“The High Tide Club” by Mary Kay Andrews

The High Tide Club by Mary Kay AndrewsWinter seems to be lingering in many parts of the country (including here in Northern California), so it felt like a good time to escape to the beach—via fiction. Mary Kay Andrews has been called “queen of the beach reads,” and her new book, The High Tide Club, will be published in May, just in time for summer vacation, and you couldn’t ask for a better book to put in your beach bag.

At almost 500 pages, the novel is hefty enough to last a while, and though it’s stuffed with plot—family secrets! Murder! Mysterious strangers! Shocking revelations!—it’s all presented in an easy, breezy way, with lots of short chapters and surprising twists sprinkled throughout the book.

Our heroine is Brooke Trappnell, lawyer and single mom of a three-year-old. She practices law in the small town in Georgia, dealing mainly with petty criminals, DUIs and divorces. So she’s surprised when 99-year-old Josephine Warrick, an eccentric millionaire living in a crumbling mansion on a barrier island, says she wants to hire her. Josephine already has a team of high-powered Atlanta lawyers, but she wants Brooke to try to prevent the state from taking her property in order to make it into public land. She has no heirs and is dying of lung cancer, so time is of the essence.

It turns out that Josephine also wants Brooke to track down her three best friends from the 1930s and 40s (or, more likely considering how long ago that was, their heirs). The quartet called themselves the High Tide Club, and Josephine says she needs to “make amends” to the other three women. When Brooke discovers that one of the High Tide Club members was her own late grandmother, she brings in another lawyer, Gabe Wynant, the senior partner in a prestigious Savannah law firm whom Brooke worked with early in her career, to avoid a conflict of interest. A recent widower, Gabe is a couple decades older than Brooke, but as they work together again, an attraction begins to develop.

“Sometimes the people we think we know the best are the ones with secrets we can’t even fathom,” Brooke’s mom tells her at one point. That’s certainly true of the characters in this book, but by the end, of course, mysteries old and new have been resolved. This is an incredibly fun novel with characters that will feel like old friends by the time you turn the final page.

Note: The High Tide Club will be published on May 8, 2018. Thanks to St. Martin’s Press (via NetGalley) for the review copy.

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“White Houses” by Amy Bloom

White Houses by Amy BloomDid they or didn’t they? The question of whether or not Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok were more than friends has been a hot topic ever since their passionate letters were made public in the late 1970s. While historian Doris Kearns Goodwin declared that “whether Hick and Eleanor went beyond kisses and hugs” can never be known, others find the correspondence makes a convincing claim for Roosevelt’s queerness. Here’s an article featuring excerpts from a number of their more romantic letters. Sample: “Hick darling, I just talked to you, darling, it was so good to hear your voice. If I just could take you in my arms… Someday perhaps fate will be kind & let us arrange a life more to our liking.”

The Hick/Roosevelt relationship has been explored in books like Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters Of Eleanor Roosevelt And Lorena Hickok and Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady, as well as a play, “Hick: A Love Story.” Now comes Amy Bloom with a fictionalized account of their relationship, which definitely comes down on the “yep, they were lovers” side of the equation. (Franklin Roosevelt, in this telling, is having a long-term affair with his secretary, Missy LeHand, another allegedly-romantic pairing which has been debated by historians.)

Bloom’s novel is narrated by Hickok, who describes her rough upbringing—her mother died when she was quite young, and she left home at the age of 14, escaping her abusive father. She eventually became a successful journalist, the first woman to have a byline in the New York Times. Assigned to interview Eleanor Roosevelt shortly after Franklin had been elected governor of New York, Hickok found herself drawn to her subject. She began covering Eleanor full-time during Franklin’s first presidential campaign. Their relationship heated up when Hickok accompanied Eleanor on a train trip; by the time FDR was in office, it became increasingly clear that Hickok could not cover the administration objectively, so she quit her job with the Associated Press. At times, Hickok even lived in the White House, but in Bloom’s telling, loving Eleanor was not easy—the beloved First Lady always had many demands on her attention. Hickok describes herself as “the brave and battered little dinghy” to Eleanor’s “lighthouse.”

While most of the people in White Houses are historical figures, I’m pretty sure that the Roosevelt cousin Parker Fiske, a key character in the book, is fictional. Fiske is a career diplomat and closeted gay man who is not above using a little blackmail to gain protection for himself; he pops up from time to time to beg Eleanor for a favor or threaten Hickok of the potential consequences if her relationship with the First Lady became public. “People didn’t see his homosexual self coming (unlike yours truly) and that bothered them. He didn’t look at all like that type of man, so everyone who liked him—smart and charming and so good at his job—pretended it didn’t happen, or that somehow it had happened but only due to a mix of bourbon and misunderstanding.” By today’s standards, the fact that Eleanor and Hickok were not able to live openly as lovers does seem sad, but Fiske’s story is ultimately far more tragic, a way for the author to shine a light on the genuine dangers of being gay in an earlier era.

White Houses is obviously not meant to be the final word on the subject, but it offers an interesting and poignant perspective on a relationship that continues to intrigue.

“Still Me” by Jojo Moyes

Still Me by Jojo MoyesThe second sequel to Jojo Moyes’ smash hit Me Before You picks up almost immediately where the last book ended. The final scene of After You had Louisa Clark holding her brand-new passport, about to board a plane from London to New York. The first scene of Still Me sees her going through customs in New York, ready to begin her new life in America.

Starting over doesn’t mean she wants everything to be different. She hopes her (temporary?) move will not bring about an end to her relationship with sexy paramedic Sam, who is staying behind in the U.K.

Once again, Louisa will be serving as an assistant to a wealthy person. In Me Before You, of course, she worked for (and fell in love with) Will Traynor, a quadriplegic who chose to end his life by means of assisted suicide. Now, her employer is super-rich businessman Leonard Gopnik, who hires her to serve as a paid companion to his much-younger second wife, Agnes. Before she became the new Mrs. Gopnik, Agnes was an immigrant from Poland, working as a masseuse—and she’s having difficulties adapting to her new life. Louisa’s task is to stay by her side, whether that means attending a family dinner with Leonard’s sullen daughter from his first marriage, or an elegant charity ball. (At times, I wondered why Agnes—whom I always pictured looking like a younger Melania Trump—was so shunned by the other society wives; surely there must be other Eastern European trophy spouses in that scene for her to hang with?)

At one particularly glamorous event, Louisa meets Josh Ryan, a cute and ambitious New Yorker who quickly becomes infatuated with her. Meanwhile, back in England, Sam has a new partner at work, a beautiful woman who is hoping he’ll forget about his long-distance love. Can their relationship survive these twin temptations?

I thought Still Me was an improvement over After You, which had Louisa spinning her wheels through much of the book, working at a cheesy airport bar, not quite able to move on with her life. Things still go wrong for her in Still Me—it wouldn’t be a very interesting book otherwise, would it?—but this time around, Louisa is smarter and more self-confident.

Moyes has said that “once I committed to write the sequel to Me Before You, I would also write a third book. I saw it quite clearly as a trilogy.” So this may be the last we see of Louisa. If so, Moyes has left her in a good place, giving our resourceful and relatable heroine the happy ending she deserves.

“The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin and “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George

The ImmortalistsHaving a good airplane book is something I take very seriously. My library copy of Chloe Benjamin’s novel The Immortalists came in a couple days before I headed out on a cross-country trip. I read the first few chapters, and was sufficiently entranced to buy the ebook version for my flight. (I travel light, so I didn’t want to drag along a library hardcover.) It was a wise investment; I was so absorbed by the book that I didn’t even check my watch every 10-15 minutes, which I have an unfortunate habit of doing on long flights.

The Immortalists tells the story of the four Gold children, who sneak out of their Lower East Side apartment one fateful day in 1969 to consult a psychic. It’s summertime, and the siblings are bored; little do they know that what she tells them will have reverberations down through the decades.

Each of the children meets with the psychic individually, and she reveals to each of them the date of their death. The reader only follows one child, Varya, into the room; she is told that she’ll die on Jan. 21, 2044, when she’s 88. When she emerges, her siblings, who have already spoken to the seer, seem badly shaken by what they’ve heard.

After this prologue, we follow each of the Golds, starting with Simon, the youngest. He moves with his sister Klara to San Francisco in the late 1970s. Simon is gay, and you probably don’t need to be psychic yourself to figure out his ultimate fate. Then we focus on Klara, a budding magician; Daniel, a doctor who determines whether or not young military recruits are fit to go to war; and finally Varya, a researcher who works with primates to try to unlock the secrets of the human lifespan.

I probably enjoyed Klara’s section the most, since I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at what’s involved in becoming a successful stage magician, but each of the four segments is unique and moving in its own way. The Immortalists is a triumph of both character and plot.

The Little Paris bookshop by Nina GeorgeWhile waiting for a connecting flight, I spotted a woman who was just starting to read The Little Paris Bookshop. I was half-tempted to dissuade her, but while it wasn’t my particular cup of tea—I found it overly sentimental, not to mention at least 50 pages too long—it’s a book other readers have obviously enjoyed. The Little Paris Bookshop made the New York Times bestseller list in 2015, and has been published around the world (the author is German, and the book was translated into English by Simon Pare.)

Bookseller Jean Perdu (the French word for “lost”—because he’s a lost soul!) sells his wares from a barge in the Seine. His specialty is matching people with their ideal book, “prescribing” certain volumes to his customers: “A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.” Naturally, the one person whose affliction Perdu cannot cure with a tome is… himself.

The 50-year-old bookseller has been miserable for 21 years, ever since his lover Manon left him. He even blocked the entrance to a room in his apartment, concealing it behind a bookshelf, because it was where he had spent time with her. When a new tenant with no furniture at all moves into his building, Perdu is persuaded to give her the wooden table from the hidden room. The table’s new owner discovers a letter hidden in a drawer—one sent by Manon after her departure, which Perdu had refused to open and then forgotten about. Of course, he finally does open it, and the contents of that 21-year-old missive change his life forever.

Manon was the kind of free spirit who rode horses naked (as someone who has ridden fully clothed, I can’t begin to imagine how painful that must be) and said things like, “Who knows, Jean, you and I might be made of the dust from one and the same star, and maybe we recognized each other by its light. We were searching for each other. We are star seekers.” Most of the characters in this book share her impetuous spirit; another woman we meet later on jumps into a canal during a raging storm because she wanted to know “if my fear would tell me something important.” In fact, everyone seems to make crazy spur-of-the-moment decisions that somehow work out beautifully.

I certainly hope that the woman I spotted at the airport is far less cynical than I, and that she decided it was her destiny at work when she chose The Little Paris Bookshop to take on her flight. Personally, if I’d been reading it on a plane, I’d probably have tossed it aside and chosen instead to solve the Sudoku puzzles in the airline magazine.

“The Child Finder” by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder by Rene DenfeldEntertainment Weekly occasionally runs pie chart book reviews, and I’m tempted to draw my own chart for Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder, comparing it to two other 2017 books: Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter and Peter Heller’s Celine. Since all three books were published last year, any similarities are purely coincidental. But like the title character in Celine, Denfeld’s Naomi is a uniquely gifted private investigator who only takes one kind of case: reuniting parents and children. And there’s a heavy fairy-tale element in the book, as there was in The Marsh King’s Daughter. In this case, instead of Hans Christian Andersen, we get the Russian story of The Snow Maiden.

Naomi was herself a lost child who escaped from an abusive situation (one she remembers very little about) and was raised by a loving foster mother. Now she devotes her life to finding missing kids, often solving cases that have stumped law enforcement agencies. In The Child Finder, she is asked to look into the case of Madison Culver, who disappeared three years ago at the age of five. Her parents had taken her to the Skookum National Forest in Oregon, planning to cut down a Christmas tree; in a moment of inattention, she vanished, and a snowstorm covered any tracks she may have made.

“No one could survive for long in the woods. Especially not a five-year-old girl dressed in a pink parka… Hope was a beautiful thing, Naomi thought, looking up through the silent trees, the clean, cold air filling her lungs. It was the most beautiful part of her work when it was rewarded with life. The worst when it brought only sorrow.”

The reader learns early on that Madison did survive—she was found by a deaf-mute trapper, Mr. B, who takes her to his remote cabin and keeps her there, imprisoned in a cellar secured by a locked trapdoor. Madison’s favorite fairy tale was The Snow Maiden, or as she knows it, The Snow Girl; she begins to believe that she had been “freshly created herself, rolled of snow and made of wishes.” Over the years, she gradually works to win the trust of Mr. B, and sometimes gets to sleep in his bed—yes, there is definitely child sexual abuse going on here, though it’s implied and not explicit.

With some help from a friendly park ranger, Naomi goes deep into the snowy mountains to search for Madison. But Mr. B catches a glimpse of her, and is willing to kill to keep his secrets.

This is a beautifully written but often disturbing book; it’s not long, yet I read it over the course of three evenings because the subject matter was so dark. There were times when I felt the relationship between Mr. B and Madison was depicted almost too romantically, but Denfeld herself is a survivor of childhood abuse and I trust that she wrote this story in the way she felt it needed to be told. She is, like her central character, a woman of powerful talents.

“The World of Tomorrow” by Brendan Mathews

The World of Tomorrow“The World’s Fair, in that summer of 1939, was a place full of promise,” writes Brendan Mathews in his debut novel, The World of Tomorrow. “It promised a world of frozen food and hot jazz, a world that would be better supplied and better organized in power, communications, transport, and amusement. Ribbons of highways would connect skyscraper cities where every citizen had a home in the clouds and a car on the road.”

That passage appears on page 514 of Tomorrow, and the preceding pages don’t really have much to do with the World’s Fair, which drew over 44 million visitors to Queens, N.Y., during its eighteen-month-long run. I had been hoping that this book would provide an exciting and dramatic saga set against the backdrop of the fair; instead, I got a so-so novel which climaxes at the event.

The main focus of the book is on three Irish brothers, one of whom emigrated to New York 10 years ago and two who join him there in June 1939. Martin is a semi-successful musician, married with children, still hoping to get his big break. Francis and Michael set sail from Ireland on the run from the I.R.A. with a bag of stolen loot, which is used to book first-class tickets; once aboard the ocean liner, Francis is no longer a small-time pornographer who busted out of jail by making an escape during his father’s funeral, he’s a Scottish laird named Sir Angus. Michael, a former seminarian rendered deaf and mute in an accident, is now Sir Malcolm, tragically injured while fox-hunting.

Little does Francis know that an encounter with a wealthy mother and daughter aboard the liner will force him to keep up the “Sir Angus” ruse once he disembarks in New York. Meanwhile, Michael is joined by a couple of companions: the ghost of William Butler Yeats, the recently-deceased Irish poet, and a very-much-alive young street photographer named Lilly, who helps Michael after he becomes separated from his brother.

Not surprisingly, stealing money from the I.R.A. manages to get Francis in hot water. Much of the book is devoted to Francis’ pursuit by yet another Irish immigrant; I was never as interested in that story as I was in the subplot about Lilly and Michael. Lilly is a European Jew who is supposed to return to Prague, where her boyfriend awaits, but the gathering storm clouds of World War II cause her to wonder if going home would be a wise move, considering the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.

There are a lot of characters in this book, but I never had a problem keeping track of them; I often got the sense that Mathews is more skilled at creating characters than in conjuring up a sense of place, since I often found myself wanting more of a flavor of 1939 New York. This is a wildly ambitious novel, but perhaps he’d be better off narrowing his focus a bit next time around.

“The House of Unexpected Sisters” and “My Italian Bulldozer” by Alexander McCall Smith

The House of Unexpected SistersI always look forward to my annual visit with Precious Ramotswe and her colleagues at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but as I read The House of Unexpected Sisters, it struck me as… even more slight than most of the books in this series. There are never murders in these mysteries, but there are always a couple good puzzles to solve. In this one, there are two, and they are rather flimsy: first, there’s a woman who claims she was unjustly fired from her job at an office-furniture store; second, during the course of that investigation, Mma Ramotswe finds out that there’s another woman with her same last name in the area, and wonders who she is. (Spoiler alert: check out the book’s title.)

The novel hits all the usual beats readers expect from these series: Mma Ramotswe’s ever-fraught relationship with the prickly Mma Makutsi, her secretary-turned-Principal Investigating Officer; long afternoons spent eating fruitcake and discussing matters with the wise Mma Potokwane; thoughts about the importance of cattle; an appearance by perpetual antagonist Violet Sephotho; etc. However, about three-quarters of the way into this rather slim volume, Mma Ramotswe learns some truths about her late father, and readers get to see an emotional side of her that we’ve never before encountered. I will admit that by the time I finished the book, I felt pretty satisfied.

Even though I wound up enjoying The House of Unexpected Sisters, I do hope that next year’s cases are a little meatier. And that Mma Makutsi remembers that she has a baby (seriously, there’s a point in this book where she seems to have forgotten).

My Italian BulldozerAlexander McCall Smith’s bibliography now spans two full pages at the front of his books, and he seems to publish at least three novels a year, but the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is the only one I’ve ever really gotten into (Sisters is #18, and I’ve read them all). After finishing Sisters, I decided to try one of his recent stand-alones, My Italian Bulldozer. It’s a breezy read about a Scottish travel writer who is forced to rent a bulldozer to get around the Tuscan countryside (shrug! What can you do? It’s Italy!). His girlfriend has recently left him for her personal trainer, and Paul, the writer, is hoping to finish his latest book. There may be life lessons along the way. And romance.

Once you get past the whole bulldozer thing, the book plays out fairly predictably, but there are worse ways to spend a couple hours than reading about Tuscan food and scenery.