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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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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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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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Believe Me

A Mystery/Thriller Roundup

little girl lost

Little Girl Lost by Wendy Corsi Staub (William Morrow, $7.99, 400 pages)

This classic two-story thread mystery/thriller that draws from events in 1968 and 1987 makes the most of what can happen when serious life choices are made. Author Staub combines smooth writing, some shocking violence and lurking evil to keep her readers’ attention.

Well recommended.

bleak harbor two

Bleak Harbor: A Novel by Bryan Gurley (Thomas & Mercer, $24.99, 395 pages)

It’s a terrifying kidnapping of an autistic teenager at the center of this tale. The location is a small seaside resort on the Atlantic Coast where the year round families are deeply entrenched. Most of these folks accept the public personas of the neighbors they’ve come to know over the years. Guess again, danger is lurking!

Highly recommended.  A stay up all night reading page-turner.

39 winks small

39 Winks: A Maggie O’Malley Mystery by Kathleen Valenti (Henery Press, $31.95, 296 pages)

A third-person narrator shocks the reader on the first page, a very gory first page. A cosmetic surgeon is found at the breakfast table, face down in a bowl of Life cereal. To make matters worse, he’s gluten-free.  Quirky characters and plenty of pop culture references make the story feel connected to “the real world.”

Well recommended.

believe me

Believe Me: A Novel by J P Delaney (Ballantine Books, $27.00, 352 pages)

You guessed it, another violent prologue and this one is a flashback. The author employs a unique form of dialogue that’s as if it is taken from a theatrical script. An undercover call girl, no pun intended, works for suspicious wives who want to catch their philandering husbands. The writing is beautiful with amazing timing that creates tension, anxiety and confusion; in other words, a true thriller.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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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.

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When the Men Were Gone

when the men were gone

When the Men Were Gone: A Novel by Marjorie Herrera Lewis (William Morrow, $26.99/$15.99, 240 pages)

When the Men Were Gone, based on a true story, is Marjorie Herrera Lewis’ debut novel about Tylene Wilson, an assistant principal at a Texas high school who takes over the school’s football team during World War II, when all of the men are either at war or returning home dead.

Wilson has grown up an avid fan and shares many childhood memories with her father, but when she steps up to make sure the boys get one last chance to play football before the war comes calling, she is seen in a less than favorable light by many of the locals.  Her heroic gesture is met more with scorn than gratitude, because “everybody knows” that coaching football in Texas is clearly a man’s job.

When Wilson finally clears the imminent hurdles with her principal and the school board, the team takes the field for its first game against a powerhouse program in front of a full house with reporters from hours away descending upon Brownwood, Texas.

It turns out that Wilson does know what she’s doing, and Lewis tells both an inspiring and enjoyable story.  She does well to avoid too much commentary and simply leads the reader through the thoughts and actions of the characters, bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

The book, however, is arguably a bit too lean at less than 250 pages.  Its primary drawback is that a little more meat at times could have made for a better, more complete story.  This does not seem to have been the goal for Lewis, but more could have been done to shore up the characters and plot.

Lewis herself covered the Dallas Cowboys for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and endured some taunting from some insiders before winning them over.  She went on to join the Texas Wesleyan University football staff.  Though not autobiographical, Lewis apparently relied upon her knowledge and personal experiences to lend credibility to the inspiring account.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  When the Men Were Gone will be released in hardbound and trade paper versions on October 2, 2018.

Dave Moyer is the Superintendent of Schools for the Elmhurst Unit District 205 public school district, located just north of Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about baseball, love and Bob Dylan.

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