“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.)

Results

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.