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.”

The unexpected

Have you noticed that when it comes to famous and/or beloved writers, the unexpected is not welcome? I couldn’t believe how many people groused about Tana French’s last book (review here) when it turned out not to include the Dublin Murder Squad, even though it was a great story on its own.

I will confess, however, that I myself have done some “editing” when it comes to authors I like: For instance, I freely tell everyone that Jenny Colgan’s books previous to 2012 are not up to her standards, while all the books written during and subsequent to that year are wonderfully plotted, characterized, and entertaining.

I have come to the conclusion that while there may sometimes be validity in people’s rejection of particular titles because they were written early in a writer’s career, the truth is probably just that they didn’t follow the successful formula the author later evolved and made her own. In other words, they were unexpected.

One such novel of which I just turned the last page with great personal satisfaction is Liane Moriarty’s book The Last Anniversary. When I picked it up, I had already read many of Moriarty’s books, beginning with the later, more well known (and successful) ones and gradually working my way backwards. Her more recent books are not precisely formula, but they do seem to deal with women (and men) of a certain age, a certain financial and social status, and at a particular stage in their marriages, their careers, their parenthood, or what have you. So The Last Anniversary came as something of a surprise.

First of all, while the protagonist is about the right age (39), nothing else about her conforms to Moriarty’s other characters who, by this time, have entered into (and sometimes already exited out of) matrimony, have most of them had children, and almost uniformly live in the suburbs populated by others such as themselves. Sophie Honeywell is a successful business woman, popular and with many friends, but the last person in her circle to remain single. She sometimes wonders if she did right, breaking up with Thomas Gordon on the very day he had been planning to propose; she simply didn’t feel passionate enough about Thomas and was, in fact, a little stifled by his adoration, but perhaps she has missed her one chance in life to have the family she has always wanted? Sophie mostly doesn’t let it get her down, and she never thinks about Thomas (now married to someone else) until an odd occurrence brings him back into her life.

While they were dating, Thomas took her to the family “compound,” an island in the Hawkesbury River about an hour from Sydney where his entire family lives. Sophie had actually been there before she met Thomas; Scribbly Gum Island has become a tourist attraction because of an unsolved mystery regarding the Munro Baby. Thomas’s family are the caretakers of the mystery house from which Alice and Jake Munro went missing, leaving behind a whistling kettle, a freshly baked cake, and their baby crying in her cradle. Thomas’s great-aunts Connie and Rose discovered (and raised) the baby, and turned the mystery of her parents’ disappearance into a rather lucrative business—tours of the house, followed by cups of tea and scones, not to mention the sale of tourist tat.

Now, Thomas’s Aunt Connie has died, and she has somewhat inexplicably left her house not to any of her own relatives but to Sophie. There was something about Sophie’s innate cheerfulness that Aunt Connie had enjoyed, the few times they had met, and she decided Sophie was the type of person she wanted living in her house after her, even though she is no longer with Thomas.

Sophie makes some token objections but is secretly delighted; she adored Aunt Connie’s house from the moment she set foot in it, she loves the idea of living on an island, and she is more than ready for a change in her life. Although Sophie, an only child, is quite happy with her own family of three and has been quite spoiled with love and attention by her parents, she is also happy to be absorbed into this new, larger family.

The thing I liked so much about this book is that it relentlessly pursues the unexpected. With that build-up you would think that the next event would be for Sophie to find some young man associated with the island who was perfect for her, but with some obstacles in the way that would make it just absorbing enough to watch them work out how to come together. That doesn’t happen.

As you are introduced to other characters on the island, you develop new expectations, but the story keeps building them up and then taking yet another twist. Margie, one of the two daughters of the Munro Baby, is in an unhappy marriage with husband Ron, who no longer sees or values her. Margie eventually decides to take action to change her life, but keeps it a secret from everyone who knows her best. Granddaughter Grace, a young and beautiful artist married to Callum, has just given birth to Jake and is suffering cruelly from postpartum depression, but manages to present a blank face to the world and hide her secret. Aunt Rose, adrift after her big sister Connie dies, wonders if it’s time at almost 90 years old to start making her own decisions instead of abiding by Connie’s iron-willed decrees.

Moriarty hits a perfect balance between the whimsical and serious sides of this story. She addresses such issues as post-natal depression, the tick-tock of the baby clock for women approaching their 40s, stale marriages, and women’s insecurities in general, but she never lets the individual issues overwhelm the direction and mood of the book.

Threaded in amongst these narratives as a sort of semi-comedic relief is the central mystery of the Munro Baby, which certain younger members of the family are determined to solve. Connie and Rose know the truth, as does Enigma (the actual Munro Baby, now in her 70s), but Connie decreed that none of the others were to know until their 40th birthdays had arrived.

Although Sophie remains firmly the protagonist, the glimpses into the backgrounds, desires, and secrets of all the other characters make this a lively story that keeps the reader guessing almost to the end. None of the secrets are resolved in quite the way most readers would expect (and there is a perfect little “easter egg” at the end from an unexpected direction), which is what made this book a success for me, despite its lack of resemblance to Moriarty’s later oeuvre. Take a chance on it yourself and see if you agree.

Can I say that the various covers used on this book were irritating in their almost complete irrelevance to the story? Why not a picture of an island? or a deserted house on the shore? or even the damned marble cake left freshly baked on the table? Why a tree? Why a floating key on a ribbon? Why a hill with a baby buggy? (the closest, but still not accurate) C’mon, publishers, figure it out.

American Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic and realism

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

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

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

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

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

“Beach read”

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

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

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

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

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

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