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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.

 

 

 

One last title

When I dialed up Los Angeles Public Library’s catalog and looked at their e-book selection for Brigid Kemmerer, I found one more book that wasn’t included in either the Elementals, the contemporary fiction, or the Cursebreakers. It was a stand-alone and it was available, so I downloaded it.

thickwaterThicker Than Water is an anomaly, in that it starts out like a contemporary, turns into a murder mystery, and then makes a shift into the weird.

Thomas Bellweather is in trouble, with pretty much no one to whom he can turn. A few weeks ago, he and his mom moved to the town of Garretts Mill so that his mom could make a happy second marriage with her boyfriend, Stan. But two weeks after the wedding his mother has been murdered, and he’s left alone with his brand-new step-dad in a town full of strangers…many of whom believe that he was the killer. There’s not enough proof to lock him up, but there’s plenty to make every cop in town suspect him. Three of those cops, brothers, have a little sister named Charlotte who seems to be the only person interested in finding out the truth and, at least tentatively, extending a hand of friendship to him. But every time the two of them try to get together to work things out, mishaps turn into drama, and Thomas is deeper in trouble. Then, while looking through boxes of his mother’s things in the garage, Thomas makes a strange discovery about her past that turns everything he knows upside down. What, if anything, does this have to do with what’s happening today?

This book was immediately both frustrating and gripping. All the people in town who dedicate themselves to keeping Thomas and Charlotte apart, thereby delaying the vital information they need to discover to keep Thomas out of jail, was crazy-making, as was Charlotte’s alternating stance between trust and fear of Thomas. But what was weird to me was the pacing. The fact that the two protagonists are constantly being separated meant that the story line dragged behind where it “should” have been for a large part of the book, but then…

Since I was reading the book on my Kindle, I paid attention to the “percentage” of book finished. When something super significant happened, I glanced to the bottom of the screen and saw that the book was already at 81 percent, but this book was billed as a stand-alone. Hmmm, I thought: For me to get what I need from this story, we shouldn’t be at more than 65 percent at this point! (the voice of experience speaking) And sure enough, although everything was sufficiently revealed to solve the initial mystery, I was left with so many questions!

I can’t detail them here, because it would completely ruin the book for anyone reading this review, but I will say that I think Brigid Kemmerer owes us a sequel. These characters deserve more closure, and more exposure! The twist at the end needs further exploration and explanation! C’mon, what do you say?

 

2nd chance romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fresh look: old books

If you are like me, when you are in an uncertain mood (as we all certainly are during our current enforced retirement from daily life) you don’t necessarily thrive: I see posts on social media from people who say, I should be using all this free time to get to my stalled projects, clean out my house, exercise more, cook complete meals, read the classics, but instead I’m binge-watching Netflix and Hulu and surviving on Oreos and Cheetos.

A lot of people are also saying they don’t have the focus for reading that they normally do (myself included), and have been flailing around a bit trying to find the right thing to fully occupy their imaginations. I finally realized that for me, going back to books that I have read before that are familiar and yet have such a scope and depth that new things can always be discovered between their covers is the thing to do to get me reading again. Let me share a few of these with you, most of which are long, involved, and completely immersive. If you have read them before, you may want to revisit them; and if you have never heard of them or always meant to read one, then you have a treat in store.

Susan Howatch is best known for her long-running series (Starbridge, and later St. Benet’s) pairing the sacred and the profane, revealing the crises of faith and the ruthless power struggles of priests in the Church of England. This began with Glittering Images in 1987 and continued through 2003 with The Heartbreaker, but although I enjoyed these quite a lot, I prefer some of Howatch’s earlier works.

richMy favorites are a duology that links the same ruthless and charismatic cast of characters over a period of years spanning the two World Wars in England and America, called The Rich Are Different and Sins of the Fathers. Howatch is a master of the dysfunctional family saga, and she leaves no psychological trauma unturned. But these are also a wonderfully complete and entertaining look at the historical period spanning the post-WWI economic boom on Wall Street and the Roaring ’20s right through to the invasion of Normandy, contrasting English and American lifestyles of the era. They are character-driven, intriguingly narrated in several voices and, despite having been written in 1977, are both modern and relevant in their tone, and have been re-released
multiple times.

AmberForever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor (1944), is THE classic historical novel you can’t not read during your lifetime. Think Gone With the Wind, but set in Restoration England (and equally lengthy, at 972 pages!). Amber St. Clare, the naive but intelligent and independent heroine, goes from simple country wench to Cavalier’s mistress, from wife to jailbird to actress and courtesan. She lives and loves through the English Civil War, the Restoration of the monarchy, and the Plague of London, and it is both her personal story and also the vivid historical details that capture the imagination so completely. Winsor is also credited with having written with this same tome the first ever historical romance novel, which was quite racy for its time.

GeneralOn the shorter side compared to the others on this list (but still a compelling read) is The King’s General, by Daphne du Maurier (1946), set during the English Civil War of the 1640s. It is romantic, mysterious, and tragic. It details a lesser known bit of Cornish history regarding Sir Richard Grenville, the king’s general in the west, in the battle between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. Part civil war history and part love story, it follows Grenville’s romance with the young Honor Harris, who is engaged to Sir Richard until a tragedy separates them. Later in the war, they reconnect to share a passionate but ultimately perilous relationship. Fun fact: Menabilly, the real-life house of the Rashleigh family (relatives of Honor’s), was also the setting for du Maurier’s best-known novel, Rebecca, in which it is transformed into Manderley.

taipanIf you managed to make it through the late ’60s or early ’70s without reading Tai-Pan, by James Clavell  (1966), you have missed out on one of the best-told tales ever. You can’t strictly call it historical; it’s a fictionalized account of the first year of the British colony of Hong Kong (1841). The characters and their trading companies are only loosely based on actual people, but what characters they are! Pirates, opium dealers, and thieves, who maintain a surface appearance of “simple” Scottish, English, and American tradesmen, run Hong Kong from the offices of their companies and from the decks of their ships, fighting for their lives and fortunes in a foreign land that they conquer (or think they do) without necessarily understanding it at all. This is a blockbuster of a novel, written by a guy who also had a big career as a Hollywood screenwriter and knows how to set a scene, draw out the suspense until you want to scream, and give you
what you want in an epic saga: larger-than-life characters on an intriguing stage.

Reviewing this list, I realized that not only are these books mostly historical fiction, but it is almost exclusively British in nature (although the Howatch novels are half American, and Tai-Pan is set in China). I’ll review my reading lists to see if I can come up with an equally compelling group of books that are neither British nor history-based, and share those soon. Perhaps fantasy and science fiction will yield a good array….

 

A mixed bag

In my last book review (too long ago, I know—things have been hectic), I mentioned that I was going to read another book by Cathy Lamb, because I was so enamored of the first line of the book:

“I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota.”

JuliaIt turns out, unfortunately, that the first line was the best thing about that book. Although I did finish it, and although I did enjoy certain aspects, I concluded that this author is just too disjointed in the way she structures her novels. There is a challenge for the heroine that seems perfectly realistic and commonplace, and yet the way it is addressed in the novel is through the cultivation of that heroine by perfectly unrealistic, silly, contrived people and circumstances. As I indicated in my previous review, it’s like someone took a book chock full of magical realism, tore out all the pages, and dumped them in a cauldron with the ones from a straightforward realistic novel, and then drew pages out at random and put them together to make a new book that jumps wildly between fantasy and real life.

And yet…I ended up reading two more of them.

One of the (poor) reviews of Julia’s Chocolates on Goodreads commented that the book was “sappy chick porn.” Her justification of this was that whenever a woman in such a book left an unhappy marriage, a horrible relationship, or another life-threatening situation, there is always around the next bend a delightful little town, a wildly successful talent that she can immediately turn into a new career, and a perfect Prince Charming. None of this resonates of truthfulness for anyone, but those are probably the exact reasons why books such as this enjoy a wide readership. Julia’s Chocolates was not a particularly well done example of one of them, but in the next two books, I did find some saving graces.

prettyThe next book I read is called Such A Pretty Face, and it is, as you would surmise, about a fat woman plagued by the constant cliché of supposedly well-meaning people telling her that if she’d only lose weight, everything would be divine. But I have to give Lamb credit: In this one she managed to avoid a lot of the clichés that plagued the previous book, and she actually drew a realistic picture of a woman so inundated by horror in her life that all she felt able to control was her eating, her eventual size protecting her in some aspects from dealing with the world around her.

The portrayal of Stevie Barrett’s terrifying childhood and the precipitating event that sent her from a loving though troubled home into a dysfunctional, belittling one was sensitively done, with details so perfectly personal and intimate that they evoked the scenes almost too powerfully for the reader. Similarly, her struggles as an adult to come to terms with herself are touching. After a heart attack at age 32, she undergoes bariatric surgery and loses more than half her weight, but inside she is still the fat, unattractive, deeply unhappy person she was never able to confront. Slowly, with assistance from friends and relatives, she begins to turn this around.

The criticisms of this book are two: One, Cathy Lamb doesn’t know how to write dialogue for the bad guys. She can depict them realistically, but when it comes time for them to speak, they sound like the villain in a melodrama, complete with handlebar mustaches and maniacal ha-ha-has! Two, of course, is the perfect love of her life who discovers, pursues, and wins her in the course of the book. As my friend on Goodreads said, “I mean literally, the next man she meets will always be handsome, sexy, available, and perfect for a long-term relationship.” This book deals with that topic more realistically than did Julia’s Chocolates, but it still seemed a bit too ideal.

Actually, let’s make those criticisms three, which goes as well for the next novel: the completely generic book covers. There were so many interesting images in this book that could have been featured on the cover to give it a little pizzazz as well as some intrigue, but no. Also, in the last book I will review, the sisters all three had black hair. Ahem.

sistersMy favorite, The Language of Sisters, is about three women—Antonia, Elvira, and Valeria—Russian sisters who escaped Communist Russia with their parents when they were young children, and moved to Oregon to be with the rest of the noisy, loving, extended family of Kozlovskys. This book, as do most of Lamb’s, has a touch of magical realism to it: The sisters are able to hear one another in their heads at times of danger, sadness, or trial, and can call out to one another for help. The book is narrated by Toni (Antonia), and is essentially her story, although it encompasses both her sisters, her extended family, and the “extra” family she has created on the dock of the tugboat (floating in the Williamette river) that she calls home. It’s not a surprise that those characters, given Lamb’s propensity for exaggeration, include an interracial couple, a lesbian couple, a high-priced call girl, an elderly opera singer suffering from dementia, and a husky blond DEA agent jonesing to be Toni’s soulmate.

The things I enjoyed about the book were the secrets that are gradually revealed throughout the course of the book—some in the recent past, and some left over from the girls’ Moscow childhood. The flashbacks to Moscow were particularly powerful. And I will admit that I also enjoyed, even while scoffing at, Toni’s blossoming relationship with Nick (the DEA agent). Apparently even a cynical reader can’t, in the end, resist romance.

I’m still not sure I would count Cathy Lamb as among the authors I like or would return to for more; but this has been a pleasantly fluffy, cozy, romantic interlude in my reading habits for which I have been grateful while confronting so many challenging pursuits in the real world for the past few weeks. (Let me just say that “I hate Microsoft” encompasses almost all of those challenges.) Although I will now return to my regularly scheduled programming of fantasy, teen fiction, and anything else that strikes my fancy, I won’t rule out another Lamb interlude in my future.

 

All about books

I accidentally found another book about books! It was also about a lot of other stuff, some credible, some fantastic, and most of it a little over the top. It is All About Evie, by Cathy Lamb.

I said, after my months-long dedication to Kate Atkinson’s convoluted mysteries interspersed with the literary but somewhat bleak novels of Jane Harper, that I wanted something fluffy; but fluff overwhelmed everything else in my first choice of 2020, and my second was a promising but ultimately disappointing one. This book definitely brought the fluff, along with some magical realism, but in this case it was fluff with which I closely identify, so the reading was a much more pleasurable experience.

EvieEvie lives on one of the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest, in a remodeled carriage house painted in my color schemes, stuffed with toppling towers of books and surrounded by a rose garden. She has many animal friends—the list includes dogs, cats, goats, sheep, horses, and alpacas—who live with her and keep her company. She has a bookstore in town, where she lectures people on expanding their minds by reading out of their chosen genre, and serves delectable pies and cakes and interesting kinds of tea while conducting book clubs for diverse demographics. She has a mother and several aunts who live nearby and who give her love and quirky advice and don’t smother her too much. In essence, it sounds like my idyllic lifestyle.

She also (here comes the magical realism) has premonitions. Some are good, some are horrifying. Some she can do something about, others she can’t fix no matter how hard she tries, and some she doesn’t want to alter because sometimes karma should be a bitch.

Cathy Lamb has definitely bought into the idea that the first line is everything in hooking her readers’ attention: Hers in this book is, “I knew she was going to be hit by a white truck.” (In the next book of hers that I decided to read, it is “I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota.”) In this way she introduces Evie’s premonitions. Evie sees a future for someone—you could rather refer to them as precipitating events—and feels compelled to act on her knowledge, and yet what do you do? Walk up to someone and say “Excuse me, please be late for work today so that scaffolding doesn’t fall on you and kill you”? Try that and see what happens. In Evie’s case, it taught her to be secretive, made her overly anxious most of the time (obsessively watching her surroundings for signs to determine when the premonition will manifest), and occasionally led to criminal acts such as locking her favorite librarian in her home so she wouldn’t get hit by a train, or risky behaviors like climbing up to the peak of a two-story house to fix some shingles so that her elderly neighbor wouldn’t try to do it himself and break both legs in the fall.

These premonitions are why Evie has buried herself in a small town, in a small bookstore, with mostly animals as friends—a lower incidence of premonitions than would hit her in the overcrowded press of the big city. These precautions have not eliminated her problems, but have certainly reduced them to be almost manageable.

Evie has only ever had one premonition about herself, and it’s about her death, in a car accident, when she meets another woman driver on a one-lane road on the edge of a cliff; but she never sees the ending. She feels like someone dies, but doesn’t know if it’s her or the other woman, and she has an odd feeling that she knows the other woman, although she’s never seen her before.

This leads us to an alternate narrator in the story, a pregnant teenager locked up for murder in Portland, Oregon in 1975, whose sole defense in her trial is that she “saw” her boyfriend’s father trying to kill her boyfriend, and the vision led her to a pre-emptive strike to prevent that act.

This alternate narrator also lets in a big dose of reality to this so-far quirky and not-so-serious story. The book turns out to have a darker vein of truth about misogyny and abuse of women and children, which is both powerfully handled and disconcerting as a contrast to the extremely lighthearted nature of most of the rest of the narrative. Setting these incidents against the backdrop of Evie’s aunts, who construct and wear fantastical hats on all occasions and do nude yoga on the beach, is sort of like when renowned magical realism author Alice Hoffman abruptly transitioned from 1995’s Practical Magic, with its witchy tequila-drinking women who could fly, to 1997’s Here on Earth, a tale of a twisted adolescent love that returns to poison the adults who participated in it. But Alice kept those in separate books. Lamb does not.

It didn’t make me dislike the book, exactly; but it did pull me up and make me wonder whether it was wise to try to pack it all into one volume.

There are some wonderful scenes, on both sides of the narrative. One that was a favorite was when a goth teenager came into the bookstore looking for yet another vampire novel, and Evie lost her patience and insisted that the girl read a memoir.

I pointed to the seats by the windows. “Sit. Open the book. Read it.”
“I have to meet my mother soon.”
“Text her. Tell her to come here when she’s done doing whatever. You have got to expand your closed mind and read about other people in this world who don’t bite necks and have long teeth.”

The other I particularly enjoyed was when the temporary police chief, who has decided that Evie should date him despite her patent dislike of him, attempts to intimidate her and gets owned by the townspeople, who all gather around him in the street to comment loudly and unflatteringly about his particular style of bullying and ask if he can’t get a date any other way. Both are wonderfully written; I just had trouble shoe-horning them into the same narrative.

I liked All About Evie well enough to try another, so I am on to Julia’s Chocolates (the one in which the wedding dress is abandoned in a tree in the first sentence). I’ll let you know my conclusions soon…

 

Novel Christmas

For those who appreciate a lengthier read, I have attempted to round up some novels with Christmas themes or settings and, in doing so, not make you doubt my good taste!

XmasHolyFor ’tis true, ’tis true that a plethora of Christmas tales exist, but whether you want to read any of them is the question. I have, therefore, found a few I would consider a bit more literary, and a bunch that are connected to some genre series, since much may be forgiven your favorite authors when they sell out, er, decide to delight you with a Christmas-related chapter.

First off, consider two short, sparkling comedies set at Christmas-time by Nancy Mitford, the writer later known for Love in a Cold Climate. Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie are Oscar Wilde-ish “great house” stories with a cast of ridiculous upper-crust characters rivaled only by those depicted by E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse.

Next, there’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, a Christmas story by Wally Lamb, which focuses on a feisty parochial school boy named Felix Funicello—a distant cousin of the iconic Annette.

In a similar humorous vein, check out comedian Dave Barry’s The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. Or, on a more sympathetic note, Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus, relating the story of when his mother Angela was six years old and felt sorry for the Baby Jesus, out in the cold in the Christmas crib at St. Joseph’s Church….

The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci, is not a book I have read, but it sounds like a perfect storm of circumstances guaranteed to be entertaining, landing a former journalist on a train over the Christmas holidays with his current girlfriend, his former love, and a sneak thief, all headed towards an avalanche in the midst of an historic blizzard.

Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham, follows the fate of Luther and Nora Krank, who decide that, just this once, they will forego the tree-trimming, the annual Christmas Eve bash, and the fruitcakes in favor of a Caribbean cruise.

XmasTreeOne of my personal favorites to re-read this time of year is Winter Solstice, by Rosamunde Pilcher. It is sentimental without being mawkish, and brings together an unusual cast of characters in an interesting situation bound to produce results.

Now we enter the realm of franchise genre fare with a nod to Christmas:

The Christmas Scorpion is a Jack Reacher story (e-book only) by Lee Child, in which Jack’s intention to spend the holidays in warm temperatures surrounded by the palm trees of California somehow lands him instead in the midst of a blizzard facing a threat from the world’s deadliest assassin.

There are many in the mystery category, from Agatha Christie to Murder Club to baked goods-filled cozies:

In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie, a curmudgeonly father turns up dead after telling all four of his sons, home for Christmas, that he is cutting off their allowances and changing his will. Poirot suspends his own festivities to solve the murder.

James Patterson has a couple of entries: The 19th Christmas, a Women’s Murder Club book, and Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, starring his popular detective trying to make it back alive for the most sacred of family days.

Charlaine Harris’s unconventional pseudo-cozy series about housekeeper and body builder Lily Bard features Shakespeare’s Christmas, in which Lily solves a four-year-old kidnapping case while at home for her sister’s Christmas wedding.

In a similar manner (though with quite different affect!), Rhys Bowen’s Irish lass Molly Murphy attends an elegant house party at a mansion on the Hudson in The Ghost of Christmas Past, and tries to fathom the reappearance of a girl who disappeared 10 years ago.

XmasMistletoeAnne Perry, known for her historical fiction featuring the Pitts (Charlotte and Thomas) and the rather darker William Monk, has written 16 Victorian Christmas mysteries to date, the latest being A Christmas Revelation (2018).

Cozy mystery writer and baker Joanne Fluke has written at least four full-length books plus some short stories enticingly evoking Christmas cake, sugar cookies, plum pudding, candy canes, and gingerbread cookies, all with the word “Murder” appended.

And Ellen Byron continues her hijinks in Bayou country with Maggie Crozat in A Cajun Christmas Killing, complete with recipes.

In the Western genre, you can find A Colorado Christmas, by William W. and J. A. Johnstone, in which one family’s Christmas gathering turns into a gunslinging fight for survival, and A Lawman’s Christmas, by Linda Lael Miller, a combination of love story and western set in 1900s Blue River, Texas.

One writer of whom I am fond, in the “relationship fiction” category, is Jenny Colgan, and she has made the most of her Christmas opportunities. The only problem with them is, each and every one is a sequel to one of her other books, so without reading the first, you will be somewhat lost inside the Christmas special. She has written four “Christmas at” or “Christmas on” books to date, set in the previously detailed locales of Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, the Cupcake Café, the Island, and the Little Beach Street Bakery. But if you want some enjoyable, lighthearted fare a step beyond a simple romance, you may want to read the first books and come back for the Christmas ones.

In straightforward and utterly enjoyable chick lit, we have Christmas Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella, an ode to shopping with a Christmas theme for her popular heroine, Becky Bloomwood Brandon.

XmasWreathAnd then we hit the high tower of paperbacks that is the romance genre. I’m not even going to try to name all the books written within the environs of romance series, I’ll just give you a list of authors, and if you see a familiar one, go look her up on Goodreads with the word “Christmas” appended to her name:

Mary Kay Andrews, Jennifer Chiaverini, Janet Dailey, Johanna Lindsey, Debbie Macomber, Fern Michaels, Linda Lael Miller, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Nancy Thayer, Sherryl Woods…and so on. There are PAGES of titles.

Finally, if you are a nonfiction kinda person, I’m tagging on a couple for you, too:

In I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, comedian Lewis Black says humbug to everything that makes Christmas memorable, in his own engaging, curmudgeonly style.

In their quest to provide mathematical proof for the existence of Santa, the authors of The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas, by Dr. Hannah Fry and Dr. Thomas Oléron Evans painstakingly analyze every activity, from wrapping presents to cooking a turkey to setting up a mathematically perfect Secret Santa. Lighthearted and diverting, with Christmassy diagrams, sketches and graphs, Markov chains, and matrices.

If you can’t find something to read and enjoy from THIS list, I wish you a slightly exasperated Joyous Yule, and hope to find you something non-holiday-related to read in the New Year!   —The Book Adept

YuleJoy

Love across the Pond

When I heard the plot summary of Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston, all I could think was, What a gimmick. And when I saw the cover, I thought, Oh, I get it, “chick lit” for gay guys.

redwhiteblueAlex Claremont-Diaz’s mother is the President of the United States, so her family members are under heavy scrutiny. Alex is inevitably cast as the handsome and charismatic “First Son” that everyone romanticizes.

Prince Henry of England (not the heir, but the spare—the second son) is likewise a glittering image of royalty, close to the same age as Alex and with all the advantages and a similar fixation by the public on his every move.

When word gets around, after a couple of meetings, that the two dislike one another, consternation apparently erupts on both sides of the Pond, and diplomatic relations people hastily put together a meet-cute opportunity for the two to prove that the rumors are false and everything is copacetic between the youth of these two allied nations. But the diplomats had no idea, when they encouraged friendship between the royal and the First Son, what a hornets’ nest they would be stirring up!

When I asked a librarian friend of mine if she’d read the book, she tossed off a casual recommendation, saying simply “It was cute!” so I figured it would be just another lightweight romantic comedy for gay teens. Nope. Red, White & Royal Blue wasn’t what I was expecting…and I’m so glad!

I swiftly got past the first part of the book, which was a little cute, if not cutesy, with the I-hate-him-I-love-him turnaround from Alex, and into the relationship proper, which was intense, deep, and precarious, given that one lover was the son of the first female President of the United States and the other was a Prince of England, and there was a lot invested by both sides in remaining discreet. Henry has, perhaps, the most to lose, since the royal façade doesn’t allow for deviation from the hetero pattern of marriage and babies to keep the descendents coming; but Alex likewise faces a certain amount of jeopardy on behalf of his mother—being the first woman president carries the presumption that everyone in the family will act at all times with transparent perfection. His mother, however, doesn’t cherish the same expectations for her children as do the royals. She just wants them to be sure of themselves, and to be happy.

The author was so effective in writing all the things that needed to be here—the sexual awakening of Alex, and Henry, too, to some degree; the non-awkward, rather compelling sex scenes; the wonderful banter (amongst all the fleshed-out characters, not just between the protagonists); the properly scaled-down but still ever-present politics; the romance and joy of falling in love (not in lust or in crush); and, ultimately, the painful but necessary pursuit of the truth of who these two young men want to be.

Casey McQuiston, well done! I’ll look forward to more books from you.

Readers please note: I didn’t realize at first that this book is aimed more at the new adult (18-25) market than at the teen (12-18), so I was a little taken aback at how frankly the sex was described. Not over the top, not explicit to the point of discomfort, but still real and honest beyond most teen fiction. So if you are recommending it, my advice would be not to drop below the senior-in-high-school mark.

 

Heyer surprise

I was browsing in Overdrive and it did that thing where it suggests a book because of other books you have read, and surprise! it was a Georgette Heyer novel I had never read. So I promptly downloaded it to my Kindle, only to receive another surprise…

Talisman1Cousin Kate was certainly not standard Georgette Heyer fare. While presenting many of her books’ usual initial plot points (a penniless but plucky heroine, an unexpected suitor, some previously unknown relatives, a firmly supportive servant), this one turned gothic in the extreme. Rather than a frothy Regency England plot that takes place amongst the diverting events of the London Season, it could easily compete with any of the tomes with a slightly menacing air written by such authors as Victoria Holt, Anya Seton, or (latterly) Barbara Michaels. All the keynotes contained within those books are here too: the magnificent but slightly sterile and dark estate of Staplewood; the cold-hearted aunt with an ulterior motive; the strictly sequestered frail old lord of the manor; and the devastatingly handsome but equally strange and volatile son and heir.

I really liked certain elements of Cousin Kate. It was fascinating to try to figure out exactly why Kate’s Aunt Minerva was making so many kind gestures—inviting her to stay, giving her a new wardrobe—while patently not feeling anything for her (or anyone else). The servants and companions, the cousin, and the heir were all puzzles to be solved. And although the loyal servant—Kate’s former nurse Sarah Nidd—and her crusty but knowing old father-in-law were probably my favorite characters, their good-natured common sense didn’t prevent the slide into pure melodrama. The somewhat abrupt (and pat) ending was less than satisfactory, and left the reader with questions that wouldn’t be answered. I’m glad to have read it, as it was among the few Heyers I had missed; but from now on I’ll stick with rereads of my lighthearted favorites from among her novels.

TALISMAN2The above cover is the latest among many to convey the nature of this book; perhaps if it had had this older but much more accurate depiction, I would have known what to expect!