art.
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When Nica Baker, a gorgeous, popular 16-year-old, is found dead on the campus of her prestigious private high school, her family, friends and community are shocked and devastated. While the case is closed neatly and quickly—an awkward classmate with an unrequited crush and a bad temper—Nica’s older sister Grace has the sick suspicion that the obvious answer is not always the right one. She goes on a quest to find out what really happened to Nica—and ends up discovering far more than she ever wanted to know about her family, her friends and herself.

Lili Anolik’s Dark Rooms is an impressive, haunting debut. Her writing is fast-paced and decisive, her characters rich and nuanced. And while the bones of her story are familiar—a beautiful girl murdered in a seemingly safe community—its plot twists and turns are anything but. Could Jamie, Nica’s rich and charming on-again, off-again boyfriend, be her killer? Or what about Damon, a troubled student with an unusual connection to Nica? Or maybe it’s someone even closer to home—someone who knows both girls better than anyone. As she gets closer to solving her sister’s murder, Grace gets farther and farther away from the life she thought she knew.

Dark Rooms is at once a crime novel and a high school drama, with shades of both Gillian Flynn and Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s a story of life and death, perception and reality, and how to go on when your world shatters before your eyes. With complex characters and a multilayered narrative, it can be hard at times to know whom to root for; thankfully it’s equally difficult to put this stunning debut down.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

When Nica Baker, a gorgeous, popular 16-year-old, is found dead on the campus of her prestigious private high school, her family, friends and community are shocked and devastated. While the case is closed neatly and quickly—an awkward classmate with an unrequited crush and a bad temper—Nica’s older sister Grace has the sick suspicion that the obvious answer is not always the right one. She goes on a quest to find out what really happened to Nica—and ends up discovering far more than she ever wanted to know about her family, her friends and herself.
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Genetics professor Don Tillman is a man of science. His days are meticulously scheduled, his weekly meals pre-planned for maximum nutritional value and his choices made in logical consideration of best possible outcomes. So when he decides it’s time to find a suitable life partner, he does what any rational scientist would do—he creates an extensive dating questionnaire and embarks on “The Wife Project.” The results, of course, are not quite what Don expects, and that’s the fun of reading Australian author Graeme Simsion’s charming debut novel.

When Don meets Rosie Jarman, a gorgeous, free-spirited bartender searching for her biological father, he doesn’t need a questionnaire to tell him that they are not a match—she smokes, drinks and has a serious issue with punctuality. But Rosie is intriguing, and despite his better judgment, Don puts “The Wife Project” aside to embark on a quest to find Rosie’s father.

As Rosie and Don dig through her mother’s past, Don starts to have a little non-scheduled fun—eating meals outside his weekly menu plans, staying out late and talking over drinks, and even bending university rules to use the genetics lab after hours. Before Rosie, no woman had ever seemed to understand Don or appreciate his unique point of view. But with Rosie, things are just different, and whether it’s fate or science, Don finds himself falling for the most unlikely of women.

With The Rosie Project, Simsion has created a wacky, wonderful love story that is just plain fun to read. The ways in which Don and Rosie challenge and complement each other is downright inspiring—not to mention hilarious. Simsion writes with humor and heart, and his story is both original and endearing. The Rosie Project teaches us that it’s never too late to discover who we are, and empowers us to find the people who will love us—quirks and all.

Genetics professor Don Tillman is a man of science. His days are meticulously scheduled, his weekly meals pre-planned for maximum nutritional value and his choices made in logical consideration of best possible outcomes. So when he decides it’s time to find a suitable life partner, he does what any rational scientist would do—he creates an […]
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Curtis Sittenfeld is best known for Prep, her pitch-perfect novel of high school angst, but she is no one-trick pony. She explored questions of love in The Man of My Dreams and gave Laura Bush a fascinating fictionalized life in American Wife. With Sisterland, Sittenfeld introduces us to twin sisters Kate and Violet, bound by a complicated childhood, conflicted friendship and—most importantly—psychic abilities.

Kate and Vi discovered that they had “senses” at an early age, but while Vi embraced and nurtured her premonitions, Kate repressed them. Kate wanted love, marriage and a conventional life, while Vi was always happy to live more on the fringes. When we meet them in their 30s, Kate has the family she always wanted, complete with devoted husband Jeremy and adorable young children Rosie and Owen. Vi is working as a psychic medium and gains international attention when she predicts that a massive earthquake will soon devastate their hometown of St. Louis. It sounds like a strange premise—and it is—but Sittenfeld’s writing is so nuanced, true-to-life and readable, it almost doesn’t matter what she’s writing about.

Kate is our not-quite-reliable narrator, moving back and forth through time to the girls’ childhood with a depressed, reclusive mother and a quiet, passive father; to college, where Kate excels and Violet flounders; and to the present day, where the twins lead vastly different lives, yet are bound by their shared past and visions of the future. As the date of the earthquake approaches, both sisters make decisions that will change their lives forever.

In Sisterland, Sittenfeld plays with our ideas of premonition and intuition and questions the reliability of our perception of current events and memories of the past. Do we see things as they are, or as we want them to be? Do we have control over our lives, or are we destined to follow a certain course? Are things ever as they seem?

The answers, of course, are complicated, and while the plot occasionally dips into melodrama, Sittenfeld never loses control. Sisterland is another Sittenfeld novel to savor, ponder and recommend to friends.

Curtis Sittenfeld is best known for Prep, her pitch-perfect novel of high school angst, but she is no one-trick pony. She explored questions of love in The Man of My Dreams and gave Laura Bush a fascinating fictionalized life in American Wife. With Sisterland, Sittenfeld introduces us to twin sisters Kate and Violet, bound by […]
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In Monica Drake’s unconventional, satirical second novel, The Stud Book, four longtime female friends grapple with the meaning of motherhood, relationships and their lives. Sarah studies animal behavior at the Oregon Zoo, fascinated by how and why animals mate and reproduce. She longs to have a baby of her own, but after three miscarriages, she’s not sure her dream will ever come true. She is (not so) quietly envious of her friends Georgie, who just had her first baby, and Nyla, who already has two children. Rounding out the group is Dulcet, a free spirit more interested in teaching high school students how not to get pregnant with a radical sex-ed presentation than in planning for a family. While these women are in their late 30s and early 40s, none of them have life quite figured out.

Drake probes the nuances of human relationships—mothers and children, husbands and wives, and circles of friends. Much is brewing just under the surface. Sarah will do almost anything to have a baby. Georgie loves her newborn daughter, but her husband is a drunk. Nyla thinks she is managing quite well as a single mother, but her teenage daughter is hiding some dangerous secrets. And while she’s satisfied in her work, Dulcet only seems to find true relief in prescription pills. Set in progressive Portland, Oregon, The Stud Book is a study in happiness (or the lack thereof) and the perils of wanting what we don’t—and maybe can’t—have.

One part comedy, two parts tragedy and three parts honest truth, The Stud Book is a wild ride full of dark humor—after all, Drake’s first novel, Clown Girl, had an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk. It’s a story of choices made and not made, human biology, and the bonds of family and friendship. Drake reminds us that we aren’t so different from our animal ancestors: Many of our desires are, and have always been, primal. What we choose to do with those desires, well, that’s what makes us human.

In Monica Drake’s unconventional, satirical second novel, The Stud Book, four longtime female friends grapple with the meaning of motherhood, relationships and their lives. Sarah studies animal behavior at the Oregon Zoo, fascinated by how and why animals mate and reproduce. She longs to have a baby of her own, but after three miscarriages, she’s […]
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Louisa Clark lives a small, simple life. At age 27, she shares a home with her quirky family, works at a local café and maintains a lackluster relationship with her beau of seven years. She may have dreamt of leaving her tiny English village once or twice, but it just doesn’t seem practical; with the recent economic downturn, Lou’s salary has kept the family afloat. And then her boss closes his café and Louisa is left adrift. Forced to take almost any job that will pay the family’s bills, Louisa agrees to serve as caretaker for a wealthy quadriplegic, despite having absolutely no training. As she quickly discovers, the job is much more—in ways both triumphant and tragic—than she bargained for.

Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You is a most unconventional love story. Lou and her charge, the handsome, privileged Will Traynor, are at first like oil and water. Will is cold and aloof with everyone, but he seems generally displeased to have Lou around. Lou comes to realize that’s because she isn’t just a caregiver—she’s a babysitter. Will was an adventure junkie with career success, complete independence and a slew of gorgeous women by his side. His injury has left him physically and emotionally devastated—and certain that he doesn’t want to live this way. But both Lou and Will have surprises in store for each other, and Moyes lets their relationship develop in wonderful, hilarious and unexpected ways. Lou simply will not let Will go down without a fight, and in her battle to save his life, she ends up changing her own.

Moyes’ twisting, turning, heartbreaking novel raises provocative moral questions while developing a truly unique relationship between two people brought together by chance. With shades of David Nicholls’ beloved One Day, Me Before You is the kind of book you simply can’t put down—even when you realize you don’t want to see it end. This may not be a novel for the faint of heart, but it is a big-hearted, beautifully written story that teaches us it is never too late to truly start living.

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Read a Q&A with Jojo Moyes about Me Before You.

Louisa Clark lives a small, simple life. At age 27, she shares a home with her quirky family, works at a local café and maintains a lackluster relationship with her beau of seven years. She may have dreamt of leaving her tiny English village once or twice, but it just doesn’t seem practical; with the […]
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The premise of Maggie Shipstead’s debut novel sounds like a typical beach read: A family gathers at a New England summer home for a wedding weekend and—surprise, surprise—nothing goes as planned. But Shipstead’s writing is so precise, her characters so nuanced, her plot so unexpected, that Seating Arrangements is anything but a breezy poolside read.

One thing that sets the novel apart from the pack is its narrator. We don’t get the story of Daphne Van Meter’s wedding from the bride herself, or from her troubled, envious little sister Livia, as one might expect; rather, it’s the middle-aged father of the bride, Winn Van Meter, who leads us through the twisting, turning events of the weekend.

Winn loves his daughters and his wife, but he doesn’t understand them. In fact, he doesn’t seem to understand much. He is obsessed with outward appearances and his social status—to the detriment of his family, his marriage and his mental health. Shipstead completely inhabits Winn and all his neuroses, painting a devastating picture of a man in crisis during what should be one of the happiest times of his life. This is social satire at its best, a novel examining a group of people who seem to have it all and are, for the most part, completely falling apart. The bride is beautiful and happy, but she’s also heavily pregnant. Livia, the maid of honor, is too busy nursing her own heartbreak to fulfill her sisterly obligations.

Seating Arrangements is not a novel about a wedding. It’s a novel about family, marriage and what it means to belong. Like J. Courtney Sullivan in Maine or Galt Niederhoffer in The Romantics, Shipstead places deeply flawed characters in an idyllic setting and creates an unforgettable world.

The premise of Maggie Shipstead’s debut novel sounds like a typical beach read: A family gathers at a New England summer home for a wedding weekend and—surprise, surprise—nothing goes as planned. But Shipstead’s writing is so precise, her characters so nuanced, her plot so unexpected, that Seating Arrangements is anything but a breezy poolside read. […]
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Perhaps best known for her provocative memoirs, Kathryn Harrison triumphantly returns to her historical fiction roots with Enchantments, the sweeping (and wholly imagined) story of love between two unlikely allies: Maria Rasputin, daughter of “Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin, and Tsarevich Alexei Romanov, would-be heir to the Russian empire. As with her previous novels Poison and The Binding Chair, Harrison takes a particular moment in time and brings it to stunning life.

It is 1917 in St. Petersburg when a diver pulls Grigori Rasputin’s battered body from the Neva River. That much is historical fact, but afterwards Harrison’s story becomes an alternate history: In the wake of their father’s brutal death, Maria—Masha—Rasputin and her sister, Varya, are sent to live with the Romanovs in the royal palace. Before his murder, Rasputin served as a healer to Alexei—here called Alyosha—Romanov, and the Tsar and Tsarina feel compelled to care for his children after his passing.

Tsarina Alexandra has other motives, too: Alyosha suffers from hemophilia, and she hopes Masha might care for her son as Grigori did. But when the Bolsheviks place the royal family under house arrest not two months after the Rasputin sisters arrive, something entirely different happens. Masha and Alyosha become friends and confidants, distracting each other from the world outside and Alyosha’s condition with stories of their families’ histories, their hopes for the future and the creation of a rich fantasy world only the two of them share. Masha and Alyosha begin to fall in love, but before that love can be fully explored, they are separated—first by distance, then by death.

Harrison is strongest when she writes about Masha—not just as Rasputin’s daughter, but as a living, breathing, feeling young woman in an impossible situation. The relationship between Masha and Alyosha is complicated, confusing and often all-consuming, as most young loves are.

Much has been written about Rasputin and the Romanovs, but Harrison brings her unique narrative perspective to Enchantments, re-imagining history—and a love story—in a completely new way.

Perhaps best known for her provocative memoirs, Kathryn Harrison triumphantly returns to her historical fiction roots with Enchantments, the sweeping (and wholly imagined) story of love between two unlikely allies: Maria Rasputin, daughter of “Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin, and Tsarevich Alexei Romanov, would-be heir to the Russian empire. As with her previous novels Poison and […]

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