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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.

 

Results

In my previous post, I posed the question, “Can the setting of a story (a particular place or atmosphere) be a sufficiently appealing element to carry a book?” (Or something like that.) To research the experiment,
I read books by three of the authors recommended to the woman on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page who requested “books that take place at the beach.”

Author #1 was Karen White, and I read her book The Sound of Glass. The title comes from the wind chimes constructed from pieces of polished beach glass that the original owner of the house depicted in the novel made and hung from the rafters all around.

soundofglassThe book is set in Beaufort, South Carolina, which the author classifies as part of the “Outer Banks” (although Wikipedia says those are “a string of peninsulas and barrier islands separating the Atlantic Ocean from mainland North Carolina”).  Suffice it to say, the setting is one of open beaches and also of protected swamplands characterized by flat-bottomed boats cruising above pluff mud, and trees covered in Spanish moss. Although there is a minor plot detail involving one of the protagonists’ fear of water, the setting doesn’t have a lot to do with the book, beyond providing evocative sound effects and scents unfamiliar to the one protagonist, who hails from Maine. Scene-setting mostly came down to that character, Merritt, complaining about the stifling heat. A lot.

The story in brief: Merritt’s husband died two years ago. She has recently discovered that his grandmother left him a house in South Carolina, and since he is dead, she inherits. She decides to upend her stagnant life in Maine to go live in it. Shortly after she arrives, so does her stepmother, who is a scant five years older than she is and has a 10-year-old son. The stepmother pleads poverty and asks to stay and Merritt reluctantly agrees, although her father’s marriage to this woman was the reason for her 12-year estrangement from him (he is also now deceased). The two begin to work out their relationship with one another, but it’s complicated by rather large secrets on both sides.

Someone on Goodreads described this book as “relationship melodrama,” and that about sums it up. The thing is, the bones of a good story are here: estranged family who find each other amidst personal crises. But Merritt (the buttoned-up Maine girl), and her counterpart, Loralee (the brash Southern blonde with the pancake makeup), are both such stereotypes that I found it hard to relate to them. Better than the two protagonists, I liked Loralee’s kid, Owen, and Merritt’s doctor/brother-in-law, Gibbes. They were less prone to both drama and cliché, and I think their characters show of what this author is capable if she would quit dropping into the easy channels dug by predecessors.

The secret Loralee is keeping is obvious to everyone but Merritt, but the way she goes about ingratiating herself and her son with her stepdaughter is pretty ingenious. If the story consisted solely of this plot, I think I would have liked it better. Instead, we had to do a whole convoluted study of Merritt’s damaged psyche and how it got that way, and although exposing some of the issues was a worthy goal, her protracted whinging was exhausting. And her ultimate secret, the one that connects grandmother with grandsons with widow, is patently ridiculous.

A comment on writing: When I am reading a book, I subconsciously give the reading the same tests that I give my own writing, one of which is not to use the same descriptive word twice on the same page (let alone in the same sentence), and yet that happens over and over again in this book. The author has the potential for good story-telling, with evocative images and powerful characters, but sloppy writing (uncorrected by her inattentive editors) and tendency to drop into cliché operated for me against enjoyment. I probably will not read any other books by Karen White.

The second author whose work I sought out was that of Elin Hilderbrand, a perennially popular name associated with “beach read” in the Facebook group. I scanned her list of offerings on Goodreads and selected a book that had uniformly higher marks, since some of the others swung wildly between two stars and five. The one I ended up reading was The Identicals.

identicalsI was immediately captivated by the slightly tongue-in-cheek comparison between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard in the prologue, citing the benefits of each and the detriments of the other from the residents’ point of view. It was a great set-up for the story: While Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard may look to the rest of the world like similar places, to the natives they are worlds apart, even though that distance is a scant 11 miles. Similarly, while twins Tabitha and Harper are identical enough to fool others even at age 39, they are completely different in their life choices and affects.

The story in brief: Twins Tabitha and Harper have been estranged for many years, for various reasons. Harper lives on Nantucket near their father, Billy, while Tabitha assists in their mother’s previously successful but now waning design business/dress shop. Things suddenly get stirred up: Billy dies; Harper’s affair with his doctor becomes a common topic of island gossip; and Eleanor (their mother) falls and breaks her hip. Add to that mix Tabitha’s precocious and trouble-making 16-year-old daughter, Ainsley. Harper needs to cultivate a low profile, Tabitha needs to care for their mother in her recuperation but is at her wits’ end with both her teenager and her dress shop, and something needs to be done about Billy’s ramshackle house on Nantucket. All these circumstances combine to make the twins grudgingly reach out to one another for assistance (facilitated by Ainsley, who is dying of curiosity about their lack of relationship) for the first time in decades.

Part of the reason why this plot line works is that the author herself (in the guise of her various narrators) initially sets it up for derision by comparing the separation of the twins at age 17—one going with “Mommy” and one with “Billy” when their parents divorced—to the Hayley Mills/Lindsay Lohan Parent Trap plot. She then uses their wholly different upbringings—Harper’s on Nantucket as a laid-back, casual evolution into an underachieving adulthood, and Tabitha’s on Martha’s Vineyard (and in Boston) as an uptight, socially restrictive one with high expectations of her performance—as a parallel for the respective towns. It was cunningly written.

I also liked that although there were important elements of mistaken identity “hijinks” and romance in the book, the story was by no means restricted to those plot lines and in fact was much more about the obstacles to familial love and how to overcome them. The back stories were also credible, and gave the story depth. Based on this book, I would read another by Hilderbrand.

As far as the influence of setting, in addition to paralleling elements of the story it also made me wish for sea wind in my hair and a big bowl of clam chowder in front of me on the table. The atmosphere definitely both contributed to and influenced the plot.

For my third book, I chose Sunset Beach, by Mary Kay Andrews, an author appearing on the Facebook page and also mentioned to me as one fitting into the category by my friend Patrice.

The story in brief: Drue Campbell has just gone through her mother’s protracted illness and death when her estranged father, who left them 20 years ago, turns up with a proposition: Drue has inherited her grandparents’ ocean-front cottage in the same town where Brice Campbell has his lucrative personal injury law practice, and Brice thinks she should move into the cottage and take a job at his firm. Complicating the issue is his new wife and office manager, Wendy, who also happens to be Drue’s 8th-grade frenemy. Drue is down on her luck and can’t afford to say no, but she agrees with an ill grace and initially resents both the job and her father and “stepmother.” Then, she is arrested by the plight of one of Brice’s former clients, whose lawsuit over a suspicious death didn’t receive the attention it deserved, and decides to investigate.

sunsetbeachIn this book, Drue’s former hobby (kite-boarding) and her nightly walks on the beach and swims in the ocean from the venue of her derelict cottage do give a beachy atmosphere to the book. But I would definitely not call this one “just” a beach read. Although the opening scenes paint this as “relationship fiction” with the reuniting of Drue with her absentee father, the scenes between them are sometimes shallow, with Drue coming across like a snarky teenager. Brice himself is a bit of a cardboard cutout—bland and not particularly compelling—while Wendy (the new wife) is a cliché of a shrew. But the rest of the book—in which Drue starts out working as an information-taker over the phone for her father’s legal practice and ends up (after taking an interest in an old case with an unsatisfactory resolution) as a bull-headed private investigator—is much more compelling. While there are bits of romance and reconciliation here, the main story is the mystery and this is how I would recommend the book if I were to suggest it to someone. Based on this book, I would read another of Andrews’s, although it could have done with a little more depth in the relationships before switching to the mystery.

Of the three books, I would say that only Hilderbrand’s reinforced the theory that setting can be powerful enough to carry a story. Although the beach hotel culture does become fairly important in Andrews’s tale of betrayal and murder, both the other books could probably have been set anywhere without it feeling like something essential was removed from the plot. In Hilderbrand’s, plot and setting were intertwined, which is the ideal when setting is an issue.

As for my other premise, that people who like a “slow build” in pacing in one genre will enjoy the same in others, that will have to wait for another day and some reporting back from other readers!

 

Disappointed in love

I rarely publish negative reviews of books. I have mostly embraced the viewpoint of the reviewing journals, which simply don’t recognize anything they didn’t like. But occasionally I get so outraged by the level of my disappointment that I need to vent. I should probably restrict that impulse to private conversations instead of featuring it on-line in writing, but…I don’t want anyone else to feel the resentment I do at the time wasted reading this in a world full of better books.

5daysI picked this up as a daily featured discount e-book, which I guess should in and of itself be a warning, but I have found other books among the discounts that I enjoyed. I liked the cover, and I was attracted to it because of the last name of the author, which he shares with one of my favorite Irish writers, Maeve Binchy. It turns out that she’s his aunt. Let me clarify, however, that I wasn’t upset because he didn’t write like her or step up to carry on her legacy. I simply made a space for him on my shelf based on his connection.

Chris Binchy is billed in the book’s description as “bestselling” and with a “formidable talent” and all I can say to that is…Really?! If so, maybe this was an unfortunate choice from among his titles.

The description of the book claims that two men who are lifelong friends both fall in love with an “unforgettable” woman. Already we are straying into the realm of untruth. Apart from one passage where it talks about how she is direct and friendly and draws people in, and another where the eyes of every man in a bar follow her across the room (which could happen with the least charismatic woman if she’s the only female in the bar!), there is no evidence to suggest this woman rises above the mundane. Although the protagonist is obsessed with her, from everyone else’s point of view (including the reader’s, who has little information to go on) she seems like just a regular gal.

The style of writing is odd. The entire book is told by one of the two friends, and his narration is as stilted as he is, which did initially intrigue me. The protagonist, David, seems like a non-comical version of Graeme Simsion’s Don Tillman in The Rosie Project—a socially awkward computer geek who is probably somewhere on the autism spectrum, given his inability to understand or interact with virtually anyone without a great amount of thought, reasoning, and preparation. Also reminiscent of Simsion’s book, David’s best friend, Alex, is a hail-fellow-well-met kind of a guy, with friends in every bar and a way with the ladies. It is inevitable that when David draws Alex’s attention to a woman with whom he is taken, Alex will ultimately take her. Although David asks Alex for help to make a connection with her, Alex misperceives the extent of David’s interest and does his usual thing to make his own impression, and before you know it, Camille and Alex are an item and David is the bitterly unhappy third wheel.

At this point in the book, based on a cryptic remark of David’s that seemed like a veiled threat, I thought the way we were going to go with this story was for David to somehow take Alex out of the picture so he could win Camille for himself. I actually thought, based on his flat affect combined with his extreme self-absorption, that this guy was going to turn out to be a sociopath along the lines of the protagonist in the book You, by Caroline Kepnes! No such luck. Instead, we get another 200-odd pages of David living his life and detailing his dull job opportunities, his dismal solo vacation in Brazil, and his various unproductive encounters with Alex, Camille, and Alex-and-Camille.

Finally, once Alex does his usual thing of alienating himself from whoever he is dating by creating obstacles to the relationship, David has his shot, and…that would be spoiling the rest. But it’s not much of a spoiler, because this book has the flattest, most unsatisfying conclusion in the history of “Lad Lit.”

Seriously, don’t bother.

Light fare, redux

MMThe Mistletoe Matchmaker, by Felicity Hayes-McCoy, popped up on my e-book shelf from Los Angeles Public Library this week, and since I had already read the first two in her trilogy about the Finfarran, Ireland peninsula, I slotted it in between my book club read of Searching for Sylvie Lee, by Jean Kwok (which I finished some time ago but can’t report on until after the book club discusses it on June 2), and my next planned read of Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo.

I read it to round out the trilogy, but honestly, I needn’t have bothered. The main character, who is the granddaughter of the best friend of Hanna’s mother, Mary, from book #1, and is visiting from Canada, was introduced but not particularly well developed. The relationships in the book were awkward and in many cases the author failed to follow through, giving the story an uneven quality and leaving the reader wondering who was important and who was not. There were several “red herring” set-ups that were complete let-downs when you found out the real stories.

It almost felt like Hayes-McCoy had the seed of an idea and then, instead of really developing it, she took all the leftover, left-out scenes from the previous two books and strung them together to make a third. (In fact, there was one scene that was repeated almost verbatim, like she forgot she had already used it in book #2! Bad writing, and BAD editing.) The cumulative result was the discovery of some additional fun facts about certain favorite characters (Fury and the Divil), but no real continuity or resolution. Yawn.

Also, authors be advised: The word “matchmaker,” when it appears in the title of your book, sets up certain expectations that were NOT fulfilled here.

My conclusion: There is a difference between writing light fare and leaning too hard on a location and some nostalgia to carry a book. My suggestion: Enjoy the first two books of this trilogy and stop there.

 

Expansive Paris

I am an unabashed Francophile. I have been to Paris twice, and to the French countryside once for a painting vacation, and aspire to return there at any opportunity. I have mentioned here before that I am attracted to any book with France (particularly Paris) as its setting, and have reviewed a few worth reading. I was therefore excited to discover The Paris Key, by Juliet Blackwell, and to realize that it combines multiple elements that appeal to me in a story.

pariskeyI ended up liking it a lot, but for complicated reasons. Although I expected to like it for the same reason that I have enjoyed, for instance, the books of Jenny Colgan—because the main character realized something about herself that made her elect to drastically change her lifestyle—that aspect of it wasn’t nearly as powerful as it could have been.

What I loved is the gradual exploration throughout the text not just of Paris as a city, but also of the French as a culture, a people, and a lifestyle. The author really got it that the daily priorities in France are completely different from those in America, that it’s a slower, more reflective, less frenetic, more contemplative lifestyle, valuing family, friends, and physical, visceral experiences such as cooking, eating, walking, sleeping, over the career, business, and industriousness focused on by Americans, the infernal “what you do for a living” that seems to take precedence over everything.

There is a moment when the protagonist, Genevieve, gets it too,
when the attractive Irishman Killian invites her to continue on to another destination after they have been out and about together for a while. Her first impulse is to say “I should get back,” and then she realizes: For what reason am I rushing back? I have no deadline, the work will still be there, I can be solitary later, this is an experience that I should embrace, and she does. It was in these moments that the book had weight.

The other thing that I enjoyed was learning more about the unusual vocation of locksmith, especially as expressed in a city as old as Paris, where the locks can vary from ancient to modern, and the duties of the locksmith include repairing and refreshing the old locks as well as installing new ones. It gave a glimpse into buildings with architectural details beautifully described by the author, and that loving attention to detail was a big feature for me.

Additionally, the temptation of the locksmith, to go anywhere simply because she is able, was tantalizing. The main character shared an addiction with me, which is to get to know people by observing the surroundings they choose to create for themselves—perusing their bookshelves, noting their choices of furniture, fixtures, and accessories, and rounding out what you perceive of them by seeing their “native habitat.” In other words, indulging a penchant
for nosiness!

The story itself was eclipsed for me by these other elements. Genevieve is a fairly typical heroine whose emotions have been locked up (yes, there is a lot of symbolism of this kind, some of it overwhelmingly obvious or even trite) by various childhood and adult events or traumas, who needs to work them out and open herself up to life (wince with the lock-and-key metaphors again!). Likewise, there is a mystery she desires to solve about her mother’s past that no one will openly reveal to her, so she must go digging through the possessions left by her Uncle Dave (the deceased locksmith from whom she is taking over the business) and also try to access memories from her Aunt Pasquale (who suffers from Alzheimer’s and is therefore an unreliable witness). The “mystery” becomes all too clear to the reader long before Genevieve herself suspects, which I found a bit unbelievable. And finally, as I have objected to in other reviews, this author had a bit of that compulsion to wrap things up too tidily at the end that I sometimes find grating. This wasn’t as bad as some, but there were issues and encounters that could have been let lie while closure was still provided.

I did appreciate the colorful characters Blackwell created to populate the quaint and insular Paris neighborhood, although a few were a bit stereotypically French—that is, overly vivacious, grumpy, and so on. But over all, this book and its slice of Paris life amply satisfied my fixation, and was a pleasant enough story along with it that it proved to be an enjoyable read.

keysIt brought a favorite book to mind because of the locksmith theme, although the story, characters, setting, and the very locks themselves couldn’t be more different. That book is The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton. The similarity is in the feature of the seasoned locksman who takes a novice under his wing and teaches him or her a rare and intricate trade. If you’re in the mood for a thriller with some truly unusual elements to it, including some psychological content, a lot of law-breaking, and some romance, pick up Hamilton’s book. As I summarized it on Goodreads, “Lock-picking, low-lifes, and love!”

Light fare

In these very serious times, I’ve been doing some reading of not-so-serious books. I like to think of them as junk food, although I don’t want to seem like I am denigrating these books or the reading of them by me or anyone else. I’m just saying that, like the difference between eating a gourmet four-course dinner or grabbing some cookies to satisfy your sweet tooth, there is a difference, both in the writer’s skill and in the reader’s level of engagement. Even if you are eating cookies, you are getting some nutrition along with your treat,
whether it’s from oatmeal or nuts or dark chocolate. You just aren’t participating at the level of a good salade niçoise or some mushroom bourgignon! (In these self-isolating times, many of us are also participating to a greater degree in cooking and baking—
can you tell?)

Finfarran1Anyway, my latest foray into relationship fiction is a duo by Irish writer Felicity Hayes-McCoy that, predictably for me, have to do with books and librarianship. The Library at the Edge of the World (Finfarran Peninsula #1) is described by its publisher as “a warm, feel-good novel about the importance of finding a place where you belong, perfect for fans of Maeve Binchy.” I think that stretches its importance a bit; I would be inclined to call these “Binchy lite.” But it is a lovely look at a few key people and a bunch more peripheral ones in an interesting locale teetering between community and estrangement. It reminded me a bit more of Jenny Colgan’s books.

Hanna Casey works as the librarian in Lissbeg, one of the small towns along the Finfarran peninsula. Her family goes way back on Finfarran but, until a few years ago, Hanna had embraced a much more active, well-to-do, and interesting life in London with her lawyer husband, Malcolm, and her daughter, Jasmine. Then she was devastated to discover that her husband had been having a long-term relationship with a colleague at work, a woman who purported to be her good friend, and in her anger and hurt she decamped with Jazz back to Ireland, telling her husband she wanted nothing from him. A few years later she is beginning to regret that hasty decision, as living with her outspoken and idiosyncratic mother in a small cottage is definitely beginning to pall, particularly since their buffer, Jasmine, has finished school and is pursuing a career elsewhere.

This is not the typical librarian pictured in this kind of feel-good fiction: Hanna wanted to be an archivist, dealing with great works of art in the rarefied atmosphere of a city museum or gallery, and somewhat resents the “depths” to which she has fallen as a small-town public librarian. She is in her early 50s, yet acts like some of the crotchety old-school librarians we all dreaded in our youth, who shushed us or kicked us out of the library for every tiny noise infraction and weren’t interested in providing such heretical innovations as computer classes or toddler story times.

Hanna’s saving grace is that she has come, gradually over the years, to believe in the power of reading, and spends two days a week driving a bookmobile to the far-flung tiny farming communities that populate most of the peninsula, developing a feel for what books to bring the many characters she encounters.

She has recently rediscovered a legacy left to her by her aunt, a piece of property that she couldn’t imagine being of any use to her while she was raising her daughter and decorating her beautiful home in London; but it has suddenly occurred to her that it might be an “out” to her nigh-intolerable living situation, and she thinks if she is careful with her money and can also get a loan, she can renovate Maggie’s old cottage and live in splendid isolation on the bluffs above the sea.

Then, plans by the bureaucrats of Finfarran come to light, which will polarize the peninsula by centralizing services in a grand new center located in the most populous town, thus cutting off all the small businesses and tourist attractions everywhere else, and also closing Hanna’s library. Hanna wakes up from her dazed existence and suddenly discovers within herself the will to fight for what she wants, and seeks allies to preserve a lifestyle she didn’t realize she had come to love.

I enjoyed this story quite a bit. I liked getting a look at rural life in the Irish countryside; the quirky characters were well developed and fun; and the story line was a good message about inclusiveness and community being more important than short-sighted financial success. The ending was a little pat, but played nicely off of Hanna’s former aspirations as an archivist.

The sequel, Summer at the Garden Café, was good, but not quite up to the first one. It furthered some of the relationships established in that book, it gave some interesting insight into the relative who left Hanna her house, and it moved some pieces around on the chessboard between London and Ireland. Basically, it was pleasant and innocuous, connecting here and there with real emotions when it details the situation of Hanna’s daughter, Jasmine.

There is a third book, The Mistletoe Matchmaker, which pulls in a different family mentioned peripherally in the first books, and sets up a romance for the Canadian granddaughter visiting her Irish family. I placed a hold on the e-book at the library, and will eventually report on the last of the trilogy. (If it is the last…)

 

Little Fire

I just finished reading Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. I have had the e-book on reserve at the library for two months, because I saw that there was going to be a television show based on it on Hulu, and I always like to read the book first. But there were so many people trying to do likewise that although I reserved it in March, I didn’t get the book until May 1st, and in the meantime I couldn’t resist watching the show.

I’m going to say something that I’m not sure I have ever said in my history of reading: I liked the show better. Much better. I expected to enjoy it, given that it stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, both of whom I admire and respect as actors and also as producers. But the changes they made to the script that differed from the book made the story come alive in a way that it just didn’t on the page.

LittleFiresmatches

Elena Richardson is a “legacy” citizen of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Her ancestors were among the people who dictated the layout, rules, and boundaries of what kind of town it would be, and despite an initial passion in her teens to make a name for herself as a journalist, Elena settled instead into the comfortable and expected lifestyle of an upper-class wife and mother by marrying a lawyer, having four children in five years, and working part-time as a reporter for the small daily newspaper.

Mia Warren is an itinerant artist, a single mother with a teenage daughter, who has spent the past 15 years moving from town to town as whim, art, or necessity bade her. She has come to Shaker Heights partly for the sake of her daughter, who yearns for a more settled lifestyle; Mia has heard good things about the educational system and thinks that perhaps they could stay for a while, maybe until Pearl graduates from high school. Mia and Pearl rent a duplex from Elena Richardson, and from this point the lives of the members of the two families become increasingly tangled, first by the children and later by the adults.

A story within the story, a custody battle over an abandoned Chinese baby, becomes at least partially the issue that tears the families (and to a certain extent the community) apart, but it’s only a catalyst for what’s really happening, which is all focused on the issue of motherhood: what it is and isn’t, what it should be, the despair in the face of the lack of it, and the kinds of love that exist between mothers and children.

The thing is, it’s a good book. The characterizations are interesting and thorough, the issues are targeted, there is a lot of nuance, and Ng has a beautiful command of language that ups this into literary territory. It is not a fast-paced, easy-to-read thriller with a suburban setting—it’s a deliberate piece of fiction focused on middle-class ethics that requires the reader’s attention to detail. But I titled this review “Little Fire” on purpose, because in comparison to the TV show, the passion is lacking.

Some might say that I’m showing my preference for soap opera over real content, but I don’t believe that is the case. The TV show, by specifying that Mia and Pearl are black, opens up a whole different atmosphere and theme not present in the extremely low-key and nonspecific text, and makes racism a huge topic of the story. When questioned about this change, Celeste Ng said that when she was writing she didn’t feel capable of adequately portraying black experience, since it wasn’t hers; but the effect of what she did instead, which was to leave you constantly wondering exactly what the differences were that came between these families, watered things down for me.

The relationships themselves are much more intense, because more personal, in the show than in the book, particularly that of Mia with her photographer mentor, of Elena and Pearl, of Mia and Izzy, and in the subplot involving Bebe, the natural mother of the abandoned infant, May Ling / Mirabelle. The argument could be made that the characters of Elena and Mia are more polarized and therefore more stereotypical in the show; but this decision also allows for three or four of the best moments on TV, as white privilege is skewered in a way I have seldom seen, and a few sharp lines decimate attitudes that have taken centuries to build. There is a lot of “calling out” in the show, but in the context of the story it doesn’t feel like a history lesson, it feels like some sharp, intelligent people seeing through some lazy, careless, unaware ones. And no, it’s not all about race by a long shot—there are so many other forms of privilege that are exposed here.

Celeste Ng is a producer on the series, but she is one of many, and the show is obviously the child of Witherspoon and Washington. I wonder, given that she has no writing credit on any of the episodes, whether she went along with the changes reluctantly or was enthusiastic about the expansion of her work into some new realms. The book is thoughtful, well written, descriptive, expressive, and worthy of your attention; but the show is something more.
Whoever’s vision held sway, the Hulu production is a masterful accomplishment as the melding of written and visual arts by some talented, insightful women.

 

More Kemmerer!

After completing and thoroughly enjoying Brigid Kemmerer’s Call It What You Want earlier this week, I was positively compelled to read two of her other contemporary realistic teen fiction novels: Letters to the Lost, and More Than We Can Tell. Previous to 2015, Kemmerer was apparently known for her “Elementals” series about four brothers with paranormal powers, but when I read the descriptions, I wasn’t enticed to read one. I can’t say the same for her contemporary realistic novels, which I have practically inhaled one after another without stopping, becoming incensed when my Kindle ran out of juice at 2:30 in the morning about 40 pages from the end of the last one!

These books remind me of a few other authors—Dessen, Caletti, Rowell—because their books also contain that ideal combination of relationship and life events that propels the story. Even though there are elements of romance to each book, the primary motivation is understanding, empathy, and relationship. Although I have seen some young reviewers on Goodreads remark on the swoon-worthiness of various protagonists (as do some of the other characters!), most recognize that they are not reading these books for the romance but for the real-life transformations that occur as a result of the connections made by the people in Kemmerer’s books.

letterslostLetters to the Lost is, as one might assume from its title, an epistolary tale. While working his community service gig at the local cemetery by clearing up the debris left by its visitors and then mowing the plots, Declan Murphy finds a letter left by one of the headstones. When he picks it up and reads it, he feels a surprising affinity with the feelings expressed by its author and, in an impulsive moment, he pulls a pencil out of his pocket, appends the words “Me, too” to the end of it, and lays it back on the grave, never dreaming that the original writer would come back to find his alteration of her letter.

Juliet Young, who has been heartbroken for four months since the death of her photojournalist mother in a hit-and-run, is outraged when she sees that someone has dared to appropriate her grief, and writes another, indignant letter addressing not her mom but the encroaching P.S. person. This is the beginning of both a correspondence and a friendship that grows faster than either could have dreamed, as they each feel free in their anonymity to express some of their deepest feelings and fears.

The truth is, Declan and Juliet are not complete strangers to one another; but the public personnas they wear at school have blinded each other and almost everyone else to who they are or have the potential to be. It takes some extraordinary events to bring them out of hiding, for one another and with all the other people in their lives with whom they need to clear the air.

moretellIn More Than We Can Tell, one of the significant sidekicks from Letters to the Lost gets his own tale, which is a more than satisfying happenstance for those who loved the first book. He was an intriguing and important character in the first story, but although we gleaned bits and pieces of his history, there was so much more to tell. As in Letters, and also in the book I read earlier, Rev Fletcher gets a counterpart, Emma Blue, to help him reveal his story while dealing with the fallout from her own, and together the two are able to transition some difficult events with all the ambivalent feelings they stir up.

Rev has loving adoptive parents who took him in 10 years ago at age seven, and adopted him a few years later. He has for the most part put the effects of his troubled early childhood aside, but when he turns 18 and receives a letter from the father who abused him both mentally and physically, it sends him into a tailspin from which he is having a hard time recovering.

Emma has parents who love her, but her mother is hypercritical of Emma’s choice to follow in her father’s footsteps as a creator of video games. To escape the bickering between them, Emma focuses all her time and attention on the perfecting of a computer game she has created from scratch. But when an intrusive and insistent “troll” begins harassing her online, she is reluctant to reveal this problem to a mother who will order her to stop or a father who will be disappointed in her less-than-perfect design security.

Rev and Emma meet, and each serves as an outlet for the other’s private fears. But then issues arise that cause a lack of trust, and it’s not clear whether the budding relationship will survive them.

These books, while sounding formulaic (the alternating points of view, the pairing of two protagonists, the problems they must overcome) are in all honesty totally immersive, nuanced, and redemptive in tone. I can’t imagine a teenager who couldn’t relate to at least one, if not all, of these characters, and the “lessons” that are being taught are not heavy-handed. Some of the messages—that you can ask for what you want instead of passively waiting to be given it; that unkindness should always be resisted on your own behalf and that of others; that talking to people will mostly relieve all kinds of unfortunate misunderstandings; and that a moment is just a moment and a day is just a day, always making room for a different choice or change—are beautifully illustrated by these stories.

I do plan to read the sequel to the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale retelling Kemmerer has written, and I still maintain hers is one of the better and more original one of these out there, but I think her true strength lies in writing about real teenagers in the throes of their confusing, sometimes difficult lives.

I also have great admiration for her, in that she has written at least a dozen books between the years of 2012 and 2020, while simultaneously being married and having four sons!

 

Contemporary YA

While scrolling through books on bookoutlet.com in the search of a few more to round out my $35 minimum, I came across Call It What You Want, by Brigid Kemmerer. The name sounded familiar to me, so I looked her up on Goodreads and realized that she was the one who wrote the fairy tale retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I liked so much, so although it didn’t appear to be fantasy, I decided to try this one, which seems to have been written (or at least published) between that book and its sequel, A Heart So Fierce and Broken, which I also own but have not yet read.

whatuwantHaving read both books, I can see that Kemmerer has created for herself something of a formula, although in this case that’s a good thing. One of the ways that her fairy tale book worked was to tell it from two perspectives—those of the enchanted prince and the commoner girl—and this book echoes that by also giving us two protagonists with story lines that intersect.

The male protagonist, Rob, is a victim of circumstance, although many of his peers think he is more than that. Rob’s father, Rob Sr., a financial advisor, was a mini Bernie Madoff who ran a Ponzi scheme on his clients that lost them all their money. To add insult to injury, when he was turned in Rob’s father tried and failed to commit suicide, and survived in a vegetative state, needing constant care from his now destitute wife and son. Rob had been working as an intern in his father’s company when all this transpired, and despite his protestations of ignorance, his classmates and their parents who were injured by his father’s actions refuse to believe that he wasn’t “in the know,” causing him to become a pariah at his high school. He’s basically putting his head down and trying to survive for the rest of his senior year until he can get out of town.

The female protagonist, Maegan, has her own issues: Despite being an honors student with high grades, Maegan questions her abilities and makes an impulsive decision to cheat during her SAT test. She is caught, resulting in 100 other kids’ tests being invalidated and discarded. So Maegan has her share of abuse to survive, and is likewise walking around school in a solitary bubble. Fun fact: Maegan’s dad is the cop who arrested Rob’s dad.

The two share a calculus class, and when their teacher pairs everyone up for a class project, Rob and Maegan are the two conspicuously left standing, ending up together. Neither of them is happy about this and both consider asking the teacher to change the assignments, but with the prospect of having to be third wheels on teams who don’t want them, they resign themselves and tentatively try for a way to work together.

Kemmerer does a brilliant job of first investing you in their situations and then illustrating how these two closed-off teens are gradually able to open up to one another and seek sustenance in an unlikely friendship. Prior to Rob’s family’s “fall,” he was one of the privileged, über-popular lacrosse stars, while Maegan’s family is from much humbler blue-collar origins, although Rob and Maegan’s sister, Samantha, share a love of lacrosse that bridges an initial gap. The sub-plots in the book, involving Rob’s former best friend, Connor, who is determined to constantly remind everyone of Rob’s supposed culpability, Rob’s new and unexpected friend, Owen, with whom Rob conceives of a “Robin Hood” plan to assist the have-nots, and Maegan’s sister Samantha’s secret pregnancy, further enliven the story.

The book explores such themes as right and wrong (doing right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right ones), trust, responsibility, mistakes, and transparency, but does so in such a way that the reader never feels imposed upon by those themes. Kemmerer presents black and white and every shade of gray as they appear to all participants and makes the reader as eager as the characters to resolve the issues, find justice, and give the misunderstood some relief. There is romance, but it’s far from the dreaded insta-love; this is realistic young adult fiction at its best. If you are a teen who enjoys contemporary fiction, this is a writer who will give you what you want.

I have already lined up Kemmerer’s other two contemporary novels on my Kindle.

 

 

2nd chance romance

I have to admit that I don’t know how I ended up with this book. I ordered a bunch from bookoutlet.com (you have to spend $35 to get free shipping, and since the books are mostly between $3.50 and $6 apiece, that’s quite a few books), and this was in the box. I’m sure something about the description appealed to me (probably the “second chance” aspect of the love story), or I liked the beautifully painted gouache cover, or maybe I was subconsciously influenced by the fact that the word “girl” was in the title? Ha! No. Or maybe I decided I needed to read more romance, since that is a weak spot in my readers’ advisory repertoire.

thegirlheAnyway, I just finished The Girl He Used to Know, by Tracey Garvis Graves. I have never heard of her, but she is apparently a fairly popular romance writer, although her name does not percolate to the top of the heap in the same way as do those of some of the other authors with whom her writing has been compared. This is where labeling gets a little sticky, because I can’t decide whether this belongs properly in the full-on romance category or should be shunted over to what I call “relationship fiction,” which is where the feel-good romances with more substantive stories, such as some of those by JoJo Moyes or Liane Moriarty, end up.

The thing that made this book memorable is that the protagonist, Annika, is not neurotypical. She is on the autism spectrum, although that fact isn’t clearly dealt with until midway through the book. Rather, she is initially represented as “weird”—fragile, difficult, obsessional, a misfit.

Because the book takes place in two time frames, 10 years apart, and begins from the latter time frame, the Annika we meet up front is calm, poised, fairly self-aware, and well established in her life as a librarian in Chicago. We rapidly realize that she has had issues in her past because of her regular consultations with her therapist on how best to handle certain events in her life, but she doesn’t seem so different from a lot of people. My first reaction to her was that perhaps there were incidents of abuse in her past, and this is what has caused her social ineptitude.

Then we meet the Annika of 10 years ago, who panics after a week at college, refuses to leave her room, and calls her parents to come get her. The Annika who looks at people’s noses because she can’t look them in the eye, who wears baggy clothes because they are comfortable and also don’t draw attention, who spends all her time with books and animals and has no friends, and we start to get the idea that there is a real difference between this girl and a simple introvert or someone who has been scarred by just one past incident.

The book is told from two perspectives as well as from two time-frames—it’s co-narrated by Annika and by Jonathan, her first real boyfriend in college and the man whose heart she apparently broke. Near the beginning of the novel, the two run into each other in the grocery store and discover that Jonathan moved back to Chicago after his divorce a couple of years back, and that they don’t live too far apart. Annika makes it obvious that she is interested in rekindling things, but Jonathan is more cautious after how thoroughly she let him down 10 years before. And from this point, the chapters flash back and forth between narrators and between past and present to give us an idea of both the personalities and the relationship, and how they have changed and not changed.

I found that the best bits of the novel were the unintentional faux-pas moments caused by Annika’s skewed socio-emotional IQ. She is literal, she is blunt, she is confused by the necessity to do such things as read faces and moods, adapt to the “games” played by most people, or be social when she is feeling anything but. There were a few exchanges in the book that I loved: At the library she has a co-worker who has been on the job three months longer than she has, and uses that as an opportunity to patronize Annika and question her use of her time. When Jonathan arrives at the library to pick Annika up for a date, the colleague steps up and introduces herself as “Annika’s superior,” and without taking a beat, Annika says to Jonathan, “She is not my superior, I don’t report to her. Where are we going for dinner?”

Sadly, I didn’t feel like Annika’s true plight in life was sufficiently exposed. There were moments that showed what traps a beautiful girl with no social cues is likely to encounter, as when a boy who purported to like her has invited her to his dorm room to make out while three of his friends watch. Her roommate Janice rescues her from this situation (and from others), but it didn’t feel like the incident registered at all with Annika. Likewise, when Annika innocently details for Jonathan her blow-up with another boyfriend, who takes her to her favorite restaurant and ends up publicly berating her because she’s so beautiful but “then you have to open your mouth,” Jonathan immediately grasps the full import of the moment, but Annika is simply happy to be back at a restaurant she always liked. These were telling scenes, but there weren’t enough of them, or of the smaller moments in life when autism comes up against the ignorance and/or bad behavior of so-called “regular” people.

I also found the character and personality of Jonathan rather bland. It was refreshing how he found Annika’s directness and naiveté endearing rather than irritating or off-putting, but Graves perhaps paints him as too much of a saint, without some of the more natural reactions to circumstances that the majority of people would have. I thought back to Graeme Simsion’s book, The Rosie Project, and the much more down-to-earth interaction between the precise, literal Don Tillman and the woman who finds him completely frustrating and yet engaging in his innocence and bewilderment about the social norms that escape him.

Despite some character deficits, however, I was completely into the relationship between these two…until the final events of the story. I’m not going to reveal them here, but my reaction was horrified exasperation with the author for using an outside drama to give her a conclusion instead of finding her own. For about 90 percent of this book, I would have given it at least 3.5 stars, but the ending dropped it down to 2.5! So I don’t know whether to recommend it for its merits as a refreshing look at the differently abled, or pan it for its clichéd ending. You will have to decide for yourself.