Hallie Ephron: There Was An Old Woman

A daughter discovers her aging alcoholic mother has become a hoarder. Next door, a nephew tries to convince his elderly aunt to move into an assisted living facility.

These are the seemingly innocuous elements which begin Hallie Ephron’s novel, There Was An Old Woman, but there’s many a twist and turn before the true mystery is revealed.

Who’s losing their mind? Who’s hiding ulterior motives? And where are all the little old ladies (and their houses) in the neighborhood going?

I can’t say more without spoiling the ending. I was pleasantly surprised by this slow building but satisfying suspense novel. Author Hallie Ephron is the sister of late writer/director Nora Ephron and There Was an Old Woman was inspired by several real events, which you can read about on her official site.

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Jennifer E. Smith: This Is What Happy Looks Like

Jennifer E. Smith’s novel, This Is What Happy Looks Like, is a sweet little (well, big) story about two teenagers who randomly connect online, fall in love and then meet in person.

The twist, which is revealed at the beginning, is he’s a famous movie star and she’s harboring a secret past.

I would’ve liked it better without the extra celebrity melodrama. Far more interesting and charming were the emails that open the first few chapters and the awkward transition the two lovebirds experience when they finally meet face to face.

Still, it was a refreshingly light, romantic and happy read.

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Jamie Ford: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford’s book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a great work of beauty and eloquence. The split-narrative novel flows gracefully through heartwarming romance and heartbreaking tragedy in the turbulent war-torn past and the drastic changes and second chances to be found in the modern era.

The story centers on Chinese-American Henry Lee, alternating between his chaotic adolescence in 1942 and his aging present in the mid 1980s. Ford uses historical elements surrounding the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II as the setting for Henry’s childhood romance with Japanese friend Keiko, and the factual discovery in Seattle’s Panama Hotel of belongings of Japanese immigrants from that time as the catalyst for adult Henry’s memories.

The idea for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was initially inspired by the childhood experiences of the author’s father – Ford wrote a short story that would evolve into the novel about the “I Am Chinese” button his father wore as a child. The button is as much a character in the novel as Henry and Keiko, who are the only students of Asian descent in an otherwise all-white private school in 1942 Seattle.

Henry’s overbearing, nationalistic father (who also insists Henry only “speak his American” at home) forces Henry to wear the “I Am Chinese” button to distinguish his son from “the enemy” Japanese during a time when even American citizens of Japanese heritage were rounded up as suspected spies and sent to “internment camps.”

Henry’s blossoming love with Keiko becomes a victim of such prejudice, first within his own home and then in the frightening outside world. The story is brimming with a wide array of emotions – the sweetness of Henry’s feelings for Keiko, the kinship he finds with a black jazz musician, the torment he experiences from school bullies, the frustration born from his strained relationship with his father, and the gut-wrenching sorrows and separations born of war.

The unique plot would be interesting and strong enough on its own, but Ford’s writing style brings it vividly, beautifully to life. The love story is touching without being overtly sentimental, the hurtful consequences of war and prejudice are subtly portrayed without being graphic or disturbing, and the inaudible soundtrack of 1940s jazz woven throughout the story gives the novel a palpable atmosphere of sophistication and elegance.

The book also has the rare ending that is truly satisfying. So often it seems even the best of novels lose steam by the end, but Ford prevented this by writing the final scene before the rest of the novel. The lovely paperback edition I bought includes “A Conversation With Jamie Ford” (you can read it at Ford’s site) in which the author is quoted as saying: “that ending is all-important for me. And by ending, I mean a real, unambiguous, nonmetaphorical ending. I look at storytelling as either banking or spending emotional currency with the reader. Good or bad, happy or sad, the ending is where those emotional debts are paid.” He more than accomplished that goal.

I can’t emphasize enough how extraordinary this novel is, everyone should read it.

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Jamie Ford’s Official Site

Richard Currey: Lost Highway

Lost Highway by Richard Currey is one of the best novels I have ever read, and I’ve read more books than I can remember. I highly recommend it to fans of Crazy Heart. Lost Highway‘s protagonist Sapper Reeves may be a tad more sentimental and genteel than old Bad Blake, but he’s every bit as authentic and enthralling. And Richard Currey’s prose is refreshingly eloquent without detracting from the simplistic nature of this country musician’s story or its rustic Appalachian setting.

Lost Highway spans the life of fictional West Virginian banjo player Sapper Reeves, starting with his optimistic early days as leader of the bluegrass band The Still Creek Boys. The story follows the band from their starving but enthusiastic musical beginnings through their brief brush with fame and subsequent disillusionment – all the while artfully portraying their struggle to survive the arduous life on the road.

As his band and his mental state slowly disintegrate, so does Sapper’s previously happy marriage. He soon finds himself seeking solace from the bottle as all that he formerly loved slips away. This is only the beginning of the drastic changes and heart-wrenching losses the aging musician will face before the end of this beautiful novel. Just as he is dealt his most crushing blow, life grants Sapper a bittersweet second chance.

I checked out Lost Highway from the library last week and read it in two sittings. I’ll be buying my own copy after publishing this review, because this is the kind of book I will re-read and relish for years to come.

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