Saturday, April 10, 2021

Summertime Guests

Summertime Guests

Title:
  Summertime Guests
Author:  Wendy Francis
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2021. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1525895982 / 978-1525895982

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It wasn't as if Riley could have anticipated what would happen later that day."

Favorite Quote:  "Because if today's tragedy has underscored anything for him, it's that life needs to be celebrated. That even when death surrounds them - maybe most especially when death surround them - they need to push on and celebrate all that they hold dear."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Review


Summertime Guests, with its lovely water side summery cover, is set not on a beach but in an iconic hotel in the heart of Boston. The water views are of the bay. The summer delights are of a hotel that has recently reopened after a renovation and reinvention.

The book begins with a dramatic event. A woman falls to her death from a higher up floor of the hotel. The event is witnessed by hotel guests and staff. The identity of the woman is unknown. hence the mystery.

As the book proceeds, it is clear that unless an ending brings in a character out of the blue, there are two possibilities for who the deceased is. The question of accident, suicide, or foul play remains open.

As the book  proceeds, it is also clear that the book is about more than the mystery. As the author's note at the end states, "I've also been wanting to write a modern love story, one that centered on four different couple who were in various stages of a relationship."

That is the heart of the book. There are Gwen and Jason, the young couple in a relatively new relationship who come to the hotel to celebrate a birthday. The uncertainty and the baggage each brings to the relationship looms large. There are Riley and Tom, the couple who are planning their wedding and determining how their lives and families mesh together. They are also trying to prevent the monumental task of planning a wedding from overshadowing their joy in each other. There are Jean-Paul and Marie, the couple who has been married for a while. With a job-related move from France to the United States and a new baby, many pressures tug on their relationship and their love. Finally, there is Claire, the recent widow, who contemplates what her life has been and thinks of the paths not taken.

Within the context of these relationships, the author traverses a lot of emotional ground, reaching back into childhood traumas and first loves and forward into medical diagnoses. Depending on the stage of life the reader is at, you can find much to relate to with any of these characters. Trigger warning:  one of the relationships involves abuse and violence.

By the end of the book, the mystery of the deceased identity is not much of a mystery. However, that does not matter because I invest in the stories of the characters and the relationships and where they are going. The relationships are also not fully resolved, which is real life. All, however, have a path forward and hence a conclusion to the story is satisfying. It may or may not be a happily ever after, but that adds to the reality of the book.

What I expect to be a summer beach read mystery turns into something else. It is still an easy, quickly read summer beach read but about family, relationships, and emotions that leaves much to relate to and much to think about.

About the Author

Wendy Francis is a former book editor and the author of the novels The Summer Sail, The Summer of Good Intentions, Three Good Things, and Best Behavior. Her essays have appeared in Good Housekeeping, The Washington Post, Yahoo Parenting, The Huffington Post, and WBUR's Cognoscenti. A proud stepmom of two grown-up children, she lives outside Boston with her husband and eleven-year-old son.

About the Book

Sip cocktails in the lounge, bask in the summer sun by the pool, and experience the drama of the rich and famous firsthand in Wendy Francis’s newest novel, SUMMERTIME GUESTS (Graydon House; April 6, 2021; $16.99 USD). With its rich history and famous guests, The Seafarer is no stranger to drama. But the bustle at the social hotspot reaches new heights one weekend in mid-June when a woman falls tragically to her death from the tenth floor, unwittingly intertwining her life with the lives of the hotels’ guests and staff.

Claire O’Dell, reeling from the loss of her husband and possibly her job, has gone to The Seafarer for a little vacation…and to reconnect with a long-lost-love. Jean-Paul, the hotel’s manager, is struggling to keep his marriage and new family afloat. Bride-to-be Riley is at the hotel to plan her wedding with her fiancé ... or, she’s at the hotel with her fiancé while her mother-in-law tells them how to plan their wedding. Jason, whose romantic getaway with his girlfriend has not exactly gone the way he'd hoped and instead has him facing questions about his past that he can't bring himself to answer.

As their truths and secrets come to light, the lives of these four will collide in tragic, beautiful ways none of them could have expected that will teach them about the love they deserve and the strength they possess to change their lives for the better.

Excerpt

Excerpted from Summertime Guests by Wendy Francis, Copyright © 2021 by Wendy Francis
Friday June 11th, 2021
ONE

It wasn’t as if Riley could have anticipated what would happen later that day. None of them could. Because when you’re at a tasting for your wedding reception at one of Boston’s ritziest hotels, trying to decide between crab cakes or lobster quiches, no one thinks of anything bad happening. Or at least, this is what Riley tells herself later. Why she—and no one else there—could possibly be to blame.

At the moment, though, Riley is sitting at a table by the window, half-listening to her future mother-in-law while she sips gazpacho the color of marigolds. Something about wanting to know if the outdoor terrace can be transformed into a dance floor, assuming the weather cooperates. If Riley were asked to gauge her interest in planning her own wedding, she would characterize it as mild at best. Her only requirement being that she and Tom marry in July—and that the flowers are pale pink peonies from Smart Stems, the shop where she has worked for the past three years.

It was Tom who’d suggested the Seaport District for their reception, Boston’s new up-and-coming neighborhood, and Riley had happily agreed. It’s an easy spot for guests to travel to, and the setting is over-the-top gorgeous with views of both the city and the water. Not to mention the promise of fresh seafood—an almost impossible request if they were to wed in Riley’s hometown of Lansing, Michigan, where everything remains hopelessly landlocked.

But she hadn’t counted on Tom’s mother wanting to be so, well, involved. Maybe it’s the fact that Riley’s own mother passed away a few short years ago, and so Marilyn feels compelled to step up and fill her mother’s shoes. A retired schoolteacher, her mother-in-law-to-be still tackles each new day with the necessary energy for a classroom of boisterous second-graders, a gusto which she now seems to be funneling into her son’s nuptials. At first, Riley was grateful, but while she sits listening to the hotel’s wedding coordinator drone on about the Seafarer’s rich history, she’s beginning to feel as though she has stepped into one of those horrible, never-ending lines at Disney for a ride she doesn’t particularly want to go on.

Riley is well aware that the Seafarer is one of the most coveted venues for weddings, especially in light of its recent renovations. It’s no secret that New England’s most glamorous, its most fashionable clamor to stay here and that the Seafarer’s well-appointed rooms are typically booked months in advance. She should be grateful that they’re even considering it as an option. Rumor has it that everyone from Winston Churchill to Taylor Swift has been a guest (as the saying goes, if you want to appear in the society pages of the Boston Globe, then spend a few hours at the Seafarer’s exclusive summer cocktail hour from four to six). As for out-of-towners hoping to take in the full scene that Boston can be—with its attendant snobbishness and goodwill and weird accents wrapped into one—the Seafarer, Riley understands, puts you in the heart of it.

Not that she has anything against tradition, but if it were up to her alone, she would probably choose a smaller, more modest setting, a wedding with no more than fifty guests. There’d be a justice of the peace and rows of white chairs lining the harbor, the wind whipping her veil in front of her face. Naturally, she’d want a reception afterward, but Riley counts herself as the type of girl who’d be equally content with trays of fish tacos and margaritas under a tent as with oysters on the half shell served in a tony hotel restaurant.

“I can’t reveal everyone,” the coordinator is saying in hushed tones, “but it’s no secret that some of Boston’s greatest legends have celebrated their nuptials with us.” Riley shoots Tom a sideways glance, as if to say Is she for real? but her fiancé’s chin rests firmly in his hand, his attention rapt. He’s eating up every word.

“Well, Gillian, it’s all very impressive,” Tom’s mother says, slipping her reading glasses back into her pocketbook after a review of the menu. Her hair is pulled back in a severe ponytail, her lips coated in her trademark color, fuchsia. “It’s no wonder Boston’s finest flock here for their special occasions. The view alone is to die for.” She gestures toward the expanse of crystalline water out the window, the romantic outline of the city’s financial district in the distance. “Kids, wouldn’t it be something to come back here every year to toast your anniversary?”

Marilyn shoots Riley a wink, as if the two of them are in cahoots to convince Tom that this is the spot, meant to be. There’s no need to point out that she and Tom could never afford such a venue. They already discussed it over dinner the other night when Marilyn revealed that she’d gone ahead and booked an appointment for a tasting at the Seafarer on Friday and how she hoped Riley wouldn’t mind. “I don’t want you to worry about money, dear,” she instructed. “Tom’s dad and I would be honored to host. Tom is our only child after all.”

And Riley had breathed a tiny sigh of relief while swallowing her pride. Not because she wants an extravagant wedding but because it means that she and Tom can now channel the nest egg they’ve been building toward a mortgage on a new home instead of toward an elaborate one-day celebration. It’s a much more sensible use of their money, and Riley, having grown up poor verging on destitute, is nothing if not sensible.

Can she really imagine herself celebrating her marriage here, though? Tom keeps missing her not-so-thinly veiled comments about the food on the menu, which leans toward the bite-size variety that he hates (precisely because it never fills him up), but he has said nothing. Maybe he’s just being polite. Riley quickly scans the room for other future newlyweds, but most of today’s diners appear to be here for business lunches—buttoned-up men in suits and women in sharp blazers with silk shifts underneath. A few couples, perhaps away for a romantic long weekend, and a group of older women sharing a bottle of wine, sit wedged into the corners. It’s a lovely space, but is it too lovely?

She shifts in her seat and tries to picture her dad here, wearing his familiar old sports coat that’s nearly worn through at the elbows, his khaki pants and penny loafers, pretending to feel comfortable when he wouldn’t know which fork to reach for, which glass to use.

When Marilyn turns toward to her and says, “Don’t you agree, Riley?” Riley feels her cheeks flushing because she hasn’t been paying attention. She has no idea what her future mother-in-law is referring to.

“I’m sorry. What was the question again?” She’s slightly annoyed that Tom can’t—or won’t—decide on a few things himself or at the very least rein his mother in. Especially because they talked about this very thing—not letting Marilyn take over the tasting—last night! They’re discussing the appetizers, apparently, and all Riley knows is that she doesn’t want crudités. If there’s one rule she’s abiding by, it’s that her wedding menu will include only those foods that she can pronounce.

It seems there should be a box on a list that they can check for the Standard Reception—something not overtly cheap but not insanely expensive, either. Tom squeezes her knee beneath the table, though it’s unclear if it’s meant as encouragement or as a reprimand for her not giving this conversation one hundred percent. What Riley really wants to know is this: How can she avoid attending any more tastings with Marilyn? Should she just agree to the Seafarer right now and be done with it?

“Mom was wondering,” Tom says in complete seriousness, “if you thought it would be better to have cold and hot hors d’oeuvres or just cold since the wedding will be in July?”

“Oh, right.” Riley pretends to consider her options. “Good point. It’s bound to be hot, so I wonder—”

But somewhere between the words so and wonder, a loud whistle of air followed by a deafening blast socks through the room like a fist, sending Riley to grab the table and Tom to reach for her hand. Marilyn’s fork drops from her elongated fingers, clattering onto her plate, and the room seems to shake for a brief moment. There are shouts followed by an eerie hush while the dining room settles back into itself. Riley watches the other diners who begin to mumble to each other across their tables, asking if they’re okay and spinning in their seats to better determine the source of the blast. The woman at the adjacent table hovers on the edge of her chair, as if considering diving underneath the table.

When Riley glances over at Gillian, she looks equally alarmed and as surprised as the rest of them, which means this isn’t some kind of bizarre emergency testing by the hotel. Whatever they heard was real. Significant. Riley’s eyes slide toward Tom, then Marilyn, whose face has turned a shade as pale as milk, then back to Tom.

“What on earth was that?” Marilyn gasps, her voice an octave too high, her fingers fluttering to her necklace. It’s a silver chain studded with azure stones, the kind of jewelry that Riley has come to associate with women of a certain age.

“I’m not sure.” Gillian’s voice cracks. “It almost sounded like some kind of explosion, didn’t it?” And then, as if remembering her wedding-coordinator cap, she rushes to reassure them. “But I’m sure it’s nothing like that. Maybe a blown transformer?

But both Riley and Tom exchange glances because no matter how ill-versed they are in loud noises, that definitely was not a transformer. It wasn’t so much a popping sound as a crash, she thinks. Did the massive chandelier in the lobby fall? Did it come from the kitchen? Construction work outside maybe? It’s hard to tell.

“Not to be overly dramatic, but it almost felt like an earthquake,” Riley says. “The table actually shook, I think.” And although she understands that the curiosity sparked inside her is somehow inappropriate, she wants an explanation. “Whatever it was,” she says, lowering her voice, “it sounded awfully close.”

“Yes, very close,” Marilyn agrees, still fiddling with her necklace.

And that’s when the screams begin. Not from the kitchen at the back of the restaurant, not from the lobby, but from outside, just beyond the elegant bay windows peering out onto the terrace that fronts the water, the ocean seemingly close enough to dip a hand into. Riley’s glance swivels toward the small crowd that’s beginning to form outside near the firepit and hot tub.

“If you’ll excuse me?” Gillian says, as if emerging from a fog, and rises awkwardly to her feet before heading toward the row of windows.

Riley’s gaze follows her, and suddenly, she, too, feels compelled to get up, as if an invisible string tugs her toward the window. She hurries forward and angles around Gillian for a better view. But when she does, she immediately regrets her decision. Because it’s not a collapsed scaffolding or an awning or even construction work that has caused the sudden shaking, the loud blast.

But a woman, lying facedown on the terrace, several yards beyond the window.

The body lies completely still, the woman’s legs scissored like a rag doll’s, her left leg angled upward awkwardly. A curtain of muddy blond hair shields her face from view. Riley watches while a few bystanders move hesitantly toward the woman, as if afraid of startling her, until someone kneels down and grasps her wrist, presumably to check for a pulse. A man in blue running shorts and a Red Sox T-shirt yells for someone to call 9-1-1.

To Riley, it looks as if the woman was perhaps reaching for a glass that slipped from her hand, her arms still outstretched above her head. Her body is long, lean, even elegant. Riley holds her breath, waiting, and feels Gillian stiffen beside her when a youngish man, nicely tanned and formally dressed, parts the crowd and gently encourages everyone to take a few steps back. He assures them that an ambulance is on the way and speaks with an authority that suggests his importance.

“That’s Jean-Paul, our manager,” Gillian says quietly as they watch him crouch down next to the woman and brush her hair away from her face.

Just then, a young man in the crowd throws his hand to his mouth and rushes off, and Riley stands on her tiptoes for a better view. And that’s when she sees it, too—the wild splash of bright red she hadn’t noticed earlier that lies at the far edge of the woman’s hair. And in that awful moment, Riley—and everyone else watching—understands. An image of a woman in her yellow summer dress, cartwheeling through the air from somewhere up high, perhaps her hotel balcony, spirals through her mind.

“Oh, my God.” It hits her all at once, a hollow pit forming in her stomach.

“Jesus,” says Tom, who has come up beside her to rest a hand on her shoulder. “She’s not moving.”

“No.”

It’s obvious to them both, but somehow still needs to be said, as if by acknowledging it aloud, the woman might hear their words through the open window, might somehow will herself to move an inch, if only to give them a sign—a flutter of a hand, the shifting of a foot—that she’s going to be all right.

But her body remains completely, horribly still.
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Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Children's Blizzard


Title:
  The Children's Blizzard
Author:  Melanie Benjamin
Publication Information:  Delacorte Press. 2021. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0399182284 / 978-0399182280

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

Opening Sentence:  "They came on boats, on trains, great unceasing waves of them - the poor, the disenfranchised, the seekers, the dreamers."

Favorite Quote:  "The Great Plains were immense enough to inspire the grandest, most foolish of dreams - but they were also vast enough that no one could ever explore every corner."

The Children's Blizzard is also known as the Schoolhouse or School children's Blizzard. It hit the plains states on January 12, 1888.  "The blizzard, created when an enormous trough of cold air rushing in from the Arctic had met up with an equally enormous influx of warm, wet air from the gulf, gobbled up everything in its path. The collision generated a force of energy no one could remember seeing in their lifetimes, but that all would talk about with wonder until the day they died." The blizzard hit on an unseasonably warm day, and it hit suddenly at a time when many were at work and at school. In other words, there was no warning, and 235 lives were lost. "... those who experienced the storm would never forget it; they would pass the stories down from one generation to the next, and they wouldn't embellish them because they didn't need to."

This book tells a fictionalized account of this storm and its aftermath. It presents three views. One teacher let out school early, leaving the children to find their way home. One teacher kept her students together as best she could. A parent found his way to his daughter's school, determined to keep those in that school safe. The impact and repercussions of these decisions forever altered the course of their lives and the lives of those in their care.

Within the context of this storm, this book also paints a picture of a time and a place. It tells of the immigrant experience and the settler experience of people who left all they knew in search of a better life. It speaks of the treatment of Native Americans and the schooling available for their children. It speaks of the racial divides and the prejudices. It depicts the harshness of prairie life and the resilience and perseverance of those who settled this nation. This provides context and background, but it also means that there is lot going on in this book.

The second half of the book deals with the aftermath of the storm and goes in many different directions. Ultimately, this half ends up the story of women and the men in their lives. The personal stories of the women head in the direction of being attracted to, being duped by, longing for, and making decisions in reaction to men in their lives. The book even ends on a romantic note, with a romance born out of loss. That entire tone in the book seems not in line with the rest of the story. In a time and place where survival often relied on the strength of the women, this focus seems a disservice to the women.

Based on the title and timing, the theme of the book is the blizzard. Given the wide net the book casts, there are a lot of characters and stories. Overall, there is a bit too much going on. However, I truly appreciated learning about the blizzard and the historical context of the time. 


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