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In the colorful small town of Cherico, Mississippi, librarian Maura Beth McShay is preparing for an exciting new installment in her own life story—with some help from the Cherry Cola Book Club.
Overseeing the opening of Cherico’s new library has been a labor of love for Maura Beth McShay, made extra challenging by the fact that she and Jeremy are expecting their first child. And there’s another plot twist on the horizon: Jeremy’s sister, Elise, has taken a sabbatical to have a baby and will be staying in Cherico during her pregnancy.
It’s an unlikely move for the fiercely independent Elise, one that’s causing her some anxiety. Jeremy, who’s supposed to be birthing the Great American Novel, is instead testing his wife’s patience with his incessant “sympathy pains.” Resourceful as always, Maura Beth decides to use her new library as a venue for “Expecting Great Things” meetings—a sequel to her beloved book club. The weekly gatherings allow townsfolk to share hopes, fears, and practical advice about parenting and pregnancy, along with anecdotes both poignant and hilarious. And amongst the revelations and new friendships, Maura Beth, Jeremy, and the rest of the Cherry Cola Book Club prepare to meet their newest members . . .
Praise for The Cherry Cola Book Club novels
“An intrepid librarian, a book club feast, and a cozy, heart-warming Mississippi mystery—what's not to love?” —Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
“Lee’s buoyant David-versus-Goliath tale zestfully illuminates a real problem confronting libraries and cities of all sizes.” —Booklist
About the Author
Ashton Lee was born in historic Natchez, Mississippi, into a large, extended Southern family which gave him much fodder for his fiction later in life. His father, who wrote under the pen name of R. Keene Lee right after WWII, was an editor and writer in New York of what is now called pulp fiction. As a result, Ashton inherited a love of reading and writing early on and did all the things aspiring authors are supposed to do, including majoring in English when he attended The University of the South, affectionately known as Sewanee. While there, he studied Creative Writing under Andrew Lytle, then editor of the Sewanee Review, and a member of the Southern Agrarians in the 1920s.
Ashton lives in Oxford, MS, enjoying the amenities of a university town that many writers have called home. Readers can like Ashton Lee at: facebook.com/ashtonlee.net.
Read an Excerpt
"We" Are Pregnant
How perfect was it that Maura Beth McShay had at her fingertips the complete resources of her brand-new library on the shores of Lake Cherico once her pregnancy was under way? She only had to go to work and sit in her director's office in her comfortable leather chair every day to look out over the sunlit water and read up on every conceivable aspect of "being with child." The oppressive Mississippi summer had finally given way to the inevitable tilt of the planet, bringing with it chilly nights and clear-blue days that looked like paintings, and the library's deck jutting out over the water was tailor- made for taking it all in. More than once throughout her busy workday, Maura Beth would venture out for a breather, inhaling the cooler air, sensing nature getting ready to retreat, folding in upon itself until the renewal of spring; even as she was in the gradual process of percolating new life within.
Of course, Maura Beth had her solicitous, grandfatherly obstetrician in Memphis, Dr. Joel Lively, for her prenatal foundation: what to eat, what not to eat, what supplements to take, how much rest to get, what activities to avoid, how to deal with morning sickness and all the outside-the-box cravings that inevitably would appear. He was a soft-spoken, tremendously reassuring man with a bedside manner few could equal, able to squash her doubts and insecurities with a couple of concise sentences and a thoughtful stroking of his gray mustache.
"You are textbook right now," he had told her during her last visit. "Your sonogram is picture-perfect."
Even more reassuring was the fact that the pregnancy collection in the new Charles Durden Sparks, Crumpton, and Duddney Public Library was now state-of-the-art, thanks to the monumental weeding project that Maura Beth had undertaken before moving into the new building. It was a labor of tough love she thought would never end — there were some ancient pub dates gathering dust on the shelves that made her practically shriek — but end it finally did.
One of the most amusing snippets Maura Beth had been able to glean from her new collection was a paragraph from something titled Pregnancy for Laughs. Imagine that. Someone writing a book on the hilarity of it all. A woman who had been put through her paces had somehow managed to look back upon it all fondly and find her audience by putting pen to paper.
"Just as women supposedly have their penis envy," Mandy Perkins, the author, had pontificated, "so do men perhaps secretly have their envy of bringing new life into the world. Not that they don't enjoy their spurt of masculine energy thoroughly. They always do, even when it doesn't lead to pregnancy. But that is hardly the same as building a baby, molecule by molecule, meal by meal. Both, in fact, ultimately contribute to reproduction, but in very different ways. Can the two genders ever really understand each other until they experience the physicality unique to each? As for myself, I realize that my husband is probably doing the best he can with his hormones and all that they demand of him. After all, women shave begrudgingly, while men make a macho ritual of it and even grow strange patterns on their faces deliberately to prove it."
At first, Maura Beth was ready to dismiss those glib musings as fluff invented for book sales, entertaining as they were. But then, as if on cue, a seismic shift began to appear in her relationship with her husband, Jeremy. It wasn't just that he intended to use her experience as the muse for the Great American Novel he had been struggling to write for some time now, or that his lone- wolf, feminist sister Elise had taken a sabbatical from her teaching at the University of Evansville to come South to live with their relatives out on the lake, Connie and Douglas McShay, while awaiting the birth of her baby. It wasn't even the uncomfortable feeling that Elise's mother and father in Brentwood, Tennessee, had not even been told about their daughter's life-altering decision so far. It was more that Jeremy himself began to mimic Maura Beth's pregnancy in every conceivable way. When she had cramps, he had cramps. When she had her first cravings, he had them, too — zipping out of their cottage on Painter Street to head to The Cherico Market for the flavor of the moment or other crazy, specific ingredients. And there were many as the later weeks of the first trimester tumbled by: Gummi Bears, red hots, snow cones, pistachio ice cream, wilted spinach with vinegar and boiled eggs, pieces of dark chocolate with whipped cream, Vienna sausages and crackers with mustard — and finally, fresh-squeezed lemonade. Not store-bought, mind you — it had to be made from scratch out of lemons Maura Beth could hold in her hand and then roll back and forth on the butcher block to produce the most juice. No reason to justify that at all — it just had to be done that way.
For the record, Maura Beth was certainly appreciative of Jeremy's willingness to wait on her hand and foot, but her hormones also seemed to be producing a territorial effect regarding her pregnancy as she began to gain the first hint of weight. They seemed to be whispering in her ear all the time: "Now you know good and well that he is not the one who is actually pregnant, don't you? You can't let him think he really understands what you're going through, can you? Stand your ground, girl, and put him in his place. That's your birthright, pun intended."
Which led to their first showdown toward the tail end of the first trimester. It took place in their bright yellow kitchen with the potted palms, and Maura Beth had just finished squeezing the life out of half a dozen lemons at the counter, noisily stirring and mixing up a batch of her lemonade with the biggest spoon she could find in the silverware drawer. After taking a big swig of her precious concoction, she put down her glass, looked Jeremy straight in the eye, and unloaded.
"There's something I've been meaning to discuss with you, sweetheart," she began, her voice soft and syrupy at the start. But it rose a decibel level and became a shade snarky soon enough. "You have just got to stop this. I don't even think you know you're doing it, but I want you to stop. There, I've said it. Stop."
Jeremy's handsome but skeptical face went all full of creases, his eyes approaching a squint. It was the typical "high school English teacher" face he used when one of his less-motivated students answered some question with jaw-dropping, D- or even F-inducing ineptitude. "You want me to stop what?"
She took another swallow of lemonade and drew back slightly with an imperious pose. "Oh, don't play so innocent with me, Jeremy McShay. You know good and well what you're doing."
Jeremy managed a smile in spite of it all. "Wait what? You just said I don't know what I'm doing. Now you say I do. What are you talking about? You are definitely playing fast and loose with the English language. I should know."
Maura Beth paused to review the situation and a grin broke out. There were times these days when she was certain she had lost control of her facial muscles. "Oh, so I did. Well, that's not important now. What I wanted to say was that you've got to stop pretending you know what I'm going through and mimicking me all the time. Because you don't, you know."
Jeremy appeared to understand immediately, nodding with a smile. "You think I'm pretending? You think I'm making it all up? You think I don't have these twinges and pains at the same time you do? I guess you know you weren't supposed to have all these cravings so soon, according to Dr. Lively. That was supposed to come later, if I recall. And yet here they are, big as life."
"I appreciate all the reading you've done and the effort you've been making, but it's unnecessary. No two pregnancies are alike, you know."
Jeremy nodded and took a deep breath. His attitude at the moment was truly good-natured and patient. "But it's not an effort. I'm not faking it. I've read up on everything at the library, and I think I'm on solid ground. Some husbands do take their wives' pregnancies to heart. Their empathy is real and physiological. I think that's a very good thing considering that some men can't be bothered and are even worse contributors once the baby arrives. They live in another century, and they wouldn't go within ten miles of a diaper change."
Maura Beth reflected thoughtfully, drumming her fingers on the kitchen table. She couldn't very well fault him for using her new, state-of-the-art library on the shores of Lake Cherico, as she continually thought of it when she was daydreaming at her desk. After all, with considerable effort she had fought for and won it from the lucrative City Hall coffers, long hidden from public scrutiny by the scheming Councilman Durden Sparks. Three months earlier, the library that bore his name and those of the other major benefactors — Mamie and Marydell Crumpton, along with Nora Duddney — had opened on the Fourth of July to a boisterous and colorful fireworks celebration, a country music concert by Waddell Mack, a bevy of food booths that would crown the Queen of the Cookbooks, and day-long guided tours of Cherico's sparkling new facility. That Jeremy had become one of her best patrons since the opening was a feather in her cap. He had taken advantage of everything except the children's story hour, although that certainly loomed large in his future. In fact, he had told her how much he was looking forward to the day when he could take his child to hear one of Miriam Goodcastle's creative sessions. How could she be mad at him for that?
But she also thought he had gone a bit overboard of late. That first round of morning sickness, for example, even if it had come earlier than expected. After she had lost her breakfast that morning, she had stood in the bathroom doorway and confronted him firmly. "Don't you dare go in there and stick your finger down your throat to show your solidarity."
"I wasn't going to do anything of the sort," he had told her, somewhat taken aback by her ferocity. "I was just going to see if anything needed to be tidied up. Just call me Mr. Clean."
"I've already taken care of that."
"I could have done it for you."
"Thanks," she had told him, "but I'm pregnant — not helpless. I still know where to find the bleach and the paper towels. I've always been the type of person who cleaned up her own messes."
Jeremy took his time, not wishing to make things worse. He was totally willing to bite his tongue at every turn, if that's what it took. "There's this article I read online a few weeks ago, and I thought it made a great deal of sense. I mean, this is new territory for me, too."
Maura Beth cocked her head smartly and folded her arms expectantly. She was both genuinely interested and hoping to trip him up. Wasn't that a caution? Or was that just the nature of her condition? "Yes?" "No, really. It was meant to be funny, but it made sense."
"It was called 'How to Be a Pregnant Man,' and it listed all the things a husband could do to be more supportive of his wife during the entire nine months. Even up to the moment she went into labor."
Maura Beth screwed up her lips, having her response at the ready. "Was this written by a man?"
"Was he a doctor?"
"I can't recall, but I don't think so. I think he was just a father."
"Was he also a stand-up comedian?"
Jeremy smirked but said nothing. He had read from more than one source that learning to listen carefully was an enormous part of tending to a pregnant woman. She needed to be taken seriously at all times.
"Go on, then. Tell me some of the supportive things that were listed. This should be good."
Jeremy's eyes shifted from side to side, searching for accuracy and hoping for the best. "Well, one that really stood out was never to take any pain felt by a pregnant woman lightly. It said something like, 'For God's sake, never shrug or complain that no one could possibly have that many twinges or stabs or things like that in one morning or afternoon.' It also said that once the baby kicks, the man had an obligation to kneel before the domestic altar and treat his wife prayerfully. Now those were the exact words. I didn't even think it was over the top."
"Really now? A man wrote that?"
Maura Beth had to admit she was pleased and showed it with a bright smile as she patted her hair smugly. "I like the idea of you worshiping me. I've always thought men should worship women, and they don't even have to be pregnant for that to happen. Go on. Tell me some more."
"It said something to the effect that any thoughtful husband should rush out at any time of day or night and fetch whatever it was his wife was craving. And it even suggested he could indulge with her to show he didn't think she was off her rocker. And I've done just that. I'm off to The Cherico Market at the drop of a hat. You know how I hate Vienna sausages. Nasty little fingers swimming in a sea of sodium. But eating pistachio ice cream out of the gallon with two spoons was a dream come true. That was like a children's birthday party gone wild."
Maura Beth's giggle was lengthy and a bit on the strange side, as if it were coming from some sort of windup children's toy. "Yes, we did finish off the entire thing, didn't we?"
"Not only that, but I've gained a little weight, too. Three pounds, to be exact. The article said not to go overboard, but if a husband put on a pound or two, the wife wouldn't feel so defensive about ballooning up. That it was important to make her feel beautiful all the way to the end."
"Even while she's screaming?"
"I don't know about that. We haven't gotten there yet. I'm not sure screaming is ever a beautiful thing to behold. But I certainly wouldn't tell you to be quiet, if that means anything. But you know I'll be there with you in the delivery room, and if the doctor tells you to push, then I'll tell you to push, too. Whatever it takes."
All Maura Beth could manage was, "Hmmm." It was impossible to tell what was actually behind that short utterance, so Jeremy proceeded with caution — something the article had also emphasized.
"Was that a note of approval, Maurie?"
"I don't know yet. I haven't really ballooned up that much. I sort of hate that word. But I certainly know it's coming. My mother showed me a picture of herself when she was nine months along with me. She reminded me of one of those old Volkswagen buses from the sixties with peace signs scrawled all over them."
Jeremy laughed and made the peace sign with his fingers. "Funny."
Maura Beth gestured quickly. "I know. She was out to here. But she also told me that I was worth all her body went through. I mean, I came out with fuzzy red hair and later there were my freckles, and neither of my parents knew where on earth I came from, but they finally realized that I was who I was and that I was never going to change just to please them. But that's my real problem these days. I can't seem to stop getting way ahead of myself."
Jeremy decided it was time for a hug, so he rose from his chair, leaned down, and did just that, giving the gesture everything he had. "There ya go," he told her, drawing back with a smile. "That's all you need to know."
Maura Beth thought for a while. She needed to believe in at least a smidgen of simplicity in her life at a time when everything was becoming more and more complicated. Despite the heated conversation they were having, Jeremy's touch had been reassuring and grounded her somewhat.
"That's a good point. My mother and I were pretty much at each other's throats until just before you and I said our marriage vows on your aunt Connie's fishing lodge deck. If we have a daughter, I hope it doesn't take us that long to resolve the mother-daughter thing. So much time and energy are wasted, and there's no reason on earth it has to be that way."
Which brought them to another juncture again. They had gone back and forth about whether to pursue the gender reveal. At the moment, they were in we-don't-want-to- know mode, but they weren't firmly committed. Dr. Lively had offered to let them know at any time. All they had to do was ask.
"What if it's a boy?" Jeremy said, resuming his seat as he raced ahead. "How does that go down?"
"I would hope it doesn't take you forever to become best pals with him," she answered. "And that means throwing baseballs and footballs with him if it turns out he doesn't want to become an English teacher and has any sort of athletic ability. I know how much you hate football because the headmaster in Nashville would never let you take a bus to Oxford or some other literary shrine, while the football team traveled all over the place for road games. Money was no consideration for that. But you at least have to consider the possibility that a son of ours may not be interested in the same things you are. I've always cottoned to the idea that whoever it is will ultimately have come through us, not from us. Very Kahlil Gibran of me, I realize, but I know you understand and agree with the philosophy."
"Yeah, I do. Que sera, sera. So do we want to revisit the advance notice thing about the gender? We could get it next time you go in. But I've decided to let you be the one to ask. I'm okay with not knowing until whoever pops out."
Excerpted from "Book Club Babies"
Copyright © 2017 Ashton Lee.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Praise for Ashton Lee and his Cherry Cola Book Club series!,
Books by Ashton Lee,
1 - "We" Are Pregnant,
2 - Buyer's Remorse,
3 - Beginnings,
4 - Ill-Fitting Genes,
5 - The Free Sample Sisters,
6 - The XY Factor,
7 - Scream Queens,
8 - Who's in the Oven?,
9 - One Big, Happy Family,
10 - Early,
11 - Fallen,
12 - A Timely Discussion,
13 - Sip 'N' See,
14 - Double Delivery,
15 - Strolling Down Memory Lane,
The Complete Cherry Cola Book Club Cookbook,
A READING GROUP GUIDE,