Monday, December 1, 2014

Authors and readers share gift-giving suggestions

At the end of this column, there's information about the Wall St. Journal's online book club, moderated by well-known authors. It's pretty cool.
First, however, a bit of gift-giving advice.
This is easily the busiest time of year, I know. So a few Santa book suggestions wouldn't be out of order, right?
That's what I thought.

So I contacted a few writers, along with librarians and book group members, to seek suggestions for holiday gift giving.
Here they are, along with my own, which has to be Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Timeless, beautiful (and abundantly retold on film), this book is one I try to read every Christmas. I love its reminders of mean-spiritedness, poverty, regrets, joy and generosity, as told within the well-known scenes between Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. There are many beautiful editions, and I've collected them over the years—it's worth looking them up through book dealers or online services. My favorite is a Harcourt, Brace edition illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, an Italian artist. There's also a more recent book, illustrated by P.J. Lynch and published by Candlewick, that is beautifully drawn.

Mystery and police procedural author Kate Flora, whose own latest books are "Death Dealer" and "And Grant You Peace," offers Roxana Robinson's "Sparta." "It's at the top of my list," she says, "not an easy read but an engrossing one, and truly brilliant in the way she reveals the central character, Conrad, a young returned Iraq vet with PTSD. It's on my desert island short list." Flora also recommends these:
"For lovers of Boston history and memoir, both the lore and the warmth of The Family Business, by John DiNatale, written with Roland Merullo, make this story of a family PI (private investigation) business a delightful read.
"For anyone looking for a cookbook, Yottam Ottolenghi's vegetarian cookbook, 'Plenty' is a fabulous choice. The photographs are amazing and the food delicious. Even those who scorn their vegetables will be seduced by these recipes." Thanks, Kate.

Suspense writer Hallie Ephron ("There Was an Old Woman," "Night Night, Sleep Tight") recommends "In the Company of Sherlock Holmes", which she calls "great fun for anyone who loves crime fiction, a compendium of Holmes-inspired stories, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger. King and Klinger are the experts on Sherlock Holmes, fresh off winning their lawsuit enabling authors to freely write stories inspired by the Holmes cannon without having to pay a fee to Doyle’s estate. In 15 stories, an array of today’s most talented and successful authors deliver modern and period tales inspired by Sherlock. In Sara Paretsky’s, a gobsmacked Holmes meets his match in a middle-aged spinster. Michael Connelly’s modern Harry Bosch encounters a Sherlockian medical examiner. Michael Sims’s tells a version of “The Silver Blaze” narrated by the horse. The collection is diverting, delightful, and best taken with a cup of hot tea."

Chris Bohjalian, whose many novels include "Skeletons at the Feast" and "The Sandcastle Girls," recently released "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands." He is traveling like a furious wind this month—to the White House, Manhatten, and points between his Vermont residence and Russia—but took a moment to recommend two books: "My favorite new book? 'The Zone of Interest' by Martin Amis," he said. Another book that's a good gift is "Dana Walrath's powerful young adult novel in verse, 'Like Water on Stone.' It's a poignant introduction to the Armenian Genocide, published this month."

Author Anne Packer recommends "The Girls from Corona del Mar" by Rufi Thorpe.
Betsy Johnson, of the Holden book group, recommends Anthony Doerr's "All the Light You Cannot See." She calls it "a rare number one that I really like. He is a writer to follow." If you, like me, enjoy books about people and events during World War II, this is a good one. It's about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as they try to survive the devastation of war.

Writer Paula Castner of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative in Lancaster, suggests holiday book sets, including "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Jan Karon's Mitford series (an upbeat series about the small-town life of a minister and his artist wife) or Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" quintet, good for all ages. It's a sci-fi/fantasy series of stories about the Murry children, a classic series of books.

Castner also recommends several children's books, including: "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," by Barbara Robinson, "a wonderful classic which is just delightful for a family read." Also, she says, try "The Christmas Troll" by Eugene Peterson, a picture book; "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey" by Susan Wojciechowski, about a widower being drawn back to living by a little boy and a nativity scene, and "The Littlest Tree," by Charles Tazewell, "a wonderful story set during the war about orphaned children who bring the true meaning of Christmas to a toddler in the midst of a horrible time period."

Ann Young, of Heywood Library, is giving her 12-year-old grand niece (performing in Peter Pan this year) a copy of "Tiger Lily" by Jodi Lynn Anderson. It's a story about the relationship between Tiger Lily and Peter Pan. For adult readers, she recommends Sue Monk Kidd's "The Invention of Wings." "The story is about the Grimke sisters and Handful, their family slave," says Young. "The sisters were abolitionists and feminists."

Red Rock Readers member Jane Stoughton recommends Eowyn Ivy's "The Snow Girl." It's part-fairy tale magic and part-real living, a story of homesteading in Alaska during the early 20th century, but also, she says "the wonder of life and the world in which we live."

The Wall Street Journal launched a book club led by authors several months back, and it has taken off online. Each month, a guest host/author selects a book by another author and provides guidance and feedback to readers on both Twitter (#WSJbookclub) and Facebook (WSJ Book Club).
Participants can ask questions about the selected book, participate in a live chat, read excerpts or reviews, and exchange information. There are archived webcasts on Google for some books. Guest hosts have included Elizabeth Gilbert, Gillian Flynn, Neil Gaiman, Khaled Husseini, Lee Child, and Margaret Atwood.  You'll find lots of feedback, with several hundred members. They talk about the writing style, the characters and plot, the authors. Books they've discussed include "Sophie's Choice," "The Love of a Good Woman," "The 13 Clocks," "Deep Water," "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," and "Wolf Hall." All were featured in live chats with the author's who chose them for discussion. Last month, Atwood led a discussion of fantasy books, specifically Ursula LeGuin's "A Wizard of Earthsea."
One reader posted a quote from LeGuin's writing; another shared an article about LeGuin's essay collection, "The Wave in the Mind."  Still another shared a way of looking at the book that changed the reading experience for her. It's a very focused group, with little of the unrelated drivel one finds on so many sites these days; I find it an excellent source of information about specific authors. There's a lot of lively conversation and info about books not on the list, but liked by participants. Up next is author Carl Hiaasen, who will direct discussion of Martin Amis's "Money: A Suicide Note."
Area book group meetings:
Brenda Metterville, at Brookfield Library, says that group will discuss "Spirit of Steamboat" by Craig Johnson at 7 p.m., Jan. 6. The group will not meet in December.
Worcester area women poets will read during the 7 p.m., Dec. 8 meeting of the NOW Women's Issues Book Club at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Worcester, 90 Holden St. Worcester-area women are welcome. There's no book to read; just come to listen.
The next meeting of the Douglas Library Book Group will revolve around Lisa See’s "China Dolls" on Tuesday, Dec. 9, 6:30 p.m. It's the story of three women navigating the so-called "Chop Suey Circuit," America's all-Asian revues of the 1930s and '40s. Call the library 508-476-2695, for a copy of the book. New members welcome.
Lancaster's Off-Track Bookies will discuss "Cascade" by Maryann O'Hara.
Ann Connery Frantz writes about authors and books for the Telegram & Gazette and on her blog "Read It and Reap." She is a freelance writer and editor, writing fiction. Contact her at

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Authors ready and willing to Skype, visit book clubs

New England reading fans travel to bookstores, cafes and auditoriums (Jodi Picoult pretty much filled the Worcester Hanover Theater when she spoke there) to absorb words of wisdom from visiting writers.
The region is rife with them.
Steve Almond lives in Arlington; David McCullough has a home on Cape Cod; Anita Shreve, raised in Dedham, lives in western Massachusetts. Gregory Maguire is in Concord and R.A. Salvatore lives in Leominster. Kate Flora lives in Maine and in Concord (she cofounded New England Crime Bake, whose mystery writers appear at libraries throughout the region); Julia Glass lives in Marblehead; Brunonia Barry is based in Salem; Picoult lives in New Hampshire. Anne Leary lives in Connecticut, Matthew Quick in Holden. Andre Dubus III teaches in Lowell, near where he grew up.
Dozens of dedicated, published writers would like to meet with your group. Check their web pages (and publishers' websites) for information. Many have Facebook pages as well. They're willing to visit or use Skype to visit via computer. Most of them are Grub Street writers center members.
Here's the list:

Michelle Hoover ( ) published her first novel, "The Quickening," in 2010; her second is slated for 2016.
Henriette Lazaridis Power ( wrote "The Clover House," a novel about Greek-American heritage and a World War II tragedy published in 2013, a Boston Globe best-seller. A literature instructor at Harvard for 10 years, she is a prolific writer. She is interested in visits or Skype talks.
Angeli Mitter Duva ( has released a debut novel, "Faint Praise of Rain," with She Writes Press. She's glad to Skype or visit clubs near her Arlington home.
Lisa Borders' second novel, "The Fifty-First State," was published in 2013 to positive reviews. Her first, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," was a Massachusetts Book Awards honoree. She enjoys in-person, Facetime or Skype visits. Contact is
Laura Van den berg (, author of two well-received and awarded collections of short stories, has a novel, "Find Me," coming out in February.
Random House children's author Jan Kohuth of Holliston ( is affiliated with Skype and Penguin Classroom. Check her website. A 15 to 20 minute program for children is also available by Skype.
Áine Greaney ( lives north of Boston and in Ireland. A Pushcart honoree, she wrote "The Big House," "Dance Lessons" and "Snow." She does lots of in-person and Skype visits.
Simon & Schuster published Grub Street instructor Rita Zoey Chin's memoir, "Let the Tornado Come." Discussion questions are on the publisher's website. To Skype, see
Edgar-nominated author of 14 books, Kate Flora ( has two books being published this fall. She makes frequent bookstore and library appearances, often with fellow mystery writers. She hasn't used Skype, but says she'll try it. A popular mystery and police procedural writer, she recently wrote "Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice," and a fourth Joe Burgess mystery, "And Grant You Peace."
Manchester, N.H., teacher and short story writer Tim Horvath ( has won kudos on NPR and Salon, and won a New Hampshire Literary Award, for his imaginative collection, "Understories." He offers to Skype.
Award-winning author Tara L. Masih ("The Chalk Circle") will visit via Skype or conference call. Her nonfiction anthology assembles voices from disparate cultures and times in a groundbreaking collection. Learn more at
Ursula DeYoung of Cambridge ( wrote "Shorecliff," a novel published by Little, Brown about a large Maine family during the summer of 1928. She is interested in Skype or in-person visits.
Lynne Griffin (, author of "Sea Escape" and "Life Without Summer," lives in Boston but grew up in Worcester (her father was director of advertising for the Telegram & Gazette) and in Holden. Find her on Facebook or at
Author James Scott ( does phone and Skype interviews related to his novel, "The Kept," a dark, moody narrative of revenge set in upstate New York.
There are others, but this is a good start. Many are accomplished, excellent speakers who will make your book club session a good one. If your group does an author meeting, let me know.
Hear writers at Open Mic
Tatnuck Bookseller, 18 Lyman St. (Westbourgh Shopping Center), sponsors a Literary Arts Open Mic every second and fourth Thursday, monthly, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Author Jan Krause Greene ("I Call Myself Earthgirl") will now host the session; Greene is a former English teacher and newspaper columnist. For info on participation, contact Zorina Frey, owner of IWA Publishing Services, at
Author notes:
Channel 7 investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan will sign her new Jane Ryland mystery, "Truth Be Told," at Booklovers' Gourmet, 55 E. Main St., Webster on Saturday, Nov. 1, from 1-3 p.m. Call (508) 949-6932 for information. Ryan followed up the award-winning "The Wrong Girl" with her newest mystery. It's fast-moving, brimming with characters and peppered with the funny asides and insider knowledge of a veteran journalist. The book was released this month—surrounding fraudulent mortgage activities and evictions, a self-confessed killer, and the interplay between Ryland and her boyfriend, Detective Jake Brogan. See my blog for a review.
Michael F. Bisceglia, Jr., who grew up in Worcester, has written and published a novel about life in an Irish-Italian family, "Gaelic and Garlic." The book, set in mid-20th century Worcester, is the fictional memoir of a young man's early years among first-generational Italian and Irish clans of Worcester. The story comes from the persona of a youngster who grew up on Worcester streets, delivered the Gazette faithfully, and navigated Italian and Irish family rules daily, acquiring some bruises in the process. The book is full of entertaining bits—it's clever, though a bit overfull of tiresome witticisms and stereotyped ethnic descriptions. Still, it has laughs and some local connections readers may enjoy. I've reviewed it at The book is available through Amazon.
Book groups:
Haston Library's book group, meeting at North Brookfield Library, will discuss Kenneth Winters' "The Lost Crown of Colonnade" at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Leominster's Reading, Sharing and Laughing book group meets at 7 p.m., Thursday at Chaibo in Fitchburg to discuss something a bit macabre for Halloween: "Rebecca" by Daphne DuMaurier.
The Northborough Free Library hosts Friday Morning Book Club on Nov. 14 at 10 a.m., to discuss "Ex Libris," by Anne Fadiman.
Heywood Library Reading group meets Nov. 19 to discuss "Anthill" by Edward G. Wilson.
Worcester Public Library's book club will meet at 6 p.m., Nov. 18 to discuss "And the Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini. There will be no December meeting.
Brookfield Public Library hosts the Nov. 25, 7 p.m. meeting in the main room. Topic is "Orphan Train" by Christina Baker Kline.
The Douglas Library Book Group will focus on Patry Francis’s Cape Cod murder-mystery, "The Orphans of Race Point," at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 18. Call to reserve a copy of the book. New members welcome. Homemade refreshments, inspired by the title, will be served—in which case I advise that you eat cautiously.
Speaking Volume's audio book group will discuss "For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind" by Rosemary Mahoney at 8 p.m. Nov. 4. The Dec. 2 selection is Geraldine Brooks' "Caleb's Crossing." To participate, call 508-752-0557.
Books, Brews & Banter meets at 6:30 p.m., Nov. 19 in O'Connor's Restaurant, Worcester, to discuss Ken Follett's "Fall of Giants."
A Book Between Friends, Sturbridge, has slated "White Oleander" for its 10 a.m., Nov. 15 meeting.
New Earth Book Club's Nov. 30 topic is "Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs and Sugar," by David Perlmutter.
Ann Connery Frantz, freelance writer/editor and cofounder of Lancaster's Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative, blogs at (two e’s is correct). Send news of upcoming meetings to by mid-month.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pass the pasta and the spuds, please

"Gaelic and Garlic," set in mid-20th century Worcester, is author Michael F. Bisceglia's fictional memoir of a boy's life in the first-generational Italian and Irish clans of Worcester. Written in the first person, from the recollections of a youngster who grew up in Main South, delivered the Gazette faithfully, and bounced from Italian to Irish family rules every day, acquiring some bruises in the process, the book is full of entertaining bits.
Clearly, this is a past close to the author's heart, and it reads that way. Bisceglia has combined the old Irish sayings and ways of life, contrasting them with the relatively conservative ways of Italian relatives for one Lou Mangossi, scion of the Mangossi and Bresnihan families. Memories are long and tempers a bit raw each time there's a clash—which appears to be any time more than two relatives gather together. There are 60 cousins and all of the attached adult figures to the family, so any event is big. This includes wakes and funerals, weddings, family parties, the classroom and the streets of Worcester.
There's lively dialogue, albeit in a central casting kind of Irish or Italian voice. There are also a few tender moments within the family, but for the most part the book follows a pattern of quirky family stories, enabling the young narrator to introduce his relatives—all of them improbably hilarious—and let them do their thing. After awhile, there's a feeling of spinning around the family merry-go-round, witnessing humorous exchanges that are strictly for the family books. I began to lose interest due to its extravagant exaggerations; too many overhyped Irish stereotypes are interwoven in the story for wit's sake, not actuality. Not all the Irish carry on at wakes the way the Bresnihans do, though I do remember they were more fun in those days. It's clever writing but somewhat overdone in its tiresome witticisms and descriptions.
There are moments that sparkle. Bisceglia finds his narrative voice halfway through the book and forgos much of the forced hilarity for actual storytelling. Lou Mangossi Sr., instead of demonstrations of sympathy, teaches his son the right way to fight so he'll be safer next time he's mugged on the streets of Worcester while delivering papers to three-decker tenement houses. When young Lou comes home with so many Christmas tips that it outranks his father's weekly earnings, his mother gently dissuades him from sharing that information and humiliating his father. Enjoyable too is the description of a newspaper carrier's daily job:
"On any given winter day, a kid could be bitten by one or more dogs; receive a mild case of frost bite; slip on an unsalted walk and break a leg; have all of his papers stolen (sometimes more than once); fall down an unlit flight of stairs; step into a slightly frozen puddle and receive a full boot of slushy water; or  simply be robbed."
There were times when it all nearly collided at once in young Lou's life.
I liked the more subtle references to his Irish mother's bad cooking, having grown up with similarly gruesome Irish cuisine at home. If it wasn't burned, it wasn't done. Mangossi's mother, Mae, comes through as a strong matriarch, running the family admirably while her husband worked. She keeps all of the family's history—good and bad—and tempers her chores with old songs, as did my own mother. The author's storytelling rather shines as he recounts a tale of meanly tricking his poor mother into performing Irish songs for the combined eighth-grade classes at his Catholic school, only to find she is as good as her word when it comes to performing. He also nicely portrays an elderly retired school teacher on his paper route who takes the time to soothe a young boy's fears of growing up and making his way in the world; she reveals a personal tragedy in the process.
There are some good chuckles in the book, and a well-drawn narrator. Folks who remember the "old" days of Worcester may enjoy the places he recalls and the memories he recollects through his character.
The book is self-published. Bisceglia, a former teacher, lives in Hampton, N.H., but grew up locally. "Gaelic and Garlic" may be purchased online through Amazon, or at bookstores.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hank Phillippi Ryan unleashes her latest

Hank Phillippi Ryan writes thrillers like a camera in fast motion. Click. Roll. Click. Roll. The scenes change and the plot, as they say, thickens as she focuses on characters and motivations colliding against one another in "Truth Be Told." Phillippi Ryan's latest novel was released in October, the second in a new series of Jane Ryland mysteries. Her 2013 novel, "The Wrong Girl," won an Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel and the Daphne award for Mainstream Mystery/Suspense. It achieved best-seller status in the Boston Globe.
By chapter 4 of the newest book, Ryan manages to set a series of events, like tops, spinning across the novel's plot line, with multiple instances of criminal behavior gyrating across the horizon—a Boston horizon, I might add. Murder, an intricate financial scheme, a Robin Hood-like financial worker, false confessions and implications of more murders emerge with each page turn. Don't put it down and then pick it up again a few days later, or you'll be lost in the morass that opens before investigator reporter Ryland and her boyfriend, Detective Jake Brogan.
The story is well rooted in place, with descriptions of Boston streets and locales, but the novel is predictably couched within the world of good vs. evil and human weakness.
Her characters are rich: a news-mongering city editor, who doesn't mind stretching the truth, or twisting it a bit, for a good headline. A lawyer who takes on the bad guys for all the right reasons. A soft-hearted bank worker who tries to rescue delinquent mortgage holders. A crusty detective who doesn't trust media types, even if he's in love with one of them. A reporter who goes after the real story with everything she's got, even after she's given a stupid assignment to keep her busy. They collide in the wake of a slough of misdeeds leading to murder, and try to get to the truth with—or without—cooperation.
Ryan designs an interesting contrast in plotting, as police try to solve a 20-year-old case involving a possibly false confession while Jane discovers a multi-layered trail involving real estate fraud and murder. Are they connected? Leave it to Ryan to find the way.
Ryan's knowledge of journalism plants a realistic overlay throughout "Truth Be Told," as J-school ethics collide with real-world decision-making.
She appears unafraid to lay in a whole cast of characters, unlike the few found in many crime novels. And, as in real life, stuff happens to alter the plot: shifts change, strangers appear, assignments and personnel are switched. It can be confusing if one is not reading it all in one batch (which I recommend for that reason). Easy continuity is blurred by multiple scene switches in each chapter, which can confuse casual readers, but it also gives the story a lot of motion and freshness—and a lightning pace.
She's a skilled writer and mystery plotter. In short, dig in to "Truth Be Told."