Recommending a particular book specifically for holiday gift-giving could be a limiting idea given that every day is a good excuse for buying a book. For any excuse and especially for anyone who enjoys stories about the Ozarks Reading the Sweet Oak by Jan Stites would be a good choice.
The book could appear on that shelf in the library or book store devoted to romance novels but in a very unique way. It is a story about women who have formed a book club. They read romance novels like Sunny Chandler's Return by Sandra Brown and in the process become aware of their own hopes and desires.
The characters are real, found everywhere in the Ozarks. They are who they are and, perhaps, that irritates some readers who have so vehemently criticized the author's writing style. Widow Ruby, almost an octogenarian, is hell bent on trying to change her granddaughter Tulsa who is more interested in saving the family business than focusing on her love life. Enter a suave rich guy from Kansas City named Slade and Tulsa's hormones start popping (and vicariously the reader's as well as their romance gets hot) until he tries to change her to fit his money-promoted lifestyle.
Jan Sites is from Missouri and very acquainted with the Ozarks. She received a B.A. from the University of Missouri and an M.A. from Purdue University, both in history and English. Her many hats included screenwriting instructor at San Francisco State University and UC-Berkeley, middle school teacher, journalist and Spanish interpreter. She lives with her husband in northern California.
The author in devoting alternating chapters to the book's characters leaves the reader hanging for a while until she picks up again on each of their lives. All of Stites' characters are interesting. They are very recognizable and, maybe, that is why they instead may be perceived as mundane.
Besides Ruby and Tulsa, we are in part introduced to BJ, an overweight hyperchondriac whose concentration in life on her son and Jesus wasn't enough to fulfill her rather lonely life after an illicit past; Jen, a hair dresser by trade living with a guy who considers the house in which they live his and Ruby's friend Pearl who must deal with the admission by her grandson that he was gay. Other characters like BJ's new found admirer and Jen's alcoholic mother add to the story line as well as a ruthless banker named George Calhoun and a neighbor of Ruby's named Rupert Clancy who is a man "with the moral scruples of a crawdad."
Sweet Oak is described as a river deep in the heart of the Ozarks. We discover that Tulsa is very good at "reading" the river as she assists her grandmother in the operation of Sweet Oak River Oasis, a canoe rental business unfortunately beset by the need to make enough money to pay back a rather hefty loan. And don't forget about that Clancy redneck who, in wanting the land on which the business is located, tries everything nasty to cut into its profitability.
From where is the concept of Sweet Oak taken? Not the Elk River in Noel. No mention is made of nearby Neosho or Joplin. Characters mention Springfield but only as a city two hours away from a town called "Fiddle," but then a search of "Fiddle, Missouri" only reveals that Missouri has a unique style of fiddlin'. West Plains is mentioned. That's where BJ bought her shoes...at the discount Shoe Emporium and where she becomes more than just a patron of its owner.
At the book's end the author acknowledges that River of Life Farms cabins and canoe business was the inspiration for Sweet Oak's setting. The location is the North Fork River in Dora, Ozark County, Missouri. And yes, they encourage fly fishing or a romantic get-away. After reading the book, it seemed important to know that.
Title: Reading the Sweet Oak
Author: Jan Stites
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (September 29, 2015)
386 pp,. paperback, $10.99/MP3CD, $9.99 on Amazon