Elisabeth Atwood

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School is back in session. After the homeroom bell rings, grab one (or both) of these novels and enjoy a quick, humorous tutorial on how not to act while educating the next generation. Debut authors Gill Hornby and Lacy Crawford deliver a welcome dose of playground escapism.

British author Gill Hornby got the idea for her first novel, The Hive, while reading Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes, a nonfiction book that Tina Fey used as the basis for her hit movie Mean Girls. In The Hive, Hornby observes that teenage girls aren’t the only catty females at school: Their mothers can be worse.

The children who attend the upscale British academy of St. Ambrose have started another school year, and their mothers are busy creating their schoolyard cliques and dramas to rival those of their children. Top mum Beatrice rules her minions with daily text invites for her famous workouts, which take place after the school drop-off. Will you be invited to Bea’s group run, her Pilates session or maybe, just maybe, the elusive power walk?

Then actual catastrophe strikes at St. Ambrose. The headmaster informs the parents that they do not have funds to complete construction of the new library. Here, the plot gets a bit cliché: Moms mobilize with Bundt cakes, lunch ladders and other fundraising events, but are too preoccupied to be bothered with their children.

Still, Hornby, the sister of author Nick Hornby, is a perceptive writer, using her comedic talents to investigate the minds of these women even as she exploits their ridiculousness. The Hive does just that—with a healthy serving of British humor thrown in for our reading pleasure. This is a book that might make any mother of school-age children just a little bit nervous.

A GATEKEEPER'S STORY

Lacy Crawford’s Early Decision is the story of five Chicago high school seniors, their college essay-writing process and their well-paid essay consultant, Anne. What makes this novel so fascinating is that Crawford has dramatized her personal experience in the college admissions world. For 15 years, she helped teenagers perfect their essays, gaining access to a network of mega-rich parents who relied on her to help their children earn acceptance to some of the best schools in the country.

Crawford expertly fictionalizes some of the crazy and vicious behavior exhibited by parents who claim they only want what is best for their child. Readers will be rooting for all five young adults—four wealthy, one from a working-class background, all relatable—to find their own voices and their own paths.

This is a winner of a novel. Part comedy, part exposé, it can open the door to debate about the intensity of the college application process. Early Decision should be required reading for every parent of a child who is embarking on the college admissions journey.

School is back in session. After the homeroom bell rings, grab one (or both) of these novels and enjoy a quick, humorous tutorial on how not to act while educating the next generation. Debut authors Gill Hornby and Lacy Crawford deliver a welcome dose of playground escapism. British author Gill Hornby got the idea for […]
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Would Jane Austen be rolling over in her grave after reading the latest additions to the Austen-phile’s bookshelf? Au contraire: If Austen had an iPhone, she would likely be tweeting the praises of these three charming Austen pastiches and tributes—which may have readers reaching for the originals.

AN OVERLOOKED HEROINE
The Pursuit of Mary Bennet, former librarian Pamela Mingle’s first novel for adults, is as much a sequel to Pride and Prejudice as it is an homage. Mary Bennet has always been overshadowed by her four sisters. But now that they are all out of the house, Mary finds herself receiving the romantic overtures of Henry Walsh, a friend of her brother-in-law Charles Bingley. Inexperienced in romance, Mary worries that she is misreading Henry's intentions. Does she deserve love?

The more popular characters, like Elizabeth and Darcy, make appearances in the novel, but Mingle keeps her focus on Mary and her efforts to move past her childish—and, sometimes, obnoxious—ways. Writing in the first person, Mingle is able to explore Mary's inner life in a manner that Austen did not, giving her depth and helping the reader feel invested in her happiness. Mingle doesn’t try to imitate Austen or rewrite her classic novel. Instead, she gives contemporary readers a clever take on an overlooked character.

PUTTING A TWIST ON A CLASSIC
Countless romance novels and love stories have been born from Jane Austen novels. Add Katherine Reay's delightful debut, with intriguing characters and a well-developed plot, to that list. This is not a straight modernization, but rather a pastiche that stands as a tribute to the power of literature. An epistolary novel, Dear Mr. Knightley is made up of the letters and journals of Samantha "Sam" Moore, an orphan raised in the juvenile system in contemporary Chicago who writes letters to her mysterious benefactor. 

Sam is an introvert, hiding in books, shunning personal relationships and, in general, failing to connect with others. After losing her job, she finds that she is the recipient of a special grant: She will be able to attend Northwestern and pursue a masters in journalism, provided that she keep Mr. Knightley apprised of her career through old-fashioned letter writing. Sam uses the letters to open up about her past, an act that allos her to finally accept love and forge relationships with people.

Because Sam hides behinds her favorite novels as a defense, Reay is easily able to weave quotes and storylines from several classics into her tale. Dear Mr. Knightley is a welcome addition to contemporary romance, but what makes it great is Reay’s ability to make the reader feel truly connected to her characters. Readers will get lost in Sam’s story, forgetting about other responsibilities and to-do lists.

MODERNIZING MATTERS OF THE HEART
The Austen project, HarperCollins’ commission of six well-known contemporary authors to provide modern takes on Austen’s completed novels, commences with a bang with Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility. Trollope, the best-selling author of 18 novels, has taken on a heavy mantle here. Her story is the same as Austen’s, but set in modern times, complete with cell phones, iPods and Facebook references.

The modern-day Dashwood family must adapt to a new life after the untimely death of their father, who had never legally married their mother. Left with no money and no home to live in, the three Dashwood girls, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, along with their mother, Fanny, must adapt to a life without the security of inheritance, family name and status.

Trollope does an exceptional job remaining true to the original characters. She accurately captures Austen's classic theme of "head versus heart," even as she updates the characters in believable ways (Elinor, for example, is studying architecture). Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility reminds the reader that the world may be changing too quickly around us, but matters of the heart remain constant.

Would Jane Austen be rolling over in her grave after reading the latest additions to the Austen-phile’s bookshelf? Au contraire: If Austen had an iPhone, she would likely be tweeting the praises of these three charming Austen pastiches and tributes—which may have readers reaching for the originals. AN OVERLOOKED HEROINEThe Pursuit of Mary Bennet, former […]

Best-selling authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (The Nanny Diaries) have delivered another fun and frothy read with How to Be a Grown-Up, a story in which mommy-lit meets “Sex and the City.” 

Our heroine, Rory McGovern, is living in New York with her actor husband, Blake, and their two small children. She’s a part-time magazine editor; he’s an actor struggling to land the big role that will catapult his career. When Blake loses an acting job that was sure to make him famous, he decides he needs a break from fatherhood, responsibility—and financially contributing to the family. He moves out, leaving Rory shocked and paralyzed by the potential destruction of their seemingly idyllic Manhattan life. 

Driven by a dwindling bank account, Rory takes a job at JeuneBug, a “children’s lifestyle” start-up run by two 20-something business school grads who wear shoes that cost more than a week-long vacation. Rory spends much of her day trying to decipher terminology like design vertical, branding ops and backloading appendixes, and her impossibly immature bosses make her re-entry into the working world less than smooth. 

Meanwhile, Blake seems to be slipping further away from his role as father and husband. When Rory discovers that Blake is on Tinder, she decides to play the field and finds herself juggling a group of suitors that includes her boss’ 24-year-old boyfriend. 

McLaughlin and Kraus have given us late 30-somethings a little summertime indulgence. As The Nanny Diaries did for readers in their 20s, How to Be a Grown-Up hits the midlife sweet spot. 

 

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

Best-selling authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (The Nanny Diaries) have delivered another fun and frothy read with How to Be a Grown-Up, a story in which mommy-lit meets “Sex and the City.”

Attention vacationers: Award-winning author Dean Bakopoulos (Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon) has served up a sultry story that fits perfectly in your carry-on.

“There was another life I might have had, but I am having this one.” The epigraph of Summerlong—a quote from Kazuo Ishiguru—is a fitting opening for this story of a disenchanted couple. 

It all begins when Don Lowry, father of two, goes on an evening jog and collides with Amelia Benitez-Cooper, better known as ABC. For reasons he can’t seem to verbalize, Don spends an evening with a very sexy and emotionally unstable ABC, smoking pot and napping on a hammock. Meanwhile, his wife, Claire, meets Charlie Gulliver, a sometime actor and son of an esteemed professor at the local college. The two spend the evening in a pool, and come dangerously close to introducing infidelity into the Lowrys’ already rocky marriage. 

As the steamy Iowa summer continues, the Lowrys’ relationship deteriorates. This is where Bakopoulos strays from a typical suburban love triangle (or is it a square?). This isn’t just a story of people enjoying a free-love bacchanal; Summerlong also explores the consequences and heartbreak of testing the limits of relationships.

 

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

Attention vacationers: Award-winning author Dean Bakopoulos (Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon) has served up a sultry story that fits perfectly in your carry-on.

Readers looking for another end of days, survivalist tale with the same trite conclusions will be out of luck with British author Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days.

Peggy Hillcoat is taken by her survivalist father, James, from their home in London when she is 8 years old. The year is 1976, and she is told that that rest of the world is destroyed, and her mother is dead. James takes Peggy away from everyone and everything she has ever known, to a hut in the middle of a European forest. Our Endless Numbered Days is the story of her life of survival there.  

Fuller, who worked at a marketing agency before becoming a writer, uses her sharp storytelling to give the reader a divergent take on post-apocalypse survival. Peggy’s life in the woods is not simply a struggle against nature, as one might imagine, but also a story of a child trying to make sense of growing up in isolation. 

The novel alternates between the years that Peggy and her father live in the woods and 1985, when 17-year-old Peggy is back at home and coming to terms with the lies her father has told. Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the end (now I sound trite), because Fuller once again defies reader expectations. This provocative book will inspire questions and discussion, and leave readers eager to see what Fuller does next.

 

Readers looking for another end of days, survivalist tale with the same trite conclusions will be out of luck with British author Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days.

Set in the early 20th century, poet Greer Macallister’s haunting first novel is a compelling mystery. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, the Amazing Arden, one of the first American female illusionists, mesmerizes her audience with the classic “saw through man in a box” trick. On this particular night, she decides to use a fire ax rather than a saw.  Was she simply altering her illusion, or carrying out a murder? And the man in the box? Is the slain man really her husband? Detective Virgil Holt is determined to find the answer.

Once in custody, the Amazing Arden—aka Ada Bates—begins to share her story.  Starting with her birth in Pennsylvania and moving through her childhood in Tennessee, Arden weaves a journey that takes her from the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina to New York City. While in New York, she begins her training under Adelaide Hermann. Eventually, she takes over her traveling magic show, which put her in Waterlook for the heinous crime. Holt is swept up in the story, and Ada protests her innocence—but then again, she is a master illusionist. Can she be trusted?

Macallister’s painstaking descriptions of the costumes, technique and trickery involved in Ada’s work as an illusionist are unparalleled. Readers who enjoyed Water for Elephants or The Night Circus should pick up The Magician’s Lie and get lost in the mystery of magic. 

 

Set in the early 20th century, poet Greer Macallister’s hauting first novel is a compelling mystery. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, the Amazing Arden, one of the first American female illusionists, mesmerizes her audience with the classic “saw through man in a box” trick. On this particular night, she decides to use a fire ax rather than a saw.  Was she simply altering her illusion, or carrying out a murder?

As a longtime Picoult fan, I was anxious to devour her latest novel, Leaving Time. And she doesn’t disappoint: Once again, Picoult has masterfully woven what appear to be incongruous events and people together into one captivating and emotional story. This time around, the author’s extensive research on elephants and their surprisingly human emotions are a highlight. But wait, there’s more: She has also included a down-on-her-luck psychic, a spunky teen and a haunting murder.

Thirteen-year-old Jenna Metcalf is consumed with memories of her mother, Alice, a scientist who studied grief and other emotions among elephants. Alice vanished after a tragic accident at the New Hampshire elephant sanctuary that she, her husband and Jenna once called home. Using Alice’s research journals as well as a psychic and the detective who originally investigated the disappearance of her mother, Jenna tries to piece together why her family was ripped apart.

Picoult explores the mother-daughter bond from a unique vantage point. Using both elephants and human beings, she asks, are we that much different from our pachyderm friends when it comes to processing emotion? Leaving Time is an emotional study of what mothers will do for their young—and in true Picoult form, the author delivers an ending that even her biggest fans won’t be able to predict.

 

 

This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

As a longtime Picoult fan, I was anxious to devour her latest novel, Leaving Time. And she doesn’t disappoint: Once again, Picoult has masterfully woven what appear to be incongruous events and people together into one captivating and emotional story. This time around, the author’s extensive research on elephants and their surprisingly human emotions are a highlight. But wait, there’s more: She has also included a down-on-her-luck psychic, a spunky teen and a haunting murder.

What would you do if you knew you would have to say a final goodbye to someone you love? When is it the right time to let go, and when should you hold on? Julie Lawson Timmer tackles these questions with fierce emotion in her first novel, Five Days Left. It’s the moving story of a countdown for two characters who never meet in person, but have become friends through a parenting website.

Mara Nichols has a plan to end her life. She has already chosen a date—five days from now, her birthday. The “garage cocktail” will put an end to the suffering she has endured since being diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. Mara’s husband and 5-year-old daughter, Lakshmi, are unaware of Mara’s plan. Though Mara doesn’t want to leave her family, she also doesn’t want to wait for Huntington’s to take over her body, a progression Timmer describes in brutal prose. Mara’s hands move uncontrollably; she develops a drunken-looking gait; she can no longer drive. All these things solidify Mara’s resolve to take her life.

Scott Coffman also has just five days left—but his countdown involves time spent with his precocious and endearing foster child, Curtis, who is to be returned to his birth mother once she finishes a sentence in prison. But a sudden turn of events causes Scott to consider a future with Curtis. His pregnant wife is reluctant, and Scott finds himself faced with a choice between Curtis’ needs and those of his wife.

Five Days Left presents the kind of ethical dilemma that readers love. The characters are relatable; their choices will be the topic of fierce debate at the next book club. Timmer’s novel is a heartbreaker, but it is also a stirring debut.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

What would you do if you knew you would have to say a final goodbye to someone you love? When is it the right time to let go, and when should you hold on? Julie Lawson Timmer tackles these questions with fierce emotion in her first novel, Five Days Left. It’s the moving story of a countdown for two characters who never meet in person, but have become friends through a parenting website.

Rene Steinke, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award for her novel Holy Skirts, makes an awaited return with Friendswood. Located outside of Houston, the town of Friendswood, Texas, is definitely all-American. The citizens are high on religion, high school football and the oil business. But then a hurricane uncovers not just buried toxic chemicals, but secrets and moral ambiguities that are crippling the town.

Steinke’s narration skips among four different narrators, but the most dynamic characters are middle-aged Lee and teenaged Willa, both of whom want to challenge the status quo in a community where people are clearly encouraged to “go with the flow.” Lee’s daughter, Jess, died tragically from a blood disorder that Lee is convinced was caused by the oil company’s toxic waste. She is a woman with a mission, but many think her charges against the oil companies are unfounded. Willa was raised by a conservative family that believes everything their preacher espouses. In an effort to garner attention from the cool boys, she attends a party where she is drugged and gang raped—yet her parents and pastor advise her to forget what happened to her and not make a spectacle of herself.

The two women’s struggles to bring the truth to light make for an exciting read. Lee will go to any length, legal or not, to fight against the groups that refuse to acknowledge the chemicals infecting their town. Willa works to find her voice and the courage to expose the boys that hurt her. Friendswood is full of morally complex characters that will keep you engaged until the final page.

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Rene Steinke, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award for her novel Holy Skirts, makes an awaited return with Friendswood. Located outside of Houston, the town of Friendswood, Texas, is definitely all-American. The citizens are high on religion, high school football and the oil business. But then a hurricane uncovers not just buried toxic chemicals, but secrets and moral ambiguities that are crippling the town.

Judith Frank’s second novel is a powerful tale of a family working its way through unthinkable tragedy. It opens as Matt Greene and his partner, Daniel Rosen, are flying to Tel Aviv—Daniel’s twin brother and his wife have just been killed by a suicide bomber. Ilana and Joel left behind two small children, 6-year-old Gall and baby Noam. A devastated Daniel knows that his brother and sister-in-law wanted Matt and Daniel to raise the children if anything ever happened to them.

Ilana’s parents, Holocaust survivors and devout Jews, are stunned that their only remaining connection to Ilana will now live thousands of miles away with a gay couple. Daniel’s parents are nonplussed as well. They are not fans of Matt and feel as if they should have been the ones chosen to raise the children.

As is typical in tragedies, the characters focus their energy and emotions on the children left behind. Frank, however, spends a good deal of time focusing on the character of Daniel, the surviving twin and now foster father, who is overwhelmed with grief. The multilayered story is about the characters learning to live after a sudden and immense loss. With issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terrorism, gay partnership and Judaism in America as a backdrop, All I Love and Know is a powerful novel about love, loss and the will to endure after inconceivable tragedy.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Judith Frank’s second novel is a powerful tale of a family working its way through unthinkable tragedy. It opens as Matt Greene and his partner, Daniel Rosen, are flying to Tel Aviv—Daniel’s twin brother and his wife have just been killed by a suicide bomber. Ilana and Joel left behind two small children, 6-year-old Gall and baby Noam. A devastated Daniel knows that his brother and sister-in-law wanted Matt and Daniel to raise the children if anything ever happened to them.

Laura Lane McNeal’s debut novel is a gift to readers who long for an iced-tea-sipping, front-porch-swing kind of escape. With Dollbaby, McNeal took this New Orleans native on a trip back to my hometown, complete with the smells, landmarks and traditions that make me proud to call the Crescent City home.

When young Ibby Bell is dropped off at the doorstep of her grandmother, Fannie, in the summer of 1964, she is a child without a family. Her father, Fannie’s son, has died suddenly, and her mother has vanished, unwilling to raise her only child.

Ibby is soon indoctrinated into the ways of New Orleans by Fannie’s black cook, Queenie, and her spunky daughter, Dollbaby. Ibby quickly realizes that her lively grandmother is no Southern wallflower. Still, Fannie’s history was full of tragedy even before the death of her son, and Queenie and Dollbaby must help Ibby navigate the secrets that Fannie has locked away. Over time, Ibby grows to love and understand her quirky, moody, gambling grandmother.

However, Dollbaby is not just a lighthearted Southern novel, it’s also an exploration of the racial and political unrest of the 1960s. McNeal artfully uses the views of both white and black characters to capture an accurate snapshot of the social unrest in New Orleans.

McNeal’s witty prose and expertise on all things New Orleans will enrapture readers of The Help and Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood.

Laura Lane McNeal’s debut novel is a gift to readers who long for an iced-tea-sipping, front-porch-swing kind of escape. With Dollbaby, McNeal took this New Orleans native on a trip back to my hometown, complete with the smells, landmarks and traditions that make me proud to call the Crescent City home.

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