Class Mothers by Katherine Stewart

Class Mothers open roughly 3 years after The Yoga Mamas ends. Laura’s daughter, Anna, is now enrolled as the scholarship student at The Metropolitan Preschool. In keeping with the times, this preschool is impossible to get into and the moms are all very competitive. Money is thrown around. Influence is thrown around. It feels like any number of fish-out-of-water books until a twist is thrown in: during an afternoon auction committee meeting the class hamster is found murdered. Four mothers are on the committee, four children were in the classroom with the teacher and no one saw who did it.

Instantly the mothers - not in view of the schools owner-principal, of course - start to draw lines and form alliances to make sure that their own child’s position at the school is safe. Laura, as the lone scholarship mom, finds herself in an odd place - some of the moms like her, but mostly she finds herself outside of their circles...a feeling that is compounded by her own insecurities. She fuels her inner Greek Chorus by giving weight to the pointed looks, paranoia, and standards of women she didn’t even know until her daughter started at their school.

In what she justifies as an effort to keep Anna in her exclusive pre-school and help her move up to an even more exclusive elementary school, Laura teams up with two of the other moms on the auction committee: Bronwyn, a seemingly perfect Manhattan Housewife and mother of two who treats Laura as equal parts friend and charity case, and Dominique, a French ex-model/actress who spends ninety percent of her time bemoaning the lack of passion and excitement in her life, despite having a devoted and doting husband and a lovely young daughter. All three are convinced that Kim’s son is the culprit based almost purely on Kim’s own behavior (as a working mom she feels that battle,) snide comments regarding Laura’s “disadvantaged” state, and nanny gossip.

The plot follows through parties, auction meetings, tailing Kim, yoga classes, lunches, dinners, even more tangled up backstabbing and ladder climbing, all the way up to when - somewhat predictably - Laura feels like her life is spinning out of control. Her daughter is pushing boundaries, her husband’s college girlfriend turns out to be one of the other preschool moms, and her contract deadline has come and gone with no inspiration in sight. Add to that the unravelling trust and friendship she had with Bronwyn and Dominique and it almost seems hopeless.

It’s not, of course. There’s the requisite epiphany followed by a flurry of activity and a satisfying resolution. Because we meet Laura first in The Yoga Mamas, her behavior follows what we already know to be true to her character and the other moms fall into their own cliches nicely.

All-in-all, it’s a satisfying chick read. It wouldn’t be out of place on the beach. My only issue is at the end, after the murder has been solved (as well as the auction drama) and everyone is happy...Stewart jumps the shark. Seriously. She has set up for another Laura book, but not of the Poor Fish in a Ritzy Pond style that we’ve already become familiar with. It could be great. It could prove to not be worth the paper it’s printed on. Either way, we’ll have to wait, because it doesn’t seem to be releasing any time soon.


Archangel, by Robert Harris

[ed: if I weren't so keen on getting these to be about 500 words every time, I would have posted four words regarding this book: Read it. Trust me.]

My only regret is that I didn’t pay attention to Nick Hornby the FIRST time he said he had the “cleverest brother in law” on the planet/ever in history/without a doubt. Because then I would have been reading these excellent works much earlier in life. As it is, I am having the uniquely wonderful experience of coming upon an addictive author late enough in his career that there is a catalogue of works already published, but not so late that there are no more forthcoming.

Archangel opens with a quote from Stalin: “Death solves all problems - no man, no problem.” (1918) When you turn the page, the stage is now in a Russian hotel room, at night, with a conversation between British Historian “Fluke” Kelso, whose focus is narrowed on Stalin, and a man, Papu Rapava, who was the bodyguard to one of Stalin’s inner-circle. The story Rapava tells focuses on the night of Stalin’s stroke, the refusal to send for doctors, and the theft of Stalin’s private notebook. The notebook had largely been regarded as myth, and as such discounted by all of Kelso’s contemporaries, who are in town with Kelso attending a symposium regarding the opening of Russia’s archives. If Rapava’s story is true, then the book is the salvation Kelso’s career needs. If Rapava’s story is true, then his life and Kelso’s are both in danger. If Rapava’s story is true, Stalinistic rule might once again come to Russia.

The next morning, after Rapava has fled the hotel, a very hungover Kelso makes his way out into modern (set in the late 1990s) Moscow to verify the story. By calling up a single contact, and speaking a single phrase over the phone lines being monitored by a government that is still paranoid, Kelso sets into motion a string of events that span Moscow and the northern woods of Russia. Harris weaves information of the way life was under Stalin seamlessly into the way life is after Stalin. Tales of torture and fear butt up against madmen whose only goal is to re-insert a Stalin Figure in the Kremlin. This is historical fiction at its best: accurate, insightful, and inspiring.

Kelso teams up with Rapava’s daughter and an American reporter named O’Brien. Together they unwind the mystery of the notebook. I know what you’re thinking: The DaVinci Code, The Boys From Brazil, and countless others have been suspenseful thrillers dealing with an historical leader who may or may not have left a legacy behind that will change the world. People will die to protect the secret just as there are those willing to die to expose it. This is true, and like those other novels I mentioned, this is well worth reading. I stayed up far beyond my body’s willingness to keep its eyes open just so I could get to that perfect ending that Harris does so well. The ending that you couldn’t exactly see coming until it was spilled across the page in front of and when you read the last word you know that it could have gone no other way. This is certainly a must read.


Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Holden Caulfield is in mourning, but like any teenage boy who’s set on not being phony, he will not tell you this. Instead, he will tell you everything else about his life, the people in it, the movies, the cabs, the schools, and what he thinks of them. Repeatedly. In a single breath.

Salinger’s classic manages to get into the head of a truly angst-ridden and confused teenage boy so well that he has been emulated repeatedly through the decades. Just find the guy on the show/in the book who hates everything except one girl (in Holden’s case, his little sister) and who doesn’t care who knows it and you’re looking at someone who has interred a bit of Holden in himself.

The novel opens with the revelations that Holden has been expelled from yet another boarding school. We’re never sure how many schools he’d been to before Pencey, only that this latest expulsion is just one in a long line of them and he has no qualms about those that came before or those that are likely to come after. He doesn’t like school - it’s full of phonies. He doesn’t like his roommate, who is “yearbook handsome” but a phony, and an irritating womanizing phony at that. He doesn’t like his neighbor, who is a bore and a phony. Cab drivers are phony, bartenders are phonies, most of the people - with the exception of the brother he is mourning and his younger sister - are phonies.

In order to cope with his unsatisfactory world and to also put off the inevitable confrontation with his parents, Holden leaves school in the middle of the night, 4 days before it’s due to break for Christmas anyway. He gathers up his suitcases and his money and take a train into New York, where he proceeds to behave in a way that has had People Who Feel The Need To Control What You Can Read up in arms since the day the book was published. This, of course, has made it wildly popular. Foul language pours out of Holden’s mouth of its own accord, it would be turrets except that it’s buried in sentences that are both circular and insightful. Salinger’s phrasing is memorable: “give her the time,” “yearbook handsome,” “roller-skate skinny.” The list goes on and on. It’s tempered with the aforementioned circuitousness of Holden’s thought process - a combination that gives him depth and believability.

There’s the thing of it. Reading Holden’s train of thought (which is the way this book is written) can be exhausting. He rarely pauses for breath, he is often angry and borderline hostile and hateful and then will turn on a dime and wax poetic about his sister, or the ducks in Central Park. He describes experiences with his deceased brother with the same fervor as he condemns the phoniness of his older brother’s new career and you believe that both characters probably exist as people somewhere in the world. Even Holden, who is telling the story in a way that is therapeutic to both the character and the reader, exists many times over in the world...and that is what keeps this book relevant, even in an age where walking down the street without your tie is not scandalous.


Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side, by Beth Fantaskey

Jessica is adopted, a fact which her hippie parents have never kept from her. She was born in Romania but adopted as an infant and raised in America on a farm. She’s pretty typical: mathlete, equestrian, mildly popular...and then one morning a tall, dark, handsome and vaguely creepy exchange student lurks in the mist by her bus stop and derails all of her precisely laid out senior year plans. He shows up in her classes and seems only to have eyes for her. A creepy boyfriend was definitely not on her agenda, and she frequently wills his attention to stray to any of the myriad girls who swoon over him, only to find out that he is destined to be in her life.

She immediately enters the first of the five stages of grief: denial.

Lucius is apparently staying on their farm. He is their exchange student and it is soon made clear that he has designs on Jessica. It’s immediately obvious that he is different but while her parents say “Vampire” she says “freaky cult” right up until the moment she needs to give in or Fantaskey knows her readers will stray.

In a refreshing spin on the teenage vampire love story, it is revealed that our heroine is not just adopted from a Romanian family, but adopted from a Royal Romanian Vampire family and is betrothed to Lucius she moves directly into stage two: Anger.

There are fights, rages, blow-ups. Everything needed to make this teen drama a..well...a drama. Every emotion Jessica externalizes (or internalizes in some cases) is believable, from her body image to her understandable resistance to a life that has already been chosen for her. After the dust settles she moves into stage three, bargaining, which is muddled by her wafting in and out of stage four: depression.

She lets Lucius into her life, but only on her terms and not always without a fight. Their relationship is believable in a way that someone who still remembers being seventeen can create. Fantaskey gives us jealous friends and would-be boyfriends constantly coming between Jessica and Lucius. Their friendship blossoms and then get trampled - on both sides.

Lucius’ thoughts on the unfolding events are revealed to the reader throughout the book in letters to his uncle, the vicious vampire who sent him to retrieve his promised bride. His expounds on the food, culture of high school, and of course his pursuit of Jessica… all with the stiff air of someone writing out of obligation and not of love and the desire to share. Even this is refreshing...a vampire with a tender heart of gold is something we’re starting to expect.

And then Jessica turns 18. This is it: the culmination. She now decides her future. After all of the drama and growth can she accept who she is? Will she walk away from her destiny? And what does it mean for Lucius, for herself, when his true nature is revealed to their entire school? Only after she tackles a court of abusive vampires and travels around the globe will we find out.

Paradise Lost: A Private Novel, By Kate Brian

Revelation (the previous Private novel) did two things: it wrapped up a plot which was dangerously close to having been drawn out too long and it ended in such a way that when I turned the last page hoping (in vain) for more I let out an audible “Argh!” Two months later Paradise Lost is released and we discover that (spoiler alert!) our favorite Glass-Licker is not dead. Ok, that’s only slightly a spoiler since the series is written in first person and as long as there is news of the next book in the series there’s a good chance she won’t die. I might have to eat those words one of these days.

The “Paradise” in question is St. Barths, where Reed is “dragged” by Noelle, Kiran, and an apologetic Tiffany (apologetic for things which happened in previous novels.) Since we all know that you don’t say No to Noelle, Reed finds herself on the Lange jet heading to stay at the Lange beach house over Christmas vacation. All of this is an attempt to take her mind off of the recent events, namely lots of stalking, deception, being ostracized by the aforementioned Noelle, Kiran, and Tiffany, and death. (This is not Gossip Girl, despite the abundance of couture, underage drinking, and sex.) The group of girls expands to include the previously removed to public-school Taylor, who is not only alive but appears to be thriving outside of the strict confines of Easton Academy and Billings Hall.

Between the shopping, lounging on the beach, and being generally paranoid, Reed finds herself drawn into what the rest of the girls call “The Upton Game,” the goal of which is to be the first girl of the group to “hook up” with Upton Giles who is, according to Noelle, the hottest man on the planet.

Because this is Fun Vacation Reed, she decides to let the other girls have the drama of the chase and just relax. Until she sees him. Naturally, Teen Romance ensues. On its heels are Teen Jealousy, Teen BackStabbing, Teen Pranks, and Teen Paranoia...all sprinkled amidst island fun which includes everything from jet skiing to Casino Night in Couture. And don’t forget the cliff-hanger at the end. The one that sent me to computer to see when the next book is coming out. (No answer on that one.)

I’ve read this entire series, including the prequel. I find the characters believable and the plot engaging. We all knew the rich girls at school who seemed charmed, the boy who was a bit lecherous and the shy boys, the athletes, the whiny-eager-to-please puggle girl (I quoted the book on that one because it fits so well) and in their Private incarnations they could feel two-dimensional...ok I’m not going to lie: some of them do. Luckily for us, Brian has kept those in the background, only showing up to give you a feel for the Very Large Group of privileged teens romping on the island with Reed. The characters in the a-plot, certainly ten books into the series, all feel well rounded to the point that Taylor popping up on the island was like an old friend showing up unexpectedly.

Now when does that next book come out…?


Cat Sitter on a Hot Tin Roof, By Blaize Clement

The fourth book in the Dixie Hemingway mysteries opens much the same way they all do - quietly and invitingly. We are re-introduced to Siesta Key (a very attractive place to live) and her old friends - human and animal - and introduced to some new ones. One of her new pets is a seizure-assistance dog for a three-year old boy who is about to have brain surgery. Not only is this a nice segue into how Dixie came to be where she is, but it offers enough tension to to keep the reader interested in the well-being of the dog and everyone the dog interacts with.

The other new friends are a jogger and her cat (a breed I’d never heard of: Havana Brown) whom Dixie almost runs into one morning on her pre-dawn rounds. There’s enough foreshadowing, and since it’s a murder mystery, I don’t feel like it’s spoiling the plot to say that this new friend is the one who is killed. As with all of the good ones, and Clement is one of the good ones, you don’t know who did it until she wants you to know.

Getting from the budding friendship to the big reveal is a nice a journey. The food Dixie’s brother Michael serves up is described in terms that kept me perpetually hungry (a good thing), and the recurring sub-plots were a nice distraction from the grisly and suspenseful murder plot. Even Clement’s obvious comic-relief characters serve a purpose and are well-rounded enough that if you met them on the street you’d be able to sit down for coffee without all that messy getting-to-know-you business. In fact, Dixie’s world is so believable, that it’s not hard to imagine taking Billy Elliot for a run while Tom does your taxes because surely somewhere there is a caregiver running a retired greyhound while his owner takes care of financials for clients.

Even the animals have enough character development that you feel as though they have real-life dopplegangers out in the world somewhere, and Dixie’s subtle insertion of pet-facts puts the book enough on the side of edutainment that you feel like you’ve learned a few things when you walk away.

But the real gem here is the suspense. Yes, it is a murder mystery. Yes, Dixie is a former deputy, yes there are often multiple suspects, constant encounters with the active deputies and investigators, and, given the genre: almost always a shoot out, or at least explosions. It’s why we read them. Clement likes her red herrings, and she delivers them in such a way that even those of us who are seasoned mystery readers don’t see that them for what they are until the scene has wrapped...and the fakes are sprinkled in with the truly threatening scenes to keep the reader on her toes.

Dixie has even, by book four, come out of her grief enough to recognize that she’s allowed to have womanly urges and not supress them...she is, as they say, coming alive again. Of course the regularly background characters cheer her on, as does the reader. This new development, which was planted in the third book, weaves in just enough romance for those who like it served up with their adrenaline.


The Dead Cat Bounce, By Sarah Graves

The Dead Cat Bounce is, in stock terms, that little uptick that happens in the middle of a stock crash. So named because when you throw a dead cat out of the window, it will bounce, but it is still dead. Repulsive, I know, but not coined by me. The book, the first in the Home Repair is Homicide series, is told from the perspective of Jacobia Tiptree, who is a retired financial specialist.

On the heels of a particularly gnarly business trip, Jacobia wanders into the tiny town of Eastport, Maine, and falls in love with what is commonly known as a fixer-upper. She gathers up her money and her son and leaves New York to settle down in a quiet small town. A year later, the story opens with the discovery of a dead body. Antics, as they say, ensue. Her best friend confesses and then leaves cryptic messages for Jacobia with the intention that her messages will ultimately unravel the truth.

Graves then leads the reader down a path of repairing glass window panes, meeting the well-rounded and instantly likeable (or dislikable, as the case may be) characters in Eastport, and yes, even some explosions. Graves has a knack for description - smells, sounds, even the weather - that she couples with dead-on explanations so that the reader can get lost in Eastport and the old, crumbling Victorian. The characters, too, appear and three sentences later you feel as though you know everything about them...well, everything they want you to know. They do live in a small town, after all.

The plot, the clues, the ruses, and the action keep the pages turning quickly. Backstory weaves intricately with current developments and not until Graves wants the answers revealed does the reader clue in. Ok - with one exception, but I’ll give her that. After all, it’s the b-plot. Or c-plot, depending on your perspective.

I accidentally came to this series somewhere in the middle, and so I read this book with a foreknowledge that I don’t usually like to have unless what I’m reading is a prequel. I already know what happens to the bathtub, the son, the best friend, the dog...and yet it hasn’t happened yet and there are many books between now and then. And not one ounce of that knowledge spoiled this first book for me. The writing is sharper in the later book, the characters slightly more honed, the home repair tips researched a little better...but that’s to be expected. By that point, Graves has lived these characters and their lives for years. None of that detracts from the first book in the series, and I will be reading the rest. In order, of course.
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