Interludes

As I have previously mentioned here, sometimes I take a break between what I would consider more “significant” works (or at least the works of writers unknown to me) to read something lighthearted, whether that is a book written with juveniles as its audience, or a “bit of fluff” characterized by chick lit or Regency romance. This past week or so, I did both, with some surprising results.

The first book I picked up was The Extraordinaries, by T. J. Klune. Given that Vicious, by V. E. Schwab, is one of my favorite books ever, I had high expectations for a book in which ordinary people have the potential to become extraordinary, and the extraordinaries have complicated relationships with their ordinary contemporaries (and with one another). What can I say? First, I have to face that there is no comparing any book with the brilliance that is Vicious. It stands alone (well, except for its sequels). Second, I read Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea first, absolutely fell in love with that, and then read this. Who could not be a little disappointed?

The Extraordinaries is exactly as billed: A YA novel about a kid with ADHD who wants to be a superhero or, alternatively, wants to be beloved of a superhero. It’s cute, it’s inclusive, it’s frank and matter-of-fact about sexuality, it has some great characters, and teens will love it. Me? Not as much. I see its worth and its value without being able to immerse myself in its story. Also, I feel like the (ultra-serious) post-er who decried the glorification of the police (always the good guys, regardless of bad behavior) in this had a point. Not to the extent he carried it, but still…yeah. But for kids who like comics and graphic novels, this is a next step, and a fun one. I had planned to read the sequel, Flash Fire, but after the first couple of chapters I put it aside. It’s not that it’s not good, it’s just not for me. But like I said, teens (especially lgbtq etc. teens) will be enthused. (I do, however, look forward to the sequel to Cerulean Sea with unabated hope.)

I decided instead to move on to my reliable go-to author for light relief, the inimitable Georgette Heyer, writer of the quintessential Regency romance. But I ended up being surprised by a book that was not quite like most others she has written. A Civil Contract is surprisingly serious in tone compared to her light, frothy stories of witty, clever people, and owes much to Jane Austen’s book Sense and Sensibility.

It has a common theme of star-crossed lovers who may or may not prevail, and who probably appreciate the person with whom they end up more than the one they initially desired. But in this case there is no blinding realization that they have come to love that person, but rather a quiet acceptance that the relationship they have created will in the long run suit better, regardless of their feelings.

Adam Deveril, Viscount Lynton, an officer in the Peninsular War, is called home upon his father’s demise to discover that his family’s fortune has been decimated by his happy-go-lucky, completely improvident parent, and that he is on the verge of ruin. He has a mother and two sisters to support, and the youngest is not yet “out” (presented to society); without a dowry or indeed any basic support, her fate at least will be grim if he can’t figure out their financial situation in a hurry.

Before he left for the war, Adam had an understanding with Julia Oversley, for whom he has conceived what he believes to be a lasting passion, and which is returned by the beautiful Julia. But he knows that her father is not so unworldly as to agree to a marriage between his daughter and a man who can’t support her. While he is steeling himself to sell significant parts of the family’s estate, including the country seat, Julia’s father approaches him with the idea that he make a marriage of convenience with the daughter of a fabulously wealthy but admittedly vulgar merchant, Jonathan Chawleigh, to whom Mr. Oversley owes a favor. In exchange for his daughter Jenny achieving the social status that comes with marriage into an aristocratic family, Chawleigh will pay the myriad bills accrued to the estate and buy back all of Adam’s mortgages on the country home. Jenny, a school friend of Julia’s, goes into the marriage knowing that Adam still loves Julia. And the rest of the book details the emotions still held by the two parties in the doomed love match, as well as the new wife’s adaptation to being married to a man who not only doesn’t love her, but holds her father in revulsion, despite his own resolve, for being who he is and wielding power over Adam’s every decision.

This book, rather than a recounting of the making of a marriage, is an exploration of what constitutes a successful one once the deed is done. It incorporates the many sacrifices one has to make by tolerating the baggage of relatives and friends that come with a partner; it reveals the necessity of kindness, tolerance, patience and, above all, a sense of humor. It showcases, in fact, that the significant parts of married life are the ordinary, everyday events rather than the moments of exaltation or grand passion.

Julia Oversley is the Marianne Dashwood of the story—beautiful, impulsive, sensitive, willful, and somewhat selfish—while Jenny is Elinor—practical, somewhat shy and retiring, and more concerned for the feelings of others (specifically Adam’s) than for her own. Jenny’s father, Jonathan Chawleigh, is somewhat reminiscent of Sir John Middleton, in that he speaks his mind in an embarrassing manner without thought for what he is saying or how it will affect his listeners. But he goes far beyond that character in both coarseness and good-heartedness, and steals the show whenever he appears on the page.

There was rather too much historical narrative for my taste regarding the various engagements between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, but it’s well written and definitely pivotal to the plot. This is one of the few books of Heyer’s that has a quiet, satisfying ending rather than an “Ahah!” moment, but it doesn’t suffer for that. While it was an unexpected read in the midst of Heyer’s others, I still both enjoyed and appreciated it.

Open ended

Writing a book review by basing it on this readers’ advisory concept may be unfair, in that it’s a sort of spoiler. If you plan or planned to read this book but decide not to because I reveal that the ending is somewhat inconclusive, then I apologize. But I mention it for the good reason that I usually avoid open-ended fiction like the plague, being a person who wants my stories resolved, if not tied up with a too-tidy bow—but I enjoyed the questions left by this one and applaud the author for ending it in the manner she chose.

The book I am talking about is Verity, by Colleen Hoover, and I have been under subtle pressure to read it for a long time. Most of the pressure came from my own mind, but some from friends who urged it on me. It is one of the five books continually discussed, lauded, and recommended as “best” on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page of which I am a member. This week, I discovered that the e-book was actually available from the library, and I finally succumbed.

Too much hype is almost always off-putting, and I think I probably would have enjoyed this book a little more if I had come to it with fewer expectations. Fortunately, I had never previously read a description of it, so some semblance of surprise remained intact. I knew Colleen Hoover was a romance writer, and for some reason I expected this to be romantic historical fiction, so when I opened the book to the first line, I was shocked and somewhat taken aback, but also intrigued.

In case you know nothing about this book (which seems impossible but probably isn’t), it’s the story of a self-effacing young author, Lowen Ashleigh, who has had some critical success but is on the verge of financial disaster when she is asked to “collaborate on” (which turns out to be code for write) the last three books in a series by the well known and immensely popular writer Verity Crawford. Verity has been in a debilitating automobile accident and her condition is “uncertain” at the moment, according to her publishers. Lowen accepts the lucrative offer made by Verity’s husband, Jeremy, and travels down to the Crawford home to look through Verity’s notes to get an idea of how to proceed. Although she plans to be there for only a day, financial difficulties paired with the sheer volume of material to peruse (plus her undeniable attraction to Jeremy) causes her to stay a while. But the entire sojourn is made increasingly uncomfortable by the discovery of an autobiography written by Verity that reveals a horrifying side to the Crawfords’
tragic story.

On its face, this is a rather typical gothic plot: Our heroine, young and unsure of herself, is put into a situation where she craves the attention of a seemingly unavailable man who may actually be more receptive than she initially believes. An obstacle (this time in the form of a critically injured wife) presents itself, but there may be a way around it, resulting in the union of the star-crossed couple. Victoria Holt mastered this one many times over, back in the 1970s.

That’s not to say that this book is a cliché, only that it’s not as unique as some would paint it. There are several things that set it apart: the frank depiction of sexual activities, which was verboten in the gothic oeuvre; the extenuating circumstances that occurred before the current timeline in this disaster-prone family; and the sheer creepiness of the alternation between the protagonist’s and the author’s voices as we jump back and forth between the present-day narrative (Lowen) and the words of the autobiography (Verity). And there is also the dark quality of life in the Crawford domicile in this moment, which is not to be discounted.

The final difference is that in the gothic romance tradition, all is resolved by the end of the book. Not so here, where a crucial piece of information casts all certainty into doubt and the reader is left to ask, What the hell just happened?

In the past in this column, I have complained of authors who just couldn’t resist putting the fix on every single dangling detail of their plot, to the detriment of the book, as in my rant about the epilogue of Things You Save In A Fire. At the same time, I am a person who does in general like a clear resolution to a story; it doesn’t have to be absolute, but if something is left hanging, I want it to give the implication that there will be satisfaction at some point. But having read Verity, I will say that there is something incredibly effective about making your reader say “Whaaaat?” at the end, which is that it keeps them thinking about your book for days after!

Perhaps you will read it and see what I mean; or perhaps you will curse me for leading you down this path without a pretty conclusion. Either way, be prepared for an interval of wild energy, uneasiness, confusion, and dread, wondering about the sanity of anyone who would willingly stay in a situation permeated by those emotions, regardless of the incentive.

Lucky Charms

I was between books and having a hard time deciding what kind of reading experience I was craving, and I ended up doing a reread of Crosstalk, by Connie Willis, to provide some light comic relief in between the literary and the dystopian.

To really love Connie Willis, you have to be willing to go along with a writing style that is a sort of frenetic stream-of-consciousness experience led by one or more of her characters. No matter their major premise, many of Willis’s books are based on the idea that people hope for the best but continually expect the worst, and that they can’t keep their mind on the present moment because they are either obsessively dwelling on the past or compulsively anticipating the future. And because sometimes more than just the protagonist behaves in this way, you have a built-in tendency for poor communication, missed opportunities, and sometimes comical results. Not that all her books are intended as farce (as is this one); but this frustrating communication style is almost universal in her stories, meaning that the tension builds from low to high as you continue to read. It engenders excitement along with the frustration, and certainly guarantees that you want to finish the book to find out what happens—did the protagonist’s worst fears come true? or did they somehow manage to pull off whatever was necessary to meet their objective? The test is whether you (unlike the main character) can deal with the anxiety while enjoying (in this case) the romantic comedy.

Crosstalk takes place in the not-too-distant future. Its main protagonist, Briddey Flannigan, works at Commspan, a company that is in direct competition with Apple to produce the latest smart-phone technology. Briddey is dating one of her co-workers, the sharply dressed smooth-talking Porsche-driving Trent, and is thrilled when Trent suggests to her that they undergo a new outpatient procedure that is all the rage, the EED. Simply explained, if two people are sufficiently invested in their relationship, then this operation creates empathy between the romantic partners so that they can actually experience one another’s true feelings. Trent implies that undergoing this procedure would be the run-up to a marriage proposal once they have achieved this desirable emotional connection.

There is a lot of interest from Briddey and Trent’s co-workers (and inexplicably from his boss) in their daring step, and attention of a different kind from Briddey’s family, who are all opposed to her undergoing the procedure. But when the celebrated Dr. Verrick who performs the surgery has an unexpected opening, Briddey and Trent go for it, only to end up with some unexpected consequences: Briddey finds herself connected, not to Trent, but to someone else entirely, and empathy is just the beginning of what she experiences.

The tension ramps up as Trent wonders why—a couple of days past the estimate when the doctor said their “channel” would open—the two of them have not yet connected; and between keeping it a secret that she is in synch with someone else and keeping her increasingly suspicious family at bay, Briddey is at the end of her rope. But that’s only the beginning, as unforeseen complications take all her energy and attention.

Crosstalk explores a timely topic for the Information Age—the perils of over-communication, along with miscommunication, gossip, deception and the many other ways human interchanges can go wrong. Connie Willis says on her blog,

The novel was partly inspired by our wildly over-connected world, in which we’re constantly bombarded with communication, most of it unwelcome, and partly by the misconceptions people have about what being telepathic would be like. They always assume it would either be profitable (finding out people’s computer codes or social security numbers or blackmailable personal secrets) or fun.

Mentioning the telepathy is a spoiler, but I guess if the author is going to do it, I can too, and it comes up quite early in the book. I made an illustration that goes with the story: This is Briddey, building an internal “perimeter wall” out of make-believe bricks, the reciting of poems and stories, and the enumeration of the types of marshmallows in Lucky Charms cereal, in order to keep other people’s thoughts at bay.

My reaction to this book is positive, although I do think that Willis could have cut about 100 pages from it and it would have been more readable. At some points the dithering, the familial interactions, and the feeling that you’re in the middle of an Abbott and Costello routine become wearing, and you want to move on to the next bit rather badly. My favorite romantic comedy of hers is To Say Nothing of the Dog; but the fact that I have read this twice speaks to its merits, even if they aren’t quite as great as some others of her books. It’s definitely worth it for the fun pop culture references if for nothing else!

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.

“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.

Undeniably not done

In between other more serious fare, I checked out the Kindle copies of the next three books in the Lucy Valentine psychic matchmaking series. I had enjoyed the first two, and thought I’d like to find out what happened to all the engaging characters (pardon the pun), most of all Lucy and her beau, Sean.

First was Absolutely, Positively, in which Lucy’s psychic ability to find things is finally unmasked to the public and she has to deal with the fallout, while discovering a new method to find “lost loves” with it that expands her father’s matchmaking business to a new department that includes Lucy plus private eyes Sean and his brother.

Then came Perfectly Matched, in which she hooks up with a bunch of other psychics to try to bring out more abilities and hone the one she has. Meanwhile, someone is targeting her boyfriend and his brother by setting fires at all the places where they grew up, and Lucy becomes increasingly desperate to discover why and, more important, who, before something bad happens. Lastly was Undeniably Yours, in which her policeman friend, Aiden, seeks her help finding a lost reporter, who also happens to be the mother of his (previously unknown) child.

I still liked the series after going through the next three books; the author is great at reminding you what has happened, adding to it by expanding knowledge and relationships in the next volume, and still drawing out the suspense in various pairings as well as various themes so you want to go on to the next.

What made me crazy was finding out that this isn’t the end of the series! If you picked up a book called Undeniably Yours with the couple in question in a clinch on the cover, wouldn’t you assume that this is the book in which the drawn-out relationship that started in book #1 would finally reach its HEA (happily ever after)? Well, I did, and I was mistaken! There are still things for the main couple (and other secondaries) to do, places to go, states to achieve (as in matrimony or whatever), and we leave them in the midst of a massive home remodeling project! So there will be more Lucy Valentine tales in my future after all. I don’t know whether I’m mad or glad.

I’m struggling a little with where to put these books in terms of genre. Is it magical realism if people have psychic abilities, or is it just paranormal fiction? Is it a romance if half the characters belong to a family of matchmakers and keep putting people together, or does it just have romantic elements? And is it relationship fiction, or is it a mystery cozy? There IS a mystery of some kind in each one…

Whatever. I enjoyed these books, and felt like each one improved upon the last, so that’s something.

True love, mispers

Although I have a bunch of books lined up to read, including the latest Inspector Gamache mystery from Louise Penny and a new Jo Walton, whom I adore but who is always a challenging author, I decided to take a different kind of a break and read some light, bright, silly fiction for a couple of days. I’ve been working hard on getting ready for my Readers’ Advisory class at UCLA, which starts on September 29th, and also suffering some setbacks with recent art projects as I struggled with a new technique (not to mention the news, which is always fraught these days), so the last thing I need is something else that is too taxing. A reader on Facebook recommended the Lucy Valentine books by Heather Webber as good escapist fare, so I launched into Truly Madly and followed up with Deeply Desperately.

The premise is that Lucy Valentine comes from a long line of matchmakers blest by Cupid himself with a secret ability: They can see people’s auras, and thus match them up according to color, giving the Valentines a 97 percent success rate and making them renowned and also wealthy. Lucy, however, has renounced her trust fund and has been trying to make it on her own, because she doesn’t possess the family talent: She suffered an electrical shock at age 14 that killed her ability to read auras and replaced it with a talent for finding lost objects, which makes her terrible at the family business but handy to have around if your car keys are missing.

The issue the Valentines have that confounds their talent and sometimes their happiness is their own inability to sustain a relationship: Lucy’s parents have been broken up for 20-some years, but maintain a façade of happily married life in order not to ruin their rep as matchmakers; her grandmother, Dovie, got divorced from her beloved Henry a scant year after they got together; and Lucy herself has never had a long-term relationship. They call it “Cupid’s Curse,” and it’s almost as big a secret as their ability to read auras: After all, will people trust a matchmaker who can’t him- or herself keep a relationship going?

But many things are about to change for Lucy: After a scandal (her father was caught in a public display of “affection” with a woman not his wife on a night-time beach) and a subsequent heart attack (brought on by the stress?), Lucy’s parents have gone away to St. Lucia together to let him recover and also to escape the press, leaving Lucy in charge of the agency, to her combined pride and dismay. Sam, the private investigator who rents the top floor in the Valentine building, has just taken on his younger brother, Sean, to help him with the business, and when Lucy gets a vision of a missing wedding ring that shows it gracing the finger of a dead woman, she asks Sean to assist her in solving the mystery. There is a spark between Sean and Lucy that threatens her equilibrium and is obviously reciprocated,
but Lucy, wary of “the curse,” tries to avoid entanglement—at least for now. Meanwhile, Lucy is beginning to see that her gift of finding lost objects just might be able to translate to finding lost people as well, as long as she can get all the factors to work together…

The touch of magical realism (the reading of auras and the finding of lost things) gives the cozy mystery format a charming aspect. Webber knows how to write effective, likeable characters and likewise how to set scenes and describe surroundings, and there is a tiny bit of steam in Lucy’s relationship without its getting either sappy or overly explicit, plus a grace note of humor that lifts them above the common cozy. The author seems to be able to hit just the right combination of whimsy, mystery, and romance, without getting too heavy-handed in any of those areas, rendering the books delightfully engaging. They aren’t anything I would normally seek out, but they have definitely provided the necessary antidote to the seriousness all around me, and I may continue with the series (there are three more so far) to prolong my respite.

Summer reads

Before I departed the “beach reads” category for my usual fare of fantasy, science fiction, and mystery, I decided to read two more books by the one author in my experiment whose work I had actually enjoyed, Elin Hilderbrand.

As before, I checked reviews on Goodreads and tried to pick a couple that were popular and well thought of by a majority of readers. I ended up with The Perfect Couple and The Rumor.

The Rumor‘s story in brief:

RumourThe book revolves around two women who live on Nantucket and who have been best friends. One, Grace, has a husband who is the king of the real estate deal, enabling her to live on a beautiful estate where she is transforming an extensive property into her dream garden. She has twin daughters, one predictably vanilla and the other just as predictably bad news, and her husband seems to adore her—when he’s paying attention, which is less and less these days. But her gorgeous and single landscape architect is making up for that with his attentive behavior.

If there’s one thing Grace envies Madeline for, it’s her devoted relationship with her husband, who acts as if the honeymoon never ended. They also have a wonderful son, Brick, who has never given them a moment’s worry…until he started dating Grace’s “bad twin,” Allegra. Madeline, however, is focused at the moment on her overwhelming case of writer’s block, which is preventing her from even starting the new book that is due at her publisher’s any minute. Bills are piling up, and if she can’t get a fix on her next novel, their precarious financial life will begin to fall apart. Even though she doesn’t have the money for it, Madeline decides to rent a small apartment in town to be her writing retreat, hoping it will facilitate a solution. And that’s where the rumors begin…

I liked this story. Yeah, it’s a little shallow, and a little typical, but Hilderbrand’s characters are real individuals, and I loved the distortion of gossip in a small town, as it morphs and changes from one person’s account to the next until it’s something monstrous instead of a perfectly easily explained anomaly. It’s like that old game of “Telephone” that we used to play at slumber parties—one person whispers a secret into the next one’s ear, and that person into the next one’s, and so on, until you get to the end of the circle and the last person tells what they heard, which never remotely resembles the opening statement. I also liked the atmosphere and character of Nantucket, and the descriptions of Grace’s lush garden and
Madeline’s tortuous writing process. Even the teenagers and husbands were real people.

The Perfect Couple:

PerfCoupGreer Winbury, mother of the groom, is determined that the Otis-Winbury wedding will be the event of the season. Since the bride, Celeste, comes from modest means (her parents are middle class with a lot of hospital debt piled up from Karen’s cancer), the groom’s family, who are at the peak of wealth and own one of the premier estates on Nantucket, are hosting the event on the island. The wedding has been meticulously planned, but in a bit of a rush, because no one is sure how much longer the bride’s mother has before the end. This is not the tragedy, however, that prevents the wedding from taking place; the incident responsible is the discovery of a member of the wedding party floating dead in Nantucket Harbor the morning of the ceremony. Nearly everyone in the wedding party is suspect, particularly when Chief of Police Ed Kapenash starts discovering multiple acts of deceit and betrayal amongst the family, friends, and guests…

I find it odd that this book gets consistently high marks and The Rumor was not nearly so well liked; I thought that book had much more depth and completeness as a story than did this one. The Perfect Couple seemed like it was wallowing in clichéd characters, from the older wealthy married man having an affair with the young single woman to the flighty bride and her self-satisfied groom…and the worst was the groom’s mother, the mystery novelist who always gets her way. The way they talk, the way they dress, their attitudes, all scream caricature to me, with the familiar misogynist trope of virgin-slut-bitch applied to most of the women—either prizes to be won or else damningly responsible for the men’s inability to say no. I felt like the author simply made up the situations she needed to propel the plot as she went along, and yet some story lines directly detracted from the reader’s focus on that, furthering the effect that Hilderbrand didn’t know for sure whether she wanted to write a love story or a murder mystery. And I don’t want to provide any spoilers, but I simply don’t believe, knowing what they all knew about everyone involved, that the book would have ended as it did. Enough said. It was an okay read, it wasn’t glaringly boring or bad, it just wasn’t as special as some readers seemed to believe.

I will say that both books did fulfill that “setting” or “place” requirement, in that discussion of the surroundings—the stunning views, the warm breezes and starry nights, the ambience of the restaurants and shops (and the descriptions of the luscious seafood)—definitely heightened enjoyment when reading these books.

I can’t believe it’s been 10 days since I last posted a review. I have continued to read, but in between breakfast, lunch, and bedtime, which are my three reading slots of the day, I have been so busy making art or teaching art that I haven’t had the time to put down my thoughts about reading! I will play catch-up now; I have two more books completed and ready to discuss.

(Should you be curious, you can go look at my art blog: The address is https://theslipcover.blogspot.com.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Paris and books

I’m always on the search for a good book set in Paris, and if it features a bookstore, so much the better. Before I review the latest find, however, I have a complaint for the authors and/or publishers out there about their misleading titles.

Jenny Colgan wrote a book called (here in the United States) The Bookshop on the Corner. On the cover is the window display of a typical bookshop on the corner of a street. The bookshop in question (the one in the book) is packed inside a giant van that travels around the countryside in rural Scotland like a bookmobile. They should have stuck with the U.K. title, The Little Shop of Happy Ever After (although I would still argue that a van is not a shop, it is a van). Nina George wrote a book called The Little Paris Bookshop, and while the story starts in Paris, the bookshop itself is on a barge floating on the Seine, and the owner and his friend subsequently sail away to Provence in it, down the canals of France. So, also not really a shop, per se, but a book barge, and not, ultimately, in Paris.

The book I am reviewing today is Rebecca Raisin’s effort, The Little Bookshop on the Seine. It could have swapped titles with George’s book, where the shop was physically on the Seine, whereas this shop is only able to boast a river-facing address.

Bouquinistes

There is a scene in the book in which the protagonist and her boyfriend walk past and discuss the small green stalls of the Bouquinistes, sellers of used and antiquarian books who ply their trade along large sections of the banks of the Seine. These stalls could equally qualify as “on” (i.e., directly adjacent to) the Seine, but Once Upon A Time, the bookshop in Raisin’s story, while initially described as facing the bank, doesn’t seem to take much of its identity from its address, since it’s mentioned at the beginning and never again. Although the shop attracts a large tourist component as part of its clientele, there is no specific tie-in with the life of the river.

This is, sadly, not the only part of the book with which I had issues. First, I took a look at Raisin’s list of published books and experienced a whopping dollop of dejá vu: It seemed like both the titles and the book covers had been lifted from the booklist of writer Jenny Colgan!
There is one featuring a book van (her publisher did manage to get
the word “traveling” into the title!), one with a Gingerbread Café (Colgan’s is a Cupcake Café), and then there’s the Paris series, which includes a perfume shop and an antique store, whereas Colgan has a chocolate shop. The five-star ratings, however, from the bulk of Raisin’s readers show that, regardless of repetitive plots and similar locales, there seems to be an infinite market for this type of feel-good romantic “cozy.”

Having read this one of Raisin’s after having gone through Jenny Colgan’s entire list, I have to say that Colgan is a better writer, and has a better editor to boot. My biggest issue with The Little Bookshop on the Seine is how over-written it is: One adjective will simply not do when five can be better employed, and one telling of a character’s feelings and emotions can apparently only be improved upon by continuing to focus on them in multiple chapters but without expansion. There is simultaneously too much telling instead of showing, and too little exposition on what has been revealed. Also, there is an occasional misuse of a word (“they plied me full of sweets,” “I loved having a place for customers to languish” and “you could eke your way around searching for the right novel” being some of the most egregious) that sets my teeth on edge.

Raisin’s books are much more about the romance genre than are Colgan’s—there’s a fair amount of commentary about such things as rippling abs, tight pants, and bulky biceps—but the romance in this one is truly lackluster, with the protagonist dwelling obsessively on the details and prospects of her relationship with a man who neither she nor anyone else (after she relentlessly runs herself down) can believe would actually choose her.

Seine1Aside from all that, however (Mr. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?), I greatly appreciated some aspects of this book, and it was all to do with the setting. The premise is a good one (and has been used before many times, from Maeve Binchy’s Tara Road to the film The Holiday, with Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz): Two women temporarily unhappy with the way their lives are going decide to swap places. In this case, it’s Sarah, with her used bookshop in a quiet town in Connecticut, who is invited by Sophie, whose busy store in Paris couldn’t be a bigger contrast, to switch lives for a while, after Sophie has been humiliated in a love affair, the young lover in question now engaged to (and flaunting) a woman who works in the shop next door to hers. Sarah, who has been feeling frustrated at the stagnation of her life, tired of sitting around waiting for her boyfriend to make an appearance—he is a freelance journalist who follows stories around the world—decides this is a good chance to get out of her rut, quit being so timid, and experience Life (yes, that capital letter is on purpose).

The endless (and repetitive) relating of the conversations between Sarah and absent boyfriend Ridge, between Sarah and everyone else who wonders how it’s going with Ridge, and between Sarah and her own insecure self really drag down the narrative; likewise, Sarah’s lack of confidence in her ability to work with Sophie’s staff and run the bookshop to Sophie’s standards is exhibited over and over again to the point where the reader would like to give everyone involved a firm shaking until their heads swim. The difference in the two situations is understandable—a quiet backwater store with one employee vs. a busy tourist attraction with a rotating staff and multiple challenges—but the time it takes for Sarah to finally get some gumption is tiresome.

Then there is the rest of the book, which consists of a rather eloquent and beautiful love letter to Paris at Christmas and to books. Each time Sarah manages to step outside the front door of the shop and also out of her head, we are treated to some lyrically worded descriptions of the luminous city and what it evokes; similarly, when Sarah is concentrating on helping people to find the perfect book for every occasion, the narrative shines. I got to the point where I was skimming over the parts detailing the central relationship in favor of the scenes with the quirky people Sarah met on her walks and the friends she made as she expanded her lifestyle to include the quintessential Paris experience.

If I hadn’t been so seduced by all this French atmosphere, I would have been truly disappointed by the flatness of the romance. At one point in the book, a man Sarah has befriended shows signs of interest, which immediately piqued mine as I wondered if perhaps the whole point of the absent boyfriend was to send her along to the guy with whom she was meant to be. Sadly, that plot point didn’t pan out, and the story continued on its clichéd path to the end.

People read books for all kinds of reasons, and what I would say about this one is, if your priority is to swoon over the romance, this is not the book (or author?) for you; but if you want to read a book so evocative in its setting that you can imagine yourself present in the protagonist’s footsteps, then you may achieve satisfaction from this book by Rebecca Raisin.

Champs-Elysees with Christmas lights.