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!

 

1947 in the US and the UK: 2 Novels

By chance, I picked up from my library two historical novels set in the same year, 1947. In the immediate aftermath of the devastation of World War II, ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to get on with their lives. 

The Stars Are Fire     Anita Shreve     (2017)

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In 1947 coastal Maine, an extreme drought contributed to October wildfires that devastated nine small towns and left 2500 people homeless. Into this historical setting, Anita Shreve places a fictional young wife and mother, Grace Holland. Grace’s husband, Gene, joins a group of volunteers trying to fight the fires. Meanwhile, Grace is left to save herself, her infant, and her toddler by crouching with them for hours in shallow water at the ocean’s edge. As much of an ordeal as this is, Grace’s life after the fire poses even more challenges, since she finds herself without a house or any means of support. Kindly friends in a neighboring town take in Grace and her children, while she finds reserves of courage that she didn’t know she had.

There’s some melodrama in this novel, especially in several farfetched plot coincidences. And I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of full development of the character of Gene Holland. The Holland marriage, as it’s depicted in the months before the fires, is not a happy one, and Gene seems to suffer from depression. Shreve mentions that he served in World War II, so maybe he suffers from PTSD (“battle fatigue” in WWII parlance), but this aspect of his personality isn’t explored, so Gene serves primarily as a foil to Grace.  

On balance, however, the positives in this novel outweighed the negatives for me. A strong female lead character makes bold life choices in the face of terrible circumstances, and she’s surrounded by other distinctive female characters. The post-WWII American household is evoked well, right down to the wringer washers.  

The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding     Jennifer Robson     (2019)

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In 1947 London, the severe rationing of the war years is still in effect, and many Londoners are mourning the loss of loved ones, both on the battlefields and in the Blitz. Then the wonderful, cheering announcement comes: Princess Elizabeth (whom we know now as Queen Elizabeth II) is engaged to marry Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten (now Prince Philip). The fashion house of Norman Hartnell is commissioned to make the princess’s wedding gown, which is to be embellished with elaborate appliques and thousands of tiny jewels. These are the historical facts around which novelist Jennifer Robson imagines the lives of two of the working-class women employed as embroiderers by Hartnell—Englishwoman Ann Hughes and a French immigrant who survived Nazi persecution, Miriam Dassin.  

The tale of Ann and Miriam is enlivened by interspersed chapters from the 2016 life of the granddaughter of Ann Hughes, Heather Mackenzie, who lives in Toronto, Canada. Heather inherits from her grandmother a box of exquisite embroideries and an old photo of Ann and Miriam. Researching images that she finds online, Heather discovers that the fabrics look very much like the 1947 wedding gown of Princess Elizabeth, and she travels to London to get some answers. Why did Ann never speak about her stitching on this famous gown? Why did she emigrate to Canada? Who were Ann’s co-workers? What was it like to live in grim post-war London and yet spend your working days sewing fabulous materials for the British royal family? Heather unravels these mysteries from her present-day information, while readers gradually learn the facts from 1947.  

You do not have to know anything about embroidery (I certainly don’t) to appreciate the artistry being described by Robson. I kept turning back to the cover of the book, with its photo from the 1947 wedding of Elizabeth and Philip, to visualize that gown. And with Robson’s help I could easily picture Ann sitting by the wireless, eating gristly meat scraps, her slippers having been warmed in the oven because there was no coal for a fire on a bitter winter night. There’s romance in The Gown, and there’s exploitation, revenge, friendship, despair, and triumph.    

PS—For another novel set right after World War II, try The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, reviewed here.  

Swashbuckling

The Vineyard     María Dueñas     (2017)

Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García

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In this sweeping page-turner, María Dueñas recounts a year in the life of Mauro Larrea, as he travels from Mexico City to Havana and on to Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. The year is 1861, and Larrea, a wealthy silver miner, has lost his fortune because his investments became entangled in the American Civil War.

Larrea’s determination to launch another business, with borrowed funds, sends him forth from his home in Mexico City and away from his beloved daughter, Mariana, who is soon to give birth to his first grandchild. Larrea lands first in Cuba, where he faces some culture shock despite the links of language and heritage. He risks everything in a wild gamble, ending up as the owner of an abandoned vineyard in his native Spain. He doesn’t want to run a winery and sails to Jerez intent on selling the vineyard, but he gets entrenched in various sub-plots involving the vineyard’s former owners, including the glamorous and brilliant Soledad Montalvo, now the wife of a London wine merchant. Oh, and he’s worried about his errant son, Nico, who’s living the high life in Paris.

That’s the plot in a nutshell, but this summary doesn’t do justice to the scenes that Dueñas can conjure up, from grimy silver mines to glittering concert halls, from the swirling dust of Mexico to the oppressive humidity of Havana and the wine-infused air of Andalusia. Although the story moves along at a rapid pace, Dueñas is able to help readers visualize each setting with well-chosen descriptors, and she conveys the emotions of Larrea, whose thoughts readers have access to. I became quite fond of the character Larrea, a handsome widower with scars from his years of manual labor, a man who knows how to drive a hard bargain but is soft toward his family and close friends. He’s a man with a conscience, often thinking what his trusted advisors would tell him when he’s in a tough situation. And he certainly does get himself into tough situations as this novel careens along. At times he feels “caught up in this spider’s web that seemed humanly impossible to extricate himself from.” (474)

Yes, The Vineyard is swashbuckling historical romance, but it’s well wrought, in a good translation. And if you like this book, don’t miss the excellent Netflix production of Dueñas’s 2009 novel, The Time in Between, about a seamstress in 1930s Spain who rises in the field of haute couture and then becomes a spy. 

Books in Brief, Part 3

If you’ve been reading the blog regularly, you know that I devote full reviews to only a small number of the books that pass through my hands each week. Here are three novels that I abandoned after a few chapters or just skimmed through. They may have qualities that engage you more!

In the Name of the Family     Sarah Dunant     (2016)

You’d think that the inclusion of the famously conniving historical characters Niccolò Machiavelli and Lucrezia Borgia would spark up this novel, but I found the 40 pages that I read to be lackluster. I’ve liked other Sarah Dunant novels set in the Italian Renaissance (eg, The Birth of Venus), so perhaps with In the Name of the Family Dunant is trying too hard to redeem the reputation of Lucrezia. Or perhaps I’m weary of the slimy Borgia brood and their confederates from too many books and television series.

 

 

My Italian Bulldozer     Alexander McCall Smith     (2016)

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I’m a big fan of several of McCall Smith’s series of novels, especially the 44 Scotland Street Series, which I’ve reviewed on this blog. Sadly, McCall Smith’s stand-alone novels tend to be weaker narratively. My Italian Bulldozer is a lightweight romance/comedy, in which the main character is forced to accept a rental bulldozer instead of a rental car on a business trip to Montalcino, Italy. McCall Smith can usually pull off ridiculous plot twists, but this one didn’t work for me.

 

 

Six Four     Hideo Yokoyama     (2012/2016)  translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies

The international bestseller from Japan is finally available in an excellent (British) English translation. The central character of this police procedural murder mystery is Yoshinobu Mikami, a former detective who now heads media relations for the police. The title refers to the year of the emperor’s reign when a notorious child-murder occurred. In addition to solving this cold case, dealing with the press, and fighting police corruption, Mikami is dealing with the disappearance of his teen daughter. The insights into Japanese culture are fascinating, and the extended dialogue is well done. But I just skimmed this one, simply because I don’t care for police procedurals. If you do, Six Four is a winner.

A Young Adult Romance

The Boy Next Door     Katie Van Ark     (2016)

Swoon Reads is an online community for readers and writers of Young Adult fiction (swoonreads.com). Writers submit manuscripts for rating and commentary by readers and writers; the very best submissions are published as paperback books by a division of Macmillan. Katie Van Ark’s novel was one of the winners in the romance category, and since she’s a distant relative of mine, I’m stepping out of my usual review zone to tell you about The Boy Next Door.

Lead characters Maddy and Gabe are high school students who’ve known each other since childhood. They’re also competitive figure skating partners, and they’re at the top of the sport, heading toward international events. Maddy has always been in love with Gabe. Gabe, however, has decided to keep things platonic with Maddy, and he dates other young women. When their skating coach picks the theme music from Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet for their new routine, Maddy and Gabe have to display attraction toward each other on the ice, and the main plot takes off. As in real life, the path of romance in The Boy Next Door is not straightforward but winding. The chapters alternate first-person narratives from Maddy and Gabe, and several subplots are woven in neatly.

What’s most striking about The Boy Next Door is the figure skating, which unifies the narrative without overpowering the romance theme, even though Maddy and Gabe put in a staggering number of hours at the ice arena. Van Ark knows the sport as an insider, and she describes elaborate skating routines in elegant prose. I know nothing about figure skating, but I was flying along as Maddy executed those triple Axels, cheering for Maddy and Gabe both as skaters and as romantic partners.

Even if you don't usually read romances, pick this one up. As a bonus for Midwesterners, it’s set in Kansas and written by a Michigander!

British Chick Lit

My Not So Perfect Life     Sophie Kinsella     (2017)

The British writer Sophie Kinsella is a phenomenon in the chick lit genre. Her nine novels in the Shopaholic series (starting with Confessions of a Shopaholic, 2001) have sold in the millions and have been translated into 30 languages. She’s also written eight standalone novels under the Sophie Kinsella pen name. Writing under her actual name, Madeleine Wickham, she has another eight titles. I decided to find out for myself why this author is so popular around the world.

My Not So Perfect Life is one of the standalone novels, so Kinsella has to set up and then wrap up her story in one volume. In some ways it’s a straightforward romantic tale: struggling young working class woman falls for fabulously wealthy guy. But then added in to the mix is a small-scale workplace mystery, plus the British obsession with social class, accent, and county of birth.

Katie Brenner, age 28, is a low-level employee at a London branding firm that creates images and advertising campaigns for consumer products. She’s from rural Somerset, in the southwest of England, but her dream has been to live in London. Katie is barely surviving, sharing a miserable flat with two odd characters, enduring a lengthy commute, and navigating complex office politics. But she posts idyllic photos of London scenes on Instagram to lead her followers to believe that she’s happy. Her boss, Demeter Farlowe, seems to have a perfect life—perfect job, perfect family, perfect clothes, perfect makeup. Katie wants to be Demeter, and she’s taken steps in that direction, preparing a portfolio of branding designs and ideas, with hopes of rising in her profession. She’s worked to eliminate her Somerset accent and has styled herself as “Cat” instead of “Katie.” She’s also met and fallen for one of the executives of the firm.

A crisis comes when Katie gets fired. She has no choice but to return to Somerset, though she tells her family that she’s on “sabbatical” from her job. This is handy, since her father and stepmother are launching a glamping business, turning their farm into a glamorous high-end campground. Katie does a terrific job of setting up and promoting the business. Then who should appear for a week of elegant camping in Somerset but Demeter and her family. Comedy and romance ensue.

I found some of Kinsella’s plot elements contrived and tedious. For example, Demeter, who doesn’t recognize the Somerset version of Katie, agrees to undergo a fake Druid ritual that’s deeply humiliating. However, Kinsella makes Katie a pretty convincing character through first-person narrative. Readers may come to cheer Katie on as she resolves the rural/urban conflict and figures out her career and relationship options. She even becomes more honest in her Instagram posts. Here’s one of Katie’s conclusions:

“I think I’ve finally worked out how to feel good about life. Every time you see someone’s bright-and-shiny, remember: They have their own crappy truths too. Of course they do. And every time you see your own crappy truths and feel despair and think, Is this my life, remember: It’s not. Everyone’s got a bright-and-shiny, even if it’s hard to find sometimes.” (417)

A Reunion Romance

Miss You     Kate Eberlen     (2016)

Reunion Romances: You may not know the category name, but you’ve probably read one at some point. In a Reunion Romance, the two protagonists are not attracted to each other at their first meeting or are somehow thwarted in romance. They meet again at a later time—often years later—and then really hit it off romantically. Sometimes the protagonists meet several times before realizing how suited they are to each other. The tension in Reunion Romances arises from seeing the diverging paths of the protagonists and then watching those paths converge.

In Miss You, Kate Eberlen offers a Reunion Romance with a twist: the two protagonists, Tess and Gus, don’t actually meet until the very end of the novel. Well, they do see each other in passing many times over a period of about sixteen years, and through odd coincidences, they just miss meeting a couple more times. Anticipating and then spotting their meetings is kind of like watching Alfred Hitchcock’s brief background appearances in each of his films.

Eberlen has constructed, in effect, two separate coming-of-age novels, one about Tess and one about Gus, that link after 400 pages. In August 1997, when Tess is eighteen, she takes a European backpack vacation with a friend before she’s scheduled to start at university in London in the fall. Gus, who is also eighteen and also heading to university, is in Italy with his parents, and all three are still grieving from the recent death of Gus’s older brother. In Florence, Tess and Gus run into each other at tourist spots (a basilica, a gelateria) and exchange a few words, but they never introduce themselves. That’s it. Neither one remembers or thinks about the other for many years, although they meet or almost meet several more times.

In Miss You, the individual stories of Tess and Gus, each presented in first-person narrative, are well developed. Both characters face frustrations in achieving the goals they’ve set for themselves in life. Tess has to give up her plans for university when her mother dies, leaving Tess to care for her younger sister, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Gus, living in the shadow of his deceased brother, is pushed into studying medicine when he’d have preferred a career in the arts. Over time, Tess and Gus both have relationships with other people, but those relationships never quite work out.

Eberlen gives us full pictures of Tess and Gus, especially as they deal with the ongoing sadness of losing a close family member. And their sadness is not the same: Tess loved her mother dearly, whereas Gus was constantly bullied by his brother. The secondary characters, some of whom are doozies, come to life as well. The backdrop of London is lovingly described in many passages. Here’s one, with Tess narrating:  “No movie I’ve seen captures London’s variety: the serene elegance of the white stucco buildings; the improbable red-brick Christmas cake of the Royal Albert Hall, golden Albert glinting in the sunshine; horses galloping on Rotten Row; crazy swimmers diving into the Serpentine; and, near Hyde Park Corner . . . gardens with luscious herbaceous borders and pergolas of roses, planted and tended for no other reason than to give people color to look at.” (352)

Miss You is a fun read that would be especially good to take on vacation or on a long plane trip. Sure, there are a few contrived plot elements. For example, in a city with more than eight million inhabitants, it’s not likely that Tess and Gus would end up living on the same street. But that’s the stuff of Reunion Romance! By the middle of the book I was rooting for Tess and Gus, who are kindhearted and generous people, hoping that they would find happiness.