Upbeat fiction

I have been enjoying an interlude of positive stories this week while I work hard on some paintings. It seems like I can’t read anything too taxing while I’m focused on making art, so I put aside the dystopian sequel, the historical fiction about a difficult period, and the literary masterpiece waiting my attention and instead checked out two Jenny Colgan books from the library. One (yay) was the third in her series about the village of Kirrinfeif, on the banks of Loch Ness in Scotland, and the other is (as far as I know) a stand-alone.

500 Miles From You takes us back to the site made famous by Nina, the former librarian from Birmingham who lost her job, impulsively bought a van from a couple of old codgers, and turned it into a traveling bookshop with a base in the Scottish countryside. The second book brought Londoner Zoe and her son, Hari, in answer to an advertisement for a nanny, to a grand baronial house on the lake, with a family of unruly children needing to be tamed.

Both Zoe and Nina make cameo appearances in this one, which is about Lissa, a nurse for the NHS in London who is suffering painfully from PTSD after witnessing a shocking crime. She is determined to keep on with her job, but her supervisor realizes she needs a complete break with everything familiar while she heals, and arranges for a swap. Cormac, a nurse practitioner in Kirrinfeif, is restless and up for a change, so he moves into Lissa’s nurse’s housing in London for a three-month upgrade on his skills, while Lissa retreats to the eerily quiet town on the loch and tries to get her feet back under her. As they trade files, write emails, and text one another for updates on the patients they have inherited, they develop an unexpectedly close rapport, each of them wondering if it will become something more, once they finally meet.

This was nicely told, and I enjoyed several aspects of it quite a lot. Although both her other books touched on this aspect, Lissa’s and Cormac’s experiences really point up the difference between living in an anonymous city where you avoid the glances of others, don’t speak on the subway or in the elevator, and bolt your doors at the first sound of trouble on the street, vs. in a small town where everyone knows you (and probably knows too much of your personal business), greets you, sees you, and expects you to run out your front door to help if you know someone is in need.

I also liked the gentle and sympathetic treatment of mental health, and the truths about how thoroughly and even devastatingly we are affected by our experiences, sometimes without even realizing the damage until someone helps us figure it out.

These are definitely “formula” books, but they are intelligent, quirky, and interesting. In Colgan’s case, the formula seems
to be:

  1. Move to Scotland;
  2. Fall in love with somebody there;
  3. Find some kind of work that expresses your best self;
  4. Never go “home” to [fill in the ugly depressing dirty dangerous big city here].

Every time I read one, I think, “I’m down with that!”

The stand-alone is Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend. I worry a little when I read a Colgan “single” that I won’t like it; I read her first-ever novel, Amanda’s Wedding, which made me tell everyone to avoid all books before 2012 and stick to the warm-hearted series of series about finding your place in life and making good. This one violated my rule, having been published in 2009, but it had the recent re-release date on it and I was fooled into believing it was new!

It was better than Amanda’s Wedding, but not nearly as good as her later books. The reason I disliked her first book so much is that the “women” in it were billed as charming wisecrackers but were, in reality, just mean girls. I could find nothing to like about them for a good part of the book, and the fact that they were out to stop someone even meaner than themselves from marrying their friend for his money and title didn’t endear them to me until the absolute end, and not much then.

In Diamonds, the mean girls make a reappearance, and the protagonist, Sophie, starts out as one of them. They are all in a set of shallow, entitled rich people who don’t acknowledge anyone below a certain level of money, status, or fashion sense. Fortunately (for the reader, not for her), Sophie almost immediately loses her protected status and her allowance (via the 2008 crash) and has to fend for herself for the first time in her life. She rents a room in an apartment with four guys and, in lieu of a deposit, she agrees as her contribution to clean their truly disgusting habitat. The mishaps that ensue when this person whose morning latte used to arrive on her nightstand every morning courtesy of a housekeeper has to figure out how to scrub a toilet, clean an oven, and cook something are fairly entertaining, as is her pursuit of a paying job; and the romantic relationships on offer also spice up the narrative. I still didn’t care for the mean-girl setting or her continued interactions with her former so-called friends, but having this be about someone who conquers that, even if it’s not initially by choice, made it way more palatable.

I enjoyed my sojourn with Colgan so much that I have now moved on to another series by Phillipa Ashley, set in Cornwall. Those other books will have to wait yet a while longer.

Don’t ask…

I picked up Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane, because it has been so hyped and apparently so beloved by so many; and it sounded like an interesting story.

I have to say I can’t understand why this book gets almost exclusively four- and five-star ratings and rave reviews from everyone on Goodreads. First of all, it was interminably long relative to the story that emerges, which is to say that it was slow. In fact, I’m looking at my Goodreads timetable in disbelief, because it seemed like my reading experience went on so much longer than two days!

There were certainly tumultuous events included in the story, but in between it was a rather mundane accounting, and several times in various characters’ segments I thought to myself, Do I really need to know that about you? Isn’t there something more important or personal you’d like to share? There is a certain degree of soul-searching amongst the many protagonists, but mostly we get the symptoms without the explanation of the root of the problems (or else we are expected to intuit them for ourselves), and several of the characters dwell so obsessively within the symptoms that it becomes wearing on the reader.

It’s hard to know, from chapter to chapter, what—or whom—the book is about. It begins with two young rookie cops, Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson, on the beat in the Bronx, but it only dwells on their work lives for a minute. Then it focuses on the fact that they both decide to move to a suburb known to be hospitable to those “on the job.” There is a lengthy description of the quiet, rather barren and empty vibe of Gillam by Francis’s wife, Lena, who would have preferred to stay in the lively and friendly heart of the city. Bill and his wife, Anne, then move in next door; but all Lena’s hopes for companionship and the raising of their children together is dashed by the cold aloofness of Anne despite all Lena’s friendly overtures. At this point in the book, I thought the story was going to be about this isolated and specialized town of cops, perhaps exploring the corruption or the bigotry that results from this false association of all one “kind” of people. But after Lena’s narration is done, not another mention is made of that aspect of the town, throughout the rest of the book. It felt to me like a complete false start, and I had to consciously reorient myself from that point in the story to see what the rest of it was about.

Despite Bill’s wife’s coldness and sense of superiority, their only son Peter ends up being best friends with Francis and Lena’s youngest daughter, Kate until, in the year they turn 14, everything goes off the rails in a volatile and ultimately tragic way. Then we get the years of estrangement from several points of view, detailing what happens to each of the characters, although this is quite uneven and gives vastly more attention to some than to others. It seems, despite everything that has happened between their families, that Peter and Kate are both adamant they are a match not to be broken, and they end up together. (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s in the book description.) And then we get the details of their joint life and how everything plays out, influenced by the tragedy and drama of the past.

Again, I felt like I was reading several separate books. There’s the parents’ story, together and separately, there’s Peter’s story and Kate’s, there’s Peter’s and Kate’s together…and at each turn I felt at a loss to say what this book was about. Is the point of the story that true love prevails no matter what? Is the point that a person’s upbringing has lasting effects that reverberate throughout his life, even if he thinks he is fine and the past is the past? Is the point that people can recover from anything, given time and space and an occasional helping hand? Is the point that you’re stuck with your family, no matter what? Is the point that living in the suburbs is the kiss of death to a fulfilling or exciting life?

Many other reviewers noted that the book was a masterful character study, and I guess I could admit to this; but when I think back on what I actually know about some of these characters, it’s hard to say, based on the dearth of personal feelings they reveal. Peter’s character, in particular, has upsetting feelings that he is completely unable either to express or explain. So…what’s the point of an outsider dwelling on them? If I, as the reader, have insight into Peter that he doesn’t share, what does that benefit the story?

There was a comment in the book about things being very different in the 1970s than they were 25 years later in terms of therapy, shame, avoidance, and all the other ways to deal with mental illness or addiction, and that this reticence to talk about or even bring up the subject had a profound effect on people who suffered from or were associated with it, but I didn’t understand this as the point of an entire book. There is a resolution of sorts in the end, but it felt so anticlimactic and like such a platitude that I turned the last page with resentment for having had to go through every step with these characters to get there.

One reviewer compared this book to Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty, a book I read with enthusiasm and reviewed positively, finding it smart, witty, and suspenseful. Perhaps the disconnect with Ask Again, Yes is that I failed to find a home with any of the characters, to identify with one sufficiently that I cared about what happened to them. All I can say is, if you enjoy a character-driven plot (and aren’t put off by a somewhat disjointed story arc), you might love this book.
I did not.

Wings

As with her book The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh has found a nature-based analogy to support the story in We Never Asked for Wings. The theme of birds and their migratory habits is connected to more than just the immigration part of this tale in which people cross over the border between California and Mexico each for his or her own reasons, or in some cases try to avoid re-crossing that border at all costs. There is a fact about migration that sums up the actions of at least one of the protagonists:

“Migrating birds reorient themselves at
sunset. The exact reason is unknown,
but at twilight, just when the sun
drops beyond the horizon line,
birds flying in the wrong direction
correct their paths all at once.”

vanessa diffenbaugh

Although she has born two children—Alex, now 15, and Luna, just six—Letty has in many respects been an absent mother for most of their lives. Only 18 when she became pregnant with Alex, she chose not to tell the father, who had a bright future with which she didn’t want to interfere, instead essentially handing over the baby to her own parents, who raised first Alex and then Luna while Letty worked three jobs to support the family and send money back to relatives in Mexico. She spent the rest of her time partying like a perennial teenager (which is how she ended up with Luna).

Suddenly, everything changes: Letty’s father makes the decision to visit Mexico and, while he initially allows his family to believe he will return, he doesn’t. Once Letty’s mother realizes he’s not coming back—whether by choice or because the “coyote” they paid to bring him was no good—she leaves San Francisco, her grandchildren, and Letty, with a freezer full of pre-made meals, a bunch of notes on how to do all the parenting tasks so foreign to her daughter, and a belief constructed almost entirely from her own wishes that everything will be okay with them.

Everything is emphatically not okay—they get off to a rocky start and, as the story progresses partly through Letty’s eyes and partly narrated by Alex, their existence becomes increasingly complicated and precarious. But all of them are given the opportunity, like the migrating birds, to correct their paths, and it’s the chronicle of these struggles to do right that makes up the rest of this engaging story.

Diffenbaugh deals in this book with a lot of themes—immigration, parenting, bullying, responsibility, and love—seriously, but with a light touch. The book held my attention throughout, and I enjoyed the change of voice between Alex and his mother and their different perceptions of what was going on in their lives. I can’t say I enjoyed it quite as much as I did The Language of Flowers, but it’s definitely a worthy addition to the author’s oeuvre.

Appended note: The cover is sadly inappropriate. The child is too young to be Luna; they never (would never) have a bird in a cage; and I can only conclude that whoever designed it didn’t read the book. The cover on the Italian version, depicting a worried-looking young woman who could be the frantic Letty, is a better fit, but why not do something with the grandfather’s beautiful traditional feather art or include some migratory birds? A big miss.

Mermaids

I decided to read When We Believed in Mermaids, by Barbara O’Neal, because it has been so constantly hyped on the Facebook page “What should I read next?” and with consistently good reviews. The reviews on Goodreads are less conforming and more critical, with people falling into the two categories of love and hate more or less equally.

The plot: Kit, a workaholic Emergency Room doctor in Santa Cruz, California, the product of a tumultuous childhood, is watching the news one night as a club fire is being reported in Auckland, New Zealand. She is shocked when a woman walks out of the clouds of smoke towards the reporter’s camera and she sees the unmistakable face and form of her sister, Josie, who supposedly died on a train in a terrorist bombing in France more than 15 years previous. Kit’s mother also sees the broadcast, and encourages Kit to take some time off work to go to New Zealand and track down her sister. Kit is both baffled and angry at the possibility that her beloved sister has let the family believe she was dead all this time, but decides the best way to put these feelings to rest is to discover the truth, and gets on a plane.

The story is told from two points of view, and in two time periods: The narrative alternates between Kit and her sister, formerly Josie but now Mari, and details the present-day circumstances and the past history of both, nicely weaving them together.

There were things I really loved about this book—O’Neal’s lush language employed in the description of New Zealand (and surfing), which made me want to hop on a plane; the details of the sisters’ past history, told interestingly from the point of view of the elder—damaged, reckless, and doomed by her own addictions—and the younger, who experienced many of the same events but perceived them in a completely different way; and the ambivalence of both at the necessity of tearing down the walls and telling the truth, finally. I also enjoyed Kit’s unexpected and rather steamy connection with Javier, the Spanish musician whom she meets in a restaurant on her first night in New Zealand, and who pursues her despite her best efforts to remain indifferent.

There were also things I didn’t particularly care for, and some that were almost completely extraneous to the story and would have improved it had they been left out. There is a whole subplot about a famous and historically significant house acquired by “Mari” and her husband, Simon, that acted as a distraction: The mysterious unsolved murder of its movie star owner is brought up and dwelt upon at length, and it seems like it will be an integral part of the plot, but then it just fizzles out and is wrapped up in a “by the way” near the end that is infuriating after all the time and attention paid to it. At one point when Mari is exploring the house and making notes about its contents, a stash of books all on the subject of mermaids is discovered, and the reader logically expects that these will play a part later in the narrative, but they never do. There are other references to mermaids that pull together the reason for the book’s title, but this particular one is a baffling throwaway. And there is way too much attention paid to whether Kit’s mother, a former alcoholic, is capable of adequately caring for Kit’s cat, Hobo, while Kit is away.

Beyond these specifics, I feel like the book also took way too long to finally get the sisters together, and then attenuated the time and conversation necessary for a plausible reunion or a resumption of any kind of relationship. I read the book on my Kindle, which obligingly gives a “percent of story read” statistic, and it took until around 85 percent to arrive at the heart of the matter, with 15 percent left to resolve things. The story would have been better had these events taken place at, say, 75 percent, with a little more attention paid to the climax.

I still enjoyed the book, identified with the characters, and was particularly intrigued by their unusual and somewhat horrific upbringing that led to all the subsequent drama, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book to others. But just as on Goodreads, some may thank me for it while others may ask “Why?”

Not thrilled

I have read all of B. A. Paris’s books, most of which would be considered either suspense or thriller. Many writers (and publishers) and many readers’ advisors can’t tell you the difference between a mystery, a suspense novel, and a thriller. After reading exhaustive discussions and dissections, here are the differences at which I have arrived.

First of all, neither a suspense nor a thriller is about solving a crime, they are about stopping a killer or a crime. So they are not necessarily a whodunit as is a mystery; we may know who the villain is from page one.

In a thriller, the protagonist is in danger from the outset, and action is a required element. Pacing is the key ingredient. In suspense, danger is more important than action, and the protagonist becomes aware of danger only gradually. “Suspense is the state of waiting for something to happen,” said Alfred Hitchcock. Setting and mood are key. There must be terror, confusion, upset, and conflict.

A thriller has to start off with a bang, and have a clearly defined hero and villain, because the thriller is all about the push and pull between the two. By contrast, the only real requirement of a suspense story is that it build, and that it keep the reader on edge with a series of reveals or surprises until the final one. Suspense can be present in any genre; a suspense novel is simply one where the reader is uncertain about the outcome. It’s not so much about what is happening as what may happen. It’s about anticipation.

Given those definitions, I would term most of Paris’s books as suspense, although I have seen them referred to (and have done myself) as thrillers. She is great at building her narrative from seemingly innocuous to a crazy amount of tension. Perhaps her best example of this is Behind Closed Doors, in which you know, almost from the first page, that there is something wrong, but have no clue just how much there is to uncover until the story really begins to ramp up.

When I bought my copy of The Dilemma, therefore, it was with a great deal of anticipation that it would give me a likewise breathless interval. Unfortunately, I failed to achieve “that willing suspension of disbelief” (touted by the poet Coleridge) about some of the key facts present in this book upon which the story depends.

The basic premise is that Livia and Adam, married for 22 years, each has a secret he or she wishes to tell the other, but can’t quite bring themselves to do so because of the circumstance in which they find themselves. But it is that circumstance that sets up, for me, the biggest roadblock in this story.

Livia and Adam met when Livia was 17 and Adam was 19; Livia became pregnant, and was summarily rejected by her parents even though she and Adam married promptly, before baby Josh was born. Four years later, they added daughter Marnie to their family. The couple are happy in their marriage, pleased with the way their children have turned out, and possessors of many good friends, the most prevalent of whom are two other married couples about their age, and these people’s children.

Because of the dual facts of Livia’s pregnancy and the rejection of her by her parents, the two had a hurried civil service and were deprived of the big formal wedding about which Livia had always dreamed. This has apparently preyed upon Livia’s mind over the years to the point where she has saved up her money since she was 20 years old in anticipation of a huge and elaborate celebration for her 40th birthday. The story itself takes place during the 18 hours or so surrounding that celebration. And the birthday bash is the vehicle used to delay the confiding of devastating facts between the spouses.

This is the one big place where the story lost me. If you have that much regret about missing out on your wedding, why not stage another wedding? People renew their vows all the time and use that occasion to have things just as they would have wanted them on their big day. At one point Livia even comments that if she had waited an additional couple of years, the party could have been for hers and Adam’s 25th wedding anniversary, but no; she is determined to do it for her 40th birthday. This seemed to me to be so self-regarding as to constitute a problem; but apparently Adam is fine with it.

If a renewal of vows or a big anniversary are off the table and you’re so determined to make it all about yourself, why wait? Why not have the party at age 30? Why be so focused, for literally two decades, on one particular birthday? The story details at length how every time she went shopping and saw a fabulous dress, she mentally tried it on as a possibility for her big day. I just didn’t buy it that a person could be so self-obsessed with celebrating a particular birthday that they planned it over that extended period of life.

So, on to the secrets. Livia’s secret involves her daughter Marnie, 19, who is doing a year abroad through her college, and has been in Hong Kong for most of the past year. It turns out her finals are during the same week as Livia’s party, so she has told her mother she won’t be able to make it. Because of this big secret, which Livia has not discussed with anyone because she first wants to confront Marnie, she is somewhat guiltily relieved that her daughter won’t be coming home yet. She doesn’t want to divide her focus between the party and managing the fallout from the revelation amongst several people in their social circle. But Livia feels guilty for not having shared this information with Adam.

Meanwhile, Adam and Marnie between them have planned a surprise for Livia’s party, but events don’t go as planned and suddenly, Adam is overtaken by news that, if he shares it immediately, will ruin Livia’s big event. He is left to reason that as long as he doesn’t know the facts for sure, no one can fault him for not speaking up; but he knows that if and when Livia discovers how long he held this news back from her, she will be legitimately enraged. So Adam and Livia both spend the hours of the party keeping secrets from one another that they know will inevitably be revealed as soon as the party is over, and this dread (especially for Adam) overshadows what should have been a joyous occasion.

That’s it. That’s the story. That’s the source of suspense. And the machinations to which the author resorts in order to enable Adam and Livia to keep their secrets from one another are just ridiculous. Yes, by the definition I spelled out earlier, this does qualify as suspense for much of the story, although I couldn’t say that I remained uncertain about the outcome. But the vehicle here is a family drama that could have been adequately dealt with in a succinct and much more engaging short story, not dragged out for 342 pages of angst.

I’m not going to say, like some other reviewers on Goodreads, that I’m done with Paris and won’t read any more of her books; but if you liked the others of hers that you have read, my suggestion would be to skip this one and hope that she delivers a real page-turner next time.

Love, or atmosphere?

The events in Washington, D.C. last week made me so beside myself with rage and impotent frustration that I had to seek solace in my reading, and I felt the need to choose something as innocuous as possible as a distraction. I purposely went looking for fiction resembling the books of Jenny Colgan, all of which I have already read, and came across the Penwith trilogy, alias [fill-in-the-blank] at the Cornish Café.

There were actually quite a few serious topics and moments in this trilogy by Phillipa Ashley. One protagonist had left home as a teenager after her mother died and her father turned to drink, and had spent quite a bit of time homeless, sleeping in shop doorways with her dog; the other protagonist had been a charity aid worker in Syria and had a traumatic experience while there that sent him home in a dark mood, suffering from PTSD as well as some lingering physical effects. But these beginnings were countered by several other parts of the story: The aid worker had inherited Kilhallon, a farmhouse attached to a derelict campground property, from his father, and planned to refurbish and revitalize it; he met up by chance with the homeless girl, and his need for cheap labor coincided with her need for a place to stay and meaningful work to do. And all of this angst was set on the sweeping cliffs and moors of Cornwall.

This beginning description makes this trilogy sound somewhat grim, but the two redeeming aspects of it were the atmosphere in which it is set, and the romance that grows between the two main characters, Cal and Demi. They are both able to subsume their troubles in the hard work necessary to restore Cal’s property to its former glory, and in the romance that grows between the two; as they renovate cottages, install yurts, and make ambitious plans to start up a café that sits close enough to the coastal hiking path of Cornwall to benefit from its proximity, they also explore the chemistry that develops into more as a result of prolonged exposure.

The café that appears in the title of all three books is reminiscent of many of the plots of Jenny Colgan; it is almost wholly Demi’s project and serves as a way for her to grow and mature as she takes on its myriad responsibilities. There is a lot of detail, as well, about the foods and drinks that she develops to serve there, with a few recipes included at the back of each book, and a surprise result directly connected to its start-up.

Part of the charm of these books is the way each character works through their individual back stories with help from the other, and also the connections they develop as they work together on their project. The curmudgeonly housekeeper, the power-mad and vengeful real estate developer, Cal’s former love who is now marrying his best friend, the mysterious writer who rents one of the cottages for several months and turns out to be more than he seemed—all of these, along with even more minor players such as the café staff and the various townspeople give the trilogy both depth and color, and serve as both the foils and the witnesses to Cal and Demi’s transformation into a couple.

The most important element of the books in my mind, however, is the setting. I have written here before about how people are drawn to particular places in their reading, and how place or setting can make or break a book for a reader; in these books, Cornwall lives as much as if it were a character, and its cold winds and storms, atmospheric skies and panoramic sunsets, tidal pools and crashing waves give such atmosphere that one can’t imagine the story without that crucial element.

In many ways, these books are pure relationship fiction, including many of the meet-cute elements and romantic clichés with which that “genre” is rife; but they are also satisfying on many levels, both serious and light-hearted. There is a definite arc to the three books and, although I would love to read more about Cal, Demi, and all their friends and foes, the ending to book #3
was satisfying in the extreme.

If you, too, are in need of a distraction from more serious subjects and would like a little romance injected into your escapist fiction, you could do a lot worse than Phillipa Ashley. She has another series set on the Scilly Isles that I plan to check out the next time I find myself in this mood.

Predictable cheer

That was precisely what I was wanting, a few days before Christmas, considering that my “celebration” was going to be an hour on Zoom with my family instead of an in-person exchange of gifts followed by a sumptuous meal prepared by all of us. So I sought out the latest of Jenny Colgan’s books, #4 in her Mure Island series, conveniently just published in October of this year to be served up for holiday consolation.

I did enjoy it quite a lot. It included the regular cast of characters from Mure: Flora, owner of the only bakery/café on this tiny outpost in the middle of the ocean halfway between Scotland and Norway; Fintan, her gay brother, who has recently inherited “the Rock,” now re-christened the Island Hotel, from his recently deceased husband, the millionaire businessman Colton; and my personal favorite, Flora’s small but incredibly vocal niece, Agot, who is about five years old in this one.

The central activity of this book concerns the Christmas opening of the Island Hotel, and involves all the characters in the anxiety-producing activity of finding such essentials as a world-class chef who doesn’t mind living in such a remote corner of the north. Fintan, still grieving from the loss of his first and biggest love, isn’t much use, although he does manage to find and hire a rude and irritating but highly accomplished Frenchman; Flora, supposedly on maternity leave after giving birth to hers and Joel’s son, Douglas, is finding that Joel is better at motherhood and she is better at getting the hotel up and running, so despite massive feelings of guilt, that’s what she does.

But the central actors in this volume of Mure life are a shy employee from Flora’s Seaside Kitchen, the always-blushing and mostly silent Isla; and a new face to the island, Konstantin, a rich Norwegian playboy whose wealthy royal father exiles him to Mure (Joel has a hand in this, doing a favor for a friend of a friend) to work as a “pot boy” (dishwasher) in the kitchen of the new hotel. He’s never had a job, doesn’t know how to do anything, and thinks the world owes him a living, so to be cast ashore on this tiny island with no money, no phone, and no recourse is a major shock. But gradually he learns the pleasure of knowing how to do things, and his initial bad attitude dissolves as he makes friends with Isla (while hoping for something more), garners some hard-won praise from chef Gaspard, and begins to fit in on the island.

Although clichés abound, some of which were a little cringey, I would have enjoyed this fourth book in Colgan’s series pretty unreservedly except for several inconsistencies that couldn’t help but irritate: After three books featuring minor characters Charlie and his wife, Jan, who lead Outward Bound-type holidays for needy orphan boys on the island, Jan has suddenly been rechristened Pam; when she appeared in the story she seemed familiar, but I kept straining to remember, Who is Pam again? Likewise, the island doctor, Saif Hassan, in this book has the last name Hussein; and the main character’s partner, Joel, goes from Binder to Booker. What the hell, Jenny? Do you not even remember your memorable characters’ names? and do your editors not check these things? This is incredibly sloppy.

Overlooking those details, this was a fun read and a nice extension of the series. The ending was a bit sappy, but at Christmas, needs must.

It’s all Christmas

For those who want to use these last 10 days before Christmas to get themselves in the mood (or to dwell in a more traditional head space in the midst of this unquestionably nontraditional year), I thought I would remind readers of all the many holiday short stories, novellas, novels, and nonfiction offerings out there. I did a pretty comprehensive overview last year of a bunch of alternatives, so let me just give you those urls with a brief explanation and you can explore your options!

For a classic Christmas, check out this list of beloved read-alouds and come-back-tos:

https://bookadept.com/2019/12/16/christmas-classics/

For a book-length experience, here are some novels and true-life experiences:

https://bookadept.com/2019/12/22/novel-christmas/

And for those who want something unsentimental, here are some that are a bit more tart than sweet:

https://bookadept.com/2019/12/18/alternate-christmas/

Finally, to hark back to a recent find, read Connie Willis’s latest Christmas offering:

https://bookadept.com/2020/12/09/christmas-joy/

Have yourselves a lovely reading holiday, while I attempt to finish Troubled Blood in time to make it #130 on my Goodreads Challenge for 2020!

Christmas treats

I ended up taking a longer break than I had planned from the gigantic Cormoran Strike mystery (Troubled Blood) I thought was going to be occupying my week: I read with great enjoyment to page 152, whereupon my copy of the book started over again at page 121, went to 152 again, and then skipped to page 185! Two identical signatures followed by a missing one. True to signature sequencing, there were probably other errors later on, but I didn’t bother to find them, I just told Amazon to send me a new one tout de suite. But while I waited, I needed something to read.

People on “What should I read next?” have been asking for Christmas or holiday books to fill their Decembers with better stories than the real one in which they are isolated at home with Covid-19, and I have been suggesting that they read Jenny Colgan‘s half-dozen second books that are the Christmas stories attached to her regular novels. She has one for the Cupcake Café, one for the Little Beach Street Bakery, two for the Island of Mure, and two more attached to Rosie Hopkins’ Sweet Shop. The double gift here is that if you haven’t read the first, non-Christmas book, you can easily fill up your entire month of December by reading #1 and #2 of each of them, and then go on to round it out with the remaining sequels.

I myself had not read either of the Rosie Hopkins set that follow Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’ Sweet Shop of Dreams, mentioned here in last year’s wrap-up of Christmas reading, so while waiting on Amazon and Cormoran to get back to me, I picked up Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweet Shop. It begins shortly after the first book left off, and includes all the same characters with their relationships one to another and also to the Derbyshire village of Lipton, now buried under a blanket of snow unfamiliar to former city girl Rosie. We get to see the progression of Rosie’s relationship with new beau Stephen, her aunt Lilian’s adaptation to relocating from her cottage to the elder-care facility, and renew acquaintance with all the quirky (and otherwise) characters from the village. In addition, Rosie’s mother, brother, sister-in-law, and nephew/nieces descend from faraway Australia for the Christmas season. But just before they are about to arrive, a tragedy, with Stephen at its core, strikes in the village, and Rosie is so distracted and upset by current events that it promises to be a less than stellar Christmas. This is, however, a Jenny Colgan book, so you know that somehow joy will prevail. There are some surprises based on the pasts of a couple of the characters, and all in all it’s a satisfying story arc.

Having gotten into this holiday mood, I decided (despite the arrival on the front porch of my replacement book) to continue by reading The Christmas Surprise, the third book in this group—which actually begins a couple of weeks after Christmas. Who knows, Cormoran and Robin may have to wait until January at this rate. Which may be good for my Goodreads challenge, since I can get in three books for the “price” of one by pursuing all the Colgans instead of the single volume of 944 pages offered by Rowling, er, Galbraith!

We’ll see what happens.

A book about books?

I really wanted to like The Last Book Party, by Karen Dukess, but honestly? I just didn’t, much.

There were elements of it that I anticipated liking. First of all, I think I gravitated to it because it was set during a summer at (in? on? never know the terminology here) Cape Cod, and after recently reading several enjoyable books set at such memorable places as Martha’s Vineyard and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of the summer/island settings.

Second, the protagonist works in book publishing in New York City, which I always thought of as the pinnacle of jobs, and she’s trying to write on the side, with which occupation I have sympathy, having tried to do that myself off and on for years in the middle of my life.

Third, there is a lot of talk of books and authors, which always delights me, either because they are familiar and I concur with the writer’s opinion of them, or because they are unfamiliar and give me new titles for my TBR list.

And lastly, I loved the cover!

But ultimately a book is only as good as its characters and story arc, and this one was, what word do I want to use? Slight.

Eve Rosen is an aspiring writer working as an assistant at a prestigious book publishing firm in New York City. She comes from a conventional suburban Jewish background, and thought New York would be the answer to her longings to be an artist, but so far it’s only been by proxy. One of her duties as an assistant is to correspond with some of the firm’s writers, and one of her favorites is the witty and urbane New Yorker writer, Henry Grey.

She is invited to a gathering at his Cape Cod home (her parents have a summer house there and she lets him know she will be around for the weekend) to meet a dazzling array of avant garde artists, including his wife, Tillie, a poet. Grey casually mentions that he could use a research assistant; when Eve returns to New York to discover that a new employee has been promoted over her head, she decides to leave the firm and reaches out to the writer to see if he was serious. Soon she is ensconced in Henry’s study, working on research materials for various of his projects and continuing in awe of him and his artistic circle. But some of the things she learns about this seemingly enviable literary world are not what she expected nor what she wants.

I can’t tell much more of the plot without revealing the whole thing, because there’s not a lot more TO it. The book is set up like a coming-of-age story in which Eve is figuring out who she wants to be; but the way she goes about it is shallow, self-deceptive, and clichéd. I spent most of the story wanting to hand her both a mirror and a backbone. There is a significant moment in the book where you expect major fireworks to happen; instead you get one outraged rant by Eve and then the matter is dropped as if it isn’t important. Considering what it was, I found this highly disturbing. And finally, the ending is one of those frustrating “two years later, here’s what I learned from my experience” epilogues that I loathe.

So although I will add this to my list of “books about books,” I won’t be touting it to anyone as a good read. It’s not horrible, either; I give it a resounding “meh.”