Faithful and My Sweet Vidalia Reviewed

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FAITHFUL by Alice Hoffman

There are certain books about which you discover, I needed to read this book at this very momentFaithful is such a book.  Shelby Richmond’s life has been derailed by a sudden tragedy for which she feels responsible, and the rest of this amazing novel is an atonement, a story of redemption and forgiveness, of moving forward in the most literal sense.  It is raw and beautiful, not overly dramatic, but always honest.  “She is vindictive, even when she’s the guilty party,” Hoffman writes.  “Perhaps it’s always true that when you wreck your own life, you blame everyone else for your misfortune.”  Shelby is a complicated character, pushing love away because she doesn’t deserve it, burying her feelings, shrinking into a pale, bald-headed, empty vessel.  That’s what I took away, but the writing is too beautiful to be captured in these trite descriptions.  At Alice Hoffman’s deft hand, Shelby Richmond is also worthy, understandable, honorable, a young girl set adrift, but one who will ultimately find her shoreline.  I give nothing away by saying that Faithful is tragic, optimistic and highly recommended.

MY SWEET VIDALIA by Deborah Mantella

One of my favorite reads this summer, MY SWEET VIDALIA, has the most unique point-of-view since Death narrated The Book Thief.  Though Vidalia Lee Kandal Jackson loses her unborn baby through an act of spousal abuse, Cieli Mae, the “determined spirit child,” will not leave her mother’s heart and psyche.  She stays on with the poverty stricken young woman through successive births and abuses, giving advice and moral support to her “Sweet Vidalia.”  Only an author as talented as Deborah Mantella could pull off this technique in such a seamless manner.  Cieli Mae becomes a cherished confidante to her mother and a delightful character to the reader.  You will root for this family and the colorful array of secondary characters too.  The well-plotted story reminded me a little of FRIED GREEN TOMATOES AT THE WHISTLE STOP CAFÉ with its southern charm and suspense.  Kudos to Deborah Mantella.  Can’t wait to see what she writes next!

A Man Called Ove and The Alliance

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A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman

Imagine Clint Eastwood in Grand Torino (the movie, not the book). Ove’s kind of given up on life except for these pesky neighbors who are foisting their problems upon him. Now put him in Sweden, give him an interesting backstory and suicidal tendencies (that are comical—stay with me here) and you’ve got A Man Called Ove. I loved every page of this quirky book. If you’ve recently lost a spouse, it might not be the book for you, but otherwise it’s a winner. You will love Ove, appreciate his OCD-edness, admire his loyalty and laugh at his ability to say the absolutely wrong thing at the right time. FoxTale’s book club read it, and there was not a bad mouther in the group. A Man Called Ove is a book to be universally loved.

THE ALLIANCE by Jolina Petersheim

In the category of “write what you know,” Jolina Petersheim has met us halfway. What she knows is growing up Mennonite. What she doesn’t know is what happens if a Mennonite community has its values challenged by a society run amok by an EMP (electromagnetic pulse,) rendering all things electrical now useless. Would those who have learned to live off the land be attacked by city dwellers who are so dependent on the technology they are now deprived of? Would a pacifist community fight to protect its own? It’s an interesting premise and one that Jolina explores with a deft hand. My only criticism is that The Alliance is the first in a duology of books, and I’m dying to read the next one already! For readers of Hunger Games, and lovers of dystopian novels, dive into Petersheim’s The Alliance and got lost in another world that might be ours one day.

Lilac Girls and Vinegar Girl

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Diametrically Opposed Books About “Girls,” by Ellen Ward

LILAC GIRLS bylilac girl kelly York Times Bestseller List has already declared Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel a book to be reckoned with.  But let me add that, in the opinion of this bookseller, LILAC GIRLS is one of the finest books I’ve read all year. 

Expertly told from the point of view of three women who experienced the holocaust in different ways, you cannot help but be drawn into their stories.  The American, Carolyn Ferriday, and the German doctor, Herta Oberhauser, are historical characters; their backgrounds have been meticulously        researched by Kelly.  The third story is fictitious, but all too real among the atrocities of war; in this case, Kasia, captured as a young girl, is the victim of medical experimentation at a concentration camp, Ravensbruck, an actual all-women’s camp known for hideous surgeries on its prisoners.

It’s a dark time in history, but much seems relevant to today’s highly charged political climate:  xenophobia, propaganda, and a glaring naiveté to what is happening right in front of us.  Still, Lilac Girls is oddly hopeful.  In the end there is forgiveness, rebuilding and enduring love.  We all know the story of the Holocaust and how it ends, but reading this award-worthy novel will give you sparks of enlightenment, contributing to an awareness that may keep us from repeating the past.


VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler

Ivinegarn this thin volume, Anne Tyler does what she does best—develop quirky, loveable characters with lives trapped in the mundane.  Whether it’s a mother walking down the beach and never coming back, or a businessman who writes travelogues for a living, Tyler’s characters are stuck in motion, defensive about their quicksand lives until they see freedom on the horizon.

Kate Battista is the Vinegar Girl, and Pyotr, her father’s lab assistant, is freedom, no matter how unattractively it’s packaged.  Tyler’s novels are not so much surprising as they are pleasantly familiar, like catching up with a good friend you haven’t talked to in years. VINEGAR GIRL is a quick read with a satisfying story but nothing that will keep you up at night pondering its philosophical implications.  What makes this Anne Tyler novel unique is that it is a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW.  Those who enjoyed READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND will jump rightinto the plotline of VINEGAR GIRL. Signed first editions are available at FoxTale Book Shoppe.

Where All Light Tends to Go

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You have to meet David Joy, all 6’5” of him, to really appreciate the irony of his new novel which is so at odds with his personal life.  Where All the Light Tends to Go is a story on full throttle, about rotten-toothed meth heads, bad cops and parents so pathological they make Honey Boo Boo’s mom look like a saint.  (David’s parents were at FoxTale, ever-so-proud of their author son, resembling main character Jacob McNeely’s folks not in the least.)  And David is quick to tell you his debut novel is not autobiographical.  So what’s the author’s inspiration?   “They’re my people,” he says of the grittier side of North Carolina; clearly Joy understands—even respects—their desperation, although he doesn’t share it.  Joy brings a sense of optimism to an otherwise bleak existence and makes the reader care about the possibilities of redemption and escape, the power of hope and sacrifice.  Where All where all the lightLight Tends to Go is a tale that’s described as Breaking Bad meets Winter’s Bone, so don’t read it if you simply must have a PG-rated story.  But if you’re looking for beautiful writing in the vein of Larry Brown or Ron Rash or Andre Dubus III, where there’s still light in the darkest corners of God’s green earth, this is a book that will make you think.  It is a real story, raw and painful with a beauty all its own.  With a unique literary voice and this powerful debut novel under his belt, I predict we will continue to hear great things from David Joy.   I, for one, am already hooked.


“I love that story.”— Kevin Costner

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Fox Ellen and Kevin Costner discuss his new book, THE EXPLORERS GUILD

Fox Ellen and Kevin Costner discuss his new book, THE EXPLORERS GUILD

Book Shop Owner Meets Movie Star

Yes, Virginia, that’s me with Kevin Costner, actor, director, musician, conservationist, author.  Stop the bus . . . . AUTHOR?  More on that in a minute.  First let me tell you how this all came about.

The Foxes sometimes get tickets for movie premiers in Atlanta, so it wasn’t unusual for our Simon and Schuster rep, Barbara Roach, to send some our way.  Atlantic Station was to host the movie, Black Or White; both Costner and co-star Anthony Mackie would be there, I was told.  “Maybe you’ll get to meet Kevin Costner.” Barbara knew he was one of my favorite actors.  But what were the odds of actually meeting him?  When pigs fly, I thought.

We arrived to find our seats in the “Guest of Costner” section, the first clue that this would be no ordinary evening. Monica Kauffman and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed introduced the stars who talked for a few minutes about the movie.  Then we sat back in premium seating to enjoy the show.

Costner is at the stage of his career where he can invest in projects he believes in, without stressing about commercial success. Black or White is that kind of worthwhile project, he says, because it sends a message he is passionate about.  Both Costner, Mackie and Octavia Spencer (alas, she was not present at the star-studded event) delivered fine performances that turn stereotypical expectations upside down.  The story addresses racial conflict, but not with the same tired knee-jerk reactions we’ve grown accustomed to from Hollywood.  It’s a story that transcends politics. Black or White is a breath of fresh air with an honest, thought-provoking script and flawed, all-too-human characters struggling to do the right thing.

After the movie, Costner’s long-time friend and business partner, Rod Lake, invited us to the “top of the stairs” to talk and possibly meet Costner.  For several minutes we talked about the importance of books, how we despise e-readers, what he, Rod, read as a child, that Kevin Costner had written a book, the first of an adventure series.  Wait.  Did you say Costner has a new book coming out?  Would he, could he, will he . . . . tour for said book, and if he does, would he consider MAYBE coming to . . . FoxTale?  Then, smooth as silk, Kevin Costner was standing with us looking tan and handsome and younger in person than the man we’d just watched on the screen.  He waited patiently while I tripped over my tongue complimenting the movie and telling him—yes, I actually said this—that I had grown up watching his movies. (He’s a whole year older than me, but whatev, Kev.)  I asked him about his book and he said it was an adventure story, the kind he liked to read as a child, in the style of Rudyard Kipling.  The Explorers Guild, Volume One: A Passage To Shambhala, will be published later this year, and he hopes it will appeal to both a young-adult and mature audience.  It may also be a feature film in which Costner will star and produce.

I reached in my purse and whipped out a FoxTale Book Shoppe bookmark which conveniently had Foxy names and contact information listed.

“I know you may not remember this when it’s time,” I told him, “but we’d be honored to have you visit FoxTale with your new book.”

“I’d love to,” I think he said.  “I won’t forget.”  Then Rod Lake took the bookmark and stuck it in his breast pocket and said that FoxTale would be among the stores they visited this fall.  This fall!

Next came pictures, and I was so relaxed by then that I told Kevin Costner something I have been embarrassing my son Sean with for many, many years.

“So my son, Sean, is 23 years old, and he hates it when I tell this story.  But he was actually conceived the night that I saw Dances With Wolves.”

Kevin and I continued posing for cell phone pictures, and there seemed to be a slight delay in response while he absorbed what I’d said.  Then he flashed that famous Kevin Costner smile at me.

“I love that story,” he said.


THE PARIS ARCHITECT by Charles Belfoure

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paris architect

“A beautiful and elegant account of an ordinary man’s unexpected and reluctant descent into heroism during the second world war.” –Malcolm Gladwell

Since Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite authors, I was particularly attracted to THE PARIS ARCHITECT, though I am a little burned out on all the World War II novels as of late.  This story is from the point of view of a French architect who participates in the war effort in a very creative way, designing elaborate hideaways for Jews and taking pleasure in outwitting the Gestapo.

This is Charles Belfoure’s debut novel, and he tells a compelling story rich in architectural details. (He is an architect by profession, specializing in historic preservation.)  I enjoyed the author’s unique perspective and his explanation of stereotypical French values (or lack thereof) regarding mistresses, traitors, and wartime courage.  While Belfoure displayed a convincing knowledge of European architecture and gave an interesting historical context for architect Lucien Bernard to demonstrate his talents, I found the characters to be a little too cookie cutter good/evil for my tastes.  An experienced novelist paints a picture and allows the reader to draw his/her own conclusions about morality, but Belfoure too often spelled out the obvious, taking a character from anti-Semitic philandering mercenary to courageous humanitarian. “He thought he didn’t have it in him to help another human being.  But to his great surprise, he did.  He was proud of it.  And he had proved his father wrong.”

Despite the somewhat amateurish portrayal of characters, the unique story line more than carried the novel, and I found it to be quite a page-turner. Belfoure is not of Ken Follett caliber, but the two authors do have similar styles.  Fans of historical fiction and suspense will find THE PARIS ARCHITECT a satisfying and entertaining read.

Tired of London? Tired of Life.

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That’s what the Brits say, and I can see the truth in it.  Our weekend has been a blur of amazement with these highlights:

Notting Hill—There were no Hugh Grant spottings, but the quaint charm of the area, the fabulous shopping and the food equal @110 Woodstocks packed into about the same geographical area.  There are tons of open air market-type shops selling antiques, china, rare books (yes, right on the street!), silver, jewelry, umbrellas, scarves.  It’s flat-out overwhelming in magnitude.  There are permanent shops there too, and on the weekend they all sort of spill out onto the street.  And that’s not even mentioning the food of astounding variety, with all

Lutyens & Rubenstein

Lutyens & Rubinstein

ethnicities represented.  Megan and I had freshly grilled fish with vegetables and a killer sauce, wrapped in pita bread along with a cooked-on-the-spot cream-filled doughnut.  This was inhaled while sitting on the steps of someone’s flat since every other square inch is occupied by someone selling their wares.  We also bought a lemon tart which we were too full to eat, so guess what’s for dinner tonight?  Of course we found bookstores, two amazing ones in fact.  Lutyens & Rubinstein is a couple years younger than FoxTale, opened by two literary agents who allegedly cut deals downstairs behind a pair of sliding bookshelves.  We had great conversation with Caroline that day, and she is sending a friend (fellow Brit, new to Atlanta) to FoxTale for some southern hospitality.

Books for Cooks

Books for Cooks

Books for Cooks is Ana Raquel’s kind of place with 8000 “cookery books” and a test kitchen where you can buy lunch or take cooking classes.

Jack the Ripper Walking Tour—Megan has inherited her weird tendencies towards the bizarre from me, so we were super stoked about walking in the footsteps of London’s notorious serial killer on the seedier side of London and not disappointed in the least.   Our guide, Jamey, with a jaunty little Sherlock Holmes hat, had the necessary flair for drama and a gadget where he projected images onto the wall, showing all the gory details.  “You may want to look away if you have a weak stomach, but then again, you most likely wouldn’t be on a Jack the Ripper tour if you do.”  We walked along “the most dangerous street in London” where even the police wouldn’t intervene during Jack’s reign.  More disturbing to me than the murders were the poverty and desperation and degradation of women during the late 1800s.  Prostitutes, called “unfortunates,” lived in “doss houses” for pennies a night (when they had them) under the most deplorable conditions and were truly doing what they had to do to survive (sometimes even sent out by their husbands to market the only commodity left to sell.)  Disease was widespread, and at least one of JTR’s victims was already close to death from tuberculosis when her life ended.  The tour was an historical eye-opener to a time we hope never to revisit and a grisly, spunky way to spend an evening.  Afterwards, we walked up Brick Lane, home to dozens of Bangladeshi-owned curry houses, in search of the perfect meal.  The area is famous for its touts, which in British English, describes people who solicit business or employment in a persistent and annoying manner.  The touts were in full force, offering free drinks, appetizers, discounts.  “Lady, look here!  Ladies, come in here, you have to eat food!” We stopped at Aladdin, recommended by our guide Jamey, and feasted on curried lamb and coconut chicken and vegetables and jasmine rice.  This part of London is being threatened by gentrification, and Megan has vowed to support each and every curry house with her pounds (or does she mean pounds?)

High Tea at The Wolseley—To be honest, they don’t have anything over Tea Leaves & Thyme in terms of menu, but we had to experience high tea London-style for atmosphere.  Finger sandwiches, fruit scones (served with clotted cream and strawberry jam, but none of Kim Jordy’s delicious lemon curd!) and a host of small desserts.  Very filling, in fact we took our desserts with us in a cute box with the Wolseley imprint on it.  So very posh (and expensive,) dahling!

A Comedy of Errors at The Globe—OMG.  We actually saw Shakespeare performed in The Globe!  This may have been the highlight of the weekend, though it was all wonderful.  Megan and I were too wussy to opt for the “groundling” tickets where you stand for the whole

Globe Theater

Globe Theater

performance, rain or shine, so we were seated on the benches that form leveled seating in the shape of a horseshoe around the stage.  What can I even say about the performance?  It was authentic, funny, magical, delivered with lovely, hard-to-decipher British accents (oh yeah, they don’t have accents; we do!)  Food props were thrown into the audience and thrown right back onto the stage.  Actors addressed, sometimes even heckled, the audience, remarking on one man’s bald pate for several minutes.  As in the days of yore, the audience brought in food and ate during the show, so we pulled out our little box of Wolseley sweets and tried to look common.  Overhead was the night sky, a clear night, but breezy.  During Shakespeare’s time, performances were only held during the day, but lighting makes it possible to see evening performances now.  Still, no amplification for the actors, and if it rains, the show goes on!

Still in awe, we crossed back over the Thames, taking in London, St. Paul’s Cathedral straight ahead, the Tower Bridge to our right, Megan calling out the familiar landmarks:  The Gherkin (looks like a pickle,) The Shard (looks like a shard.)  Over there Picadilly and Covent Gardens and Chinatown and . . . that way, Westminster and Buckingham Palace, there the Royal Opera House.  “They say ‘if you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.’  I don’t know if a year will be enough to do all I want to do,” she said.  “I don’t know if a month is enough for me,” I answered.  Megan was wrapped in a heavy scarf turned shawl, and I reached under it to tuck my arm into hers, seeking her warmth, her certainty.

Flat-footed, sure-footed, she is taller than me now.