Category Archives: women’s fiction

Be Frank With Me, by Julia Clayborne Johnson

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Alice Whitley has loved “Pitched,” a book by reclusive writer M. M. Banning, for years. The book is the author’s singular and much lauded title, a modern classic in the same way “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a classic. Alice, who works for M. M. (Mimi) Banning’s agent, is sent to help the author as she works on a new book–the first one she’s written in years. When Alice arrives, she is immediately put in charge of Frank, Mimi’s son. Frank is nine years old, but inside, he’s an old soul who loves old movies, dresses in old movie fashions, and is smarter than almost everyone else. What Frank can’t do is get along in public schools, handle his reactions when people don’t follow his rules, and understand normal, everyday situations. As Alice begins to understand more about Frank, she begins to wonder about Frank’s father, and she also begins to wonder if Mimi, who types like a fanatic every day in her room, is actually writing a novel. When a handsome, mysterious man named Xander arrives in the household, Alice becomes more deeply involved with the family. Can Alice help Frank adjust to school, figure out how Xander fits into the picture, and help Mimi finish her book, all before Mimi’s finances run out? She is certainly determined to try, at the same time, she hopes to satisfy her insatiable curiosity about the secrets of Mimi and Frank’s life.

This is a marvelous book. At first, it seems like a breezy, light tale, full of comedic antics, mostly performed by Frank. But the story has hidden depth as we come to understand Frank and Mimi, and fully realize the dynamics of their relationship. This story is less about Alice’s growth as a character, and more about her learning to appreciate the personalities and needs of others. And if you don’t fall in love with Frank while you read this book, there is something seriously wrong with you. “Be Frank With Me” is a funny, charming tale, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman loves Rosie Jarmin, and they have been married for almost a year. Their wonderful, unexpected, and hilarious romance unfolded in The Rosie Project, a book I reviewed here and a book I have recommended to many other people. Don Tillman is a genetist, and studies alcoholic mice. He also has Aspergers Syndrome, though he is completely oblivious to that fact. Rosy is study to be an MD, and is Don’s opposite in almost every way. While Don is organized and follows a strict schedule, Rosie is messy and spontanious. Don has trouble making small talk, and needs help with social skills. Rosie is carefree and handles social occasions with less stress and more fun. Yet, somehow together, they make it work. Don and Rosie are living in New York, and Don is working as a visiting professor with Columbia university. Life seems to be going on very well, until one day…Rosie tells Don that she is pregnant.

While Don is shocked, Rosie is clearly off balance as well. She seems determined that she will just continue as she has been. She will work on her thesis, and work at her part-time job, and once the baby is born, maybe take a week off. Don, who freaks out more than a little bit over the news that his wife is in the family way, seems to come to terms with the situation more quickly than Rosie. The issue? Neither member of the couple seems to be able to communicate their thoughts clearly to the other over the whole baby issue. Don is terribly worried that he won’t be a good father. Rosie seems to feel that she’s somehow failed Don by getting pregnant, and since her father wasn’t present for her, she seems to expect Don to leave her. Don, being Don, tries very, very hard to help Rosie, help himself, and to keep the family together. Can he do it? It seems an impossible task. Hilarity, misunderstandings, and moments of true love combine to make a complicated, funny, and enjoyable tale. I particularly enjoyed the aftermath of Don’s attempt to learn about children by filming them “in a natural setting” on the playground. Wow, but Don even manages to resist arrest in the most amusing way possible. If you enjoyed The Rosie Project, then you will enjoy this book.

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The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

Do you like Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory?” I love Sheldon, with his arrogant sureness that he is always right, with his regimented way of doing things, and with his casual put downs of his friends and enemies alike. But you know, if you read that list of characteristics and didn’t know who I was talking about, you might wonder if I was crazy for liking Sheldon at all. He sounds like a regular killjoy. How can anyone enjoy such a person? And yet, with Sheldon, to know him is to love him. His antics bring me great joy.

Don Tillman is like Sheldon, without physics and string theory and comic books. Instead, Don has genetics and cooking and a black belt in Aikido. Don also has Apserpers, but has no idea that he does. (The ironic humor of this strange gap in Don’s knowledge is a funny thread running throughout the book.) Don has had trouble finding a proper girlfriend. So many women start out to be promising, but then fail in one critical category. You see, Don has a list of requirements. The perfect girl will be punctual, logical, will not smoke, drink, or be a barmaid, among other things. Don develops a questionnaire, and he is going to find a proper girl to become his wife by screening those girls he dates. This looks like the perfect plan until Don meets Rosie Jarman. Rosie asks Don to help her locate her biological father by using his genetics knowledge. Rosie, who smokes, drinks, is a barmaid, and is never on time, is clearly not wife material, but Don  is intrigued by her family quest. And soon, Don finds himself attracted to this unsuitable woman, thrown out of his comfort zone again and again and again by her unpredictable antics. Whatever is he to do? He is clearly stepping into the realm of madness, and can’t seem to stop, no matter how hard he tries.

This is a romantic comedy book, yet a very clever one. Don and Rosie are exact opposites, and yet together they become something more. Don shows himself to be one of the most romantic men on the planet as he struggles with how to deal with this enigma of a woman. Rosie is one lucky girl, and thankfully, she seems to know it. From the outside, Don might look like Sheldon…a regimented killjoy. This book shows his soft, gooey center, so that you can know and love him as Rosie comes to love him. Warm-hearted, funny, and very, very smartly written, this is a very enjoyable book, and soon to be followed by a second book titled “The Rosie Effect.”

 

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Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

Jenna Metcalf is thirteen years old, lives with her grandmother and regularly visits her dad in the mental hospital. Yet, in spite of all the emotional drama that this could create, Jenna is fine with her life except for one small detail; her mother, Alice, disappeared ten years ago and no one can seem to find her. Is she dead, or has she run away, leaving her daughter behind? Jenna has to know the truth. Her mother was once an esteemed researcher on elephant grief, and she would never leave her research or her elephants willingly. Jenna has made no real progress to find out what really happened, and so she enlists the aid of a down-and-out psychic and an alcoholic private investigator. Together, they find her mother’s journal, and revisit the past to recreate the events leading up to the day Alice disappeared. As they start to put the puzzle together, they begin to realize that the truth might be something truly unexpected.

“Leaving Time” is a story of a mother’s mysterious disappearance, a daughter with questions, a washed-up psychic, and a world-weary detective; their stories weaving through the lives of the elephants who also share the tale. I really had a hard time deciding if I liked the human or elephant characters best. I particularly enjoyed how Ms. Picoult wove tidbits of elephant life into the story, and used those facts to highlight tidbits and truths in the lives of the humans involved. Beautiful, thoughtful, wise, and wonderful: “Leaving Time” is not to be missed.

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Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Lily Casey, oldest of three children, was a tough young girl. Born in 1903 in West Texas, Lily had to be tough to help her family live daily life. By eleven, she was in charge of hiring help for her father, who raised carriage horses. At fifteen, she rode 500 miles alone on horseback to take a teaching job in Arizona. She learns to ride like a cowboy, to play poker like a card shark, and she isn’t afraid to draw her pistol when necessary. The American West has been romanticized by our movies, TV shows, and books. In “Half Broke Horses,” we see what life was really like, and honestly, I think that Lily Casey puts all those TV and movie cowboys—men or women—to shame. She is a strong woman, and she leaves an impression wherever she goes. Lily is the grandmother of the author, Jeannette Walls, of “The Glass Castle” fame. Jeannette wrote this book based upon family stories of Lily’s life, and in doing so, she gives us a wonderful glimpse of the true “Old West.” Her prose captures Lily’s voice, which Jeannette says she still clearly remembers. Lily Casey accepted life as it came to her, and dealt her hand as best she could. I will remember her no-nonsense, direct attitude toward life for a long time to come.

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Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey

Maud can’t find her friend, Elizabeth, and no one seems to be able to help her find her. Maud is challenged in her task, for Maud has dementia. Pieces and parts of her life have already gone missing, and she survives by clinging to those bits and snatches she still has left. Elizabeth is a critical part, and Maud is fiercely determined to find her, regardless of the lack of help from her family, neighbors, and friends. And so Maud sets off, and we set off with her. We learn, as we journey with Maud, that Elizabeth isn’t the only person missing from her life; her sister is missing as well, lost  long ago. In Maud’s increasingly muddled mind, the veil between the past and the present has become thin. As Maud follows clues to find Elizabeth, we, the reader, also learn of her sister’s story, and see the depth of pain that Maud has carried with her for a great many years.

This is a haunting tale that reminds us, even if the rest of our lives are stripped away, the love of our family and friends is what’s most important. Maud’s friend Elizabeth is missing, and she misses her. Maud is forgetful…she knows that. She writes notes to remind herself of important things to do, but her notes all say that Elizabeth is missing. We see the world through her eyes, perhaps a little too closely. Maud is holding on as tight as she can to those things she holds most dear. Perhaps, before the last of her memories fade away, Maud can find all that she’s lost, at least one last time.

The book will remain with me for a very long time. Dementia and Alzheimer’s rob us of more than just our memories…they threaten to rob us of dignity as they progress. Maud and her family  face her difficulties with great dignity and love. I would hope that the rest of us, when faced with such trials, could do as well.

 

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