Pie Girls by Lauren Clark

piegirlsThanksgiving may be over, but I’m still craving pies, pies, pies—and more pies! I blame this insatiable sugar lust on none other than Lauren Clark, author of Pie Girls. Her fourth chick lit novel revolves around a pie shop located in the small town of Fairfield, Alabama.

Wouldn’t it be fun running a bakery in an idyllic Southern hamlet? How cool would it be serving pies and coffee to your friends and neighbors?  Sure beats hovering over a computer all day and battling gridlock traffic. Who wouldn’t want that kind of life? Searcy Roberts, that’s who.

You see, Pie Girls is a family restaurant meant to be passed down to Searcy. But, alas, Searcy had bigger, more extravagant plans. Desperate to leave Fairfield, she climbs her way up to the top of the social ladder and marries Alton Roberts, the local rich boy—and  her meal ticket to the big city. They head off to Atlanta, where she spends her days shopping at Barneys and gossiping with her fellow socialites over caviar and champagne. Ah the sweet life of the rich and glamorous.

Little does she know, her days of decadence are numbered. Her husband has been harboring a deep, dark secret—and it all comes to a head on their wedding anniversary. Given Searcy’s self-absorbed lifestyle, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy watching her suffer.

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Lemon meringue is my ultimate favorite. What’s yours?

This is where it gets tricky. When I start to loathe the main character, there’s a 50/50 chance the book is going in the goodwill bin. Searcy needed to amend her ways—and fast. Surprisingly she pulled it off!  Once she moved back to her hometown and started helping out around the pie shop, I quickly warmed up to her—and so did the townies. Most importantly, she charmed the super cute bike shop owner next door. It’s a good thing she did because that guy is always ready to swoop in and save Pie Girls from burning down or flooding out.

Just when the harsh reality of Searcy’s failed marriage sets in, she gets hit with another whopping bombshell. Her mother is no longer capable of running the pie shop—and it’s up to Searcy to keep it from going under.  Will she stick around long enough to see it through? Will she relish the simplicities of small town life and continue running Pie Girls indefinitely? Since her mother refuses to bequeath the prize-winning family recipes to anyone other than the prodigal daughter, we better hope the answer is yes!

Nothing beats apple crumble pie on a cold winters day.
Nothing beats apple crumble pie on a cold winters day.

From chapter to chapter, it was a lot of fun watching the transformation of both the pie store and Searcy’s personality. The descriptive prose transported me straight to Fairfield, where I could hear the locusts buzzing in the fields, smell the heady scent of brown sugar in the shop, and see the vibrant flowers hanging above the rows of shops on Main Street. Throughout the book, my taste buds were throbbing for all sorts of gooey goodies. Very dangerous for a girl who lives within walking distance of a bakery!

I also adore key lime pie!
I also adore key lime pie!

Despite our rough patch at the beginning, Searcy won her way back into my heart when she dropped the Carrie Bradshaw act and got down to brass tacks on the pie shop. I hope you’ll check this book out and give Searcy a chance too. If you’re in the mood for a light and fluffy story with a little bit of bite (not unlike lemon meringue pie), grab your fork and dig into Pie Girls. Hmm…I wonder if there’s any leftover pumpkin pie in the fridge. I better go take a looksy!

Following Atticus by Tom Ryan

11100477Oh man, I don’t even know how to even begin describing how much I adore this book. I just want to climb to the top of one of Tom’s beloved mountain peaks with a bullhorn and tell the world to read Following Atticus. It’s that good, people!

This is just a beautiful story about the bond between a man and his dog, and how they both found inner peace in the enchanting New Hampshire Mountains. In defiance of what’s expected of an overweight middle-aged man and a 20-pound dog, they achieved the impossible. Not once, but twice, they conquered all 48 of the great White Mountain peaks in one winter.

I poured through this book in sheer amazement as these two adventurers hiked up and down the majestic mountains in the freezing cold—an amazing feat for even the most elite mountain climbers.  They didn’t do it for fame or to break a world record. They did it to pay tribute to fallen cancer victims, and to raise money for charity. But ultimately some higher power—some inexplicable force that only the readers can decipher for themselves—drew them into the wilds. Tom & Atticus

What I love about this story is how Tom made a complete turnaround after meeting Atticus. A busy newspaper man, he was constantly running around town to get the latest scoop. There was no time for pets, no time for exercise, no time for sitting still. He seemed happy in this lifestyle until a little mini schnauzer came into his life and changed everything.

“In the mountains Atticus became more of what he’d always been, and I became less—less frantic, less stressed, less worried, and less harried. I felt comfortable letting him lead, and he seemed to know what I needed. He always chose the best route, if ever there was a question, and my only job was to follow.”

I can tell you from experience that animals have a way of making us live in the present. Like standing atop a majestic mountain and looking down at nature’s splendor, seeing the world through a dog’s eyes can allow us to take in the bigger picture. All those trivial things—the office pettiness, the family melodrama, the overloaded inbox—seem so insignificant when you can truly understand the broad scheme of things. That’s why this book really hit home. Through Tom’s lyrical prose of the gorgeous mountain scenery, I could feel his day-to-day stress ebb away. I, too, was hit by this feeling while hiking through Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s amazing how our natural surroundings—the scent of fresh evergreens, the rhythmic trickling streams, the rustling of leaves overhead—can instantly put us at ease.

“…It was like stumbling into C.S. Lewis’s magical wardrobe and pushing through the rows of clothes, knowing that there was something thrilling beyond it all. Stepping out of the trees and onto an open ridge or peak was like exiting the back of the wardrobe and entering our own special Narnia. It was a world apart, a world that belonged only to the two of us.”

 And sometimes the stillness and solitude of nature can make us confront our own demons. Perhaps that’s why so many of us have to be constantly plugged into those little flat-screen devices. I’ll never forget the intense moment when the eerie winter woods forced Tom to face his darkest fears while hiking alone at night.

“It was eerie and sad, and I found myself falling into a deep malaise where all the warmth in the world had been drained away, and I thought, this must be what death is like—brittle, unyielding, frozen…The higher we climbed, the more ghostlike it felt and the heavier I sank into the night, spiraling deeper into memories that wouldn’t let go of me—the kind that haunt your subconscious, that surface ever so rarely in your dreams and wake you up in a sweat with a breathless gasp.”

 There’s so much more to this book than just a feel-good pet story. Tom’s incredible transformation is truly inspiring. His story makes it hard—almost impossible—to question fate and the possibility of soul mates. The next time I climb a mountain top or set foot in a state park, I’ll always remember Tom’s spiritual epiphanies. At that, I’ll leave you with one of my most favorite quotes from the book.

“Magic is where you find it; the only thing that matters is that you take the time to look for it. It can be the wonder in a little dog’s face or the memory of an old man. People continued to ask why I’d taken to hiking alone with Atticus. It was because such thoughts come to me on a climb or at the top or walking through the thick woods on the way down under a golden sun or bright stars. When there was no one to talk to, I found myself in a walking meditation. I was not a religious man, but if I were, the woods would be my church, the mountain tops my alter.”

Audiobook Pick of the Month: White Oleander by Janet Fitch

32234Summary (from the publisher) When Astrid’s mother, a beautiful, headstrong poet, murders a former lover and is imprisoned for life, Astrid becomes one of the thousands of foster children in Los Angeles. As she navigates this new reality, Astrid finds strength in her unshakable certainty of her own worth and her unfettered sense of the absurd. 

Why I liked it: You know you’ve read a truly great book when you’re struggling with questions long after polishing off the last chapter. My lingering nature vs. nurture questions have to do with Ingrid. Are some people inherently evil? 

Next to Hannibal Lector, Ingrid one of the most frightening villains I’ve come across in a long time. She’s cold, manipulative, egotistical and completely devoid of empathy for others. She has no qualms about making Astrid aware of the burdens of motherhood. Boy does that bring back memories. 

“What was a weed, anyway. A plant nobody planted? A seed escaped from a traveler’s coat, something that didn’t belong? Was it something that grew better than what should have been there? Wasn’t it just a word, weed, trailing its judgments. Useless, without value. Unwanted.”

And just when I thought this morally-blind character couldn’t get any more despicable – she’d take her narcissism to a whole new level! Just for shits and giggles, she would get her poetic juices flowing by writing a laundry list of horrible ways to torment people, like “give a homeless man fake money and make sure he thanks you profusely.” Or “convince a depressed person to commit suicide.”  Seriously?!?  Does this sound like a woman who is capable of redemption? I sincerely doubt it.

 I won’t give away any spoilers, but I will say that the book leaves a lot of things open for interpretation. Honestly, I wasn’t completely thrilled by the way it left off, but I have a feeling the author was compelled to give her readers what they wanted.

The narrator: I wasn’t so sure about listening to a book narrated by Oprah. No offense to Oprah, I just don’t like celebrity narrators. They tend to speak a mile a minute or overdramatize the voices like a parent reading a bedtime story. But you know what – she did a pretty good job capturing Astrid’s voice. I know she’s a busy lady, but it would have been nice if she took the time to read the unabridged book. I hate that she skipped over some chunks of this fascinating story.

Favorite character: Astrid is – by far – one of the most complex, sympathetic characters I’ve encountered.  Unlike her pathological mother, she looks for the good in people and lacks that instantaneous disdain for others that so twisted her mother’s life. I was especially moved by her relationship with her emotionally fragile foster mom, Clare. Despite her own inner turmoil, Astrid wanted nothing more than to coddle Clare in a cocoon of happiness.  In a way, she was displaying the kind of unconditional love and support that she should have received from her own mother.

“I wanted the world to be beautiful for her. I wanted things to work out. I always had a great day, no matter what.”

Like listening to the perfect sad song on a bad day, this book has somewhat of a cathartic effect. Anyone who has grown up in a loveless household will identify with Astrid’s struggle. But ultimately this is a story about survival. Let’s face it; a lot of us get the short hand of the stick when it comes to parents. But once we get out from under their thumb, we have the freedom to chart our own destiny.  Astrid’s journey – from a naïve young girl, to a hardened foster kid, to a hopeful young artist –  is a tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit.

Summed up in three words: Dark, poignant, beautiful.

Audiobook Pick of the Month: A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty

10960383Summary (from the publisher) A GROWN-UP KIND OF PRETTY is a powerful saga of three generations of women, plagued by hardships and torn by a devastating secret, yet inextricably joined by the bonds of family. Fifteen-year-old Mosey Slocumb-spirited, sassy, and on the cusp of womanhood-is shaken when a small grave is unearthed in the backyard, and determined to figure out why it’s there. Liza, her stroke-ravaged mother, is haunted by choices she made as a teenager. But it is Jenny, Mosey’s strong and big-hearted grandmother, whose maternal love braids together the strands of the women’s shared past–and who will stop at nothing to defend their future.

 Why I liked it:  There’s a lot of really good women’s fiction writers out there, but Joshilyn Jackson is in a league of her own. She has a knack for describing incredibly complex thoughts and feelings in a way that really connects readers with the characters. For a while there, I almost felt like I was Mosey. I hung on to the narrator’s every word as the story slowly unfolded, always teasing me with more questions than answers about Mosey’s sordid family history.

This author never ceases to amaze me with her intoxicating stories about Southern women with haunted backstories and serious psychological issues. As a fledgling author, I have to admit that I’m rather intimidated by her raw talent for lyrical prose. The last chapter is sheer poetry. I guess if I had to put her in a league, she’d be in the dugout with the likes of Stephen King, Janet Fitch and Robert McCammon

The narrator: You’d think that authors would be ideal narrators, but typically their performances fall flat. They tend to sound like a bored librarian entertaining little kiddies at a story-time reading circle. But much to my surprise, Joshilyn Jackson did a standup job narrating this book. Her authentic Southern drawl really added to the characters’ personalities. There were quite a few characters in this book – which can be really confusing on audio – but she gave each of them a distinct tone. I really loved how she’d lower her voice a few octaves to drum up the suspense. Really well done!

Favorite character: There’s a lot of fascinating characters in this story, but Big (aka Ginny Slocumb) really stole my heart. She is everything a mother should be: Protective, loving and self-sacrificing. I loved how she stopped at nothing to rehabilitate her daughter in defiance of naysayers who swore she’d be a vegetable for the rest of her life. She’s headstrong, feisty and incredibly smart. I especially enjoyed how she handled her family’s tormenter toward the end of the book. Well played, Big!

Summed up in three words: Mesmerizing. Heart wrenching. Poetic.

Honoring Boston, Running, and the Human Spirit

“If you’re trying to defeat the human spirit, marathon runners are the wrong group to target.” -David & Kelvin Bright

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My first half marathon at Disneyland. I’m the one in pink!

These words rang loud and true when Gilbert Tuhabonye – an ambassador of Austin’s running community – commemorated the Boston Marathon victims at a community vigil. As we bowed our heads in silence for 26.2 seconds, I was overwhelmed by the raw emotions that took over the sea of runners.

Decked out in glow sticks and our favorite race shirts, we all stood together in honor of the Boston Marathon victims. As I looked around the massive crowd, I was struck by a powerful sense of solidarity.  The hugs, the tears, the reassuring smiles, the unified run around Town Lake – everything about that night was like chicken soup for the soul.

It’s hard to believe the Boston Marathon – a symbolic event of joy and charity – could be the target of mass destruction. The gruesome images of victims and blood-soaked sidewalks immediately stirred fear and doubt in my mind.  And that’s exactly what the terrorists hoped to accomplish.  Little did they know, they targeted the wrong group.

Here’s the thing about runners: They push through in fierce defiance of adversity. When their tired bodies beg them to quit, they ignore the pain and come out stronger and more euphoric than ever! Marathon runners aren’t just in it for themselves; they’re in it to raise money for charity, to honor dead loved ones, to support each other, to exemplify the power of the human spirit. You can see it in those images on TV – people running into chaos to carry a blood-soaked stranger to safety, marathoners rushing straight to the blood bank to save lives.  After looking at those heroic acts of kindness, my fears and doubts were quickly replaced by a surge of faith in mankind.

That feeling of pride was strengthened last week when I ran for Boston at Town Lake. I couldn’t think of anyone more perfect than Gilbert 539051Tuhabonye to comfort Austin’s running community during this dark time. In his autobiography “This Voice in My Heart,” he gives a gruesome eyewitness account of how he survived – physically and spiritually – a brutal massacre.  As he hid under a rubble of dead bodies, he heard a voice inside saying, “You will be all right; you will survive.”

It’s inspiring to know that someone can survive such an unimaginable nightmare and come back fighting.  It just goes to show that the power of faith and human strength can get us through just about anything.  Some of you might be rolling your eyes at my corny platitudes, but that’s okay. Go run a marathon, and I promise those cynical thoughts will disappear.

 Long before I ran my first race, I already experienced the palpable sense of joy emanating from the spectators.  I love standing on the sidelines and giving the runners high fives with my fellow cheerleaders. I’m surrounded by thousands of perfect strangers, but we all seem to be knitted together by sheer good will. As I watch for my husband, I cheer on the legions of beleaguered runners at mile marker 22. I like to stand at this particular spot because it’s known by many as “the wall.” It’s where runners start to feel the pain and need that extra push to propel forward.

The hubster (in the green shirt) and his fellow Gazelles at the vigil.
The hubster (in the green shirt) and his fellow Gazelles at the vigil.

This is going to sound really corny, so please bear with me. The first time I experienced a marathon as spectator, tears welled up in my eyes when I saw a runner embrace her family after she crossed the finish line. Okay, go ahead and laugh because I’m being a complete cheese ball, but it might not seem so silly once you experience a marathon for yourself. It’s a testament of strength, perseverance and drive. I’m so proud of my husband for completing  multiple marathons, and helping his fellow Gazelles push through “the wall.”

I know all too well what it means to conquer that wall – in life and on the racetrack.  Despite the pain in my legs and the lack of oxygen in my lungs, I’m always craving that indescribable sense of euphoria that comes from a long run. At that, I’ll leave you with these inspiring words that I found on the Fifth Third River Bank Run blog.

“…Running is a gift. Today is a gift.  We took off for our run with a renewed perspective. Running the mile today was less about getting a specific time and more about getting together as a running community and running as hard as we could for a mile. It felt great to run hard. I felt like I was able to leave all my mixed emotions on the track as I ran. I felt like we were proving that runners don’t quit. Runners are willing to get up early on Saturday mornings, push their body to exhaustion/pain and run through disgusting weather … and then go out the next week and do it again. Runners don’t quit. We aren’t afraid and our sport isn’t going anywhere.”

“…Let’s run. Let’s run in solidarity with our runners/spectators in Boston. Let’s run because we know that there is good in this world and we will not live each day in fear. Let’s run because we know that we need race day, spectators, and other runners in our community.

I Kill Me by Tracy H. Tucker

15758840With an anxiety disorder the size of Texas, I know better than to go near WebMD, PetMD or any other self-diagnosis website. I blame modern technology for my insatiable need for immediate answers to mysterious ailments like inexplicable hiccupping which, according to a Yahoo chat group, is symptomatic of AIDS! And let’s not forget about the time when I swore I had impetigo after giving myself a giant blister from dancing in stacked heels.

As you can see, I’m the poster child for just saying NO to WebMD. Seriously, folks, we should leave this stuff to the professionals in white coats…but sometimes it’s too hard to resist. This is especially true for Christine Bacon, a 40-something school teacher who is obsessed with deadly diseases. No sneeze, bump, itch or cough goes undetected – and her doctors are making a pretty penny off of her weekly visits. Geez – this poor woman must have to take out a second mortgage just to afford all those co-pays!

Her anxiety goes into overdrive when her husband insists on “shaking things up” by having a threesome with his boobaliscious message therapist. Shortly after the ill-fated tryst, her marriage to Richard (preferably known as Dick) quickly unravels into shreds. Let me tell ya, this guy pissed me off from page one – and I was so ready for him to run off with his new bimbo. He’s the ultimate midlife crisis cliché: divorce the faithful wife, kick her while she’s down, ignore the kids, and sport a boy-band hairstyle. He’s pretty much a douchebag with a capital D, and I couldn’t wait to get to the end of the book so I could revel in Christine’s sweet revenge.

As Christine embarks on the stages of grief, she convinces herself that every stress-related ailment is symptomatic of a fatal disease. From MS, to ear cancer to HIV, she’s certain she will inevitably die a slow, painful death.

But it’s not all gloom and doom for our hapless hypochondriac. She’s got a fabulous circle of friends to turn to when she needs to be talked off the ledge. I absolutely adored her schoolteacher friends who stayed by her side during her darkest days. They never gave up on coaching her through her daily “I’m going to die!” episodes, which is a real testament of friendship. Just ask my loyal bestie, who never fails to entertain my absurd fears of contracting rare fatal diseases. I typically reward her good deeds with some moonshine shots, but really this girl deserves a badge of honor!   Christine also has the perfect gay boyfriend, who just so happens to be a doctor. He’s amused by her endearingly neurotic fascination with deadly illnesses, and their conversations are quite hilarious. 

Aside from the loveable protagonist, the book’s biggest strong suit is the humor. This author clearly has a quirky personality – and it shows in the whip-smart dialogue and Christine’s zany antics. There were some moments that had me shaking with laughter, especially when Christine flipped out on a student for not complimenting her post-divorce haircut. It’s one of the many scenes that only a girl would truly understand and appreciate. Oh and I also really loved the part when she threw herself a  pity party by dramatically taking out the trash (a mandatory husband chore) in front of her sympathetic neighbors.

Overall, this little indie book is quite a gem. Although Christine’s neurosis is a tad extreme, many of the emotions she deals with will resonate with women readers. Whether you’re divorced, single or happily married – this book will make you laugh, cry and hug your best friend. Tracy does a fine job balancing heavy issues with humor without undermining Christine’s underlying psychological problems. If you enjoy stories about personal transformation,  hope and second chances – download this book immediately!

Want to know more about this talented new author? Check out her blog, Tales from an Empty Nest.

Pie, Pie, Pie!

On this blessed day of thanks, I’m grateful for family, friends, good books – and most importantly – PIE!  Oh how I love me some warm, gooey, scrumpdiliumptious pie. Nothing beats the down-home goodness of a freshly baked pie. From the sugar-ensconced fluffy meringue toppings to the rich, decadent chocolate cream fillings – these delicious dishes evoke some of my fondest childhood memories.

When it comes to the nostalgic bliss of pie, nobody says it better than Beth Howard, author of Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie:  “Pie is accessible, affordable, all-encompassing. Pie is meant for sharing. Pie connects people. Pie knows no cultural or political boundaries. Pie makes people happy. And happy people make the world a better place. That’s why the world needs more pie.”

In honor of America’s most iconic dessert, here is a little taste of two pie-themed books.

In Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie, Beth Howard shares how her lifelong love of pie helped her get through the pain of bereavement. After her husband’s untimely death, she seeks refuge in the art and craft of pie baking. With some help from good friends and her own inner strength, she sets forth on a cross-country pie-baking documentary project in her husband’s Winnebago. Filled with a multitude of pie analogies, this book is both heart-warming and gut-wrenching. Like a big hunk of chocolate cream pie, this journey of self-discovery will stick to your ribs long after you devour it.  Go to her website to read all about her book, pie-baking tips, and her American Gothic house.

I should also mention an upcoming book by one of my most favorite chick lit authors, Lauren Clark. In Pie Girls, a spoiled Southern Belle must return to her hometown and rebuild her life after it all falls apart in the big city. Somehow she finds herself involved in a Pie Lab, which is based off of a real restaurant that offers job training for high school dropouts and people in need of vocational skills. Sounds like a tasty read to me! Go to her blog for a sneak preview.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sneak a bite out of my delicious pumpkin pie while my husband isn’t looking! I’m sure our guests won’t notice that tiny little dent…right?