all the summer girlsAll The Summer Girls by Meg Donohue focuses on the lives of three friends: Philadelphia lawyer Kate, Manhattan mom Vanessa, and San Francisco writer Dani. Kate’s fiancé has dumped her on the same day she found out she was pregnant. Vanessa is dealing with news that her husband cheated on her with another woman and is searching the internet for a man she dated eight years ago. Dani has just been fired yet again in San Francisco and is turning to her good friends (drugs and alcohol) to cope.

Kate, Vanessa, and Dani have been best friends for years, but have drifted apart. Their separation is as much to do with where they each live, their adult lives, and a major event that happened eight years ago during their last summer at the shore, as it is with normal daily life. The three plan a long weekend getaway at Dani’s father’s house in Avalon, the place where they spent two weeks out of their summer every year until one deadly night eight years ago. Being back in this familiar place brings tension to the surface of their friendship, making them all realize just how much their choices eight years ago have shaped their lives today. Each woman is holding onto a big secret, one that each is afraid to tell, and yet all of their secrets are interconnected. Kate, Vanessa, and Dani are forced to come to terms with the decisions they made eight years ago as their friendship hangs in the balance.

This book is also available as an e-audiobook through OverDrive.

Liza Klaussmann’s debut novel, Tigers in Red Weather, follows two cousins, Nick and Helena, throughout the decades after World War II and chronicles the twists and turns in their lives.  The girls grew up spending much of their time together on the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard and return over the years with husbands, children and family secrets galore.

Told from the point of view of five characters (with each character’s version of reality differing greatly), Tigers in Red Weather’s concludes with a stunning twist, which was just slightly evident  throughout the novel.  I enjoyed Tigers in Red Weather for the banter between the characters on life pre and post World War II but when I began to see the true nature of one of the characters, the book moved in an entirely different direction – a direction that is as much frightening as it is shocking.

The Art of Fielding follows the tale of Henry Skrimshander, a naturally gifted shortstop, blessed with a powerful throw, catlike reflexes, and an almost supernatural gift for seeing the ball’s path as it comes off the bat. But when his can’t-miss aim misses, breaking the cheekbone of a teammate, Henry’s life – and the lives of his teammates and friends at Westish College – is thrown into chaos.

This novel has generated a lot of buzz and was mentioned on a lot of ‘best-of 2011’ lists. The hype, for the most part, is justified. Multidimensional characters and a lot of pretty language are the strong points; baseball may be boring, but Harbach’s sentences describing it are not. The weaknesses (occasional point of view problems, a plot that requires some definite leaps of faith, and just tons of baseball) are minor. The best thing about it may be the setting: Westish College, a fictional Wisconsin liberal arts school, feels very like Augustana (my alma mater), and a campus novel is always a treat.*

Westish and its people share a near-obsessive devotion to Herman Melville, who (in the fictional universe of this novel) visited the school late in his life and gave a speech. That visit turns Westish into an unlikely center of Melville scholarship, and an adoptee of a new mascot – The Harpooner – in honor of the author. If you’re a fan of Herman Melville and Moby-Dick, you’re going to love the packed house of literary allusions: if not, rest easy. Luckily for most of us, you don’t need to be a Melville scholar (or a baseball fanatic) to enjoy this novel.

*If, like me, you enjoy reading about campus life, by all means check out the novels of David Lodge, especially Small World. Jane Smiley’s Moo and Richard Russo’s Straight Man are also excellent choices.

Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder, takes the reader deep into the heart of the Brazilian jungle.  Dr. Mariana Singh, who conducts research for a pharmaceutical company in Minneapolis, has just been informed that her co-worker, Dr. Anders Eckman, has died of a mysterious fever in the Amazon.  At the time, Dr. Eckman was attempting to find the pharmaceutical company’s top research scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, who has ceased all contact with the CEO of the company.  Dr. Singh has been recruited to travel to South America in order to find out more about Dr. Eckman’s death and to make contact with Dr. Swenson about the status of her research, which may culminate in a lucrative new drug for the company.

 After a long trip to Brazil, Dr. Singh learns more about Dr. Swenson’s remarkable research and its ethical connotations.  While trying to process what Dr. Swenson has uncovered and the worldwide implications of her findings, Dr. Singh learns the truth about what has happened to her colleague, Dr. Eckman. State of Wonder is full of adventure, scientific breakthroughs, ethical dilemmas and coming to terms with the triumphs and mistakes of the past.   Actress Hope Davis reads the audiobook and does a superb job of narrating this complex story.

On a side note – about 12 years ago I heard Patchett read from her book “The Magician’s Assistant” in Nashville, Tennessee.  Although the book sounded fascinating, I never got around to reading it.  After listening to this audiobook, I can’t wait to go back and listen to “The Magician’s Assistant.”

After listening to Still Summer by Jacquelyn Mitchard, I was excited to listen to another audiobook by her and chose The Breakdown Lane recently.  The Breakdown Lane tells the story of Julianne Gilles – wife of lawyer Leo Steiner, mother to three and advice columnist in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

All is perfect in Julianne’s world until she sees the signs that her husband is in the midst of a mid-life crisis.  Leo decides to leave for a seemingly idyllic life at a commune in update New York and it becomes increasingly clear that after a time he is not coming back to Julianne and his children.  On top of the stress of becoming a newly single mother, Julianne receives more devastating news concerning her health.  Shortly thereafter two of her children, Gabe and Caroline, set off on a quest to find their father and they are stunned when they find out how his life as changed.  Thinking all is lost and feeling sorry for herself, Julianne gets an unexpected visitor that completely changes her life.  The Breakdown Lane is a fabulous story of loss and the redemptive power of love – it is highly recommended.

This is the start of a new series. (Move over, Armchair Traveler).

I think I’m not that unusual in that I almost always have several books “in progress.” Depending on mood or location, I’ll pick up a mystery, non-fiction book, literary-to-not-so-very-literary novel.

This series will report on first and last impressions. Do you ever start a book and it’s great for the first chapter or two and then it just fizzles? It’ll get repetitive, the characters that seemed charming become unlikable, or it takes a turn into just plain boring. In this series, I’ll give you my first impression and then (after an undetermined and suspenseful wait), I’ll give you my final thumbs up or thumbs down.

Kicking it off,  is  To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal. My first impression is mixed. The writing style is so fluid and unforced, it’s compulsively readable. McNeal is the master of  finely wrought “small”  observations about life or relationships. The mood is one of quietness and serenity.

The book alternates between present-day Judith (married and a movie editor in L.A.) and young teen Judith who moves to Nebraska to be with her father. (I prefer these sections; both the 1970’s period and the character of Judith’s father – an English professor).

I’m less enthralled with the contemporary chapters – there is a feeling of cynicism and fading hope.

Stay tuned-

The three Andreas sisters, Rosalind (Rose), Bianca (Bean), and Cordelia (Cordy) grew up like no other sisters you have ever met in The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown.   Their father, a college professor who speaks to them the majority of the time by rattling off Shakespearean quotes, instilled a love of books in his three daughters.

Raised in the college town of Barnwell, Ohio, the sister’s lives took dramatically different directions after leaving their childhood home.  Their lives are as different as their personalities and although they are sisters, they realize that they truly love each other, but actually don’t like each other that much.  The three reunite back in Barnwell for a variety of reasons, most importantly, their mother’s battle with cancer.

In addition to their mother’s illness, each of the Andreas sisters has their own personal struggle to deal with whether it be running away from their past lives or struggling with their future and its choices.  The engaging characters and witty dialogue make The Weird Sisters a treat to read.  You will find yourself immersed in the lives of the sisters as a member of the Andreas family and you will find yourself caught up in their triumphs and in their failures.

Many of you know Steve Martin as a comedian and as an actor, but he is also a best-selling author of both children’s books and adult fiction.  His newest offering is a fictionalized glimpse into the New York art world, An Object of Beauty.

An avid art collector himself, Martin traces the rise and eventual fall of a young woman, Lacey Yeager, whose ambition and drive to be at the pinnicle of the art world knows no boundaries.  Her tale begins when, right out of college, she accepts a position with Sotheby’s auction house.  Her position is at the bottom of art world ladder (her office is literally in the basement) but she quickly learns what, and more importantly, who you need to know – but it comes at a high price.

Lacey’s eventual fall from grace is explained in full detail at the end of the book (after the author only gives the reader bits and pieces throughout) and her final eviction from the art world is swift and severe – which make for a compelling and fascinating look into the world of million dollar artwork.

The author includes color photographs of many of the works of art mentioned in the book – it is a nice touch!