Searching in Vain

Searching for Sylvie Lee: A Novel by Jean Kwok (William Morrow, $26,99, 336 pages)

Jean Kwok’s third novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee, felt like a missed opportunity to me. Why? Because the story involves an extended family – some of whose members immigrated to the United States from China, and others who wound up in the Netherlands (Holland). It seemed like a great opportunity for Kwok to take the reader into the specifics – and differences among, all three cultures – Chinese, American, and Dutch. Instead the multicultural surface is barely scratched.

At one point we learn that in Holland someone having a birthday is expected to invite individuals to her party and to pay for everyone who attends; the very opposite of what would happen in the U.S. And this is close to the total of what we learn about cultural differences in the novel. (To be fair, we are also informed that people in Holland like to keep their window shades open at almost all times.)

There are three basic characters and narrators. There’s “Ma,” the mother of Sylvie Lee and Amy Lee, who migrated to New York City with her husband from China. Because Ma is said to have limited English speaking skills, her voice is extremely limited. I imagine that some editors would have advised deleting the character; her role could have been detailed in a few basic paragraphs.

There’s Sylvie, the older daughter who has lived a virtually perfect life – perhaps based on the Harvard-educated author’s life – academically and professionally if not always personally, until it all too suddenly falls apart. Sylvia goes from riches to rags and defeat so quickly that it strains credulity. When Sylvie travels from NYC to Holland to be with her deathly ill grandmother, she unexpectedly vanishes.

Well, at least the reader is supposed to view this as an unexpected development. Based on the book’s title and the not too obtuse set-up, the reader can pretty much sense or guess the final outcome before arriving at the halfway point.

And then there’s Amy, the independent younger sister who worshiped her older sister and jets off to Holland on a mission to locate Sylvie. But, of course, Amy – who views herself as unattractive and less intelligent and worldly than Sylvie, seeks to make herself a hero by locating her sister in an area of the world she’s never previously visited. (Amy knows this is a highly unlikely outcome.)

One of the key issues I had with Searching is that while certain parts of the plot and storyline initially appear to be sensical, the mind revisits the logic of the telling at times when the book is put down. That’s when one considers portions of the story to be nonsensical. Let me give an example without the use of any spoilers. There’s a person that Sylvie is tied to emotionally until she breaks away from him – getting away from him being another likely reason she travels to Holland. However, he suddenly shows up in Holland upon her arrival, and departs after she goes missing. No, his presence is not a red herring – he had nothing to do with her disappearance, and Amy herself wonders why this man would show up in Holland and then depart. Its another instance in which an editor might have advised deleting an illogical aspect of the story.

Kwok writes in a calm, detailed and deliberate manner that engages the reader early on. But the energy of the story and of its multiple characters has pretty much dissipated by page 200. By this point, I had lost interest in continuing until the end – although I proceeded to do so, to learn whether my view of the ending would be prescient or not. (It was.)

Finally, like all too many family novels these days, the book is built around a supposedly dramatic “family secret.” The secret is not mind-blowing – some readers will no doubt have guessed it before the denouement, and it fails to justify the time invested in a story that goes on for too many pages. And so, this is a missed opportunity; a missed opportunity for both the writer and her readers.

Joseph Arellano

Searching for Sylvie Lee was published on June 4, 2019. A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Cruel Summer

The Summer We Lost Her: A Novel by Tish Cohen (Gallery Books, $16.99, 352 pages)

Tish Cohen has knocked it out of the park with The Summer We Lost Her.

An aspiring Olympian and dreamer, Elise – who gets “oh, so close” to her dream after years of dedications and near misses – is confronted with the brutal realities of her future and past. She has decisions to make. Especially in light of the birth of her daughter, Gracie.

Elise’s lawyer husband, Matt – the dutiful father and conventionalist, must also reconcile his vision of reality and the myths that catch up with him regarding his past, and the grandfather he loves. When confronted with the presence of his first love, Cass, and the psychological connections of his past, he has decisions to make.

In Summer, Gracie disappears at a lake community in northern New York state. There is no greater evil than this, and there is no greater reckoning than what transpires in the face of such an event. And a reckoning there is. But as the story unfolds the humanity of the characters is revealed in such an understated way, it is hard to root for or against anyone. And so what hangs in the balance until the final pages of the story is totally satisfying.

The couple wrestles with the decision to sell their property near Lake Placid, New York, amidst the loss of their daughter. They must also deal with Elise’s quest for excellence, the appearance of Matt’s first love, revelations of Matt’s grandfather’s questionable practices, and the reappearance of Elise’s mercurial father.

It is no surprise that the rights to the tale have already been claimed for a TV mini-series.

The ending could go in multiple directions. Part of me says Cohen should have written a Great Expectations, with two different endings and let the reader decide. But, short of that, it is hard to find fault with this extremely satisfying novel.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

This novel was released on June 4, 2019. A review copy was received from the publisher.

Tish Cohen’s excellent debut novel was The Truth About Delilah Blue (2010).

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about baseball, Bob Dylan, and love.

Advance praise for The Summer We Lost Her (click on the image to see a larger version):

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Cold As Ice

stone cold heartStone Cold Heart: A Novel by Caz Frear (Harper, $26.99, 328 pages)

Detective Constable Cat Kinsella stars in this, the second British police procedural mystery from author Caz Frear.  For many readers it’s the second novel that’s the true test of a writer’s skill.  Rest assured readers of this genre – fans of writers such as Peter Robinson, Jane Casey, and Peter James – I could go on.  Ms. Frear has another success in Stone Cold Heart.  After reading this novel, I’m looking forward to reading the first in the series, Sweet Little Lies.

Predictably, the opening page features a stream of consciousness statement from an unknown person.  The requisite references to killing and death are assurances that this read will not be tame or boring.  DC Kinsella begins her narrative in August 2017 with a rather ordinary trip to a coffee shop.  Well, the coffee is not ordinary nor is the barista.

Fast forward to November of the same year, a Tuesday to be specific.  We’re introduced to Luigi Parnell, Kinsella’s partner, as well as their boss, Detective Inspector Kate Steele.  Murder Investigation Team 4, as they are called, is considering a scene with a 22-year-old murder victim, Naomi Lockhart.  Kinsella’s remembrance of past visits to this neighborhood is a head’s up to the reader that there will be a blend of her past and the present.  She encounters many triggers to her memory during the tale.

Author Frear provides the usual banter among the members of the MIT4.  Moreover, throughout the book she takes time to thoughtfully describe the various aspects of each scene and the thoughts and actions of her characters.  Perhaps it is the cinematic feel of her writing that sets these characters and their profession apart from an ordinary British police mystery.  In fact, the DC Kinsella novels are now being made into a television series.

The underlying issues that move the story forward are trust and truth.  As one would expect, the tale is advanced as MIT4 searches for the answer to the age old question, who done it?

stone cold heart two

The book is highly recommended for mystery/thriller readers and especially those who are dedicated readers of British police procedurals featuring a female detective as the main character.

Ruta Arellano

Stone Cold Heart was published on July 2, 2019.  A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Black Like Me

Notes From a Young Black Chef: A Memoir by Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stern (Knopf, $26.00, 271 pages)

There were moments when I felt like I was being called the N-word with no one actually saying it. No one had to and maybe they were too smart to. So it was left to me to decide whether it was because I was black or because I was just me…

Anyone who has read and enjoyed the classic Kitchen Confidential by the late Anthony Bourdain may enjoy the memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef by Kwame Ounwuachi. Like Bourdain, Onwuachi is an interesting mix of confidence and uncertainty. While struggling with numerous aspects of working in the restaurant industry, Onwuachi can come off as bombastic and arrogant as when he writes that “my arrival (in the District of Columbia) was greeted with a lot of excitement and anticipation.” Perhaps so, but it did not result in enough people visiting Shaw Bijou, Onwuachi’s signature restaurant, for it to remain in business.

The key reason Shaw Bijou failed likely goes to the base cover charge – sold as an admission ticket, of $185 per person, not including tip and drinks. The flaw in this account by a talented young chef is that he attributes most of his stumbles and unforced errors to racism, even when the reader sees other factors in play. Still, Onwuachi has gone on to earn the title of “The most important chef in America” from the San Francisco Chronicle. You will need to read the sometimes surreal Notes – an entertaining, imperfect story – to find out why.

Recommended for foodies and those interested in what it takes to run a successful restaurant and why restaurants fail.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Alfred A. Knopf. This book, which includes thirteen recipes, was released on April 9, 2019.

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Beyond the Sea

you me and the seaYou, Me, and The Sea: A Novel by Meg Donohue (William Morrow, $15.99, 368 pages)

Author Meg Donohue opens You, Me, and The Sea with a rainy morning in Sea Cliff, an exclusive residential neighborhood in San Francisco.  Will Langford and Merrow Shawe have carefully planned their engagement party in their home and surrounding garden.  They hope for better weather later in the day.  What transpires is the beginning of the real story.

Merrow is the narrator for the entire two-part novel.  Ms. Donohue gives her a singsong voice when Merrow describes her early childhood on a dirt poor farm.  There are warning signs mixed in with a few pleasant events.  To make matters worse, older brother, Bear, constantly torments Merrow.  There is a bit too much anxiety, anticipation and pain for this reviewer.  Unlike How to Eat a Cupcake, a prior work by Ms. Donohue, You, Me, and The Sea lacks balance with its overwhelming tension.

you me rear cover

Readers can be sure of Ms. Donohue’s knowledge of the Bay Area.  She sets up striking contrasts between wealth and poverty using detailed descriptions of the locales where the action takes place.  Although the Pacific Coast is the overall setting, this is not a beach novel.

It’s a shame that the read is far from being as engaging and fun as Donohue’s delightful debut, How to Eat a Cupcake.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book was released in trade paperback and hardbound and other versions on May 7, 2019.

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The Miraculous Cat

a catA Cat by Leonard Michaels (Tin House Books, $18.95, 128 pages); illustrated by Francis Lerner, introduction by Sigrid Nunez

“A cat is content to be a cat.”

A Cat is a nicely illustrated re-release of a book originally published in 1999.  The book was written by the late Leonard Michaels, who taught as a Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.  The line drawings for the original and this edition were by Francis Lerner, and they well represent the relaxed yet athletic nature of cats.

A Cat is both an examination of and a tribute to felines.  Each page contains a parable-like statement about the nature of cats, although Michaels noted that we can never truly capture the essence of these creatures: “A cat reminds us that much in this world remains unknown.”

Michaels certainly loved cats: “Looking at a cat, like looking at clouds or stars or the ocean, makes it difficult to believe there is nothing miraculous in the world.”  Cats remain in the present moment, making the most of life.  In Michaels’s words, “For a cat just to live is splendid.”  And cats show us that sometimes it is best to get out of one’s mind: “To be quick as a cat you must not think.”

Cats live on their well developed instincts, “However a cat looks or behaves, it is what it is, a small and intensely serious being, a cat.”

Well recommended for anyone who is willingly owned by a cat.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.  This new edition of A Cat was released on November 13, 2018.  (Sasha the cat decided this was a great book to sit on top of.)

 

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Lost and Found

library of lost and foundThe Library of Lost and Found: A Novel by Phaedra Patrick (Park Row, $24.99, 352 pages)

Family secrets, we all have them, right?  Martha Storm is no exception.  She’s a no nonsense middle-aged woman living on her own in the house she inherited from her parents.  It’s the house she grew up in and nothing has changed.  Well, not really.  There are bins and bags and piles of items throughout the house.  Each contains a project that Martha has taken on for neighbors, coworkers, the local school and even her sister.

Martha is an over functioning library volunteer and all around reliable person who dedicated 15 years of her life to caring for her aging parents.  Five years after their passing, she faces new challenges – a dwindling inheritance, the need to seek a paying job, and undeniable loneliness.  She frequently reflects on the happier times in her life when Zelda, her devil-may-care grandmother, was alive.

A brown paper parcel left on the library steps on Valentine’s Day evening triggers events that Martha could never have imagined no matter how hard she might have tried.  The story gracefully swoops here and there picking up momentum until the reader is thoroughly engaged in Martha’s quest.  There’s no way this reviewer will divulge more of The Library of Lost and Found.  To do so would be a grave mistake.

Author Phaedra Patrick has once more written a deeply moving yet amusing tale of a life, not the ones her characters are living, rather, the ones that unfold when they pay attention to unexpected happenings, however ordinary they may seem at first glance.

Ms. Patrick, the author of The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper and Rise and Shine Benedict Stone, has switched up her main character for a feisty and determined woman who tries to avoid feelings.  These novels are not a series.  Feel free to begin enjoying the magic of her writing with whichever one you choose.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The reviewer purchased the Kindle edition ($11.00) of The Library of Lost and Found.  The book was published on March 26, 2019.

 

 

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