Sunday, March 8, 2009

No, Really, Where Are We?

Local Knowledge by Liza Gyllenhaal had it all. A cover that sang out to me with its inviting blue bench on a weathered shingled porch; a back cover blurb offering up a novel about “three friends who are haunted by the tragic mistakes of their past—and who are heading into a future that may have no place for them;” and an opening paragraph that invited you into the story. By page 67, I had met the three friends, each character flatter than the other, and tried to place in my mind a setting that belied its opening description as a “beautiful part of the world.”

Knowing that I shouldn’t judge the characters on first impressions, I might have stuck with Local Knowledge; however, it was the setting that was upsetting. Many of us are tracking where our reading travels take us this year, and I never have been a reader who quibbles with every deviation from the geography of a place in a book. If I’m enjoying the journey, the liberties an author might take with what streets intersect or where a particular restaurant is never bother me. With Local Knowledge, however, I just couldn’t get my bearings. Local Knowledge emphasizes, well, local knowledge (a Paxton Mountain Road versus a Paxton Hill Road) but left me as a reader with no grounding in setting. Characters hail from Manhattan and are looking for a weekend house in the country. Western Connecticut? Western Massachusetts? North and east of New York City? I had finally decided on the last given the many references to “upstate” and the reference to the movie theater in Albany. Then I was knocked off these bearings with reference to one of the main characters (in his teenage years in the middle 80s) eschewing the obligatory “backward-facing Red Sox cap.” Well, there went CT and NY and there I was—reader in search of a setting.

I left my bookmark at page 67. Maybe when I’ve whittled down the TBR hills a bit I’ll grab a compass and revisit Maddie Alden and friends to see if I can regain my bearings and agree with all of the five-star ratings this book has received.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

The cover flap of Little Bee by Chris Cleave reads
We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again—the story starts there…

My husband does not drive; therefore, I am always happy when I have to drop him off where there’s bookstore and cup of coffee nearby. Such was my happiness on Saturday, February 21, and I had almost an hour to spend in Barnes & Noble. On my way in, a cover caught my eye: Bright, almost neon organge with two heads in silhouette, and the title in an old script type style. I picked it up, ordered my coffee, and started reading…and stopped just long enough to pay for the book, pick up my husband, and head home to finish the book that same day.

Page 1; we hear Little BeeMost days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that, I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead—but you would not be sad because you would be eating a cinnamon bun, or drinking a cold Coca-Cola from the can, and you would never think of me again. We would be happy like lovers who met on holiday and forgot each other’s names.

A pound coin can go wherever it thinks it will be safest. It can cross deserts and oceans and leave the sound of gunfire and the bitter smell of burning thatch behind. When it feels warm and secure, it will turn around and smile at you, the way my big sister Nkiruka used to smile at the men in our village in the short summer after she was a girl but before she was really a woman, and certainly before the evening my mother took her to a quiet place for a serious talk.

Of course a pound coin can be serious too. It can disguise itself as power, or property, and there is nothing more serious when you are a girl who has neither. You must try to catch the pound, and trap it in your pocket, so that it cannot reach a safe country unless it takes you with it. But a pound has all the tricks of a sorcerer. When persued I have seen it shed its tail like a lizard so that you are left holding only pence. And when you finally go to seize it, the British pound can perform the greatest magic of all, and this is to transform itself into not one, but two, identical green American dollar bills. Your fingers will close on empty air, I am telling you.

How I would love to be a British pound. A pound is free to travel to safety, and we are free to watch it go. This is the human triumph. This is call, globalization. A girl like me gets stopped at immigration, but a pound can lep the turnstiles, and dodge the tackles of those big men with their uniform caps, and jump straight into a waiting airport taxi. Where to, sir? Western Civilization, my good man, and make it snappy.

Globalization, immigration detention centers, Nigerian oil deposits—political realities in the abstract made real in the story that unfolds with dignity through the voices of Little Bee, a teenager from a small Nigerian village, and Sarah O’Rourke, editor of a high style British women’s magazine.

Little Bee“Take it from me,” she says at the outset, “a scar does not form from dying. A scar means, I survived.”

Started & Finished on February 21, 2009
Rating: 5/5 (Fiction Scale)
Pages: 266
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Copyright: 2008
Format: Hardcover

Dedication: For Joseph

Epigraph: Britain is proud of its tradition of providing a safe haven for people fleeting [sic] persecution and conflict. –from Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship (UK Home Office, 2005)

April 20, 2009: Les has just posted a wonderful review of Little Bee!

June 20, 2010:  Kristen at BookNAround posted a less enthusiastic review here!

The Lost Recipe for Happiness by Barbara O'Neal

Several years ago I read a romance entitled In the Midnight Rain by Ruth Wind. It was for Wind a breakout “big book” after a series of Harlequin romances, and break out she did. Mention the title to anyone else who has read it, and In the Midnight Rain conjures up echoes of the blues and that hot, humid orchid greenhouse….mmmm…but I digress. Then I read and enjoyed many books written by Barbara Samuel (a/k/a Ruth Wind) including Lady Luck’s Map of Vegas, No Place Like Home, and The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue (a favorite). Now I have read and somewhat enjoyed The Lost Recipe for Happiness by Barbara O’Neal (a/k/a Barbara Samuel a/k/a Ruth Wind).
From Publishers WeeklyTwenty years ago, Elena Alvarez, the chef heroine of O'Neal's bland kitchen romance, was the sole survivor of a car accident that left her badly scarred and haunted by the sister and boyfriend she lost in the crash. Attempting to escape the specter of the accident and buoyed by her love of cooking, Elena drifted to culinary school in Europe and eventually ends up at an upscale Vancouver restaurant, where her passion and skills capture the attention of celebrity restaurateur Julian Liswood, who hires her as the executive chef of a new restaurant he is opening in Aspen, Colo. Elena relishes the opportunity, even as she recognizes the potential disasters, both romantic and job-related, inherent in the feelings she has for her boss. As the new endeavor finds its footing in Aspen's restaurant scene, she, too, begins to find a home.

It took me some time to settle in to The Lost Recipe for Happiness. For many pages, I couldn’t figure out why. The characters were engaging; their situations, intriguing; the dog Alvin, more than loveable. Finally, it hit me: Frame of reference. I love books where recipes add their special flavor to the story; however, southwestern cuisine just doesn’t do it for me. So, there was a huge sensorial gap in this reading experience for me.

If I were to attach a prior persona to the author and The Lost Recipe for Happiness, I would definitely say more Ruth Wind than Barbara Samuel. The heat in the kitchen rivaled that southern greenhouse. Oh, my, yes.
Finished on February 28, 2009
Rating: 3/5 (Fiction Scale)
Pages: 447
Publisher: Bantam (Discovery)
Copyright: 2008
Format: Trade Paperback

Dedication: For Christopher Robin (aka Neal Barlow), with love. You know why.

Epigraph: None

Awards:  2010 Rita Award - Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements

Shelter Me by Juliette Fay

Shelter Me by Juliette Fay has received a lot of publicity in and around Boston not only because it’s a Target Bookmarked and Indie Next pick but also because Fay is a local author and local bookstores have the book featured in displays. Here is the back cover plot recap:

Four months after her husband’s death, Janie LaMarche remains undone by grief and anger. Her mourning is disrupted, however, by the unexpected arrival of a builder with a contract to add a porch onto her house. Stunned, Janie realizes the porch was meant to be a surprise from her husband—now his last gift to her. As she reluctantly allows construction to begin, Janie clings to the familiar outposts of her sorrow—mothering her two small children with fierce protectiveness, avoiding friends and family, and stewing in a rage she can’t release. Yet Janie’s self-imposed isolation is breached by a cast of unlikely interventionists: her chattering, ipecac-toting aunt; her bossy, overmanicured neighbor; her muffin-bearing cousin; and even Tug, the contractor with a private grief all his own. As the porch takes shape, Janie discovers that the unknowable terrain of the future is best navigated with the help of others—even those we least expect to call on, much less learn to love.


On letter writing:
Janie offered to scribe a letter for Beryl, who politely declined. “I’m very old-fashioned,” explained Beryl. “A typed letter is so cold and impersonal. It can be sent to so many people at once! Only a handwritten letter can convey the sense that the writer is actually with you, saying the words to you alone. When you write a letter with your own hand, you give a tiny piece of yourself.”

Janie, on recognizing her feelings:
It took a moment for Janie to realize that she was in the picture, too, standing to the side and a little behind Tug, her gaze directed toward him. She was smiling, but there was more than that. There as a look of…what? …’Gratitude’, she realized, studying the picture. ‘That’s me being grateful.’

On bridging emotional gaps:
Aunt Jude finished typing and glanced over at Janie. A look passed between the two women that, Janie realized, had never been transmitted before. It wasn’t about either of them or their struggles with each other. It wasn’t anger or disappointment or dismissal. It was a simple recognition of the real world in which they lived, both of them, together.

And for those of us who have traveled to the Cape with small children eager to get to Nana and Grandfather’s house:
“Pretty soon we’re gong to see a huge bridge, the Sagamore. When we cross over, we’ll be on Cape Cod. Can you watch for the bridge?” …When the Sagamore Bridge rose up in front of them like a metal giant looming out of the scrub pines, Dylan screamed in Janie’s ear, “I SEE IT!”

Marisa de los Santos has a blurb on the front cover of Shelter Me; and if you are a fan of her Love Walked In and Belong to Me, you’ll find much of the same satisfaction in Janie LaMarche’s story. Emotionally wounded and distant characters carefully and slowly come together; the children of the story do real kid things; friendship bonds disparate characters and makes other characters become stronger in their life journey; and mothers, daughters, aunts, cousins each grow in their knowledge and love for the other. One quibble: Some editing down from its 415-page length would have made this a 4/5 book for me.

Finished on February 11, 2009
Rating: 3.5/5 (Fiction Scale)
Pages: 415
Publisher: Avon
Copyright: 2009
Format: Trade Paperback

Dedication: For Tom, with great love.

Epigraph: None