Tag Archives: fiction

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.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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):

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Scoop the Ice Cream Truck

scoopScoop the Ice Cream Truck by Patricia Keeler (Sky Pony Press, $16.99, 32 pages)

Scoop the Ice Cream Truck is a fine, entertaining message book for children aged 3 to 6.  It tells the story of Scoop, a failure as an aging ice cream truck who attempts to remake himself into something he is not.  Scoop’s reinvention sadly results in a different type of failure.

The takeaway message for very young readers is that it’s perfectly OK to be what and who you are.  You don’t have to change yourself to be like other people in order to be popular or to “fit in.”  Being yourself and wanting the things you want will ultimately lead to happiness and fulfillment.

scoop the ice cream two

The illustrations by Patricia Keller are charming and her artwork has a uniquely individual style that assists in bringing home the small book’s message.  My granddaughter loves this book for a simple reason: Unlike many children’s books, the storyline is not predictable.  In fact, this mature reader found the ending of Scoop to be totally unexpected.

Keeler does not patronize the intelligence of young readers; instead she trusts them to stretch their minds a bit.  It works.  I believe the book would be wholly appropriate for children up to the age of 8.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Cats on the Cover

Fool’s Moon: A Tarot Cats Mystery by Diane A.S. Stuckart (Midnight Ink, 323 pages, $15.99)

fool's moon

Attention cat mystery lovers – we’ve been gifted with a new series!  Brother and sister cats are the featured characters in this mystical, tarot card-centered tale.  Brandon Bobtail and Ophelia are one-year-old kitties that have lived a pampered life in Palm Beach, Florida up until they are dropped by the side of the road in a less desirable neighborhood.  Moreover, they are trapped inside of a taped up box.  (Sigh.)

This jarring experience begins their quest to find food, shelter and the means to return home.  The perilous events of the following days provide the young cats with ample opportunities to learn lessons in patience and avoid making snap judgments.

Ruby Sparks, a tarot card reader who has been tasked with minding her half-sister’s New Age shop, is kind hearted as well an animal lover.  She takes in the abandoned kitties and discovers that they possess some very useful powers.  The shop cat, Brandon Bobtail, Ophelia and a street-savvy pit bull join forces to thwart evil and enrich Ruby’s life.

Ms. Stuckart wisely sets up a smooth segue to the next adventures in the Tarot Cats Mysteries.  She is also the author of the Black Cat Bookshop Mystery series, which this reviewer intends to peruse soon.

fool's moon two

The book is well recommended for cat lovers and mystery fans, especially those who love the Joe Gray books written by Shirley Rousseau Murphy.  Wonderful tales such as these can be found on both the Florida and California coasts.

Bloodstains with Bronte: A Crime with the Classics Mystery by Katherine Bolger Hyde (Minotaur Books, 278 pages, $24.99)

bloodstains with bronte

This second in a series of mysteries that draw upon Emily Cavanaugh’s knowledge of classic literature is once again set on the Oregon coast.  In the first book, Arsenic with Austen, Emily has inherited an estate called Windy Corner from her great aunt.  The estate includes a Victorian mansion and the rest of her inheritance is property in the  nearby town of Stony Beach.

This time around Cavanaugh is busy with the conversion of her mansion into a writer’s retreat.  A widowed professor, she has no family of her own.  Katie Parker and her baby girl Lizzie have become Emily’s “little family.”  Katie works as Emily’s housekeeper.  All is not sweetness and bliss for them.  A murder in Stony Beach puts a wrench in most everyone’s relationships.  Sheriff Luke Richards wants his rekindled romance with Emily to become permanent but the murder makes them wary of each other.

Author Katherine Bolger Hyde weaves a fascinating tale of small town intrigue.  Each chapter of Bloodstains with Bronte is prefaced with a quote from either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.   These quotes provide clues for Emily to use in solving the murder.  Fans of Charlotte Bronte will enjoy the parallels.  Readers not familiar with Ms. Bronte’s works may be enticed to step back in time to discover her thrilling tales.

We can look forward to the next installment based on a novel by an author whose name begins with C.

Well recommended to fans of cozy novels set in small towns, basically English-style novels set in the USA.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by a publicist (Fools’ Moon; released on November 8, 2018) and the publisher (Bloodstains with Bronte; first released as a hardcover book in December of 2017 and soon to be released in trade paper form).

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Family Affair

family trustFamily Trust: A Novel by Kathy Wang (HarperLuxe, $26.99, 400 pages)

Family Trust is a debut novel from Kathy Wang.  Ms. Wang has an engaging, chatty writing style full of vivid details.  She grew up in northern California and holds an undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a graduate degree from Harvard Business School.  The story she tells feels accurate.

While this reviewer is not Chinese, numerous family and friends were emigres from Lithuania.  Believe me when I say that many of the attitudes displayed in the book are cross-cultural!

The San Francisco Bay Area, more specifically the South Bay and Silicon Valley are where the Huang family comes to grips with the eventual mortality of Stanley Huang, father of Fred and Kate, ex husband of Linda Liang, and husband of second wife Mary Zhu.  Each of these characters is featured in the developments that follow Stanley’s diagnosis of terminal cancer.

Ms. Wang goes above and beyond her obligation as a writer to inform her readers of the details surrounding the lives of each of her characters.  The one slow-down I felt was when she went into the aspects of careers in Silicon Valley.  The technology and finance language were sometimes a bit too much, even for the mom of a former Sand Hill Road venture capital employee.

Seventy-two-year-old Stanley and his much younger (28 years younger) wife of ten years, Mary, live in the house where he and his former wife, Linda, lived for many of their 34 years of marriage.  Son Fred is divorced and his sister Kate is supporting her stay-at-home “writer” husband and two children.  Kate is more successful than her brother.  Their mom, Linda, worked hard securing financial security for herself and her family.  She now wants to explore the possibility of love after 70.

Each of these characters interacts with the others through thoroughly believable, easy to visualize situations with amazing dialogue.  The fly in the mix is Fred’s egocentric manner and his hints at the fortune he will leave behind.  The mystery, even though this novel is not tagged a mystery, is how much is Fred worth and who will inherit?

The book starts out relatively slowly.  At first the pace seemed too slow.  As the background and history of each character unfolded, Ms. Wang’s pacing increased until the story became somewhat of a page-turner.  Nope, no spoiler alert is needed in this review.

Family Trust is an excellent novel and well worth the read.  Let’s hope Kathy Wang is busy writing another one for her readers.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book will be released on October 30, 2018.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Afflicted

affliction bookThe Affliction: A Novel by Beth Gutcheon (William Morrow, $16.99, 384 pages)

Maggie was sitting on the floor paging through a book on Bernard Berenson and Hope was deep in one of the desk drawers when a voice from the doorway said, “What the hell do you think you are doing?”

Prolific author Beth Gutcheon serves up her second Maggie Detweiler mystery in a decidedly Miss Marple/J.B, Fletcher tone.  Of course, this being a mystery novel, someone is murdered.  There are subplots of unrest among the students at a private girls’ school.  Various members of the Rye-on-Hudson community where the school is located have been plotting their own schemes.  The infusion of developer capital to the otherwise bucolic community energizes the action.

Maggie and her buddy Hope Bobbin insinuate themselves into the community after a call for assistance.  Initially, Maggie arrives at leader of an Independent School Association accreditation evaluation team.  The school, Rye Manor School for Girls, is facing the likely loss of its accreditation.

Ms. Gutcheon seamlessly brings her reader along on Maggie and Hope’s quest for the killer.  Along the way the faculty, students and campus of the school fill in a privileged New England experience around the wonderful dialogue.  There’s no lack of finger pointing and accusations to make solving the murder a challenging effort for the Detweiler and Bobbin team.

The Affliction is consistent with its predecessor, Death at Breakfast.  Hopefully, Ms. Gutcheon will deliver more such engaging adventures for her readers.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  The trade paper version of The Affliction will be released on November 27, 2018.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized