On the shore

In yesterday’s mail, I received my advance-order copy of Jenny Colgan’s new novel, The Bookshop on the Shore. Although I had just started reading another book, I promptly put it aside, because I was so in the mood for this book. I’d had a difficult week, and Colgan’s signature combination of can-do attitude with gentle romance plus her evocative setting (northern Scotland) were the required remedy.

bookshoreThis novel is not exactly a sequel to my favorite of Colgan’s books—The Bookshop on the Corner—since the protagonist is new. But it is set in the same locale, most of the characters from that book are here in a peripheral role, and Goodreads characterizes it as “Scottish Bookshop #2.”

Zoe is a young mother of a four-year-old son, Hari, who is practically perfect in every way—sweet, loving, smart, well-behaved. The only issue with Hari is that he doesn’t speak. Zoe has taken him to multiple specialists, all of whom conclude that there’s nothing wrong with him, and that he will “probably” speak when he’s ready. This worry is at the top of Zoe’s list, but is by no means the only problem with which she is dealing. She’s living in London in a tiny bed-sit in a bad neighborhood, working at a daycare job inadequate to pay her bills, and her ex-boyfriend, Hari’s father, is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy who’s more interested in making it as a deejay than he is in contributing childcare funds to support his son. When her landlord leaves her a rent hike notice, Zoe knows that she will at that point be truly beyond her means, so she appeals to Jaz for help, not expecting much but ever hopeful. Jaz disappoints, as usual, but fortunately the interaction results in a helping hand from an unexpected source.

Jaz’s sister is Surinder, Nina’s best friend from The Bookshop on the Corner, and she has just received a call from Nina, who is desperate to find someone to take over her business (she travels around rural Scotland selling books from a van converted into a mobile bookshop) during the rest of her pregnancy. Surinder sends her Zoe, with Hari in tow. But working in Nina’s business isn’t enough to keep Zoe afloat and also doesn’t provide her with a home, so Nina finds Zoe an evening-and-weekends job as a
live-in au pair to the local “big house” family.

Zoe approaches her jobs with a will to succeed, but rapidly discovers that both are going to be uphill work. She hasn’t Nina’s gift for matching every customer with the right book, and the bottom line is making that obvious during her first weeks with the book van. And the au pair gig seems like a bigger nightmare than her horrible life in London, with three rude, uncooperative children who ominously refer to her as “Nanny Seven,” and a father who is obviously checked out and not coping. But with little other choice, Zoe has to seize her opportunities and make the best life she can for herself and her silent little son on the admittedly beautiful shores of Loch Ness.

This is a trademark delightful tale from Jenny Colgan that fulfills all the requirements her readers have come to expect. The characters are wonderfully delineated (particularly those of the three miscreant children, the curmudgeonly housekeeper Zoe and Nina refer to as “MacDanvers” after Rebecca, and Zoe’s son Hari), and the setting in rural Scotland is, as always, a major factor enriching the scenario with descriptions of nature that make the city dweller long to catch the next flight to Inverness. Colgan has the skill to engage the reader with the protagonist’s plight such that every challenge and triumph are taken personally. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it set me thinking again about whether a retirement in a rural setting would suit me better than my current situation as one of the million citizens of Los Angeles!

bookcornerThe only caveat I have, and I had it with the book’s predecessor, is calling the mobile book van a “bookshop” and depicting it on both covers as a stationary location! Don’t the publishers read their books? There has to be a better title for both books, and better artwork as well. But, I suppose that if you had called this one, for instance, “On the Shore,” where much of the action takes place (both the selling of books and the live-in nannying), it wouldn’t hook in all those readers who want a book about books and readers; and we are a big and focused readership. Oh, well….

 

 

Another flower book

flowerarrangementIn the course of writing my post “Flower power” a couple of weeks ago, I looked at a few lists of novels with flowers as their theme, and decided to expand my repertoire regarding the language of flowers by buying and reading The Flower Arrangement, by Ella Griffin.

In the midst of severe distress over the loss of a much-wanted child, Lara decides to leave her career as a graphic designer and open a shop she calls Blossom and Grow, in the heart of Dublin. Although, as her doubtful husband warns her, the work is backbreaking, the sourcing of the flowers challenging, and the hours long, the venture turns out well, and Lara loves her little jewel of a flower shop with its beautiful pink façade decorated with hand-painted trompe l’oeil ivy.

Like the protagonist in The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Lara has a special gift for putting together the right flowers with the right person (even when it’s by accident!), and this theme of people buying flowers for an apology, a declaration of love, a sick friend, a marker for a special day, or simply a spontaneous gesture carries the plot forward. Each chapter is titled with a different flower and its meaning, and there are delicately detailed descriptions of all kinds of blooms throughout the story.

30xFlorist

This book probably falls into the category of “cozy romance,” or perhaps you could call it relationship fiction? It’s cleverly done, and is definitely the sum of its parts. Yes, I know that’s not the saying, it’s supposed to aspire to be more than the sum of its parts; but in this case it is appropriate and I’m not denigrating it—the parts do come together to make a whole.

I confess, however, that I was a little disappointed by the way the story evolves. In the beginning, I invested quite heavily in Lara’s tale, which is told first, and assumed that the entire book would be about her; instead, it consists of vignettes that, while tangentially connected to her, don’t necessarily reveal or forward her plotline. There is a central cast of characters played by her brother, her father, and other significant relationships, but then we branch out in turn to those characters’ relationships, and also check in on random people who are connected to the flower shop, it’s true, but sometimes by the thinnest of threads. The author does do a good job of weaving them into a cohesive story, but I simply wanted more Lara.

The one thing that tells against this being considered a romance is that you don’t get your  traditional (requisite?) HEA (happily ever after) in the end. Although there are some happy tidings for various people, many loose ends are left, and not because there will be a sequel, I don’t think, but because the author simply wanted them that way. I always think I’m okay with open-ended books until I read one, and then, when I get to the last paragraph and realize my ultimate curiosity won’t be satisfied, I sulk. So this book’s ending made me just a little sulky! I don’t mean to say not to read it, however; it’s a charming, engaging story with a lot of heart, decent writing, great characterization, and an interesting story line.

I had two issues with the physical presentation of the novel: The first was the cover, which, while cute, doesn’t match the description of the shop (thus my little painting, above, to recall the theme of pink!). The second was the title of the book! I don’t understand why the author didn’t call it Blossom and Grow, after the shop; not only would it have been a more memorable title than The Flower Arrangement (which is so generic as to be forgettable, and I did several times when people asked me what I was reading!) but it actually better expresses what happens in the course of the story.

Perhaps Ella Griffin will see this and let us in on her reasoning.

 

Two steps forward

I was looking for something a little lighter to read after my foray into post-apocalyptic zombie-land, and I realized that I had never gone back to pick up the sequel to the delightful The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Alas, all copies of the sequel were checked out at both libraries where I hold membership, and my book budget for June (and truthfully for July) was long since spent, so I opted instead for something else by Simsion. I had heard nothing about it previous to borrowing the e-book, but Two Steps Forward proved to be a new favorite.

walkwaterI didn’t know much about El Camino de Santiago previous to about 2014, but in that year one of my Facebook artist acquaintances, Jennifer Lawson, decided to walk 500 miles along the Camino route and record her progress with sketches. Once she had achieved the feat, she came home, sorted out her sketchbook, and documented the experience in her book Walking with Watercolor.
I promptly bought it, mostly for her delightfully lively and effervescent watercolors rather than because I was intrigued by the topic, but as I read it, my interest grew. The idea of making such a walk, whether on the Appalachian Trail, through the Pacific Northwest, or meandering England’s Lake District, had always been appealing to me. It’s not something to which I could aspire at the moment, given the state of my knees, but who knows? Could happen someday before I die!

2stepsSimsion co-wrote Two Steps Forward with his wife, Anne Buist, and it is loosely based on their own experience of walking the Camino, although it is fiction. El Camino de Santiago is a centuries-old pilgrimage route that ends in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. People walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons, though—not just as pilgrimage but as an athletic challenge, as a meditative exercise, as a vacation choice. They start the route from separate points, depending on where in Europe they are coming from, and all converge at the end to receive a certificate of completion and (if they want it) a blessing.

There are two main protagonists, and each author wrote from the viewpoint of one, then traded their writing, edited, added to and refined it, and put together a seamless story narrated by two.

Californian Zoe has recently taken some devastating hits in her life. First, her husband Keith has died in a car crash, a sufficient reason for grief; but a few weeks later, Zoe learns from her accountant that Keith’s business had been in trouble, and if she sells her house she may just barely be able to pay off the business debt—if she’s lucky. Devastated not only by this new catastrophe but by the thought that Keith didn’t sufficiently trust in their relationship to be honest with her about their financial situation, Zoe is at loose ends (and in a daze) when a friend from childhood invites her to France. Not knowing what else to do while waiting for the house to sell, Zoe decides a visit is in order. While out window-shopping in France, she sees a shell charm that inexplicably calls to her. When she discovers the scallop shell is a symbol for El Camino de Santiago, and that the town where she is visiting is a beginning point for part of the route, Zoe impulsively decides that a time-out from her life to grieve, ponder, and find a new direction is just what she needs and, spending most of the last of her money, kits herself out and departs on the route.

Martin, meanwhile, is walking the route primarily for commercial reasons. He is a British engineer, and has designed a cart that he believes will be a wonderful solution to pilgrims who have trouble carrying their belongings on their back. Since every prototype must be tested and proven before manufacturing takes place, Martin decides that the perfect antidote to hanging around dealing with the aftermath of a nasty divorce is to take his cart on “the Way.” With the promise of some interest by investors once they see the results of his walk, the “Buggy man” embarks only a day or two after Zoe on the same part of the path.

Zoe and Martin, along with a host of other colorful and memorable walkers, show the differences in the kind of walk or pilgrimage that is to be had along El Camino. Zoe, flat broke from the get-go, is hoarding her funds by staying in the cheapest of hostels, occasionally even sleeping in a church or barn, and cooking for herself or snacking on what she can carry. Martin, much more flush, is trying out B&Bs and hotels and savoring the local cuisine in the better restaurants in each town. Some travelers don’t think twice about taking a bus or a cab over a rough patch, while others believe that to gain one inch of progress on the Camino under anyone’s power but their own is cheating and nullifies the whole experience.

30xCamino

This illustration shows one of the stone markers with its distinctive scallop shell that indicates the Way for the travelers to follow, with three pilgrims walking in the background.

The delight of this book is its slow build as the walkers continually cross paths with one another. One will have a short day and the other a long one, and will pass each other, unknowing, but land in the same town in the same restaurant on the same night. Some are up and out the door at the crack of dawn, and walk until dusk, while others nurse a hangover, stop for a leisurely déjeuner, dawdle along for 10 kilometers, and call it a day. This all leads to both expected and unexpected encounters and near-misses.

The accompanying theme to the walk is, of course, what each walker gets out of it, and as both Zoe and Martin make progress in their individual quests for meaning, understanding, forgiveness, or whatever else they have come to see that they need or crave, their interactions with one another also change and grow. The book comes to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion, and then further gratifies the reader with an epilogue to reveal what happens to the characters after their “time out of time” interlude is over. Two Steps Forward is nearly as much a journey of discovery for its readers as it is for the walkers.

If you like this sort of book, you might also consider The Distance from Me to You, by Marina Gessner, a novel about a young woman who walks the length of the Appalachian Trail alone between high school and college, or Skywalker: Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, a humorous nonfiction memoir by Bill Walker.

And if you liked what you saw of Jennifer Lawson’s drawings in her book about the Camino, be sure to check out her current series on Instagram. She’s drawing, painting, and collaging 100 dogs in 100 days, and they’re all delightful.

 

The power of flowers

TulipsBecause of an extraordinary amount of rain and snow this year, many parts of the country (mine included) have had a particularly colorful spring when it comes to both wildflower superblooms and the overflowing roses, peonies, and daffodils in cultivated gardens. Observing this bounty has caused me to take a look at some books, both fiction and nonfiction, that deal not only with the appearance but also with the language of flowers.

Although flowers and other plants have had symbolic significance for centuries, the full blossoming, if you will, of the use of flowers as symbols for emotions was in the approximate 75-year span of the Victorian Era in England. Restrictive social conventions prohibited direct expression through conversation between those whose interests were loverlike, so whatever was deemed unacceptable by etiquette to share openly was encoded in the giving of particular flowers or combinations of flowers to convey specific meanings. This practice became so commonplace that the language of flowers was christened “floriography.” The practice has also captured the imagination of various authors, who have used it as a vehicle to tell their stories. Among them:

diffenbaughThe Language of Flowers,
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

From the title, you’d think this book would be soft and romantic, but it’s not at all. The main character, Victoria, is an 18-year-old who has just aged out of the foster care system. She has no friends, no family, no history, no prospects, and no skills, and soon she is homeless. Once she had a foster parent who taught her the language of flowers (i.e., asters = patience, red roses = love, etc.), and since she left that home, she has pursued her knowledge further. Based on this, she finds a florist willing to give her some under-the-table work, and creates for herself a small, regular life—for awhile. The book is told in alternating chapters between the one good foster home she was in at age 10 and her present existence, and the level of tension maintained as you wait to find out what happened that brought her to her current fix keeps you eagerly reading. The protagonist is engaging despite herself, and you don’t know whether you feel sorry for her or want to shake her. It’s a poignant story, and although Victoria isn’t always a likeable character, her courage is inspiring.

whiteForget-Her-Nots, by Amy Brecount White

While researching the Victorian language of flowers for a school project, 14-year-old Laurel discovers that the bouquets she creates have peculiar effects on people. Her mother hinted at an ancient family secret, and Laurel suspects it has something to do with her new-found talent, but her mom was never able to share either the gift or its use with Laurel. Unfortunately, Laurel uses this  talent to meddle, and a string of incidents that involve the misuse of flowers threaten to mess significantly with everyone’s prom night experience. Clever, fun, and informative, too. (Young Adult fiction.)

BranardThe Art of Arranging Flowers, by Lynne Branard

Ruby Jewell grew up in a harsh environment, her only comfort being her close relationship with her sister, Daisy. Daisy’s death when Ruby was in her early 20s was devastating as well as life altering. Instead of pursuing her studies to become a lawyer, Ruby just wanted to curl up and die, too. It was the flowers that saved her. For 20 years now, Ruby has created floral arrangements at her shop in the small town of Creekside. With a few words from a customer, she knows just what flowers to use to help kindle a romance or heal a broken heart. However, Ruby has a barrier around her own heart and is determined that she will not allow it to be broken. It takes an extraordinary group of people to bring Ruby out from behind her wall.

If reading any or all of these causes you to be intrigued by the background these authors used to create their floral fantasies, you can read about Victorian identification in…

greenawayKate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers   

This is a charming reproduction of a rare volume by a 19th-century illustrator that includes a full-color illustrated list of more than 200 plants and their supposed meanings: tulip = fame; blue violet = faithfulness, etc.

 

And if you feel further inspired, you can read some germane nonfiction delving into the scientific significance of blooms:

PollanThe Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World,
by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan has a vision in his garden that leads him to question the interrelationship between humans and plants. He postulates that the plant species humans have nurtured over the past 10,000 years may have benefited as much from their association with us as we have from ours with them. He decides to investigate four plants—apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana—and he digs into history, anecdote, and personal revelation to do so. It’s entertaining, philosophical, and smart.

BuchmannThe Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture,
Biology, and How They Change Our Lives
,
by Stephen L. Buchmann

This is a comprehensive examination of the roles flowers play in the production of our foods, spices, medicines, and perfumes. Buchmann also goes into the cultural history of flowers, examining everything from myths and legends, decor, poetry, and esthetics to their basis for various global industries. From the flowers to the pollinators to the people who pursue the many intertwined careers sparked by these natural wonders, Buchmann inquires about it all. A fascinating volume, liberally illustrated.

If you want more, there is a 17-book list on Goodreads on the subject of floriography.

Here’s hoping your next tussy-mussy conveys the emotions you desire!

By the book

As has been previously noted, I’m a sucker for books about books—a book featuring a bookstore, a library, a bookmobile, a librarian, a writer, a reader—if it’s book-centered, I usually end up reading it. After my post about a variety of these a few days ago, I decided to track down some more, but before I could do so, two serendipitously popped up, one of them a bargain book for my Kindle and the other “trending” on my Goodreads feed.

35297218The first one I read was By the Book, by Julia Sonneborn, and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I should have taken the title literally, because this book is written “by the book” without necessarily being “about” books. Let me clarify.

It’s supposedly a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (so, yet another author for Jane Austen’s lawyer to sue in the afterlife), and while the basic elements are there—the woman and her former suitor, working their way gradually back into a relationship—there were so many other things to distract that the original material didn’t resonate for me as I read the story.

Anne Corey is teaching English at a small liberal arts college in the foothills outside San Bernardino. She’s quite happy in her work, but trouble looms: In order to gain tenure (and avoid being fired!), she has to get a book deal for her literary tome on women writers. She goes into the new fall semester thinking this will be her biggest challenge, but then discovers, somewhat to her dismay, that the newly hired president of her college is none other than her first love and former fiancé, Adam Martinez, the man she jilted in favor of college and career.

The “publish or perish” push to get tenure was an interesting story element; but some of the others (Anne’s gay friend Larry’s obsession with a closeted actor, Anne’s own romance with a questionable Lothario, and dealing with the needs of her aging father) seemed to distract from the main thesis quite a bit.

I’m not saying I didn’t like the book; I did. But it reads as much more of a light, “cozy” romance than it does as a book that is engaged with books and literature. We hear a lot about the writing of books without getting many details of what is written; and the rest is a mish-mash of confusing and contradictory human relationships, including the secondary love interest, who turns out to be something of a caricature.

I also felt that the author let the source material down by improperly characterizing “Captain Wentworth.” In Persuasion, Wentworth is dead set against Anne at the beginning, and a lot of the book is about how he gradually changes his mind and returns to his original feelings for her. But in By the Book, despite some red herring relationships for him, it’s pretty clear that Adam Martinez is still carrying the torch, which made the  tension between them feel too flimsy to carry the story. It’s not a bad book, but I don’t think it will go into my “canon” of bibliophilia-related reading.

brightideasThe second book I read, the one that kept popping up on Goodreads, was Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan, and it was a lot closer to being what I have in mind when I want a book about books.

First of all, I loved the description and provenance of the bookstore; it’s in a previously dodgy but now up-and-coming neighborhood, built into a former lightbulb factory, which is what contributed the name and logo (a lit-up bulb) for the store. While being a smart emporium for new books, it employs a variety of quirky book people, nicely described, and also serves as a haven for a group of book-loving ne’er-do-wells, from the homeless to the merely eccentric, with whom the main character, Lydia, is involved, due both to her empathetic nature and to her desire to share her love of books with all and sundry.

The gist of the story, however, is a mystery based on tragedy, both present-day and in the past, and both connected to Lydia. In the present, it’s the suicide of a boy who frequents the store (one of the customers the clerks call “Book Frogs”). This event contains an unexpected element that carries Lydia (and the reader) back to a traumatic incident in her childhood, and brings her into contact with people and incidents she had banished to her subconscious for a couple of decades. The suicide, a boy named Joey, leaves her ingenious clues contained within books he stole from the bookstore, and in piecing them together Lydia discovers connections about which she never dreamed.

I didn’t expect the book to be so dark or so mystery-oriented, but I loved the writing, the set-up of the atmosphere surrounding the events, and the protagonist’s gentle yet inexorable qualities. (I also loved the cover!)

I would definitely read something else by this author, and will probably read this one again someday.

 

A new book from a fave author

Since I will be teaching Young Adult Literature at UCLA for the library masters program there starting April 1 (after a two-year hiatus since the last time I taught it), I am scrambling to catch up on my YA reading. Although the class deals primarily with the history of young adult lit, I certainly want to be up to the minute on my knowledge of what’s new and popular. So I splurged and ordered a few books from Amazon to read and review during my ramp-up to the class.

I should have known, the minute that I heard Jennifer Lynn Barnes had written a new book, that it would be good; but when an author has done a particular kind of story well and then writes something completely different, there’s always the fear that the magic touch won’t hold up when the genre is changed.

I have read and enjoyed Barnes’s series The Naturals multiple times; I read the first two in the series with my high school book club when I worked as a teen librarian, and then was happily entertained by the remainder of the books as they emerged. I also enjoyed her series that begins with The Fixer, about political intrigue in Washington D.C.

36321744When I saw that she had written a book about southern debutantes, I thought Uh-oh, partly because I have read two or three of those by other authors who took a perfectly good set-up and turned it into puerile insta-love. I should have had faith in Barnes: Even though the premise couldn’t be more different than that of a set of gifted youth working covertly for the FBI, Little White Lies is fantastic in every way.

The concept of starting out in the middle of a particular scenario on a particular day in April and then jumping backwards in ever-lessening increments (nine months earlier, three months earlier, six hours earlier) is itself designed to hold the reader’s interest: What happened today, and what led up to it? At some point, late in the book, when you begin to figure out what’s going on, you will undoubtedly (as I did) thumb back through its pages to read those one-or two-page interludes sequentially and get a giggle out of them.

The other thing that really separated this from run of the mill was the outsider status of the protagonist, Sawyer, The reader sees a slice of her world (regular, if a bit bleak), and then experiences with her the contrast between that and the one from which she originally emerged, and would have grown up in but for her mother’s rejection of that lifestyle. Her new knowledge of her family gets to be revealed to her in a way that both validates and contradicts her mother’s version of events; but her mother has raised her with the ability to judge for herself, and that’s what is important amidst the disconnect.

If all of this weren’t enough, however, you also get the bonus story of secrets, scandals, blackmail, and revenge, with all the anticipation and satisfaction those bring. This book is clever, witty, and humorous in the most perfect of dark ways. And although it stands alone, one tiny detail is left dangling temptingly at the end for Barnes to pick up and continue from, should she decide a sequel is in order (which seems likely, since this book is labeled “#1” on Goodreads).

What can I do but echo the most used phrase of the debutantes and their eagle-eyed mamas when I say to Barnes, “Bless your heart”?

The Horse Dancer

horsedancerHaving read the most recent five of JoJo Moyes’s books, I decided I would visit her back catalogue as well, and being a soft touch for a horse story (as you can see from my nearly unwavering fandom for Dick Francis), I chose
The Horse Dancer.

There are three intertwined stories in this book—one in the past, the other two present-day. The first involves Natasha and her soon-to-be-ex-husband Mac. Natasha is an up-and-coming attorney in the area of child protective services, and channels all her repressed feelings about the end of her marriage into her work and her tentative new relationship with a shiny partner at her firm. Mac is a freelance photographer, and appears to be fairly happy-go-lucky and irresponsible next to the upright and uptight Natasha, but seems to have major regrets about the end of the relationship. The two are in the process of sorting out their mutual possessions and financial issues on the way to divorce when their paths cross with Sarah.

Sarah is a 14-year-old girl who has two major loves in her life: her beloved grandfather, Henri, with whom she lives, and her horse, “Boo.”  Her grandfather was, in his youth, a professional rider for the prestigious Cadre Noir, a French dressage academy, but he gave it all up to come to England to marry Florence, the love of his life, recently lost to cancer. Sarah’s dream is to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and ride with Le Cadre Noir in Saumur, France. Meanwhile, she and her grandfather train the horse in the shadow of an old railway siding in the seedy part of London, where they stable the horse with Henri’s friend, Cowboy Joe. When something terrible happens to Henri, Sarah discovers the fragility of her situation as a child with too many adult responsibilities, and tries her best to deal alone with all the potentially terrible outcomes.

I found this book tremendously moving in several areas. The relationship between Sarah and her horse brought back memories of being that age and wanting that special partnership so badly. (My grandfather, an impulsive bidder at auctions, actually gave me a horse for my birthday when I was 12—an unbroken two-year-old palomino
stallion—and my parents, dismayed by the thought of dealing with the housing, feeding, and exercising of him from the comfort of our suburban lifestyle,  made him take it back. I can hardly remember ever feeling more heartbroken.) The scenes that depict the tie between Sarah and Boo are so viscerally and immediately written as to be impossible to resist.

The interplay between Mac and Natasha was painful and confusing, and there were parts I flat-out had trouble believing, but ultimately the idea of the walls we build to protect ourselves that do us more damage than those we built them against resonated with me. The picture Moyes paints of a teen girl who depends on her grandfather and no one else, and of what happens to her when she is thrown on her own resources and believes she must cope all alone, is poignant, real, and frightening. The back story of the grandfather’s youthful experiences in Le Cadre Noir gave the book additional legs. All in all it was a satisfying and touching, albeit somewhat dark, read.

This is a book that is written for adults, but it explores the adult-child (or adult-teen) relationship from both sides, given that it shows both Natasha’s and Sarah’s views of the proper way to deal with the situation in which they find themselves; and I think that there are teens who would appreciate and even benefit from reading this book. Natasha has to transform her view of Sarah as a frustratingly opaque, surly compulsive liar and see that she is a child adrift in an adult’s world who is convinced she has to be as strong and resourceful as an adult; while Sarah has to get past her view of Natasha as a controlling authority figure and see that she is doing her best to be helpful even though Sarah is keeping the bulk of her life secret from everyone. The thing Moyes gets right is that final push through misunderstanding that is essential to a true and lasting love, whether it be between a couple, a parent and child, friends, or a girl and her horse.

craigdarkhorse

In search of Paris

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a sucker for any book set in Paris. I keep reading any and every book that boasts that city as its backdrop, and more often than not, I am disappointed; Paris, wonderful as it is, just can’t carry a whole book. But occasionally I am not disappointed; here are two books with the Parisian flavor that also delivered as good stories.

unbe1The first book is Unbecoming, a debut novel by Rebecca Scherm. I’m happy that I read it before looking at Goodreads to see what people had to say, because everyone there was comparing it to The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, to The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, and (inevitably and inanely) to Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. Because I did not see all the comparisons to other authors and styles, I was able to approach it “fresh”; and without all those judgments to hinder me, I was delighted by it.

The book takes place partially in the present day and partially in flashback. A girl named Grace is living in Paris, and although she is from Tennessee, she tells people her name is Julie and that she hails from California, because she is in hiding. She is living a quiet life, working for a small shop that specializes in restorations, and spends her days mending teapots and re-setting gems. But there is a mystery in her past, to do with the boy she married and the boy she loved (two different boys); she has just learned that the two have recently been paroled from prison sentences they served after an art heist gone bad that was planned by Grace but from which she escaped unscathed, and now she’s afraid they’ll be after her.

The evolution of the main character and the degrees of denial and self-knowledge, combined with the plots and plans, the failed heist, and the anticipation of revenge, all kept me intrigued throughout this novel. Ironically, the only thing that disappointed me a tiny bit was that the Paris setting wasn’t all that distinct—she worked in a shop with a girl from Poland via Amsterdam; she lived in a suburb outside the city with a German landlady; and there was almost no Parisian “feel” to it, not even in the street market scenes, which were more grim than they were picturesque. Also, more of it actually took place in Garland, Tennessee than in Paris. But that’s a small caveat—this was a skilled debut from an author I will revisit should she write more.

week1The second book, A Week in Paris, by Rachel Hore, fulfilled every expectation I had for a book that would evoke the feel and ambiance of Paris—the streets, markets, music, cafés, churches, schools, everything. That by itself sets the bar pretty low for a reason to like a novel, but after having read a slew of books that promised me Paris and didn’t deliver, this one was completely satisfying—not only for that reason, however!

Although the two protagonists, mother and daughter, are both English by birth, both of their stories—one beginning in 1937 and the other in 1961—take place in the City of Light. Fay Knox, the daughter, knows little of Kitty Knox’s story, or in fact her own; her childhood before the age of six is a complete blank to her, and her mother doesn’t talk about it, with the excuse that it’s too painful to revisit the time directly after she lost her beloved husband, Eugene.

Two things happen nearly simultaneously that lead Fay to that past: Kitty has what amounts to a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized in an asylum to recuperate; and Fay is hired by an orchestra (she is an accomplished violinist) to play three dates in Paris over the course of a week’s time. When Kitty’s doctor convinces Fay that in these early stages of her depression her mother won’t even notice that she’s gone, Fay takes the job and, while in Paris, connects with an old friend of her mother’s who reveals a surprising and disturbing version of the past that Fay has never heard before.

Both the story and the style of writing reminded me of Kate Morton, particularly evoking her book The Distant Hours. I’m tempted to describe it as Kate Morton “lite,” although I don’t mean that in a negative way; simply that, as detailed as Hore’s book is, it’s simplicity itself when compared to the microscopic descriptiveness of Morton’s works. But the pattern of a mystery from the past intruding itself on the present, and a daughter attempting to solve the puzzle of her mother’s life, are quite similar, and equally well done. I haven’t read anything else of Hore’s, but will definitely seek something out soon.

Either of these books, in fact, would appeal to someone who appreciates a mystery but doesn’t wish to read about murder, victims, police, or the other trappings of a straight-up mystery novel. I guess you could call them “puzzle” books rather than mysteries, but the solution to a secret from the past is integral to their plot lines.

An extra comment: I am always intrigued by what publishers do to sell their books once they make the move from hardcover to paperback. Unbecoming went from a cover that did express its contents, though weirdly turned on its side, to something that looks like a rather obvious young adult novel about a girl who disappears, while the cover of A Week in Paris morphed from a photo that evoked the somewhat somber mood of the story to one that might more accurately portray its contents, but with a typeface choice that gives it a slightly upbeat chick lit feel. Do book art directors ever actually read the books, one wonders?

unbe2         week2

 

 

 

JoJo Moyes

meb4youMany have by now read the popular book Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes, about the lower-class girl living an ordinary and rather stultifying life, who first works for, then falls for the upper-class guy who happens to be a quadriplegic. Both of their lives are transformed (and also derailed) by their relationship, and hankies are passed at the end. I’m sure some have also seen the movie.

Although the first book was wildly popular (#1 NYT Bestseller), the second book, After You, got fairly short shrift by some readers (and reviewers), who apparently didn’t think that Louisa Clark was a compelling enough character to carry the story on her own. I differed with that opinion, and though my first judgment of the book was “adequate and somewhat endearing sequel that wasn’t quite up to the first book,” upon re-reading it recently I revised my opinion upward. The thing I particularly enjoy about Moyes’s books is her character development: She doesn’t just flesh out her protagonist and other main folks, she makes sure to create a complete and usually quirky personality for everyone who appears for even a moment. The result is lively and specific interaction on every page.

afteryouI will say that the first third of the book bored me a little, and I was just about to opt out when a couple of new and unexpected characters popped up and put some pizzazz into the story. I ended up enjoying it quite a bit more than I initially expected.

The third book, Still Me, took Louisa out of her British background and environment and put her up against a new life in New York City, which finally gave her the chance to expand beyond Will Traynor, and beyond the essentially small-town girl she remained in the second book, despite her travels and new relationships. It still, however, highlighted the gaping trench between the classes, with the difference that in New York City, it’s all about the money. The glimpses of city life and how much it differs for the rich vs. the poor were intriguing, the ups and downs of romance were good, but where this author shines, again, is in the creation of her characters. Although they were all compelling, I particularly enjoyed the elderly fashion maven, Margot, and her pug dog, Dean Martin.

DeanMartinIf you liked the first but hated the second, you might enjoy the third. If you liked both books #1 and #2, then you definitely should get you some more Louisa Clark. And if you never got around to reading any of them, maybe you will want to give them a try!

The author, JoJo Moyes, has been quite outspoken about the presentation of some of her titles as “chick lit,” saying
“I just try to tell a story which will maybe make people feel something, and perhaps think a little too. Ultimately, fiction is entertainment and no matter how beautifully or thoughtfully done, it succeeds or fails based on whether people are entertained.” We touched on this in my readers’ advisory class in our discussion of mainstream fiction: Joyce Saricks, readers’ advisory guru, in the chapter entitled “Emerging Genres” she penned for the book Genreflecting, argues that this type of book falls into a bigger category called “Women’s Fiction.” She defines women’s fiction as consisting of “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” While acknowledging that this is a solid and definite trend, especially if you include the outliers of chick lit and erotica, I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be somewhat pejorative—dismissive and ghettoizing. Perhaps I am wrong, and should look at the positive elements of this: that women are writing, that women are writing about other women, that we have a positive trend to claim. But! No one ever called any aspect of fiction (except perhaps the truly macho genres, such as westerns) “men’s fiction.” When men were the primary writers of fiction, it was all just fiction, whether literary, mainstream, or genre-based. So why do we need to distinguish “women’s fiction”? It raises my hackles a bit.

stillmeI would like to propose that a more useful way of designating this subset of mainstream fiction might be “relationship fiction.” It still focuses on the most important aspect of so-called women’s fiction, which is the relationships between the characters, but it would include such male writers as Nicholas Sparks, Chris Bohjalian, Matthew Quick, and other men who write about relationships, sometimes from the viewpoint of a female protagonist, and would additionally embrace so-called family stories, while avoiding the condescending terminology that puts female writers in a subtly “less than” category.

Regardless of how you label them, JoJo Moyes’ books are, as she aspires to be, both thoughtful and entertaining.