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Authors: Ashton Lee

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The Reading Circle

BOOK: The Reading Circle
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Praise for Ashton Lee and
The Cherry Cola Book Club

“For anyone who has ever believed in the power of a good book, Ashton Lee's charming novel of a small Southern town with a flavorful plan to save its precious but woefully underfunded library will have you cheering from the start. Clever, sassy and as tasty as an icebox pie,
The Cherry Cola Book Club
is a rare treat. Community activism has never been more delicious or more fun.”

—Erika Marks, author of
Little Gale Gumbo
and
The Mermaid Collector

 

“If Fannie Flagg and Jan Karon's Mitford were to come together, the end result might very well be Cherico, Mississippi. Ashton Lee has created a magical town with characters who will inspire readers and bring them back to a simpler time and place. With both humor and moving passages, Lee has captured the quirkiness and warm hearted people of the town south to a ‘T.' Fix yourself a Cherry Coke and savor this fun and moving book.”

—Michael Morris, author of
Man in the Blue Moon
and
A Place Called Wiregrass

 

“Down-home and delicious,
The Cherry Cola Book Club
combines everything we love about Southern cuisine, small town grit and the transformative power of books.”

—Beth Harbison,
New York Times
bestselling author

 

“Lee's buoyant David-versus-Goliath tale zestfully illuminates a real problem confronting libraries and cities of all sizes.”

—Booklist

 

And more advance praise for
The Reading Circle

 

“Charm, wit and a cast of characters so real they could be your next-door neighbors make
The Reading Circle
a sure-fire winner. Ashton Lee's authentic Southern voice shines in the latest addition to
The Cherry Cola Book Club
.”

—Peggy Webb,
USA Today
bestselling author

Books by Ashton Lee

THE CHERRY COLA BOOK CLUB

 

THE READING CIRCLE

 

 

 

 

Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation

The Reading Circle
ASHTON LEE

KENSINGTON BOOKS
www.kensingtonbooks.com

All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.

For Will

Acknowledgments

Writing this series would never have been possible without the expert guidance of my Jane Rotrosen agents, Christina Hogrebe and Meg Ruley. They both know the New York literary market and how to make it work for the writers they sign. When they matched me with Kensington Books, I knew I had found a home for my work.

The list of professionals who support me at Kensington is substantial, but let me start with Executive Editor, John Scognamiglio, who saw the potential in my Cherry Cola Book Club series. I've also interacted with Adeola Saul, Paula Reedy, Karen Auerbach, Doug Mendini, and Alexandra Nicolajsen in publicity, production, and marketing and have always received their utmost attention and advice.

Once again, I must thank my Aunt Gail Healy in Natchez, Mississippi, for rounding up more tried-and-true Southern dishes for the recipe section at the back of the novel. The feedback on the recipes in the first novel has been prodigious, and some of my readers and librarian friends have prepared many of the dishes for my talks and signings around the country.

Finally, I want to thank all of my librarian friends, family members, and readers who have connected with me on my Ashton Lee Fan Page, at facebook.com/ashtonlee.net. That's where you'll find the latest photos, reviews, and book tour information for all the novels in the Cherry Cola Book Club series.

1
A Club for the Boys

“O
h, the swarms of mosquitoes we'll be swatting this summer. Better stock up now on the repellent!” were among the sentiments everyone in the little town of Cherico, Mississippi, was proclaiming toward the end of January. That was often followed by, “They'll be breeding by the thousands in the shallows of Lake Cherico with nothing to kill them off!”

It was, in fact, the warmest winter anyone could recall, and that included the couple of ninety-somethings who were still alive and kicking. There had been only two or three nights below freezing since Thanksgiving so far—with the temperatures rocketing up into the fifties or sixties only a few hours after sunrise. It was still sweater weather, but heavy overcoats were kept on their hangers in the closet.
Unseasonable
was the word all the meteorologists kept repeating over radio station WHYY, The Vibrant Voice of Greater Cherico, as well as on the television stations in Tupelo and Memphis. The extreme northeast corner of Mississippi generally felt the wrath of those Alberta Clippers roaring down from the Arctic, but it was as if some super force field had held them at bay this year, limiting their range to the upper Midwest.

Against such a relatively mild backdrop, The Cherry Cola Book Club was about to hold its first meeting of the year in its accustomed place—The Cherico Library at 12 Shadow Alley. Accordingly, Maura Beth Mayhew, the feisty, visionary young director, had been hard at work coordinating and delegating everything from the potluck menu to voting on the club's next read. Her prowess at both was hard-won, having survived a five-month ultimatum from Councilman Durden Sparks and his two dim-bulb underlings—“Chunky” Badham and “Gopher Joe” Martin—that she must show them why the underutilized facility not be shut down for good. To their way of thinking, the library was a luxury the City Council of Cherico could no longer afford.

But Maura Beth had held her fiery red head up high and come through with flying colors. She had not only created The Cherry Cola Book Club to get more patrons into the building for book reviews and those delicious potluck dinners, but she had gone proactive in circulating a successful petition to keep the town's converted, corrugated iron warehouse of a library open for everyone from students doing term papers to the unemployed seeking job leads and assistance with their ré-sumés. She was bound and determined not to let stingy and corrupt local politicians banish such a valuable community resource.

What Maura Beth had not foreseen, however, was how deeply involved she would become in the lives of some of the book-club members. Single and still looking, she had come to think of married couples—like Realtor Justin Brachle and his wife, Becca, popularly known as Becca Broccoli because of her recipe show on the radio; Douglas and Connie McShay, respectively a retired trial lawyer and ICU nurse originally from Nashville; and spinster Miss Voncille Nettles and her widower beau Locke Linwood—as the core of an alternative family.

To be sure, she had met the McShays' nephew Jeremy, and she was hopeful that this earnest and robust young English teacher from Nashville would turn out to be “the one.” But their burgeoning relationship continued to be long-distance and was going to require planning and patience to get to the next level. In fact, Jeremy had phoned to say that he had some crucial business to discuss with the headmaster of New Gallatin Academy and would have to put participation in The Cherry Cola Book Club on hold for the time being.

“You sound so mysterious,” she had told him that afternoon. “If something's wrong, I'd like to know about it and try to help.”

“I'm afraid this is all on me,” he had replied. “But I hope to be down next weekend with some very good news as a result of all my machinations.”

Meanwhile, the January 29th meeting of the book club was minutes away from starting up at exactly seven o'clock. As she had done for last year's get-togethers, Maura Beth and her trusty assistant, the sweet and eternally diplomatic Renette Posey, had arranged all of the library's folding chairs in a semicircle in front of the circulation desk. Yes, the setting continued to have a crowded and make-do quality about it, but it had served its purpose. After last November's successful showdown with Councilman Sparks during Cherico's budget hearings, the club had every reason to hope that their numbers would continue to grow and keep the library viable in the eyes of the City Council. Yet no one could forget that City Hall had given the library only a one-year reprieve. Beyond that, nothing was guaranteed. Finally, it was time for Maura Beth to take her position behind the podium, where she slowly surveyed the crowd. Besides her alternative family, she was pleased to see that her best friend, Periwinkle Lattimore, had come on her day off. As the owner, chef, and even chief bottle washer of Cherico's most popular restaurant, The Twinkle, she would definitely add an uninhibited, down-home touch to the proceedings. Then there was Mr. Parker Place, The Twinkle's accomplished pastry chef, freshly hired in the aftermath of the closing and demolition of the old-line Memphis Grand Shelby Hotel. Even Maura's hairstylist, tall, blond Terra Munrow of edgy Cherico Tresses, had kept her promise to become a library user and reader of romance novels once again. And certainly not to be overlooked, the dressed-to-the-teeth Crumpton sisters—Mamie and Marydell—the town's wealthiest spinsters and inveterate users of the library's genealogical resources were also in attendance.

“I'm excited to see so many familiar faces here tonight,” Maura Beth began, trying her best to make eye contact with as many people as possible. Momentarily, she found the process a bit dizzying and decided to stay put on the gaze of her expert treasurer, Connie McShay. “I see some of you who helped the library over the hump last November at the budget adoption, and your continued participation is crucial if we are to keep the City Council at bay. Unfortunately, we know that Councilman Sparks is still intent on constructing that industrial park north of town. He'd like nothing better than to use the library's funds to get that project off and running.”

It was Miss Voncille who spoke up first. “But don't you think we've earned some breathing room here, Maura Beth? All those voter signatures on that petition made Durden back off pretty quickly, I think. In case anyone hasn't noticed, he's not here tonight, breathing down our necks the way he did at every meeting we held last year. That has to be a good sign.”

In fact, it was a carefully worded threat by Miss Voncille that changed the councilman's tune. The avid researcher found that a fund had been established long ago to support the library—money that seemed to have walked away on its own. In Cherico, Mississippi, there was nothing like misappropriated funds to spoil an election. From that point on, it was clear that Cherico's head honcho wanted no part of shining a flashlight in that forgotten dark corner.

“We can't take anything for granted, however,” Maura Beth answered, wagging her index finger. “Councilman Sparks may not be here tonight, but we know he has his eye on us. We must continue to build the buzz about the library. I think we'd all agree that there was too much dust gathering on the shelves for far too long. And don't think the powers-that-be didn't notice it. It even got back to me last year that Councilman Sparks once jokingly referred to us as the Rip Van Winkle Memorial Library. But we know better now—The Cherry Cola Book Club has aroused it from its slumber.”

The diverse crowd delighted in the metaphor, and there was a great deal of head nodding around the semicircle.

“Meanwhile, we have some brief but important business to discuss tonight before we all dig into these tasty dishes many of you have so graciously prepared for us.” Maura Beth looked down at her catering notes and couldn't help smiling. “Mushroom and asparagus casserole, curried chicken and rice, and our usual tomato aspic and sherry custard, for starters.” She took a deep breath, as if the variety of dishes filling the buffet table had just been placed beneath her nose to whet her appetite. “But for those of you who were not present at The Twinkle last year when we celebrated our budget reprieve, it was informally decided that Eudora Welty's
The Robber Bridegroom
would be the next novel we would read. It was our intention to concentrate on Southern classics written by women to start out with, and this would be a continuation of that policy. Now, do we have any feedback on that, or are we ready to reconfirm that decision?”

Unexpectedly, the sturdy Justin Brachle—nicknamed “Stout Fella” by his wife, Becca, for his portly demeanor—attempted to raise his hand, but Becca grabbed it quickly and pulled it down in midgesture.

“Don't!” she cried out before releasing his muscular arm and gritting her teeth in the aftermath. “Leave it the way it is.”

Justin—ever the quarterback—broke through Becca's interference, thrusting his fist in the air once again. “Stout Fella and Doug McShay sitting right here are gonna have our say.”

“It's no use, Becca,” Connie McShay said from her vantage point a few chairs away, while patting her helmet of big hair. Then she addressed Maura Beth. “I'm afraid our husbands are determined. We would have warned you, but we just found out what they were up to on the way over here ourselves. They had their boys' night out yesterday evening. Douglas rolled in at an ungodly hour just full of himself and feeling no pain, so I suspected something was up.”

Both men stood up as a double team a few feet apart, ignoring Connie's comments, and Douglas nodded toward his friend. “You go ahead and take it just like we discussed.”

Justin drew up his big frame, looking straight ahead and moving his lips silently for a few seconds, obviously trying to remember something he'd been rehearsing. “Well, Maura Beth, Doug and I were having a few last night out at The Marina Bar and Grill, as my wife said, and we decided that reading
Gone with the Wind
and
To Kill a Mockingbird
like y'all did last year was just fine and dandy with us. It was your club to start with. But if we fellas are gonna be a part of all this like you and our wives want us to be, Doug and I feel that the club should read something by a man writer once in a while. And, yeah, we know we don't read as much as you ladies do, but we don't see anything wrong with putting in this request. I mean, men and women just see things differently.”

Periwinkle Lattimore, whose ex-husband Harlan owned The Marina Bar and Grill, joined the fray as she stilled her customary wad of Juicy Fruit. “You bet men and women don't see things the same way. Did that crazy Harlan put y'all up to this? The only thing he's ever read in his entire life is the owner's manual of his pickup truck, besides our divorce papers, that is. Tell the truth, now, is this Harlan's idea of a joke? It's got his brand a' foolishness written all over it.”

“Nope, he didn't do anything but supply us with the drinks,” Douglas insisted. Then he practically did a spit take. “And he kept 'em coming, too. He's a top-notch bartender!”

“And a top-notch womanizer, just in case the rest of you didn't know,” Periwinkle muttered under her breath, folding her arms for emphasis and then sniffing the air for good measure.

Completely caught off guard by the verbal bullets flying around her, Maura Beth quickly exchanged glances with Connie and Becca, who were shrugging in resigned wifely fashion. But with the unerring instincts she had acquired as an even-tempered public servant, she did not miss a beat. If she could deal with and overcome Councilman Sparks and his threats of library dissolution, she could handle this little flare-up. “I think The Cherry Cola Book Club should always be open to literary suggestions, no matter the source. We don't want to be running roughshod over anyone's opinions. There should definitely be give-and-take in a book club. So, tell us—did you have a specific writer and book in mind, Justin?”

He nodded energetically in that overgrown football player way of his. “We'd like to read
Forrest Gump
by Winston Groom. That's what we decided. What really gave us the idea was that Harlan was serving boiled shrimp on the house last night out at the lake. Man, he had a huge bowl of 'em on ice out on the counter, and does he make a great cocktail sauce! It'll flat clear your sinuses, lemme say! So, anyway, we started talking about shrimp in general, and that's how we got around to
Forrest Gump
and The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. ‘I saw that movie,' Doug here says to me between bites, and I said I'd seen it, too. And then we wondered why we couldn't read the book instead of that Eudora Welty stuff, no offense, you understand.”

“Yes, I'm sure you meant no offense, Justin. But I don't usually think of Miss Welty's work as
stuff.
I think she's earned a less generic description and status by now,” Maura Beth said as politely as possible.

Miss Voncille got to her feet immediately, abruptly letting go of Locke Linwood's hand. “That's true, Maura Beth, but
Forrest Gump
may not be such a bad suggestion when you think about it.

“I read the book when it was first published, and then I went to see the movie,” Miss Voncille continued. “The two aren't exactly the same, you know. I think it might be a change of pace for us and shed some light on a part of our history that some people want to sweep under the rug. I know the war was unpopular and still controversial to this day, but some of us have an emotional attachment to it.” It was not difficult for Maura Beth to guess why Miss Voncille might be so supportive of the men. It had only been a few months since she had revealed to the club that she had never married because her fiancé, Frank Gibbons, was still MIA in Vietnam. She paused briefly, resting the palm of her hand over her chest as if she were listening to the National Anthem. “We all need closure in life.”

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