American Marriage

I just finished reading An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. I can’t remember how I came across it—I ordered it from Book Outlet, but whether I browsed it and decided on it or it was recommended by one of the readers on Facebook’s “What Should I Read Next?” group, I don’t remember. The plot, which speaks to contemporary situations, intrigued me, and there is much to like about this book.

The basic story is this: Roy and Celestial meet, then meet again, and eventually fall in love or decide they have found the right partner, or whatever people do who decide to marry. Roy is in business but has greater aspirations, and Celestial is a fabric artist, specializing in making eerily lifelike baby dolls. They are married for about 18 months and are celebrating the anniversary of their first date when a crime is committed nearby and the victim identifies Roy as her rapist. Although Celestial knows it’s impossible (he was with her at the time, and neither was asleep), she is the only witness and is apparently less convincing to his jury than is the victim; Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison.

For the first three years of Roy’s incarceration, Celestial stays true to Roy, although her sense of him, herself, and their marriage suffers as time goes on with little reinforcement as to its reality. She continues to pursue a dream first articulated by Roy to open a shop to sell her “poupées” (dolls), and allows her work to consume her as she feels increasingly alienated from her marriage.

André has been Celestial’s neighbor and best friend since they were small children. Although she has always regarded him as a friend, he has loved her since he met her. He was also friends with Roy, and is actually the one who introduced them and watched while they made a match of it; he has been Celestial’s constant companion since, never crossing the line, until Celestial’s doubt in the viability of hers and Roy’s relationship after several years apart gives him hope for something different. They eventually drift together almost as if it’s inevitable, and have begun to form a solid relationship when Roy’s lawyer’s efforts to appeal his case surprisingly pay off and Roy is released at the end of a five-year stint.

Roy knows that he and Celestial have been estranged; but he expects she has been faithful and hopes to rekindle or restart life with her now that his time in jail is over. Celestial, meanwhile, looks at the time they have been separated versus the time they were actually together, and sees it as something of an uncrossable gulf.

The book has several things to recommend it: The format is intriguing, with the narration of the first few chapters before Ray’s arrest alternating between Roy and Celestial. After the arrest, the alternating narration continues but becomes epistolary, contained in letters from the prison to Atlanta and back again. Shortly before Roy’s release, André steps in with first-person narrative, and the rest of the book is mostly from his and Roy’s alternating points of view. I found all of it absorbing.

The language in which the story is written is engaging, with an extended vocabulary and unusual, evocative phrasing by the protagonists in both their conversations and their descriptions that constantly catches the ear.

The premise itself is what drew me to the book: The knowledge of how easily and how often mistakenly a man of color is arrested in this country is an issue in the forefront of many people’s minds right now, so the opportunity to read a book about that actual event was appealing.

There are, however, also some things that are lacking about this book. The first, for me, is the pivotal incident—the misunderstanding that led to accusations that led to conviction and incarceration. I understand that the author’s purpose was more about focusing on the outcomes of the wrongful conviction and that the conviction was in some ways a foregone conclusion, given our society’s blind spots; but I would have liked a little more attention paid to the mechanics of how Roy ended up in prison than the five scant pages it is given. It was, ultimately, a he-said-she-said situation, and although it was unlikely to conclude differently, I would have appreciated seeing that drama enacted on the page instead of being nearly incidental to the story.

The second is the treatment of the characters. Interestingly, the secondary characters (Roy’s daddy, Big Roy and his biological father, Walter; his mother, Olive, and Celestial’s father, Franklin) were beautifully drawn and seemed like real people from the neighborhood. But there was a disconnection for me from Celestial, which I found particularly strange considering that the author is a woman. There was a lot of noise made by Roy in the attempt to keep Celestial; but she was such a reticent, inarticulate figure that I never got a sense of exactly what it was that made her tick. Even though I understood, by the end, what was happening and had a sense of why, the words are never actually said by Celestial, and I was, along with Roy, so frustrated by that. It came to the point, during the pivotal decisions about their marriage, where he was speaking for both of them, almost holding a conversation with himself by claiming to know what she was thinking and how she felt, and although he may have been intuitive enough to guess those things, I actually found it rather offensive that the author wouldn’t just put the words that needed saying into Celestial’s mouth. She ended up such a passive, helpless, weepy creature when she started out as the strong and independent one, and it left me unsatisfied, particularly because we get to find out the conclusion to everything through one of those “six months later” epilogues that I hold in such disregard.

Still, despite all this I see the value of this book in explaining the crippling disconnection of a whole segment of society from their roots, their relationships, and their continuing lives by the mechanism of wrongful imprisonment, and the struggle it must be to reconnect with any of those once the separation is over. The total disruption of lives is unforgivable. There is much here that is profound and moving, and Roy is not a character I will soon forget.

Magic and realism

I hadn’t planned to read South of the Buttonwood Tree, by Heather Webber, right now, but I’d had the Kindle version on hold from LAPL and they sent me an email to say it was ready to be checked out, so I went for it. Library schedules wait for no one!

I had thought that it was a sequel to Midnight at the Blackbird Café (it even has a corvid pictured on the cover), but it wasn’t; instead, it was almost a duplicate of that book, with a few significant variables. Small Southern town, check. Ne’er-do-well family looked down upon by the more upwardly mobile family who has a secret connection to it, check. Two daughters, one from each family, who end up exposing all the secrets and discovering what that connection is, exactly, with some magical realism and some romance thrown in. Check! Although the author does a good job of fleshing out her characters and making them unique, the situations were so similar that sometimes it was hard to remember that it wasn’t a sequel (or that I had once again forgotten I’d read a book and re-read it only to find it strangely familiar!).

I’m back to my ponderings about what constitutes magical realism on this one because it, like Blackbird Café, is really just a cozy with some magic thrown in. In Blackbird, people ate pieces of pie from the café and then had significant dreams after, in which they might hear from dead loved ones. I conceded that this was marginally possible. But in Buttonwood, people went to the Buttonwood Tree and asked questions, and the tree gave them a button with their answer engraved on it. IN HANDWRITING. This pushed my “buttons,” pardon the pun, because I feel like this is far beyond the bounds of magical realism, straight into magic. I halfway expected that, by the end of the book, it would be revealed that there was someone behind the “fortunes,” acting as the town seer (or manipulator) by carving buttons and messages out of a branch of the tree and leaving them for people, but no: They actually just appear magically from a hole in the trunk of the tree, and nobody questions it. And they are specific in some cases: In the central plot, a baby is abandoned under the tree, and the button says “Give the baby to Blue.” Okaaaaay…

One of the two young women protagonists, Blue, has the ability to find things or people, and she finds them by letting the wind push her where she needs to go. This I found more plausible. The other protagonist, Sarah Grace (who is a house rehabber), talks to houses and they talk back to her—not necessarily in words, but in mood and occasional actions (like things falling or doors sticking at important moments). Again, that felt natural for magical realism. But the buttons bugged me.

The rest of the story, like Blackbird, is a “cozy” of small-town life, the resolving of secrets and regrets, and the providing of romances. It’s as satisfying as that kind of book can be; but again, the main magical realism element seemed a little jarring in the midst of it, instead of charming as it was meant to be. Maybe I’m just too much of a cynic. As Roald Dahl is quoted in the book, “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

“Beach read”

There is a certain expectation when you see those words. Beach read. Like romcom. Or cozy. Or whatever genre you’re expecting.

I wasn’t exactly expecting what I got from Beach Read, by Emily Henry. I picked it up because all the women on my “What should I read next?” Facebook group keep pushing it, and it sounded more appealing right now than American Dirt or A Man Called Ove or Small Great Things. And I think on balance it probably was, but…

First of all, there is almost no beach in Beach Read, and the beach that there is resides on Lake Michigan, so…is that a beach? They say you can’t see the other side and it feels like an ocean, but as a California almost-native, I have my doubts. Anyway, I think the characters end up at the beach maybe three times? twice together and once the protagonist goes on her own, and the atmosphere and set-up just aren’t there.

Second, my idea of what a genuine beach read is supposed to be is a book that is casually engaging. You can take it or leave it, which means that you take it with you in the morning when you trail down to the beach with your chair and towel and umbrella, and maybe you read it for a little while, and then you put it aside in favor of sleeping or swimming or making a sand castle or simply staring out at the water until you go sun-blind. And that evening, or the next day, you desultorily pick it up again and keep going, but there’s no pressure, there’s no urgency. As my cousin Toni from Texas always says, “This is so pleasant.” That’s the epitome of a beach read. Which this was not.

THIS book was smart and funny, a little convoluted, with more angst than one would expect in a beach read. It had, in my opinion, a few too many coincidences upon which it depended—the meet-cute was a little more a saccharine surprise, and that also goes for many of the side characters, who give off a whiff of too-good-to-be-trueness as they enter and exit the scenes. But what this book really has going for it is two good protagonists who indulge in banter that is truly witty. And in between, their chemistry smolders for about two-thirds of the book until you’re ready to implode on their behalf, so you get the best of both worlds—smart-ass reality, and romantic fantasy. Also, because the characters are both novelists, you hear a lot about the creative process in a not-pretentious way, which was a bonus for me. All the background and family stuff, while giving context to why both characters were so difficult, was sort of generic and could have been swapped out with different BS, but you can’t deny the characters who were created from that morass—they were awesome. Naming your two protagonists January and Augustus might be considered a little over the top, but hey, they’re novelists and their parents must have known not to name them Tiffany and Jason, right?

So, while it wasn’t the quintessential beach read I was expecting, since I mostly read it on my Kindle under the covers on nights when I couldn’t sleep, I forgave it for that and enjoyed it thoroughly.

All the Devils

If it’s September, it must be time for Louise Penny’s yearly addition to the chronicles of Armand Gamache, always a highly anticipated treat. I am happy to say that this year’s offering renewed my faith in her continued skill to deliver a nuanced, perplexing, utterly enjoyable mystery. (I wasn’t so happy with last year’s book.)

All the Devils Are Here disrupts tradition by setting the entire story in France, rather than centering it in the mysterious town of Three Pines (outside of Montreal) where the Gamaches currently live. Armand and Reine-Marie have traveled to Paris to be in at the birth of their daughter Annie’s and son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir’s second child. The Gamaches’ son, Daniel, and his wife and two daughters have lived in Paris for some time, but the Beauvoirs have only recently moved there, after Jean-Guy chose to leave the Sûreté du Québec for the private sector, an engineering firm in Paris, so this trip reunites everyone in the family.

Paris is also a home to Armand’s beloved godfather, Stephen Horowitz, who raised Armand from about age nine. Although his godfather remains hale and hearty, the man is 93 years old, so there may not be many more encounters in their future, and the occasion of the birth of Armand’s granddaughter is a particularly joyful one to share with Stephen, who serves in the capacity of great-grandfather.

Horowitz is a billionaire with diverse interests, and it becomes apparent to Armand that he is in Paris for more than just the birth. His cryptic statement (taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) that “Hell is empty and all the devils are here” reverberates in Armand’s mind throughout this trip. Stephen’s specialty in business has always been to root out corruption and bad dealings within and amongst companies and to reveal or thwart them somehow before they can do more harm but, contrary to his usual practice with Armand, he is silent about whatever issue is pending.

After a dinner en famille at their favorite restaurant, Armand and Reine-Marie watch in horror as a van barrels towards and runs down Stephen, who is crossing the street while looking at his telephone and pauses at the sight of the Eiffel Tower lighting up for the evening. But this was no accident; the hit-and-run was deliberate, and starts the story rolling as the family begins to ponder who would want to harm or kill Stephen and why. It soon becomes apparent that the Paris police, possibly at the very highest levels, are involved/not to be trusted, and Armand, his wife, and his two sons are soon playing a game of cat and mouse, hoping to avoid bad consequences while ferreting out the mystery Horowitz (now in a coma from which he is not expected to recover) has left behind for them to handle.

Paris is not a city about which I can be objective. It enthralls me whenever I am there, whether that’s literally (only twice and that briefly) or within the pages of a book. Penny makes the city one of the chief characters in the novel, especially as she weaves the histories of Horowitz and the various Gamache family members into its environs—Stephen’s presence in the Resistance, Armand’s marriage proposal to Reine-Marie, their current wanderings amongst its landmarks and personal favorite haunts. I thought, as so many others have said, that I would miss the critical element of Three Pines in this book, but I actually think it was brilliant to extract all of the characters from their regular venue—it made the story much more about their interactions and relationships when not constrained by the familiarity of background, especially set against the magnificence of Paris.

Armand’s family is front and center in this book, and we get to know some previously less prominent characters much better, including Reine-Marie and especially Daniel. There has been an estrangement between Armand and his son since Daniel’s adolescence, and this relationship is finally put under the microscope as the two men have to deal with the reality of mutual dependence to save them all from disaster. The scenes between them are among the most emotionally charged we have seen in this series, and that is saying something, considering Penny doesn’t shy away from interpersonal angst or joy.

The mystery, murder, and mayhem are likewise intricate, puzzling, exciting, and ultimately satisfying, involving as they do the past and present of all the characters and drawing in the movers and shakers of society and business and their contracted mercenaries. Penny really makes the reader stay on his or her toes along with the principals in her novels, in order to understand and solve this kind of puzzle.

I would like to say that I do still feel Penny has changed her narrative writing style for the worse, using as she does so many strung-together incomplete sentences punctuated by periods where there should be commas and semicolons: “The cracked and faded picture showed a young woman. Smiling. But her eyes were grave. And beside her was a young man. Arm across her shoulder.”

But…with a triumph this big under her belt, I’m not going to quibble overmuch. I can think of only one or two other entries in this series that I found so compelling. After my comparative disappointment with last year’s book, to say I am relieved is a big understatement.

Keepers

As I have previously mentioned, I belong to a group on Facebook called “What Should I Read Next?” It takes a lot of patience to stay with the group, despite my love of delivering good readers’ advisory to its members, mostly because everyone in it seems to read the same 12 books and enthuse as if they are an original discovery about which no one can have heard. The adminstrator should change the title of the group to “The Nightingale and A Man Called Ove hang out Where the Crawdads Sing with Verity.” Another frustration with the group is that they ask the same questions over and over and over again, such as “Kindle or real book?” “I’m not enjoying this book, should I quit or keep going?” “How do I get my X-yo kid to read?” and a biggie, “What do you do with your books when you’re done reading them?”

This last came up for me this week. My answer to that question is,
If I like it well enough to re-read it, I will keep it. If it is part of a
series I like, I will keep it. If it is one of an oeuvre of a favorite author, I will probably keep it, unless I really dislike it. Everything else gets recycled—given to the library, placed in the local Little Free Library cabinet, or donated to Vietnam Veterans so they can sell the books and help the needy. Even with this strict list of criteria, I still own hundreds of books.

The subject also arose because I was distracted from my reading trajectory by a Facebook friend. I don’t know her well, but she’s an amazing artist whose product and output I admire. She commented on her page that she was re-reading a favorite series of books for the third time, and that she liked them as well and derived pleasure from reading them the third time as much as she had the first. For me, that’s a big deal. I don’t spend re-reading time lightly. I looked up the first book on Amazon, where it was on sale, so I bought it, and when I finished my slightly fluffy cozy mystery reads last week, instead of advancing on to Louise Penny and Jo Walton I detoured to Everything We Keep, by Kerry Lonsdale.

The book title is unfortunately not prophetic: This is not a keeper. (Sorry, Judy.) But before we get to that, what are the odds that, completely at random, I would pick up not one but two series in which psychics figured prominently, in a one-week period? Not to mention psychics with almost the same name?

In my last set of reads, Lucy Valentine had begun coming into her own as a psychic who could use her gift for finding inanimate objects in a creative way to aid her in finding people. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I started to read Everything We Keep. The story opens at a funeral for a young man named James, and the book is narrated by his erstwhile fiancée, Aimee. The wedding date had been set, the guests had been invited, the flowers had been ordered, and then, two months before, the groom had traveled on business to Mexico, gone missing while out on a fishing trip, and washed ashore weeks later. Not of a mind to be wasteful, the groom’s mother (a cold-hearted one, apparently) decided that the funeral would be held on the wedding day, since the church and flowers were already booked and paid for and the guests had made their travel plans.

After the funeral, as Aimee is attempting to be by herself for a few moments to recover her sorely shaken equilibrium, a young woman approaches her, introduces herself as “Lacey,” and claims that Aimee’s fiancé, James, is alive—he’s not in the coffin, he’s in Mexico, and he’s in danger, so don’t tell anyone, but he needs your help, Aimee! I paused to check the cover of the book for the author’s name, crazily wondering if this could be a later work by the same author who decided to put her psychic character undercover under a slightly different pseudonym in a drama instead of a comedy.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, because despite its dramatic beginnings, this book petered out into a snooze-fest that made Heather Webber’s light and entertaining Lucy Valentine series seem positively frenetic by comparison.

Let me ask you one question, although I think I know the answer: If you had grown up with a boy as his best friend, if this friendship had later turned to love, and if you couldn’t imagine your life without him, if he died just shy of your wedding day and then someone came to you to tell you he was, in fact, alive, and the whole thing was a hoax, wouldn’t you at least check it out? Wouldn’t you immediately (and that’s the key word) borrow, beg, or steal the airfare from someone and head south to see for yourself? Wouldn’t you call the psychic or go to her address and, instead of driving by and thinking “This is crazy” and aborting your trip, stop the car, go into the house, and confront her to discover what she knows or thinks she does? Wouldn’t you at the very least hire a private detective in the country where your lost love supposedly now resides and see if there is any truth to the story?

Nope. Aimee dithers. She worries at the thought, she wonders, she talks. For a YEAR. During that year, she opens a café with money given her by James’s brother as part of his estate, she meets a new guy, Ian (a photographer who takes pix of beautiful landscapes) and designs the interior colors of her café to complement her favorite one of his photos (a beach in Belize) with which he gifts her, and she begins falling in love with said photographer while refusing to do anything about it until she’s sure James is dead. But what does she do to become sure? Does she respond to two more contacts from the psychic? No. Does she listen to the private investigator whom she finally does hire, more than a year after the trail has gone cold, when he tells her there’s nothing and she should give it up? No. When she finally does decide that she needs to know, once and for all, there is no logical reason for why this urge has suddenly come upon her…she drops everything and buys a ticket to Mexico, and she takes Ian along with her. And while she is looking for any sign of James, Ian is having an epiphany in his art career in which he starts taking pictures of people instead of landscapes. No, I’m not kidding.

I won’t go any further because it would be all spoiler from here on out. But if you can get to this point in the book without throwing it across the room, you can find out what happens for yourself. There are two sequels. To say I don’t care would be quite the overstatement. Goodreads reviewer Molly delivered the best few lines I’ve read in a long time:

“If a Thomas Kinkade painting has ever made you tear up a little, this book is for you. Someone reading this is saying,
‘A Thomas Kinkade painting HAS made me tear up a little, you hipster asshole.’ I’ll own it.”

What can I say. I’m an art snob too. And Everything We Keep is going to the Vietnam Vets.

True love, mispers

Although I have a bunch of books lined up to read, including the latest Inspector Gamache mystery from Louise Penny and a new Jo Walton, whom I adore but who is always a challenging author, I decided to take a different kind of a break and read some light, bright, silly fiction for a couple of days. I’ve been working hard on getting ready for my Readers’ Advisory class at UCLA, which starts on September 29th, and also suffering some setbacks with recent art projects as I struggled with a new technique (not to mention the news, which is always fraught these days), so the last thing I need is something else that is too taxing. A reader on Facebook recommended the Lucy Valentine books by Heather Webber as good escapist fare, so I launched into Truly Madly and followed up with Deeply Desperately.

The premise is that Lucy Valentine comes from a long line of matchmakers blest by Cupid himself with a secret ability: They can see people’s auras, and thus match them up according to color, giving the Valentines a 97 percent success rate and making them renowned and also wealthy. Lucy, however, has renounced her trust fund and has been trying to make it on her own, because she doesn’t possess the family talent: She suffered an electrical shock at age 14 that killed her ability to read auras and replaced it with a talent for finding lost objects, which makes her terrible at the family business but handy to have around if your car keys are missing.

The issue the Valentines have that confounds their talent and sometimes their happiness is their own inability to sustain a relationship: Lucy’s parents have been broken up for 20-some years, but maintain a façade of happily married life in order not to ruin their rep as matchmakers; her grandmother, Dovie, got divorced from her beloved Henry a scant year after they got together; and Lucy herself has never had a long-term relationship. They call it “Cupid’s Curse,” and it’s almost as big a secret as their ability to read auras: After all, will people trust a matchmaker who can’t him- or herself keep a relationship going?

But many things are about to change for Lucy: After a scandal (her father was caught in a public display of “affection” with a woman not his wife on a night-time beach) and a subsequent heart attack (brought on by the stress?), Lucy’s parents have gone away to St. Lucia together to let him recover and also to escape the press, leaving Lucy in charge of the agency, to her combined pride and dismay. Sam, the private investigator who rents the top floor in the Valentine building, has just taken on his younger brother, Sean, to help him with the business, and when Lucy gets a vision of a missing wedding ring that shows it gracing the finger of a dead woman, she asks Sean to assist her in solving the mystery. There is a spark between Sean and Lucy that threatens her equilibrium and is obviously reciprocated,
but Lucy, wary of “the curse,” tries to avoid entanglement—at least for now. Meanwhile, Lucy is beginning to see that her gift of finding lost objects just might be able to translate to finding lost people as well, as long as she can get all the factors to work together…

The touch of magical realism (the reading of auras and the finding of lost things) gives the cozy mystery format a charming aspect. Webber knows how to write effective, likeable characters and likewise how to set scenes and describe surroundings, and there is a tiny bit of steam in Lucy’s relationship without its getting either sappy or overly explicit, plus a grace note of humor that lifts them above the common cozy. The author seems to be able to hit just the right combination of whimsy, mystery, and romance, without getting too heavy-handed in any of those areas, rendering the books delightfully engaging. They aren’t anything I would normally seek out, but they have definitely provided the necessary antidote to the seriousness all around me, and I may continue with the series (there are three more so far) to prolong my respite.

Magical realism?

I greatly enjoy magical realism, that kind of story where everything seems perfectly normal except for that one exceptional element that steps outside the boundaries of everyday life. I recently picked up Midnight at the Blackbird Café, by Heather Webber, and by the end of the book I was wishing that both the magic and the realism for which the book is touted had been a bigger part of it, because this book, while in some places magical, is not realism: It’s a cozy.

Not to say that the magical elements felt tacked on—on the contrary, they were the most compelling elements. The most charming part of the narrative, for me, was when the story flashed back to the grandmother, Zee, telling the legend of the blackbirds to her granddaughter, Anna Kate. After Anna Kate’s mother made Zee promise not to talk about the blackbirds, Zee kept to the letter of the law, but that didn’t stop her from sharing their heritage in stories:

Once upon a time there was a family of Celtic women with healing hands and giving hearts, who knew the value of the earth and used its abundance to heal, to soothe, to comfort. Doing so filled their souls with peace and happiness. Those women held a secret. The women are guardians of a place where, under midnight skies, spirits cross from this world through a mystical passageway to the Land of the Dead. The tree keepers, black as twilight…came from overseas a century ago, drawn to a small southern town. There, a passageway is marked with large twin trees. Where their branches meet and entwine, a natural tunnel is formed—and at midnight, that tunnel spans this world and the heavenly one. Twenty-four keepers, black as twilight.

The basic story is this: In Wicklow, Alabama, there is a café, always run by women from the same heritage, where eating a piece of pie can give you a dream in which you receive a communication from a dead loved one. Out behind the café, behind its garden filled with herbs and vegetables, are twin mulberry trees, and from between these trees, at midnight each night, come 24 female blackbirds, who perch on the trees and sing until 1:00 a.m. and then leave the way they came. The trees, the bird, the women’s bloodline, and the pies are all somehow mystically entwined.

Anna Kate has returned to town to bury her beloved Granny Zee, owner of the Blackbird Café. She was planning a quick trip to sell the café and settle her grandmother’s estate, but Granny Zee’s will contained conditions, among them that Anna Kate had to keep the café open and running for a period of months before she can dispose of it. (Of course it did.) So Anna Kate, who is enrolled in medical school for the fall semester, settles in for the summer to learn the business from Zee’s two long-term employees, and in the process begins to get to know her father’s side of the family, from whom she has been estranged her entire life. Her mother left Wicklow at 18, pregnant with Anna Kate and determined never to return after the shabby treatment she received from the Lindens, Anna Kate’s father’s family, and she kept that promise. But in a town the size of Wicklow, Anna Kate finds it difficult to avoid practically constant contact with her parents’ past, including the family ties she was determined to ignore for her mother’s sake.

The 24 blackbirds make a rare appearance in daylight to swoop past during Granny Zee’s funeral, and an eager bird-watcher reports the phenomenon of a flock of Turdas merula, a kind of blackbird not ever seen on this continent. Suddenly the sleepy town, which has lately closed the doors to half the businesses on its main street, is mobbed by birdwatchers, who camp out, frequent the café, buy food and supplies, and prove ripe for the villagers’ marketing of souvenirs of their trip. Following them come the reporters. Like magic, the town finances and the town spirit are revitalized, all due to the blackbirds. But what will happen when their caretaker turns her back on them, sells the café, and heads off to medical school, leaving people without the knowledge of the pies’ secret ingredient to fail to keep the covenant with the door to the other world?

You can probably write the rest of the book for yourself, based on my description because, as I said earlier, it’s a masquerading cozy, a “relationship fiction” book with magical elements. Arguments, the airing of dirty laundry, the placing of blame, the process of forgiveness, reconciliations, and new love interests all lead to doubts about departure from Wicklow for the two protagonists. I didn’t mention there were two? One is Anna Kate, whose existence wasn’t known to the Linden family until she arrived in town for the funeral, and the other is Natalie, the much younger daughter of the Lindens, who is Anna Kate’s aunt despite being only a few years older than she is. Natalie is living in the Lindens’ guest house with her toddler, Ollie, after the death of her husband, trying to come to grips with the tragedy and, with gritted teeth, trying not to react to her mother’s constant oversight and criticism. Both she and Anna Kate come in for a large dose of that.

I did enjoy this book to a point, and I don’t mean to sound like a snob; but the author ranges perilously close to stereotypical with the main characters, and definitely crosses that line when it comes to the depiction of the town “characters.” The southern accents, attitudes, and clichés were a little too “sweet tea,” in my opinion. The transformations wrought by all the brangling—particularly that of Seelie Linden—were too pat and too easy, verging on cheesy. It’s formulaic, and the formula has become threadbare from use. Webber writes well, so it never exactly descends to the level of a Hallmark movie, but at times it comes close. She also needs to learn to vary her metaphors when it comes to romance: If we had to endure mention of Gideon’s “molten lava eyes” one more time….please, no.

Still, it’s hard to find books with good magical realism included, and the way that part of the story was handled was charming and fresh, so seek it out for that advantage, and see how you react to the book as a whole. Be prepared to crave pie, not to mention biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, barbecue….

The Kiss-off

one2watchSometimes themes develop accidentally, as you pick up a book here, a book there, and then view all of them at once, deciding what to read next. This particular theme was “fat women,” with one chick-lit debut and one YA by an author already known for heroines with size diversity.

Reviewing One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London, forces me to confess a deep and shameful secret: I have been known to tune in to an episode or two of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Let me hasten to say that I am not one of what the host calls “Bachelor Nation” (ahem pretentious much?)—in fact, it’s been more hate-watching than anything—but I have, over the many surprising seasons it has continued its hackneyed formulaic road to romance, checked it out. The primary motivation for this is a complex cocktail of wanting to see the pretty people and the exotic locales, to mock the uniformly sincere expressions of all the participants who think they might have feelings for someone with whom they have spent six hours, and to marvel at the idiocy or bewilderment of the families who condone this behavior by one of their own. The primary result has been to irritate my cat, who doesn’t like it when I talk back to the television set, particularly when it’s in a scathing tone; but somehow I am as unable to resist seeing what’s going on just once a season as I am prone to wonder who will win Dancing with the Stars.

For that reason, the idea that the show would cast a bachelorette who was of a body type not seen on television unless the actress is playing a grandmother or a police chief intrigued me. A bachelorette who wasn’t a size 4? One who might actually sit down at one of those candlelit tables and eat the delectable dishes laid out in front of her, rather than spend the whole meal sipping her wine and whining about her feelings? Bring it on.

The whole concept that a normal woman—that is to say, someone closer to the American average of size 16—could be celebrated as desirable to 25 bachelors seeking matrimony is enticing, though problematic. After all, regardless of the inclusion of body positivity, the show is still set up to see romance as a cattle-call competition, with the women as prizes.

I am somewhat embarrassed to say, therefore, that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to someone looking for a story with a protagonist to whom they can relate: Someone who has transformed themselves on the outside but is still vulnerable and afraid beneath the surface; someone who decides she is brave enough to take a chance but who then constantly second-guesses herself based on everything that has been pounded into her by society, her family, other women, the men who have failed to requite her love, and the relentless trolls on the internet.

Bea Schumacher is a confident and stylish 30-year-old plus-size fashion blogger. She has good friends, a loving family, thousands of Instagram followers, but no romance. Her secret crush has strung her along for years, and has recently caused her to swear off men for the foreseeable future. But after she writes a blistering blog post about the show Main Squeeze  (The Bachelor, thinly veiled) with its lack of body diversity or, for that matter, any kind of diversity in its legions of skinny white people going on fantasy dates, the show calls her and asks if she will be the next star. Bea agrees, but she tells the show’s new producer, Lauren, that on no account will she actually fall in love. She’s going on the show to make a point about anti-fat beauty standards, and maybe to boost her list of followers into seven figures.

Of course things will get more complicated. Of course she will be upset, confused, intrigued, tempted, repulsed, angered, and beguiled as she spends 10 weeks supposedly looking for love. But she can’t possibly let go of all her preconceived notions and believe in the HEA, can she?

The thing I liked about this book was that it turned the reality show on its ear. Yes, there were meet-cute moments and embarrassing tests and awkward interludes just like on the real-life show, but in between that, because Bea isn’t the usual fare, the bachelors (who are mostly the usual fare, either muscular and dumbly sincere or sharp, handsome, and deeply cynical), get jolted out of their complacency as she attempts to have conversations with them that don’t revolve around the typical inanities. Bea is portrayed as a real person, and she reaches out to find the real person in each of the men she ends up with after the “extras” have been kissed off. (I loved that instead of “will you accept this rose,” the woman here gives them a lipstick kiss or “kisses them off,” depending.) As on the show, you really have trouble trusting that the men are telling the truth about themselves, their feelings, and their motivations, which is compounded in the case of Bea.

I thought the author nailed the struggles of being a plus-sized woman, wavering from confident to terrified as she is confronted by the cruelty of society towards women who don’t conform to insane standards of beauty. (She also had some fun pointing out how a blind eye is turned to men in that same category.) She didn’t fall for the temptation to make her protagonist lose weight in order to find her HEA, she forced the show, the men, and the viewing public to accept Bea as she was.

The depiction of the reality TV world—the way things are manipulated to make ratings, the descriptions of the fancy wardrobe, the tensions of the timetable—were well done, as was the use of the social media inserts into the story—text messages, emails, TMZ articles, tweets, and blog posts all added dimension to the story.

Ultimately, the book does pander to wish fulfillment, but then, what did you expect? It’s a rom-com. But it’s entertainingly written and told, and does have a lot to offer about false standards of beauty and their equation with worth. So I say, a positive review.

BlogDingbat

By contrast, I became almost immediately impatient with both the author and the protagonist of Julie Murphy’s new book, Faith Taking Flight. I should have known better than to broach this book with no expectations, because I found her previous book, Dumplin’, to be full of contradictions that didn’t lend themselves to her avowed goal of advocating for plus-size teens. But the prospect of a fat girl who could fly grabbed my attention, and I jumped in with enthusiasm.

faithMy enthusiasm quickly turned to dismay and derision as I experienced the thin plot development regarding the flying skills. Faith meets Peter, who tells her she’s been chosen to go through some kind of conversion to turn her into a superhero, because she has the potential to become a psiot. This conversation takes place at the mall. Then he tells her (alarm bells should be ringing) that she has to perpetrate a “cover” for herself over the summer—to tell her grandmother that she’s off to journalism camp. She agrees! She climbs trustingly onto a bus, goes to a secret underground facility, is locked in a room and assigned a uniform and a number, and then realizes she’s an experimental subject. Meanwhile, her granny (her guardian) sends mail and makes phone calls for the entire six weeks that she’s gone; Grandma Lou receives not one response, and doesn’t see this as a problem or institute any kind of inquiry, just assumes her granddaughter is fine? Come on. We discover later (way too late in the book) that Faith actually escapes from the facility with Peter’s help, whereupon she simply goes home and does nothing—doesn’t call the authorities, or wonder about all the other kids who were trapped there with her—she just gets a part-time job at an animal shelter, and resumes school in the fall. But this is the most unbelievable part of the entire story: She doesn’t fly! She has this ability, which would excite most of us beyond belief, and she doesn’t go out every night to try it out? doesn’t practice? doesn’t test her limits or tell her friends? No. She pulls it out when necessary (to save someone from falling off a roof, or to look for her grandmother when she wanders off, a victim of senile dementia) and that’s it. Right.

Meanwhile, we have the secondary plot, which is actually the primary one considering how much space it fills in the 338 pages of the book: The cast and crew of the teen soap opera (The Grove) with which Faith has been obsessed since childhood—to the point where she writes the premiere blog about it and publishes weekly recaps and commentary—moves its filming destination to her town, and the star of the show, Dakota Ash, supposedly meets cute with her over adopting a dog from the shelter, but then confesses that she has read the blog and knows who Faith is. Faith is over the moon (but still not literally, because not flying), and we get a lot of detail on this relationship, hurt feelings from abandoned “regular” friends as she tours the lot and has milk shakes with the star, yadda yadda. Oh, and this is the point where Faith explores the idea that she might be gay…or bi? After all, in addition to the tempting Dakota there’s also her journalism swain, Johnny….

Enter third plot: Animals (both strays and pets), homeless people, and random teenage girls have disappeared from town and no one can find them. One dog and one girl reappear, but are catatonic and provide no clues to the mystery.

So how does all of this fit together? Badly. Improbably. Unconvincingly. Incompletely. Because…there may be a sequel in the works. Yeah. Which would actually be good if it clears up any of the picked up and dropped plot points, the fuzzy background and world-building, and Faith’s inexplicable reluctance to use her friggin’ superpower! But based on this one, I highly doubt it. I discovered on Goodreads that this is a prequel novelization of a superhero from Valiant Entertainment comics. If I were the author of those comics, I would not be happy at this moment.

Before I forget, allow me to address the fat girls in the room: Murphy punts in this book as she does in Dumplin’. She gives the heroine the possibility of a romance or two in which Faith speculates, “But what could they see in ME?” and she almost lets her have it, but then pulls back to deliver the same blow fat girls always endure, when they are told that they are not special and that no one would want them. Yeah, maybe that message served the plot at that particular moment, but aren’t we all tired of the incessant battering of that already bruised spot on the fragile fat-girl ego? I know I am.

I finished the book, but I confess that it was only so I could better skewer it. Faith herself is an ebullient and somewhat refreshing protagonist, but she’s so weighed down by a thin, chaotic and nonsensical story line that she’ll never, ever get off the ground.

 

Summer reads

Before I departed the “beach reads” category for my usual fare of fantasy, science fiction, and mystery, I decided to read two more books by the one author in my experiment whose work I had actually enjoyed, Elin Hilderbrand.

As before, I checked reviews on Goodreads and tried to pick a couple that were popular and well thought of by a majority of readers. I ended up with The Perfect Couple and The Rumor.

The Rumor‘s story in brief:

RumourThe book revolves around two women who live on Nantucket and who have been best friends. One, Grace, has a husband who is the king of the real estate deal, enabling her to live on a beautiful estate where she is transforming an extensive property into her dream garden. She has twin daughters, one predictably vanilla and the other just as predictably bad news, and her husband seems to adore her—when he’s paying attention, which is less and less these days. But her gorgeous and single landscape architect is making up for that with his attentive behavior.

If there’s one thing Grace envies Madeline for, it’s her devoted relationship with her husband, who acts as if the honeymoon never ended. They also have a wonderful son, Brick, who has never given them a moment’s worry…until he started dating Grace’s “bad twin,” Allegra. Madeline, however, is focused at the moment on her overwhelming case of writer’s block, which is preventing her from even starting the new book that is due at her publisher’s any minute. Bills are piling up, and if she can’t get a fix on her next novel, their precarious financial life will begin to fall apart. Even though she doesn’t have the money for it, Madeline decides to rent a small apartment in town to be her writing retreat, hoping it will facilitate a solution. And that’s where the rumors begin…

I liked this story. Yeah, it’s a little shallow, and a little typical, but Hilderbrand’s characters are real individuals, and I loved the distortion of gossip in a small town, as it morphs and changes from one person’s account to the next until it’s something monstrous instead of a perfectly easily explained anomaly. It’s like that old game of “Telephone” that we used to play at slumber parties—one person whispers a secret into the next one’s ear, and that person into the next one’s, and so on, until you get to the end of the circle and the last person tells what they heard, which never remotely resembles the opening statement. I also liked the atmosphere and character of Nantucket, and the descriptions of Grace’s lush garden and
Madeline’s tortuous writing process. Even the teenagers and husbands were real people.

The Perfect Couple:

PerfCoupGreer Winbury, mother of the groom, is determined that the Otis-Winbury wedding will be the event of the season. Since the bride, Celeste, comes from modest means (her parents are middle class with a lot of hospital debt piled up from Karen’s cancer), the groom’s family, who are at the peak of wealth and own one of the premier estates on Nantucket, are hosting the event on the island. The wedding has been meticulously planned, but in a bit of a rush, because no one is sure how much longer the bride’s mother has before the end. This is not the tragedy, however, that prevents the wedding from taking place; the incident responsible is the discovery of a member of the wedding party floating dead in Nantucket Harbor the morning of the ceremony. Nearly everyone in the wedding party is suspect, particularly when Chief of Police Ed Kapenash starts discovering multiple acts of deceit and betrayal amongst the family, friends, and guests…

I find it odd that this book gets consistently high marks and The Rumor was not nearly so well liked; I thought that book had much more depth and completeness as a story than did this one. The Perfect Couple seemed like it was wallowing in clichéd characters, from the older wealthy married man having an affair with the young single woman to the flighty bride and her self-satisfied groom…and the worst was the groom’s mother, the mystery novelist who always gets her way. The way they talk, the way they dress, their attitudes, all scream caricature to me, with the familiar misogynist trope of virgin-slut-bitch applied to most of the women—either prizes to be won or else damningly responsible for the men’s inability to say no. I felt like the author simply made up the situations she needed to propel the plot as she went along, and yet some story lines directly detracted from the reader’s focus on that, furthering the effect that Hilderbrand didn’t know for sure whether she wanted to write a love story or a murder mystery. And I don’t want to provide any spoilers, but I simply don’t believe, knowing what they all knew about everyone involved, that the book would have ended as it did. Enough said. It was an okay read, it wasn’t glaringly boring or bad, it just wasn’t as special as some readers seemed to believe.

I will say that both books did fulfill that “setting” or “place” requirement, in that discussion of the surroundings—the stunning views, the warm breezes and starry nights, the ambience of the restaurants and shops (and the descriptions of the luscious seafood)—definitely heightened enjoyment when reading these books.

I can’t believe it’s been 10 days since I last posted a review. I have continued to read, but in between breakfast, lunch, and bedtime, which are my three reading slots of the day, I have been so busy making art or teaching art that I haven’t had the time to put down my thoughts about reading! I will play catch-up now; I have two more books completed and ready to discuss.

(Should you be curious, you can go look at my art blog: The address is https://theslipcover.blogspot.com.)

More results

I read one more book for my experiment regarding “place” and whether the setting of a book was sufficient to carry it: All the Single Ladies, by Dorothea Benton Frank.

My answer to that question for this book was “no.”

Although I did like the descriptions of the South Carolina low country where this book is set—its foliage, its beasties, its unique and delicious-sounding cuisine—and also enjoyed the southern lingo and expressions employed by the characters (reminded me of my own mama, a Virginian), the plot itself was muddled and a bit facile, not to mention improbable.

singleladiesIt’s hard to summarize the story in brief: It starts with Kathryn, who is in the hospice section of a nursing home, dying of cancer. Lisa is one of her caregivers, and Suzanne and Carrie are her two best friends, who visit regularly. After Kathryn passes, Lisa is determined to keep up with the other two and make them her friends, which she does. Then various life upheavals result in them all living together in the same house with Suzanne’s grandmother, and the rest of the story can be summed up by “other stuff happens.”

The muddled part: There is an initial mystery posed when Kathryn’s landlady claims that some of her possessions actually belong/revert to the landlady, and though the other women are 99 percent sure this isn’t so, they haven’t yet found a way to prove it. So we have this set-up in the beginning and we think this will be a thread throughout the book (Suzanne is the executor), but instead it crops up once and then is subsumed in all the other life details until about the last 25 pages. Not good.

Second, the book is pretty insulting to women of a certain age and, being one of those, I took appropriate umbrage. All three of the main characters are hurting for cash—Carrie lost everything to her boyfriend’s kids (they were about to marry when he died, after living together for seven years), Lisa has brought up and schooled her daughter single-handedly without aid from her ex, leaving her living on the edge from paycheck to paycheck, and Suzanne had a traumatic experience that derailed her initial career and landed her as a dependent on her grandmother, whose house on the beach is the center of this piece. So, what is their solution? Do they start a side hustle, come up with a clever investment, think of some creative way to get them out of their fix? No. Carrie looks for a fourth (!) husband whose wealth will solve her problems. Lisa whines a lot about her daughter’s poor (to her) life choices, to the point where it becomes apparent that the author herself has created this soap box and placed her character carefully atop it to preach. And Suzanne sits helplessly in Grandma’s house waiting for the hammer to fall, because she assumes that upon the death of “Miss Trudie” she will have to move out, sell the house, and split the proceeds three ways with her two ungrateful and unhelpful sisters, all the while admitting that she charges her customers far too little in her florist business. Um, honey? Charge more.

Added to all of this is the unlikely (I said improbable but I would say verging on impossible) fact that all three women (these are women in their late 50s and 60s) manage to discover single, relatively undamaged, enthusiastic, attractive men who want to be with them, and all of them pair off tidily. Sorry, that’s a little bit of a spoiler, but since that goal is set by one of them in the beginning and is practically the theme of the whole book, I’m going to say a giant Who cares?

There are occasional moments when you fall into what should be the central spirit of the book (and would have been if the dating details had been dropped in favor of other solutions), which is the camaraderie between the friends. This shows more between Lisa and Suzanne than it does between either of them and Carrie (the one fixated on finding a hubby), and is mostly illustrated in fun times over food and drink. But it’s just not enough when weighed down by everything else. The best character in the whole book is the 99-year-old grandmother, Trudie. I would much rather have heard her story.

This book gets a giant “MEH” from me. Although it did make me want to travel to the low country sometime to experience its beautiful architecture, afternoon storms, magnificent sunsets, and delectable food, it certainly didn’t make me want to read another book by this author. So “setting” in this case was the only appeal and failed to carry the book.