Tag Archives: June book releases

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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Any Major Dude Will Tell You

Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Compendium, edited by Barney Hoskyns (Overlook, $27.95, 352 pages)

“We both liked recording studios. As much as anything else, it was just the coolest place to be on a hot afternoon.” Walter Becker

“We grew up with a certain natural ironic stance that later became the norm in society.” Donald Fagen

major dudes

The enigmatic band Steely Dan has been popular – and mysterious, since the 1970s. Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Compendium demythologizes the group while at the same time adding a new layer of mystery.  Editor Barney Hoskyns has compiled a collection of previously published articles, interviews, and record reviews about the work of Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker – both as Steely Dan and as solo recording artists.

It’s made clear in these pieces that Fagen and Becker viewed themselves as clever hipsters; ones who were far too cool for the college they attended, Bard – “One of your basic beatnik colleges.”  In a sense, Steely Dan’s lyrics and music moved the ball forward in the genre of being cool.  In the process, they were among the progenitors of progressive album rock and smooth jazz.

In Major Dudes, Fagen and Becker come off as quite likeable.  However, they were always in character in the same manner as Bob Dylan is.  One is never going to fully understand what made them tick.  Their goal, perhaps, was to simply produce popular but uniquely intelligent music.

This compendium could have been better edited by Hoskyns.  It’s quite repetitive. But for fans of The Dan, it’s close to essential reading.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book will be released on June 5, 2018.

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Twentieth Century Fox

trouble-with-lexie-2

The Trouble with Lexie: A Novel by Jessica Anya Blau (Harper Perennial, $14.99, 336 pages)

We are launched into Lexie’s suddenly unhinged life at a scandalous moment, as she is discovered in the worst possible condition, in the most unthinkable place at precisely the wrong time. This contemporary, hilarious fourth novel from Jessica Anya Blau is addicting and fast-paced. After the ignominious opening scene, the story jumps back in time, where we learn Lexie’s history through artfully constructed scenes.

Lexie James is an alluring 33-year-old Health and Human Sexuality teacher at a prestigious U.S. private boarding school on the east coast. She has made something of herself, coming from a working class single mom and absentee father in California, to now being employed by the Ruxton Academy and engaged to marry a refined man. We admire her, all the while knowing that a train wreck of poor choices awaits.

Suspense builds. There are massive deceptions, forbidden fruits, and vivid characters, such as the ancient, potty-mouthed Dot. The metaphors are brilliant (“Lexie felt the pain so intensely she could almost see it as a physical thing: a vibrating sheet of silvery magneta that clanged against her cold skin like cold aluminum.”), the philosophy sweetly dispensed (“Yes. Love the people you love, be open to love, be good and do good.”), the similes memorable (“The sadness inside Lexie ran like a wash cycle: circling, swirling, rotating, swishing. It came straight out of her mouth, eyes, and nose, everything wet and running.”) and the wisdom simply put (“Maybe anxiety showed up only when your body needed to tell you something you hadn’t yet faced.”). The outcome proves Dot’s cautionary advice to Lexie: “…remember that the only life worth living is the one where there’s been numerous f*ckups.”

Well done, Ms. Blau!

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Dwight

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on June 28, 2016.

Jennifer Dwight is the author of The Tolling of Mercedes Bell: A Novel (She Writes Press).

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The Last Thing on My Mind

The Silent Wife: A Novel by A. S. A. Harrison (Penguin, $16.00, 326 pages)

The Silent Wife (nook book)

Wow. This is likely to be the reaction of most readers after completing the novel, The Silent Wife, by the late author A. S. A. Harrison. The taut, prickly, engaging story centers on counselor Jodi and building contractor Todd, involved in a common law marriage for over twenty years. Jodi is finally content, living in a beautiful apartment overlooking Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. Then she learns that Todd is about to leave her to marry his best friend’s daughter.

The ever-calm Jodi finds that her life is quickly unraveling, especially after Todd’s attorney serves her with an eviction notice. Eventually she realizes that she must do something, and elects to pursue a course of action that may leave some blood on her hands.

The fault with the telling is that some readers will — as this one did — figure out the logical conclusion before the final pages. Still, this is a very cleverly written story that would shine on the silver screen. (Hollywood loves this stuff.) Coming soon to a theater near you?

Harrison was a major new talent. Had she lived, she no doubt would have produced a series of highly successful novels.

Wow.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “I gobbled it down in one sitting.” Anne Lamott

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Yesterday When I Was Young

Time Flies: A Novel by Claire Cook (Touchstone, $24.99, 303 pages)

“…nobody knows you better than someone who knew you back then.”

Time Flies (nook book)

If you’re about to attend a high school or college reunion, you may want to prepare yourself by reading Claire Cook’s rollicking and engaging tale. (Cook is the author of Must Love Dogs, which was made into a film with John Cusack and Diane Lane, and Wallflower in Bloom. She began writing at the age of forty-five.)

This is the story of Melanie, a happily married woman living in a beach town in New England. She’s happy until her husband informs her that she’s being dumped for another woman. Melanie is so crushed that she refuses to work out the separation/divorce arrangements with her husband.

It appears that Melanie is going to wallow in her pain and discomfort — augmented by heavy doses of alcohol — until she gets an e-mail message from Finn Miller, a guy that she had a crush on in high school. This is the same guy who barely noticed her back in the day. Now Finn tells Melanie that he’s been having dreams about her (“…we started making out… Was I a good kisser?”) and can’t wait to see her at their upcoming high school reunion.

To get to the reunion, Melanie and her BFF B.J. decide to drive a classic Mustang through several states; this in itself is a fun ride. “After accompanying Melanie and B.J. on their hysterical road trip, readers will feel like they’ve made friends for life.” (Kirkus Reviews) B.J., a self-anointed expert, produces some funny lists of things that one should and should not do at a high-school reunion. But she and Melanie are equally unprepared for what’s about to happen once they encounter their former friends and classmates.

“I hadn’t realized just how many hopes I’d pinned on the reunion until the bubble burst. It was ridiculous, but it still left me feeling lost and rudderless.”

What does it mean that Melanie suddenly goes from having no one to three different suitors? And how is it that “know-it-all” B.J. crashes and burns during prime time? You’ll need to read this uplifting chick-lit book to find out. Suffice it to say that Claire Cook’s novel helps to explain why some must revisit the past before being ready to encounter — and accept — what life holds for them in the future.

“Reading Claire Cook might be the most fun you have all summer.” Elin Hilderbrand. True. Grab this read before the summer is over!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Charming, engagingly quirky, and full of fun. Claire Cook just gets it.” Meg Cabot

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Coming Up Next…

Time Flies (audible audio lg.)

A review of Time Flies: A Novel by Claire Cook, author of Must Love Dogs and Wallflower in Bloom.

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