Comfort Reads: Jo-Ann Mapson’s Bad Girl Creek

Bad Girl Creek Jo-Ann MapsonSometimes I think I should read more women’s popular fiction.

It isn’t necessary to finish every day with Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day.

Jo-Ann Mapson’s Bad Girl Creek is entertaining and sometimes heartbreakingly lyrical.

My husband checked it out from the library for me and makes fun of me for liking a book with a cute title, but I pay no attention. (I married up, people:  Nobody in his family reads anything that hasn’t been reviewed in The New Yorker.)

It is a charming read, and I find myself fascinated by the four main characters, who have both physical and emotional obstacles to overcome.

Mapson is known for creating feisty, fiscally-challenged heroines who love horses, dogs, and birds.  In Bad Girl Creek, four women come together to save a farm.  Phoebe, a paraplegic artist who makes a bare living off her mobiles and sculptures of women, inherits a flower farm and needs to grow a record crop of poinsettias to keep it.  She acquires three housemates who go into the business with her:  Ness, an African-American farrier who is HIV-positive and who arrives at the farm looking for a place to stable her horse, Leroy; Nance, a beautiful freelance photographer who has broken up with a journalist and has had difficulty finding a place to live with her big dog, Duchess; and Beryl, a battered woman who served time in prison for the accidental death of her husband and who now works in a bird rescue shelter and has adopted a parrot that constantly swears.

Mapson shifts point of view from chapter to chapter, and so we get inside the heads of all four women:  Phoebe, self-reliant and solitary in her thirties, is both apprehensive and happy about embarking on her first sexual relationship with Juan, the UPS man who delivers her book club packages; moody Ness is terrified of being tested for HIV; Nance, a fast talker and brilliant businesswoman with good Southern manners can tweak any suggestion into a business plan; and Beryl, a gentle, addicted reader certainly does not have the prison taint on her personality.

As a bibliophile, I identify with Beryl, who has a relationship to die for with the owner of a used bookstore.  He is even moderately cute.

Beryl,” he says, pushing his wire-rimmed glasses up his hawk-like nose.  Earl’s dressed in his usual faded flannel shirt and blue jeans.  His gray hair’s pulled back into a neat ponytail that is secured with a beaded leather thong.  He’s about fifty, cute in an intellectual hippie sort of way.  “Thought when you moved away you’d forgotten about this place.”

He has saved some books for her that he thinks she might like.

Now is that romantic or not?

I can’t pretend any bookseller has ever saved any books for me.

She describes the rare book he keeps in a glass case.

One of them is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, priced at fifteen hundred dollars.  One day when it was rainy and nobody else was int he store, he took it out and let me see the illustrations.  Then he read to me, with different voices for all the characters.  At that moment, I thought to myself, Earl was so good he could have been an actor.

Since these are comfort reads, we needn’t worry too much about the heroines’ futures, though they certainly have their problems.    Unlike the women’s fiction the popular novelist Jennifer Weiner complains about, Mapson’s books are reviewed and esteemed:  she won the American Library Association’s RUSA Award for best women’s fiction in 2011 for her superb novel Solomon’s Oak.

Bad Girl Creek rambles a bit, but I love Mapson’s graceful style and the details about the flowers.  What a well-researched novel!    (Has she lived on a flower farm?) And it is the first of a trilogy, so that means I can spend more time with these characters.

We all love a trilogy.

If you want a more tightly structured book, start with Solomon’s Oak.  But Mapson’s charming characters are always people you want for your friends.

The Blogger Chronicles, Part 4: Novelist Jo-Ann Mapson Speaks Out on Blogging

This is Part 4 of a series of “featurettes” about blogging & online reviews.  Today, meet novelist Jo-Ann Mapson.

Jo-Ann Mapson

Jo-Ann Mapson

Jo-Ann Mapson, the author of 11 novels and a book of short stories, won the American Library Association’s RUSA Award for best women’s fiction in 2011 for her superb novel Solomon’s Oak (which I wrote about here at my old blog).  Her thoughtful, brave heroines, whose problems range from relationships to money to caring for rescue dogs to recovering from grief, help us look at life from a different point of view.  Her most recent book, Finding Casey (which I wrote about here), is the sequel to Solomon’s Oak.

In an e-mail interview, Jo-Ann says that blogs are important to readers and writers in different ways.  “Hardly anyone in mass media reviews books anymore.  Twenty years ago, NYTBR, Los Angeles Times, did lots of reviews, and those no doubt did sell books.”

When I mentioned that even bad reviews alert me to books I want to read, she said,

“Carolyn See massacred my first novel in the LATimes.  People clipped and sent me the review, not to be mean, but because they were so excited my first book had been reviewed.  That was big relief for me!  I know another writer whose first novel was torn to shreds and never wrote another novel because of the damage.

“Now we have Amazon.com and Barnes & Nobles’ reviews, and as many have agreed, giving the opportunity for people who are not reviewers the chance to say whatever they want about books.  Often I look at the 1 star reviews, click on what else they’ve reviewed, finding something unrelated such as vacuum cleaner bags. But every day one site or another sends me reading suggestions, and I often do buy the book.  There is no more bookstore to wander after the billions of chains drove out the independent bookstores, then fell flat on their own faces.  What’s left to browse?

“I consider myself an addicted reader.  One of my favorite blogs to read daily is Caroline Leavitt’s Leavittville.  First, I consider her probably the best blogger out there, and we have similar reading tastes.  She reviews/interviews daily.  And write a book a year!  Such a generous heart is rare, and she is happy to feature books she reads, which is the best reason to read a book, in my opinion. ”

Thank you, Jo-Ann, for this thoughtful interview!

Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Emma Tennant, Hilma Wolitzer, Angela Huth, Sherry Jones, and Jo-Ann Mapson

“Mirabile Does Middlebrow” is a new bimonthly feature here.

Mirabile in 2000

I’d rather be reading middlebrow!

I  am a fan of middlebrow women’s fiction, and though I rarely write about it, I certainly read my share of popular novels.  With a cup of tea in the middle of the night and none of the men awake to tease me, I curl up with the novels of Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Gaskell, Monica Dickens, or Mary Stewart.

I also try lots of contemporary women’s fiction.

Sometimes middlebrow contemporary fiction is a good fit for me, sometimes not.  I can’t for the life of me read Jennifer Weiner or Joshlyn Jackson.

I intend to be honest, and hope you will find some good books here, some by famous people, some barely known.

And so here’s the round-up of middlebrow novels for January:

Confessions of a Sugar Mummy1.  Emma Tennant’s Confessions of a Sugar Mummy.  This delightful “chick lit” novel is for women of a certain age, or at least for women who know they may someday be that age.  The witty Confessions are narrated by a sixtyish interior decorator who falls in love with a 40ish man.   She tells us that Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, but failed to invent the Jocasta complex, “to look at the situation from the point of view of…his mother.”  In her work as an interior decorator, she meets the gorgeous French tile maker, Alain, and immediately wants to sleep with him.

But she gives us very good advice.

“On no account rush to the loo and apply Touche Eclat or whatever the ruinously expensive foundation is called, the one that claims to remove your wrinkles and fill in the vertical lines down to your mouth, the result of a fifty-year nicotine habit.  You will look strangely different, it’s true, but not for the better, as they claim.”

She considers trying Botox, settles for a new facial creme, and then resolves to interest Alain by making  a fortune selling her flat in her gentrified neighborhood.  She thinks she can buy a house for herself, Alain, and possibly his wife.  He is very interested.

Yes, she’s out of control, but she’s very, very funny.  B+

An Available Man wolitzer2.  Hilma Wolitzer’s An Available Man.  You might think it is no coincidence that I  read a novel about a man in his sixties after reading a novel about a woman in her sixties, but I assure you I’m still clinging to my spry half century.   Hilma Wolitzer is the mother of Meg Wolitzer, one of my favorite writers, and Hilma’s  light, romantic novels are usually quite good, so I picked up a copy.

When retired science teacher Edward’s children place a personal ad for him in NYR under the name Science Guy, he is annoyed, because he has not gotten over Bee, his late wife, and he doesn’t want to date.  But he goes ahead with it, and meets several women who are not quite right for him, among them a teacher who jilted him years ago; a beautiful older blonde whose extensive plastic surgery repulses him; and a widow whose insistence on showing him photos of her dead husband makes him feel he is at a bereavement brunch.

Edward is a kind, sensible, “nice” character, and this short entertaining novel is very “nicely” written. Occasionally an unpredictable moment redeems this novel as we see Edward change and grab life again.     B+.

Invitation to the Married Life huth3.  Angela Huth’s Invitation to the Married Life.  This novel was compared to Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way, and though it was nothing like it, I very much enjoyed Huth’s shrewd observations of her characters’ rocky marriages and realignments of love.  My favorite character is Rachel, a charming woman who spends her days sleeping on 300+ count sheets in a beautifully redecorated bedroom, because there are certainly days when I, too, would like to dream all day.  Her husband, Thomas, who is quite nasty to her, has affairs with younger women and falls in love with an artist’s work and schemes to seduce her. Rachel embarrasses herself at a party making a pass at a man, but that is not the end of the world.

We meet other characters, among them unhappy Frances Farthingoe, who gives a lot of parties and decides she needs a custom-made gray awning at her ball, while her quiet husband takes refuge in studying badgers at night.

Marriage is not the end-all when you’re ill-suited, and that is what Huth shows us so charmingly.  Grade:  A-

Sherry Jones four sisters4.  Sherry Jones’s Four Sisters, All Queens.  Sherry, a Friend of Our Blog , was kind enough to send me a copy of her historical novel, Four Sisters, All Queens.  As a  fan of Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, and  Philippa Gregory, I knew  I’d enjoy this novel set in the 13th century about four queens.

I enjoy historical novels about queens to the point that I once considered spending a year reading only historical novels…but I did something else!

And I ended up racing through Sherry’s well-researched, deftly-written novel.  She spins the story of  the four daughters of savvy Beatrice of Savoy, the countess of Provence, who raised and educated her daughters as sons, ensuring that they would learn Latin, French,  history, and other subjects that would help them participate in the political process..  She was the “queen maker” though she would have preferred to make kings, and her four daughters were expected to make political marriages.  Indeed, Beatrice married them so well that it should have strengthened Provence.

The four sisters grew up to be Queen Marguerite of France, Queen Elenore of England, Queen Sanchia of Germany, and Queen Beatrice of Sicily.  Marguerite’s husband, Louis IX of France, is impotent.  His mother has a way of showing up in the garden as they are kissing.  Marguerite also has to contend with this evil queen politically, as she tries to edge Marguerite out of  meetings and sends Marguerite’s uncles home.

My favorite character, Eleanore, has to walk a treacherous path:  her coronation is crashed by a madman who claims the coronation is illegal because Henry is betrothed to his daughter. Henry was engaged to her, and broke it off, saying she was too closely related:  The Pope is  reviewing the document.   Marguerite tries to stay cool, and is astonishingly smart, managing to attract all the attention back to herself.

The other two queens, too, have problems, and as they grow older, the politics are even more complicated.

This novel is fascinating, great vacation reading, take it to the Caribbean (in my case the couch).  Sherry, a former journalist,  is an excellent writer.

Finding Casey

Grade:  B+

5.  Jo-Ann Mapson was kind enough to send me a copy of Finding Casey, the well-written sequel to her  award-winning novel, Solomon’s Oak. In Solomon’s Oak,  Mapson tells the story of Glory, a grieving widow who bakes pirate cakes and plans weddings to support her farm; Joseph, a retired wounded cop with pain management problems; and Juniper, a rebellious adolescent whose sister disappeared some years ago.  In Finding Casey, Glory and Joseph have married and adopted Juniper and moved to Santa Fe, and there isn’t at first much tension in their happy family life.  Glory is pregnant, Joseph volunteers on the board of a women’s shelter, and Juniper is in college.

But a new character is introduced, Laurel, a brainwashed young woman who has been horribly abused by a cult leader at “the Farm,”  and  when she secretly brings her daughter to a hospital against the wishes of the sadistic Seth, she finds help from a social worker.

Mapson has a calm voice and a simple, poetic style.  She understands suffering and describes it quietly.  I did figure out the plot almost immediately, but that isn’t a bad thing.  Though there is suspense, you know she will help her characters.

Finding Casey continues the story without much ado, and perhaps doesn’t quite stand alone.  Is is more loosely plotted, because we already know the characters.

So read Solomon’s Oak first. It’s just better to read them in a row.

Grade:  B+