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?

Barefoot Girls by Tara McTiernan

Usually during this time of year I get a little melancholy about the end of summer. I already miss those lazy afternoons tubing down the river, and those weekend escapes to the Texas coast. So when I want to evoke those sweet sun-kissed memories, I envelop myself in a good beach read filled with sun, fun and a dash of mystery. I couldn’t have picked a better end-of-summer beach read than Tara McTiernan’s Barefoot Girls!

The story centers on Captains Island, a charming little East Coast hamlet where a quartet of best friends reunite each summer at their sacred clubhouse known as the “Barefooters Shack.” Throughout the decades, the girls remained thick as thieves. When the ringleader of the group has an unexpected pregnancy, the women swoop in and raise their “barefoot baby” together as if it was their own.

Surrounded by a circle of fun-loving mothers, little Hannah spent many fun-filled summers on the island. On the surface, she had the perfect childhood. But her debut “novel” says otherwise.

Written with such passion and depth, Hannah’s book touches on some heavy duty childhood abandonment issues. It certainly doesn’t seem like something a 21-year-old could write… unless if she’s drawing from her own personal experiences. When a snarky book reviewer insinuates that the novel is a disguised memoir, Hannah’s melodramatic mother, Keeley, completely shuts down. How could she fabricate such hurtful lies?

Even Hannah questions the motivation behind the poison-penned novel. Her mother gave her everything she needed, so where is all the anger and resentment coming from?

To get some answers, she quits her waitressing job and heads out to the place where it all began, the sacred Barefooters clubhouse. Filled with so many happy

Here’s my Indian summer getaway: Rockport, TX.

memories and dusty photo albums, the shack is her only sanctuary from the storm. But when she arrives to Captains Island during the gloomy off season, the atmosphere feels more like a baron ghost town than a seaside getaway. And for the first time, Hannah doesn’t feel comfort in solitude.

The only way to understand the root of her complex emotions is to dig into her mother’s past. Why did her mother always seem so emotionally detached? And why did she always feel so alone – even in the presence of her doting Barefooters?

She better find answers quick – before she sabotages all chances for happiness, including her engagement with Daniel, the one man who managed to find his way into her heart.

Told through multiple narratives, the author expertly intertwines several plot threads: Past memories of the Barefooters’ childhood adventures, Keeley’s current struggle with alcoholism and life on the Upper East Side, and Daniel’s frustrations with Hannah’s walled-up emotions. And if that’s not enough drama, she also throws in the Barefooters’ childhood bully,  a deranged beauty queen with fading looks and a serious vendetta.

As Hannah delves deeper into her mother’s unbreakable bond with the Barefooters, she begins to realize why she has always gone through life feeling like an outsider. When shocking family secrets are revealed and pent-up emotions come to a head, Hannah must learn how to move forward by letting go of her past.

Overall Barefoot Girls is a captivating story about forgiveness, new beginnings and the everlasting bond between women. At 400+ pages it’s a little on the long side, but once you get into it you won’t want to leave the idyllic little summer getaway. Through the author’s prose, you can practically smell the salty air and feel the sand beneath your toes. If you’re looking for a sweet escape, this book will do the trick!

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Howard

Dare I say it? Could Saving CeeCee Honeycutt be one of my most favorite books of all time? Since I gave it a special place on my favorite bookshelf and plan on reading it again and again, I guess it’s safe to say that yes, this book has earned a spot in Jessica Sinn’s top ten most favorite books. It’s been while since I’ve claimed an inductee, so this is a pretty major event for Chick Lit Café!

It’s actually kind of funny how I stumbled across this book. While shopping at Barnes & Noble for a Father’s Day gift, I swore that I wouldn’t buy myself another book. I was doing really good up until I reached the checkout aisle and noticed Saving CeeCee Honeycutt on top of the impulse buy table. The hummingbird on the cover caught my eye, so I gave in and read the dustcover. And wouldn’t you know, it’s like the book was custom made just for me. It has all the elements I look for in a women’s fiction novel: A haunted protagonist, female bonding, self-discovery and a small Southern town. This was one impulse buy that I will never regret!

Now on to the hard part. I’m sure many of my fellow bloggers would agree that it’s not easy writing a review about a favorite book. There’s so much I want to say, but how do I even begin? I guess I’ll try to give it a shot without getting too carried away. Here’s how it all goes down:

Set in Savannah Georgia in the 1960s, the story revolves around CeeCee Honeycutt, whose life has been shaped by her traumatic childhood with a psychotic mother and absentee father. A former Southern beauty queen, her mother spent her days prancing around the front yard in thrift store prom dresses. Unable to deal with his crazy wife, CeeCee’s dad constantly skips town on “business trips,” leaving her alone to deal with the tantrums and kitchen fires.

Shunned by the neighborhood kids, she longs for a best girlfriend more than anything in the world. To shut out her grim reality, she devours books – especially Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew mysteries.

When tragedy strikes, CeeCee’s great aunt Tootie scoops her up in her Packard Victoria convertible and whisks her off to Savannah, Georgia. Soon she finds herself completely enveloped in a colorful world of lush gardens, historic mansions and Southern hospitality.

This is how I picture aunt Tootie’s mansion on Gaston Street.

But despite her new posh surroundings and blossoming circle of friends, CeeCee’s life isn’t all sweet tea and roses. She has a lot of issues bubbling under the surface that can’t be ignored. Why can’t she cry over her mother’s untimely death? And will she ever be able to forgive her father? With some help from her aunt Tootie, and a bevy of eccentric Southern ladies, she slowly learns how to confront her past.

Like Dorothy entering the Land of Oz, CeeCee meets fascinating new friends along her journey – from a mysterious neighbor who takes moonlit baths in her garden, to a promiscuous town gossip, to a voyeuristic peacock!  But of all the characters, my favorite is Aunt Tootie’s longtime housemaid, Oletta Jones. Similar to Mabel in The Help, she’s haunted by the death of her only child and finds a renewed sense of joy by befriending young CeeCee. As their friendship deepens with every chapter, it becomes very clear they both were destined to find each other. I got really choked up when I read this exchange between Oletta and CeeCee while they were skinny dipping in a neighbor’s pool:

Over and over I practiced saying the words in my mind: I love you, Oletta. I love you. But when I gathered the courage to say them out loud, the words that popped out were, “Oletta, if you and I had met when we were both kids, would you have liked me?”

That question seemed to surprise her as much as it did me. Then in the darkness I could see her eyes crinkle up when she smiled. “Oh, yes, I’da like you just fine, but I’d probably been a little scared of you too.”

“Scared? Why?”

“Because you’re so smart and pretty. Sometimes them two things in one person can mean a whole lot of trouble.”

Call me a sap, but this moment really melted my heart. How I wish I could spend a day with these two kindred spirits eating beaten biscuits and chatting about Nancy Drew!

What I really love about this book is how these women surrounded little CeeCee like a warm hug and lifted her out of the darkness. They cared for her when she was hurting. They listened to her when she unleashed her anxieties. They made her feel wanted after years of neglect. And best of all – they gave her the one thing she always wanted, true friendship. We should all be so lucky to have a strong woman like Oletta or Aunt Tootie in our corner. There’s something very special about a true friend who wholeheartedly wants for your happiness – someone who will go above and beyond to make sure everything is okay.

Overall Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is an exceptional debut. This is a book from the heart, full of strong female voices and bits of wisdom. Beth Howard brilliantly tells the story through the innocent eyes of a 12-year-old girl,  taking readers on a mesmerizing journey of self-discovery. Whatever you do, don’t rush through this book. Like a great vacation, you want to savor each and every moment before it’s over! Fans of Kathryn Stockett, Cassandra King, Rebecca Wells and Billie Letts are sure to be impressed.

Dancing Naked in Dixie Review & Author Interview

How cool would it be to make a living as a travel writer? Jet-setting to lavish bucket list-worthy destinations on the company’s dime sure sounds like a dream come true. But then again, how could you make a life for yourself if you never really have a place to call home? What if white sandy beaches, poolside cocktails and cute cabana boys all just became another part of the daily grind? Hmm…maybe Samantha Brown’s life isn’t all champagne and roses after all.

For Julia Sullivan, the leading lady in Dancing Naked in Dixie, the frenetic life of a travel writer is the perfect escape from reality. Shattered by her mother’s death, she distracts herself by flitting from one country to the next and putting together generic stories at the last minute. With nothing to come home to, except an empty Manhattan apartment and a workaholic boyfriend, Julia’s fast-pace lifestyle is the perfect distraction from her empty life.

After turning in another flat travel story, the new editor in chief gives her one last chance to write a solid piece. But rather than sending her to an exotic resort as originally planned, he’s reassigning her to Eufaula, Alabama. To make matters worse, the new head honcho just so happens to be Julia’s estranged father. Ouch!

Like your typical city slicker, she scoffs at the idea of writing a glossy magazine story about a podunk country town. In fact, she’d rather dance naked that travel to Alabama!

Home of antebellum mansions, super-sweet tea and Southern belles, Eufaula is a far cry from the bustling streets of Manhattan. But just the thought of slowing down and smelling the roses sends Julia into a tizzy. Without a rigid schedule of spa treatments, scuba diving and five-star dining, she might have to finally stand still and be alone with her thoughts.

Despite her misgivings, she soon finds herself enveloped in a colorful world of fragrant magnolia trees, quirky townsfolk and stately historic mansions. And after meeting the charming locals – including a most handsome town historian – her plans to write a quick and dirty story soon fall to the wayside.

Little did she know, her story takes second seat to the drama unfolding around Phase Three, a development plan put in motion by some shady dealings with the city council.  But it’s not just the local politics that keep her from rushing back to New York. Somehow she managed to get attached to her handsome tour guide and his quirky family. Heck, she’s even growing fond of the flamboyant B&B owner, Roger, who never lets her slip out the door without a gabfest.

Unlike any other travel adventure, this is the first time Julia really connects with her surroundings. And for the first time since her mother’s death, she’s starting to feel whole again.

How is she ever going to return to her jet-setting lifestyle after leaving a big piece of her heart in Eufaula? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Trust me, fellow Southern fiction fans, it’s worth your while!

I was really impressed by Lauren’s debut novel Stay Tuned but this one really stole my heart. Many readers, myself included, will undoubtedly connect with Julia’s endearing personality. Despite her flaws, she’s compassionate toward others and truly cares about the fate of a small town that’s far removed from her own life in Manhattan.

What I love most about this book is the balance of heartache and humor. To quote the great Truvy Jones (Steal Magnolia fans, you know who I’m talking about!) laughter through tears is my favorite emotion. And Lauren Clark does a fine job of tickling my funny bone while tugging at my heartstrings.  If you aren’t already a Lauren Clark fan,  Dancing Naked in Dixie will help draw you into her fold.

Without further ado, I am pleased to present a Q&A with the mastermind behind this fun and frothy story of self-discovery, Lauren Clark.

Welcome Lauren! What do you love most about being a writer?

 I do love connecting with readers just after a book has been released. There’s so much excitement and worry about how the story will be received. With Dixie, I’ve been so amazed with the warm reception and readers embracing the characters right away! I actually held off on committing to come to Eufaula for a book signing until a few people there had read it and LIKED it . They’ve invited me August 2nd to Shorter Mansion , so that’s a good sign!

 I read on your blog that Eufaula is a real small town in Alabama. Why did you choose to set your story in this particular Southern hamlet?

 I used to live about a half-hour from Eufaula, and one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon was to drive up to Eufaula, have lunch and walk around the historic district. I attended several of the Pilgrimages, one at dusk when the streets light up with candles and everyone is in old-fashioned dress. It’s so lovely, like stepping back in time two hundred years.

 You did a fabulous job describing the sights, the sounds and the people of Eufaula. It’s almost as though the town is a character itself! Why is it important to pay close attention to the setting in a story?

 I think that readers like to explore a place they’ve never been or might never visit. I think that it’s the author’s job to provide enough setting details to make it seem real and come alive. Too much detail, and it’s overwhelming; just enough and it doesn’t get in the way of the story. I actually poured over maps of the city and marked the different locations, then tacked it up on my wall so that I had the picture firmly in my mind of where Julia would go and what she would see!

There are so many colorful characters in your book. If you could take one of them out to lunch, who would you choose and why?

 I love Roger. He’s so flamboyant, yet insecure at times. He’s the best friend you’d want to have in Eufaula – he knows everyone and everything that goes on. He’s the catastrophe manager; always the one who knows what to do and say in a crisis.

What do you love about Southern living?

There’s something about the way of life in the South that makes a person breathe a little deeper, sleep a little better, and enjoy the little things in life. The sky is blue almost every day, there are flowers blooming everywhere, and right now, the peaches are so ripe that you can smell summer right in the palm of your hand.

What kind of research went into writing this book? Did you go on any pilgrimages in Eufaula or perhaps another charming small town?

 I did attend Pilgrimages in Eufaula, but have not had an opportunity to do so in other towns. It’s on my bucket list!

While reading your book, I thought of that cute WB show “Hart of Dixie.” In terms of Southern culture, where does Hollywood go right? And where do they miss the mark?

 I adore Zoe Hart and George … I’ve been a big fan of the show since the start. I think that Zoe and Julia would be fast friends. And I can’t decide if I love or hate Wade … and just when Lemon is awful, I melt a little and empathize with her high-strung character. I do wish she would just hook up with the Mayor and get it over with!!!  (Disclaimer: I began writing Dancing Naked in Dixie more than five years ago … and finished it up when a friend begged me to. It was right around the time when “Hart of Dixie” came on the air!!)

I think that Hollywood goes overboard when they cast characters from the Deep South as uneducated and not very bright. I’ve met so many wonderful, talented, and brilliant people since I moved to Alabama, I feel lucky to call them my friends.

What’s the best piece of advice you can give to aspiring novelists?

 I have several:  (1) It takes a lot of hard work to get that first manuscript done. My advice is to finish it, no matter how awful or flawed your story. My first novel will NEVER see the light of day, but I had to get through it to learn and improve. (2) Someone wise once said that you have to write a million words before you find your voice as an author. I have to admit – as  much as I hate to – that it is true. (3) I read as much as I can about the craft of writing (three dozen books, at least) and listen to advice from authors who have been there in the trenches long before I picked up my laptop. (4) I read a lot of books – not just fiction – and not just in my favorite genre. I believe that it’s a great way to stimulate creativity and open your mind to possibilities. You never know where that next story idea might come from!!!

What message do you hope readers will take away from this book?

 I would love for readers to understand Julia’s journey. She has (as we all do) many preconceived notions about a place she’s never been and people who she’s never met. She’s not happy about visiting tiny Eufaula, Alabama. Yet, when she opens herself up to the possibilities, slows down, and takes in the beauty and love that she’s surrounded with, it changes her life.  In a sentence, Dixie is about finding happiness in the most unexpected of places.

 Could you give me a sneak peek into your next book? Will there be more adventures in store for Julia Sullivan?

I’ve had so many readers ask if there will be a sequel!!!  (Yay & Throws Confetti!!) I would love to catch up with Shug and Julia in the near future. I want to see what happens with their relationship, how Julia handles her new feelings, and whether she’s able to settle down in a small town. I grew to adore these characters – and  feel like there’s so much more to explore with PD, David, Aubie, and even Mary Katherine.  As far as my next project – I  am researching for my next novel, The Pie Lab, which is a real restaurant in Greensboro, Alabama. This story will follow a girl who’s gone off to a big city (like Atlanta or New York) and vows NEVER to come home. She’s forced to return to Greensboro, though, when her romantic relationship falls apart. Since she’s burned a lot of bridges, it will be interesting to see how she makes amends.  The Pie Lab, as a business, is a great concept, as it offers on-the-job training and the owners are very active in the community. Added bonus…the pies are delicious! The Pie Lab has been featured in Southern Living and The New York Times.

Thank you so very much for hosting me on your site. I am indebted to my readers and the wonderful bloggers like you who have supported Dixie.

Thank YOU, Lauren! I also want to thank my pal Samantha over at Chick Lit Plus for making me a part of the blog tour. For more about this fabulous author, check out her website. You can also hear her discuss her new book on Sylvia Dickey Smith’s Writing Strong Women Blog Talk Radio Show!