By Julie Failla Earhart
Summer is upon us, and you’ll want some great reads to take along on vacation. Here are 10 of my recent favorites, in no particular order…notice the theme: strong women protagonists:
1) The Truth About Love and Lightning by Susan McBride
St. Louis writer McBride scores a big hit with her second magical realism novel (and her 13th book). Forty years ago, Gretchen told a whopper of a lie. Now she has to deal with the man whom a tornado blew into her walnut orchard. Could this man be her long-lost lover, Sam Watson? Maybe. Her daughter, Abby, is convinced that the man is her father, the one who supposedly died before she was born. And that’s not all. When Sam left their small Missouri town, the walnut orchard quit producing. Now that this man has been found beneath one of the might tree, all the trees are in full bloom and Abby is pregnant.
2) The Good Woman by Jane Porter
The first in a trilogy surrounding the Brennan sisters, a large Irish-American family. Set in contemporary Northern California, this novel focuses on the oldest, Meg. Unhappy at home, yet reveling in her job at a local winery, she hesitates when her bosses ask her to go to the London Wine Fair. While they are there, Chad reveals his ever-growing attraction to Meg. Although she’s a doting mother to three active kids, her love life is not what it used to be. Should she take a chance and have a brief fling with Chad, or would the repercussions and guilt be too much to handle?
3) The Good Daughter by Jane Porter
The second novel in the Brennan sisters saga revolves around Kit, the most grounded of the four sisters. She has taught at a Catholic school for the past 17 years. In The Good Woman, we see Kit leave the man she has been living with for the last 10 years. She wants marriage and a family, but Richard doesn’t. After a few bad dates, she’s tired to the dating scene and plans to adopt a child on her own. She buys a small home and begins to remodel it. A new student, Delilah, comes to her class. As Kit reads Delilah’s journals, she begins to suspect abuse. After a visit to Delilah’s home, Kit befriends the neighbor and her life will never be the same.
4) Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley
First published in 1868, Kecklye’s memoir has never been out of print. Keckley was the dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln and probably her closest friend. That is until the memoir was published. Keckley was born a slave. She spent some time in St. Louis and was eventually able to purchase freedom (for $1,200 in 1860) for herself and her son. Keckley goes to WashingtonCity (now Washington, D.C.) to start a business. She becomes somewhat successful, but when she becomes Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal dressmaker and best friend, life changes drastically. After Mrs. Lincoln left the White House in 1865, Mary was destitute. She depended upon Keckley to help her through and put her in charge of selling the dresses she no longer needed. What is particularly interesting is the publication of the letters Mrs. Lincoln wrote Keckley during that period, which keenly illustrates why Mrs. Lincoln was thought to be insane.
5) The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin
If you loved The Paris Wife, you’re gonna swoon over The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin focuses on the marriage of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, as told through Anne’s eyes. The story of their courtship and marriage is framed by Lindbergh’s last flight from New York to Hawaii. The meet after Lindbergh makes his infamous trip across the Atlantic in 1927. Both were incredibly shy people. At first, the fame was exciting. The Lindbergh’s became the First Couple of the Air, charting many of the routes airlines still follow today. When Charles Junior is born, Anne must choose where she wants to be: at home with her baby or in the air with her husband. She manages both rather well until the dark side of fame intrudes. Although they have five other children, a wide chasm erupts in their marriage. I felt like I was a fly on the wall in their home, so honest and revealing is Benjamin’s novel.
6) A Wedding in Great Neck by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Great Neck, Long Island is the site for the nuptials for the Angelica, the youngest of the Silverstein family, to a former Israeli fighter pilot. As the family descends on Mom’s new house (with her new husband), fireworks and sibling rivalry soon heat up the pages. Angelica’s older Gretchen’s marriage is failing and her teenage daughter, Justine, is being a real pill. Mom and the wedding planner do not see eye-to-eye. Adding to the fray is their brother Caleb, the businessman; their brother Bobby, whose own love life is in chaos; their father, Lincoln, a recovering alcoholic; and grandmother Lenore, who may seem frail but sees everything. Then, one impulsive act sets the day on a collision course.
7) Death of a Schoolgirl: Jane Eyre Chronicles by Joanna Slan Campbell
Mystery and nonfiction author Joanna Campbell Slan takes up where Bronte left off in her new mystery. It is April 1820 and Jane has given birth to a son. She and Rochester are deliriously happy. The novel skips to October when Jane receives several troublesome letters from Adele Varens, Edward’s ward. The letters indicate that lives are in jeopardy and “Help!” is scrawled across the top of one such letter. Jane, as much as she hates to leave baby Ned and Edward, decides that she cannot be completely happy unless she is sure that Adele is safe and unharmed. When Jane arrives at the school, a dead body is being removed. The dead girl turns out to be one of Adele’s classmates and bunks in the bed beside hers. Could there be a sadist among the women who care for the girls? What about the amount of alcohol that the superintendent and cook seem to imbibe? And how did those caning scars come to be on more than one of the student’s backs? Jane is determined to find out, refusing to leave even when her life is in danger. Before the novel ends in November 1820, Jane learns more than she ever thought possible.
8) The Daughter’s Walk by Jane Kirkpatrick
I’ve been thinking about walking more, so for inspiration, I bought this historical novel. It’s 1896. The bank is about to foreclose on the Helga Estby’s family farm (the more thing change, the more they stay the same). Desperate for money, Helga agrees to walk from Spokane, Washington, to New York City based on a wager from a fashion designer. (That’s 3,500 miles—a bit more than I have in mind). She must do it in seven months’ time. In a time without readily available maps, Helga and her 19-year-old daughter, Clara, follow the railroad tracks. That might not be the most straightforward route, but it’s the one that seems the most reliable. If you think a woman alone wandering the countryside alone in the 21st century is a dangerous idea, try the 19th century. The first part of the book recounts in fictional detail the actual walk (the characters names have not been changed to protect the innocent). The second half deals with the women’s arrival back home and Clara’s continued journey. She leaves her family and doesn’t see them again for more than 20 years.
9) Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichel
I love to cook, and I love to eat. Therefore, picking up Reichel’s foodie memoir was a no-brainer. The book is composed of essays about Reichel and her involvement with food. The opening essay about her mother’s penchant for using combining leftovers is hilarious. This coming-of-age and -palate is a delightful, easy, thoughtful, and passionate read.
10) Reconstructing Eve by Lisa Hilleren
Hilleren has given a new name to her fiction: Transformational Fiction. Basically, the reader is as much transformed as the protagonist. The protagonists are women who transform by casting off their gender and generational conditioning and embracing their authentic selves. Eve is 44 years old, a divorcee, with an opportunity to date a much young man (13 years younger). She’s been conditioned to be the perfect wife, mother, and mom. But, and there’s always a but. Society still frowns on the older woman/younger man match. Eve decides to buck convention AND her family’s disapproval. Filled with Biblical imagery, readers will be glued to Eve’s search for her true self. Compulsively readable.