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.

 

Book three

I have previously reviewed two books by Abbi Waxman: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, and The Garden of Small Beginnings (click on the titles to see the reviews). This week I picked up the third, which turns out to be the second, its publication date falling in between the two. And the mom and two daughters who star in The Garden of Small Beginnings make a few cameo appearances in Other People’s Houses.

housesWhile I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as either of the other two, Waxman’s strongest talent, which is the creation of truly individual characters, was on point, and that made it worth reading more than did the story, which is somewhat slight. This one had less of a beginning, middle, and end, opting instead to give us vignettes of the lives in one Los Angeles neighborhood, more a series of episodes than a story with purpose until we reach the very end, when an emergency catalyzes some of the relationships and wraps things up nicely for many of the characters.

The main protagonist and voice is Frances, the carpool mom for the block. She points out in the beginning that after trying hard to rotate carpool duty between four families, it became obvious that it was just easier to let Frances do it, the other parents having outside jobs that constantly created chaos in the schedule. And Frances mostly relishes her chosen task of chauffeur to all the kids on her street, until one day when she walks in on one of the other moms participating in activity extracurricular to her marriage. She refrains from comment to anyone but Anne herself, but inevitably the word gets out another way, and causes each family on the block to question its own ties as one family amongst them breaks into pieces.

That description makes this sound like rather a somber book—infidelity, insecurity, the prospect of divorce, the re-examination of relationships—but in fact it’s anything but, because of the wonderful humor and empathy with which Waxman crafts her characters. She gives us all the sly pathos of parents doing rock-paper-scissors with each other as they desperately seek to avoid volunteering at the PTA meeting or attending the Saturday afternoon AYSO game. All the children have fully developed personalities and quirks of their own, and Waxman makes them real by “reporting” the genuine and hilarious things that they say, as children of a certain age. She creates a full spectrum of protagonists: the lesbian couple debating whether career or another baby will win out; the father struggling to care for his son as his wife undergoes chemotherapy in another state; the angry, betrayed husband who doesn’t know what to say to his daughter, who is insisting that he, like she, must accept Mommy’s apology and let her come back home. She rounds these out with delightfully snarky peripherals like Shelly, the hippy mom/gossip monger who “liked to question gender-normative naming conventions because ‘names carry such weight in our society.’ Frances often wondered how much weight being named after a water mammal, a fruit, a clear alcohol, and a farming term carried, but as the kids themselves were nice and easygoing, she’d never posed the question.” (The children are named Otter, Persimmon, Gin, and Arable.)

The initial infidelity becomes the vehicle that allows each person involved to question not only their own interactions with their partners, but how they relate to the world in general. When Shelly tries to “get the goods” on the story of Anne’s misdeed out of Frances, Frances is led to ponder how intimate one has to be with someone to ask about their marriage: friends for a decade? related by blood? thrown together on a sinking cruise liner? and rejects the false, fast intimacy created by proximity with the other parents in her children’s preschool. The book is also a delightful examination of children at different ages and stages, and what parenthood looks like—to the parents, to the children, and to those outside the immediate circle.

All in all, I started out writing this review to say that while I enjoyed the book, it wasn’t up to the standards of Waxman’s other two; but although it was different, I believe I have convinced myself, in the process, that it was!

 

Going too far

I just read two books, both of which I would probably categorize as “relationship” fiction. I enjoyed both, but one receives a higher rating because the author knew when to stop.

gardensmallIt wasn’t a total surprise that I would enjoy The Garden of Small Beginnings, by Abbi Waxman, since I had previously liked The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, her ode to reading and readers.
(I reviewed that book here.) But sometimes an author gets lucky with one book and doesn’t subsequently live up to expectations. I’m happy to say that wasn’t the case here.

Small Beginnings was one unalloyed delight. I might be a little prejudiced, because the protagonist and I are both artists, plus the subject of the book is gardening—a former hobby and a future aspiration—so it is natural I would have an affinity with this story. But subject matter isn’t enough to float an entire book, and this one had other advantages in spades (as in shovels full).

The book is about Lili, widowed in her 30s and left with two young daughters—Annabel, who is now seven, and Claire, now five. It’s been four years since her husband was killed in a car crash, and although she has recovered her equilibrium after a few months of total breakdown and has made a good life for herself and her daughters, she is determined not to yield to her family’s and friends’ pleas that she “get back out there.” Then, the publishing company for which she is an illustrator decides that Lili will be the artist who takes on a new book on vegetable gardening, and her boss asks that she attend a six-week gardening class to familiarize herself with the subject. Lili is happy to comply, and takes along her sister, Rachel, and her two girls to the class. She is surprised to discover a hint of chemistry with the solemn but charismatic Danish instructor, as well as some unexpected but welcome camaraderie with the other students…

The characters in this story were completely engaging, the scene-setting was just right, but the ever-present humor was what took it over the top. So many writers do a poor job with children, in particular, but Lili’s two girls exhibited that perfect mix of literal and precocious that makes girls of five and seven years old both maddening and hilarious, while each embodying a distinct personality. I loved the coming together of the mismatched crew at the garden class, and how everyone’s assumptions about each of them was busted in some way as the story progressed. The romance was in just the right measure. The gardening tips between chapters were bonuses I enjoyed…but to make it truly perfect, the publisher should have engaged an illustrator of Lili’s caliber to add in some drawings! That’s pretty much the only flaw I can find.

30xRadishes

The thing I liked best about this book (especially in retrospect after reading the next one on my list) was that it lived up in every way to its title: Small beginnings were made on some changes for all the characters and Lili in particular, but the author didn’t feel the need to either belabor things or to unnecessarily wrap things up. She trusted the readers’ imaginations enough to give them a small amount of satisfaction and let them extrapolate the rest for themselves.

FireBy contrast, my next choice, Things You Save in a Fire, by Katherine Center, was positively heavy-handed. It didn’t start out that way—in fact, it was an enjoyable read for the majority of the book, although the protagonist did tend to take herself too seriously.

Cassie Hanwell, a female firefighter, is excellent at her job because she allows for no distractions. Her temperament has been shaped by an unfortunate event that scarred her as a teenager, and this single-minded attitude has served her well for 10 years; but in a sudden confrontation with the author of her tragedy, she loses control and changes the trajectory of her career. She is forced to leave her comfortably familiar job in a progressive fire department in Austin, Texas to take on the challenge of being the only “lady” on the crew of an old-school, out-of-date fire house in a small town outside Boston.

Her choice of this particular place is due to a request from her estranged mother, who is having a health emergency and has asked Cassie to move in with her and assist her until she gets back on her feet. Cassie, compelled by her gaffe to make a change, complies by finding an assignment near where her mother lives, and spends the next few months equally uncomfortable in her home and work life as she reunites with the mother who left her and fights for a place among some tough competition.

Then she starts having romantic feelings, for the first time in her life, and even more inconveniently, it’s for the rookie at her fire station…

This book almost got top marks from me, but the author just couldn’t resist an epilogue. The book was finished before the epilogue—everything that needed to happen had happened, and the rest of the stuff could be left up to the reader to decide, just as in Waxman’s novel—but Center just couldn’t let it be. She had to wrap things up with a bunch of ribbon and some great big showy bows, by spelling out every little thing and bringing a conclusion to each and every character, situation, and psychological issue. Included in there were some sappy scenes, some completely ridiculous reformations, and a few comeuppances of bad characters that simply wouldn’t happen outside an author’s fantasy life. I have to say, it kind of ruined the book for me.

The difference between an author who knows when to quit and one who doesn’t can be as slight as 20 extra pages, but what a difference it makes. After all, isn’t imagination a big part of enjoyment when it comes to the peculiar habit of reading?

 

Gardens

The two books I just finished reading—
The Sparrow Sisters and The Forbidden Garden—evoke the same sense of place that I was discussing in my last post. Rather than being specific to a country, however, that place is a
small world created anywhere that it can thrive:
a garden.

Next to reading books about books and books about art, I love books about gardens and gardening. While both reading and painting keep me busy enough not to have time for many other things, I aspire to be a good gardener, a better one than the person who plants a few herbs and a couple of tomato plants every spring and vows to do more next year. The truth is, if I didn’t love reading about gardens quite so much, I might do more actual work in my garden—well, I think at this point you’d have to call it a yard, but oh, I have visions!

GardenGate

My favorite garden-oriented books are inevitably the ones set in England, because where are there better examples of the cottage garden, the kitchen garden, the parterres and the knots, the maze, the giant rhododendrons lining the drive to the estate? From The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, one of my most favorite books as a child, to The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton in fiction, or the factual but bewitching writings of such gardening titans as Vita Sackville-West, Rosemary Verey, and Gertrude Jekyll, the wonderful natural world comes alive in tales of lush plantings of azaleas, of bright poppies and peony buds weighing down their stems, of orderly beds of herbs surrounded by low box hedges, of espaliered pear and apple trees and wildernesses of blackberries. When my cousin and I took a long-awaited trip to Cornwall in 2003, although we had gone because our favorite writers set their books there, we ended up spending four of our eight days tramping around the gardens of Trebah, Glendurgan, Trelissick, and the National Gardening Museum at Trevarno, as well as a visit to the garden on St. Michael’s Mount, and counted it all as time well spent.

With a preference for this kind of reading, picking The Forbidden Garden, by Ellen Herrick, off the shelf was a natural for me. The cover blurb described a Shakespearean garden on an English estate that had gone to ruin, and the hiring of a woman with almost magical gardening powers to bring it back to life. The cover itself was beautifully ornamented with a botanical painting of peachy-pink peonies, and the quote from the New York Times called it a “rich tapestry of family lore, dark secrets, and love.” Who could resist?

Upon beginning to read, however, I discovered that although it said so nowhere on the book, this was a sequel to Herrick’s previous work, The Sparrow Sisters, to which it referred back on almost every page in the first few chapters. So I put it down, picked up my Kindle, and ordered up the first book from the library.

SparrowI’m not sorry for having read either book…but I couldn’t rate them as highly as I would have liked, given that all my likes come together in their pages. The Sparrow Sisters is about three young women (20s and 30s) in a small town in New England. They have suffered tragedy in their lives—the loss of mother, then father, then their fourth sister, Marigold. The way they eventually pull through the tragedy is to band together and rediscover the legacies of their mother and grandmother, who were gifted master gardeners, by opening a vast and bountiful garden center and selling their various wares. Sorrel, the eldest, is the grower of flowers, while Nettie (short for Nettle) specializes in fruits and vegetables (and is the family chef) and Patience (a shortening of Impatiens) found her calling in the growing of a physic garden and the compounding of “remedies” that would do any hedge witch proud.

The sisters have a special gift for raising plants that extends beyond a mere green thumb into the realm of magical realism, and this is where the books fell short for me. I am a big fan of magical realism, but even magic has to correspond somehow to its own rules, and the expression of it in this story was all over the place. The author didn’t seem to be able to decide, at any given moment, just how far outside of reality she wanted to travel with their abilities, and it resulted in uneven and slightly confusing story-telling. I stuck with it because I enjoyed the personalities of the three sisters very much, and the tale itself, of a town that turns against the people it formerly treasured, is a compelling one. But the magical bits were too isolated, too abrupt, and not sufficiently integrated to work well.

forbiddenI liked The Forbidden Garden a little better, once I got to it, but with much the same reservations. The story of the blasted and desolate (possibly cursed) Shakespeare garden at Kirkwood Hall is the backdrop for a scene of inclusive family life amongst the Kirkwoods. Graham Kirkwood decides to solicit the help of Sorrel Sparrow, asking her to bring her extraordinary talents to England to resurrect his garden from its barren state. He and his family welcome her into their home and treat her like one of their own…except that the truth is, Graham has brought her in because he is afraid for his wife or his daughter to take on the garden project, the presumption being that the curse will affect only Kirkwoods. But when his wife’s brother, Andrew, recovering from a broken heart, strikes up a relationship with Sorrel, she essentially becomes one of the family…so what now?

The best parts of the book are the vivid descriptions of the work Sorrel does to restore the garden, intricately detailing the overall design, the plants, and the process. The love story is also gratifying. But the twists and turns as Graham reluctantly reveals the background details of what his family (generations back) did to kill the garden are overwrought and somewhat confusing, and both the consequences and the ultimate discoveries take too long to resolve themselves, occurring in the last 30 pages of the book! And again, the author can’t make up her mind whether there is true magic or whether it’s all coincidence based on a talented gardener, and keeps turning tail on choosing either option. So while I enjoyed pieces of the books—the characters, the settings, the gardening bits—quite a lot, the magical realism, of which I am usually such a big fan, worked against the writing to fragment the stories and ultimately render them confusing.

If you, like me, are a gardening book fan, here are some recommendations of other titles you might enjoy, both fiction and nonfiction:

An Island Garden, by Celia Laighton Thaxter
The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, by Edith Holden
In and Out of the Garden, by Sara Midda
Second Nature, by Michael Pollan
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, by Linda Lear
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton
The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman
Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen
Thornyhold, by Mary Stewart

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