Thursday, November 14, 2019

Sunset Beach

Title:  Sunset Beach
Author:  Mary Kay Andrews
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2019. 432 pages.
ISBN:  125012610X / 978-1250126108

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Drue turned the key in the ignition and the white Bronco's engine gave a dispirited cough, and then nothing."

Favorite Quote:  "I'm afraid of lots of things ... I just hide it better than most people."

The cover and title of this book indicates chick lit, women's fiction, and a summer beach read. What this book delivers is that plus an actual, entertaining mystery.

An accident ends Drue Campbell's athletic career. Her mother dies. Her estranged father reappears at her mother's funeral. She inherits a dilapidated cottage, which just happens to be right on the beach. She is in trouble emotionally and financially. Her father offers her a job. It's a job she does not want but may be forced to take. Her car dies. She meets a new friend. Did I mention her father happens to now be married to someone she knew in middle school?

Let's just say life is not going Drue Campbell's way. So, what does she do? Sulk? Wallow? Nope. She picks up the pieces and keeps going. Her new job with people very much from her past lands her in the middle of a murder mystery.

It all begins with wanting to help a grieving family. Good intentions that open up a whole mountain of corruption, money, and cover ups. It turns out Drue Campbell has a penchant for adventure and a flair for detective work. Who knew?

This is actually the first Mary Kay Andrews book I have read. I understand that this book is a departure from her recent works, which have very much been summer beach reads with a Southern flair in the sense that the cover of this book implies. This book has caught some of her fans unaware because the expectations do not match the reality. Interestingly Mary Kay Andrews started her career as a journalist and wrote ten mysteries under her real name, Kathy Hogan Trocheck before changing directions into the work she is currently known for. After her success as Mary Kay Andrews, the original mystery series has been released under the pen name "Mary Kay Andrews writing as Kathy Hogan Trochek." So, a mystery is not really a departure for her but rather a return to her roots. For me, with this being my first book by the author, I have no expectations.

Getting back to this book... A likable main character? Not always. A created romance? Most definitely. A contrived set of circumstances that enable a rookie to solve a mystery that has been a cold case for years? Too much so. A quiet book about beach days? Not quite. A light entertaining beach read? Not quite in the way I envision based on the cover and title but yes. Quickly read, quickly forgotten, but fun while it lasts.

The only remaining question is... Is this the start to a new series and an introduction to Mary Kay Andrews, mystery writer?

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Ash Family

Title:  The Ash Family
Author:  Molly Dektar
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2019. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501144863 / 978-1501144868

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Bay and I approached the farm at dawn."

Favorite Quote:  "... time is not a daisy chain but a big stack, each moment stacking on top of the next. You're always watched over by your future self. So your departed ... are always with you, and a moment of love is as good as a lifetime of love."

Berie is nineteen and on her way to college. Her mother has worked hard all her life to get Berie to this point and continues to make sacrifices to make college possible. Berie meets a random stranger at the bus stop and decides to take off with him in search of a different life. This brings her to a commune and the makeshift Ash "family."

So begins the story of this self-entitled teenager who goes in search of herself. Some of her internal dialogues express her level of maturity or lack thereof:
  • "But it was easier to love the Ash Family as an act of defiance, an act of scorn against all who had hurt me - rather than to love the Ash Family as a last resort."
  • "Oh, why couldn't I just be content with what I had? I was always looking for more. Maybe I would never be satisfied. The fake world was not enough, and neither was the real world, and I didn't know what to do; I hated myself."
  • "I reminded myself, 'Get relativity." Who was I to know whether something was good or bad? By what standards did we judge? The saddest moment might be the happiest moment. The thing and its opposite are kissing cousins. When you're sure that you're right, you're most wrong."
Not unexpectedly, she discovers that things with the Ash "family" are not quite as they seems and that this supposed, off the grid utopia may be hiding secrets more sinister than she imagines. The question is what choice will she make? Will she stay? Will she try and get out? Will she succeed?

Unfortunately, I find that I am not the reader for this book for many reasons. I find none of the characters likable. The main character is loved in her life; as such, I find her choices self-indulgent. The Ash "family" is a cult, and what they stand for unfortunately does not end up being a philosophical or ethical ground.

Perhaps, the biggest issue I have is the book's continuous reference to the "false" or "fake" world and the "real" world. The real news these days is a quagmire of claims of fake news and other such things. To me, it is a dangerous thing to see it mirrored in fiction, particularly in one that has a young adult as the main character and young adults as the potential audience.

The book may have been saved for me had there been a reckoning or a epiphany at the end. Unfortunately, that does not happen either. Rather, it seems to end just as randomly as it begins, with no apparent lesson learned. Sadly, I am really not the reader for this book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Josephine Baker's Last Dance

Title:  Josephine Baker's Last Dance
Author:  Sherry Jones
Publication Information:  Gallery Books. 2018. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1501102443 / 978-1501102448

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Sleep?"

Favorite Quote:  "People don't come to the theater for truth. Her fans want the dream, the candy coating:  a face with no lines, a heart never broken, a life free of cares."

Josephine Baker's Last Dance is another entry into the cadre of books that presents fictionalized stories of historical figures. So, who was Josephine Baker? Josephine Baker was an American who made France her adopted home. She was a woman of color who found greater acceptance and tolerance in Europe than in the United States as a young woman and even later in life during the 1960s and 1970s. She was the first African-American to star in a major motion picture. She was an entertainer. She was an agent of the French resistance during World War II. She was a civil rights activist.

Once again, fiction introduces me to a strong woman who I might never have met through the history books. I read the fiction and then go off to find out more about the history. However, I have high standards for the fiction as well. In this one, the lasting image of the book is not one of Josephine Baker, resistance fighter and activist but rather of Josephine Baker, a woman who survives a myriad of relationships.

The focal point of the book definitely is the men in Josephine Baker's life and the relationships - business and personal, loving and dysfunctional to the point of abusive. A lot of time is spent describing her childhood which ranged from neglectful to abusive. This felt like the most "real" part of the book as I feel for this little girl who wants her parent's love and is rejected time and time again. Her survival is a testament to courage and grit. Yet, the time developing this aspect of the story seems disproportionate to what comes after and how the rest of the story is told.

For example, the book tells briefly about the move La Sirene des Tropiques (The Siren of the Tropics) but focuses on one of her marriages which occurred at that time. It is only in my nonfiction research that I discover the significance of her role in that movie. The book makes it appear as a minor element of her career.

Similarly, later in life, Josephine Baker adopted children of different religions and ethnicities, hoping to create a "Rainbow Tribe" showing that we are one. The book speaks of the first adoption but focuses on her husband's anticipated and actual reaction more so than on her dream. Again, this aspect of her life is touched on and then passed over.

Along with the sometimes misplaced focus comes a feeling that I have throughout the book. It feels like I am being told a story. Something is missing in that the story never quite seems to come to life. It seems always from a distance. That is surprising as the woman and what I have read of her in historical sources seems larger than life with a vibrancy and spirit that should jump off the page. This fictional telling never quite gets there, but I am glad for the introduction it provides to this unique woman.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Night of Miracles

Title:  Night of Miracles
Author:  Elizabeth Berg
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 288 pages.
ISBN:  052550950X / 978-0525509509

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Surely you've had this happen."

Favorite Quote:  "Life is a mystery, death is a mystery, and everything in between is a mystery, too. The main thing is, people who are here, are here, for their own unique time upon earth."

The Story of Arthur Truluv was a story about loneliness and about friendship that can be found in the unlikeliest of places and about the family we create. For that, it was a sweet, sentimental, and heart warming story set in the small town of Mason, Missouri.

This book continues on the story of this small town. Lucille and Maddy - primarily Lucille - from the first book feature in this one also. This book introduces a new cast as well with their own need for support and community. This book is a sequel in the sense that it is the same place and some of the same characters. It stands alone in that reading the first book is not essential to following or understanding this story.

This is a book about recognizable, ordinary people living every day lives. Lucille is reflecting on age and the people she has lost. Maddy is contemplating marriage and the changes that will bring. Abby is facing illness and an uncertain future. Monica is looking for love, sometimes in all the wrong places. Iris is looking for a new beginning.

As with the first, the characters of this book embody a "character" - the lonely older woman, the divorced woman starting over, the ill mother, the happily engaged having misgivings, the father trying to keep home stable as his wife battles illness, and the little boy who steals everyone's heart.

This book is about not character growth or development. It is not about major plot twists or drama. It is not about depth of story. What happens is about what you would expect to happen. The book is just a quiet, sweet story about community and the families we create.

Mind you, this book is not as spiritual or metaphysical as the title would suggest. Visits from the angel of death also happen in this book, but that is an odd note in a book that is other wise about community and "regular" people. The other odd note in the book is the death of a character and the circumstances that is placed in. A bathtub? Really? To me, that too is not in keeping with the otherwise quiet and sanitized tone of this book.

This is not a lighthearted book either. Lucille's musings are focused on the losses in her life. A young mother fights a life-threatening illness. Another works through the loneliness of betrayal.

What resonated about The Story of Arthur Truluv also resonates about this book. It is a book about recognizable, ordinary people living ordinary lives. This one just does not strike the chord quite as strongly as the first one did.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Kinship of Secrets

Title:  The Kinship of Secrets
Author:  Eugenia Kim
Publication Information:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1328987825 / 978-1328987822

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On a chilly summer night, a newsmonger trudged uphill to a residential enclave of Seoul, the last neighborhood on his route."

Favorite Quote:  "... change happens with the slip of a word ... and one's view of the past and future were mutable."

War divides families in so many ways. This has been a reality through history and continues to be a reality for so many throughout the world. It is in fact the reality of the author's family. This fiction is written based on Eugenia Kim's own family history - modified and fictionalized but, at the heart of it, true.

Korea was divided into two sovereign nations in 1948, the point at which this book begins. The Korean War began in 1950 and ended in 1953 although technically no peace treaty has ever been signed. Technically, the war still goes on.

This book tells the story of a family - specifically, two sisters - divided and then reunited. In 1948, Najin and Calvin Cho leave South Korea for the United States. The seek better opportunities and leave with the hope of one day coming back. They are parents to two daughters - Miran and Inja. They take Miran with them and leave Inja behind with extended family. The decision is based on practicalities - health, travel, and economics. Even more so, perhaps, it is promise to return.

In alternating chapters, this book tells the story of Miran and Inja. Miran grows up, safe and secure in the United States. Yet, she faces the challenges of a first generation immigrant. She is also continually in the shadow of the sister left behind and aware of her parents' sorrow. Inja survives the harrowing years of the war; she grows up poor and at risk but always loved. It takes years, but finally at age sixteen, Inja is reunited with her parents. At this point, her parents and sister are not the family she knows, and the United States is not the culture she knows. That brings with it its own transition and challenges.

As is common with books that alternate perspectives, one side of the story calls to me more so. In this case, it is the Inja's story. Hers is the story of war, survival, and the immigrant experience. It is the story of the child left behind and then of the child separated from all that she knows and thrust into a new culture and a new life. She is always surrounded by love and yet faces hardship after hardship. Miran's story is the quieter one also of the immigrant experience and also of a child who grows up knowing that her parents' life is not complete with just her. She sees a longing in her parents for her sister that, in her thoughts, sometimes surpasses the love they show her.

The one jarring note in this book is the ultimate secret of why the Najin and Calvin take Miran and leave Inja behind. To me, that history becomes an unnecessary distraction from the heartbreaking choice to leave a child behind. It creates a difference between the two sisters that undermines that choice by placing an external burden on it. It is an unneeded note in an otherwise powerful and moving book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Rain Watcher

Title:  The Rain Watcher
Author:  Tatiana de Rosnay
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  1250200016 / 978-1250200013

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I will start with the tree."

Favorite Quote:  "... how come  his own mother had never noticed? The answer was clear, then. It was because she had never wanted to see it."

A family with secrets and history. A father whose passion is trees. A mother who marries in a whirlwind romance and then has a lifetime of secrets. A son who has yet to feel comfortable in his own skin, particularly around his family. A daughter with a dysfunctional marriage and a past buried in guilt. A beautiful city about to drown as the river floods. A few days time but a lifetime of memories and history.

This is the background of The Rain Watcher set in Paris as a family comes together to celebrate the father's birthday. As you might suspect, this is cause of reflection and conversations and history and perhaps a reckoning. You might expect this to be a powerful novel of strong emotions about a city, about family, about love and about acceptance.

Except that it is really not. Even now, I am not really sure what the point of the book really is. There are so many story lines opened and questions asked. None of them really go anywhere. Affairs. Accidents. Survivor's guilt. Abuse. Sexual identity. Parent-child bond. Marriage. Infidelity. Family expectations. Suicide. All of these familial ties wind back and forth through time and the history of this family; it is easy to get lost. All are set within the impending doom of the Seine flooding except that there is never a climactic culmination to that sense of anticipation.

An interesting naturalist note in the book. Paul Linden - the father - is a world renowned tree expert. The trees are his passion. You might even say the trees are his life. The how and the whys of this are never really explained except that the point is made that this passion seems to exclude pretty much everything else in his life. His two children are named Tilia and Linden. Tilia is a group of about 30 species of trees native to the Northern Hemisphere. Linden is the name given to the European varieties of that tree. Coincidence? Probably not, but then again not explained in the book.

The message I walk away with from this book is that children, no matter how old they get and no matter how successful they become in other parts of their lives, still seek and need their parents' approval. That approval may never come. Logically, the child (even adult children) may realize that it may never come, but the need for it never really goes away. A sad and emotional reality that unfortunately does not quite take center stage in this book. The stories are opened and the questions are asked. However, they don't really go anywhere. Perhaps, there is a greater metaphorical point to be made in that structure. Unfortunately, I don't get it.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

A Well-Behaved Woman

Title:  A Well-Behaved Woman:  A Novel of the Vanderbilts
Author:  Therese Anne Fowler
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1250095476 / 978-1250095473

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When they asked her about the Vanderbilts and Belmonts, about their celebrations and depredation, the mansions and balls, the lawsuits, the betrayals, the rifts - when they asked why she did the extreme things she'd done, Alva said it all began quite simply:  Once there was a desparate young woman whose mother was dead and whose father was dying almost as quickly as his money was running out."

Favorite Quote:  "... a change in fortune doesn't change who a person is. It reveals your true self, the one you were maybe hiding away."

The well-behaved woman of the title is Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Alva Smith was the name she was born with. Vanderbilt was the name she married into, and Belmont came later. While Smith may not be a recognized name, the Vanderbilt and Belmont names have both provided this nation with a legacy. Alva is a part of that legacy, with a contribution all her own.

This book is part of a growing trend of fictionalizing the lives of actual historical figures. The books don't simply reference historical characters. They create an image of what that life may have been like. Rule #1 of reading these books is to always remember that the books are not biographies. They are not history. They are a carefully crafted fiction - an author's imaginings of conversations and emotions and of events of which there may be no history. Typically, the works are researched so as to be based in history, but they are not history.

What I love about historical fiction is that it sends me in search of the history. I likely would never have picked up a biography of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. This fiction though did set me reading briefly about her actual life. What I learned is fascinating. Alva's legacy finds a home in the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument in Washington DC. Alva was a notable member of the National Woman's Party, which was active in promoting the women's suffragette movement and critical in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

I learned most of this from researching nonfictional sources about Alva's life but unfortunately not this book. The book does get there but late and only briefly. The bulk of this fictional story focuses on Alva's life as a young woman, her quest to marry William Vanderbilt, and their married life. It speaks to a life of poverty and a determined, concerted effort to emerge from that life through the way open to women at that time - marriage. It is about a marriage with its conveniences, its compromises, and its betrayals. It speaks to the gilded age of New York city, the lifestyles of the rich, and the glamorous homes they built. It is about the navigation and machinations to achieve and maintain a social strata and pecking order if you will.

I do wish the focus of the book had been flipped. It ends almost as Alva's true contribution to this nation's history begins. This story takes the history of a strong woman and makes it about money and marriage rather than work. It does lead me to research and learn about that contribution but unfortunately fails to capture it in the book itself. Interesting but leaves a lot missing.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.