THE READING CIRCLE
A Cherry Cola Book Club Novel #2
Kensington Books, March 2014
Cozy, Contemporary, Women’s Fiction
The charming “Cherry Cola Book Club” series by author Ashton Lee may be just the ticket if you are looking for a light-hearted beach read with a generous dose of ‘Southern’ character, mouth-watering references to regional cuisine, and a social commentary colorfully veiled by the quirkiness and theatricality of its various cast.
Labeled as cozy, due to the small and socially intimate quality of its geographical setting (Cherico, Mississippi), this series made its debut in 2013 with a first installment (The Cherry Cola Book Club) that shone a spotlight on the struggles of a library to remain open and up-to-date with the modernization of public services.
It’s hard enough to keep a small library in business when demand and attendance are at their lowest, let alone when funding is dramatically cut and shady politicians (Councilman Durden Sparks and his sidekicks) keep a dedicated but inexperienced librarian (Maura Beth Mayhew) at gunpoint with the threat of diverting the township budget towards more beneficial projects (namely an industrial park).
“...Cherico isn’t the center of the intellectual universe. The men folk talk college and pro sports all up and down Commerce Street, and the ladies complain about their husbands and children and exchange recipes at all the beauty parlors. [...] literary criticism is way down the list of their topics to discuss.”
After years of declining circulation figures, Miz Maura Beth Mayhew finally puts her thinking cap on and with the help of some basic marketing strategies (the creation of a book club, potluck gatherings, word-of-mouth advertising), she manages to rev up the attendance of the struggling library and bring the small community of Cherico together in defense of their cultural patrimony. At the end of the first book, Maura Beth’s efforts seem to get the library temporarily out of the hot water and earn her a one-year reprieve with councilman Sparks, but the conniving politico still doesn’t believe that a number of no matter how delicious casseroles and a few book discussions will change the fate of the under-equipped library.
The comedic flair of the first episode subsides in its sequel, The Reading Circle (published by Kensington, March 2014), in favor of a softer characterization of supporting cast. The author shifts his focus from the public sphere of the library conundrum to the more personal and introspective tones of the friendship bonds and love relationships blossoming between the library patrons. Mature romance, first and second chances, old flames and new marriage proposals, suspenseful plot twists and a little bit of ‘espionage’ add substance to the narration. Even Maura Beth’s personality, which almost fades in book #1 against the somewhat overly picturesque foil of the secondary characters, appears more zestful and convincing.
Finally, I have always thought that an author shows his craftsmanship in the way he writes his villains, in the mannerism of those evil characters that, with their idiosyncrasies and machinations, make the plot of a story so much more intriguing. Councilman Sparks is just that and I look forward to seeing what other devious, backhanded curve ball he is going to throw at our young and fearless librarian in The Wedding Circle (Kensington, February 2015). My rating is 4.5 stars.
Advice to the reader
The culinary theme is a strong feature of this cozy series. If you decide to do your reading in bed, be warned that sleeping is hard to achieve with a growling tummy. All that mention of dipping sauces, fried chicken, pulled pork, mustard and sweet potato salad etc. etc. will cause all kinds of untimely cravings…
***Review copies of The Cherry Cola Book Club and The Reading Circle were kindly offered by the Publisher in exchange for an unbiased and honest opinion.
My favorite recipe among the gems bestowed by the author throughout the pages of the book is Periwinkle Lattimore’s Easy Banana Cranberry Bread. Ms. Lattimore happens to be the owner of the most popular restaurant in the fictional microcosm of Cherico Mississippi. Good cold or toasted with jelly, the Banana Cranberry Bread would find a great sipping companion in a full bodied, oaky Chardonnay. Recommended by sommelier extraordinaire, Andrea Mussone.