Two Breezy Beach Reads

For your summer reading pleasure, here are two novels set adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean.

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A Hundred Summers     Beatriz Williams     (2013)

Beatriz Williams spins an old-school romance with the more explicit sex scenes of contemporary literature and comes up with a frothy confection of a chick-lit novel.

The story is set in Depression-era America, with chapters alternating between 1931 and 1938. In 1931, the sensible and lovely Lily Dane (student at Smith) meets the smart and handsome Nick Greenwald (student at Dartmouth) at a college football game. Although Nick gets his leg broken in that game, the two fall in love. Alas, the impediment to their lifelong happiness seems to be that Nick’s father is Jewish.

In the summer of 1938, the characters reunite at the fictional Seaview, Rhode Island, an oceanside retreat for the privileged few who are relatively unaffected by the 1929 economic crash. Lily’s best friend, the fashionable and reckless Budgie Byrne, is now married to Nick, while Lily is single, serving as a kind of nanny to her six-year-old sister, Kiki. Graham Pendleton, once a lover of Budgie’s, pursues Lily, who still pines for Nick.

Conundrums swirl. Why in the world would Nick have married Budgie, when they’re obviously unsuited to each other? Is Kiki really Lily’s sister or is she Lily and Nick’s love child? What’s going on with the Greenwald family business? What does Lily’s wacky and yet wise Aunt Julie know? How can these people drink so much alcohol and still stand on two feet? It all comes together with hurricane force in the final chapters, and an epilogue takes the story out to 1944.

Williams’ dialogue is sprightly and her plot moves right along, so even if you find that the characters verge on the stereotypical, I think you’ll enjoy this novel as you lounge on the sand under a summer sun. 

A Dangerous Collaboration     Deanna Raybourn     (2019)

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If your beach-read tastes lean more toward classic mysteries, this fourth installment in the Veronica Speedwell Series might serve. I dipped into A Dangerous Collaboration without having read the previous novels, and I figured out the background pretty quickly.

Veronica is a lepidopterist and sleuth who is shockingly independent and sexually liberated for the year 1888 in Britain. Stoker Templeton-Vane plays opposite her as her love interest and partner in detection. He’s a trained physician, which comes in handy, and a hunk who would not be out of place in a bodice-ripper romance. Veronica and Stoker stoke up their unconsummated attraction to each other with slick banter as they try to unravel the mysterious disappearance of a bride on an island off the Cornish coast.

Much of the plot is typical of English house-party murder mysteries, with Gothic elements impishly pointed out by the author’s choice of a character name invoking Bram Stoker, author of the 1897 Dracula. You’ll encounter a castle with secret tunnels and hidey holes galore, a garden of poisonous plants, a spooky séance, and an array of suspects that includes family members, household staff, and local villagers. The denouement is suitably sensational and watery, though the reader is pretty sure that Veronica and Stoker will survive and solve the mystery.

And there are even fictional rare butterflies!

Happy surfing!

 

Michigan Mysteries

Summer People     Aaron Stander     (2000)

Color Tour     Aaron Stander     (2006)

And seven additional titles 

The sand dunes, the sunsets, the resiny scent of pine forests: Michiganders will recognize the setting of Aaron Stander’s series of murder mysteries set in the northwest section of the Lower Peninsula, around the tip of the little finger of the hand, along the shores of Lake Michigan.

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The main detective in these novels is Sheriff Ray Elkins, a rumpled middle-aged former professor of criminal justice from downstate who has retreated to the North Woods where he was raised. He’s surrounded by a distinctive cast of year-round residents, who disdain the vacationers renting beach houses during the glorious warm months.  

In the series debut, Summer People, Elkins suspects links between a murder and three subsequent unusual deaths. Stander’s plot is nicely complex, and his characters come to life quickly and believably. The Lake Michigan images are spot on: “Ray paused at the door, looked out at the lake. He could make out the silhouette of a distant ore carrier steaming north to the Straits. From that height he could see the earth’s curve across the horizon and the long line of waves moving toward shore—there was a sense of rhythm and harmony in the scene.” (70) 

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In the next novel, Color Tour, it’s autumn in the Mitten State, the summer people have departed, and an elderly resident discovers a young man and woman murdered on a Lake Michigan beach. Since the dead woman was a teacher at a nearby private school, Sheriff Elkins must painstakingly interview a large number of suspects. As the investigation progresses, evidence seems to point to one character, then another and another, in an entertainingly indirect way. Though I did guess the surprise of the subplot early on, the murderer was a mystery to me until the end. 

The many state references will tickle those who, like me, love our nation’s third (Great Lakes) coast. Small Michigan details drop in on almost every page, as in this description of a minor character in Summer People: “A string tie hung on his chest: A Petoskey stone cut in the shape of the Michigan mitten was centered on the two strands of the tie.” (144) And the folks Up North do appreciate delicacies from other parts of the state. For instance, in Color Tour, a detective is sent south to check out some evidence with the words, “’If you have time on your way out of Ann Arbor, here’s a few things I need from Zingerman’s Deli.’” (152)  

I’m sad to report, however, that these two novels desperately needed a copy editor and a proofreader to catch typos, wrong words, awkward phrasings, and inconsistencies, which distract from otherwise competent writing. I still plan to read more in the Sheriff Ray Elkins series, the seven additional titles of which are 

Deer Season (2009)

Shelf Ice (2010)

Medieval Murders (2011)

Cruelest Month (2012)

Death in a Summer Colony (2013)

Murder in the Merlot (2015)

Gales of November (2016)

Brazil, Early 1960s

All Is Beauty Now     Sarah Faber     (2017)

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Historical facts that I learned from this novel:  After the American Civil War, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 Southerners fled to Brazil, where slavery was still legal and where the Brazilian government offered them incentives to settle. These immigrants, called the Confederados, and their descendants lived in enclaves, mostly near Rio de Janeiro and Sấo Paulo. Although there was considerable intermarriage with Brazilians over the decades, Confederados were an identifiable ethnic group in Brazil as late as the 1960s and 1970s.

Dora, a descendant of Confederados, is married to Hugo, a handsome Canadian engineer. They live outside Rio and have three daughters. In the opening pages of All Is Beauty Now, the eldest daughter, Luiza, disappears while swimming in the South Atlantic in March 1962. Canadian novelist Susan Faber slowly unfolds the back story to this disappearance, probing deeply into the psyches of each of the five members of the family. The chapters move forward and backward in time and switch off among characters. It soon becomes apparent that Hugo’s mental illness is a catalyst for many other actions in the plot. Hugo would likely be diagnosed today as having bipolar disorder, but in the early 1960s the term did not exist, nor did effective treatments.

I dipped into All Is Beauty Now over a period of several weeks, soaking up descriptions of the white-sand beaches and lush gardens, the wild riotousness of Carnival, the extravagance of the nightclubs in Rio. Hugo finds that, compared with Canada, “Rio was a demented Eden, crackling with newness and feeling . . . Here, below the equator, as the Brazilians say, there is no sin.” (37)

Beneath the surface issue of Luiza’s presumed drowning, Faber analyzes, perhaps in too much detail, the effect of Hugo’s mental state on his family and on others around him. The question of drug treatment for Hugo is fraught. For example, in a flashback, Luiza asks herself, “What if the doctors stripped away his moods, then found there was nothing left?” (55) As the family prepares to move to Hugo’s native Canada to seek better care for him, Dora muses on the luxury of having servants in Brazil:  “When the Confederados arrived in Brazil, her father told her, they found cockroaches the size of a fist, and mosquitoes carrying dengue, malaria, encephalitis. A third of her ancestors died; a third went home, and accepted Northern rule; a third stayed, thrashed and coaxed the landscape. And now she, their descendant, can do almost nothing for herself, by herself. Some part of her is grateful that Canada will be hard. Perhaps all that labour will wash away the slick sheen of her advantages.” (260)

Faber’s prose ranges from languid to exotic in this melancholic novel. The pacing of this novel is very slow, totally unhurried, like a drowsy day on a magnificent beach. But the ocean can sweep anyone away with cruel rapidity.