On “Rum & Razors” by Donald Bain and Jessica Fletcher

51dtdeGWtwL__SX295_BO1,204,203,200_Another book in and no signs of stopping. The Donald Bain Murder, She Wrote series is the epitome of that coveted little genre that’s been pegged, in recent years, as the “cozy mystery” –that sweet combination of international travel, well furnished rooms, and warm, decadent meals. All of them present in this series.

The novels are light, quick reads that feature one of television’s most beloved characters, mystery writer Jessica Fletcher. From London to St. Thomas, we find her at the threshold of tragedy wherever she goes (a long running joke about Cabot Cove being the murder capital of the country would not be amiss), and treats everything with true dignity and respect. She’s also whip-smart and ready for adventure at the drop of a hat.

In Rum & Razors we see Jessica encounter a more complex moral conundrum than what Bain plotted in the first two novels of the series. In this book, Jessica has just finished another novel and is in need of a vacation. Her good friends from Cabot Cove, Walter and Laurie Marschalk, a travel writer and gourmet chef respectively, have opened a luxury inn on the island of St. Thomas.

What promises to be ten days of paradise immediately turns sour when Jessica realizes how much financial difficulty the Marschalks are in. When Walter ends up dead, there are more than a few individuals who could be responsible. At a travel writer’s conference in the hotel neighboring Lover’s Lagoon, Jessica learns just how unpopular Walter was with his colleagues; he was greedy, arrogant, and a notorious philanderer. One of his mistresses is even present during the entire debacle.

So who murdered Walter Marschalk? Was is the island senator with whom he struck a deal to purchase the environmentally protected land on which the inn sits? Was it the disgruntled employee he just fired? Was it the manager of the lagoon’s neighboring rival hotel? Or was it Walter’s lover and her boyfriend?

Most surprisingly, Jessica has to confront the idea that it might have been her dear friend Laurie who committed the murder. The day after the heinous deed is done, Jessica intercepts divorce papers meant for Walter that had been initiated by Laurie just a few days before. Could she have murdered her husband? Jess can only remember how happy they seemed back in Cabot Cove…But when she thinks about it, Jessica realizes she didn’t really know the Marschalks that well at all.

When Jess’s good friend, Seth, arrives on the island, they make a last ditch effort to find Walter’s killer and exonerate the name of an innocent man caught in the cross hairs of greed.

I cannot recommend these books highly enough. They’re deftly plotted and fun to read–perfect for when you feel like taking a break from other books you might be reading. Better yet, if you’ve never seen the television show these books are based on, watch them ASAP. Angela Lansbury is absolutely timeless as Jessica Fletcher, and I can guarantee you will be binge watching for days.

On “White Fur” by Jardine Libaire

51Mh8qgdc4L__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Imagine if Shakespeare had lived a few centuries later. There would be no fair Verona, no feuding families, and no epic sword fights (unfortunately). Two warring families might not crush the hopes of young lovers the way they did for Romeo and Juliet, but in 1980s Manhattan, class, race, and poverty serve the same narrative purpose. Jardine Libaire’s tale of star-crossed lovers who fall for each other despite hailing from opposing groups is the same narrative we’ve seen time and time again since the Bard’s famous rendering. He certainly wasn’t the first to tell such a story, and Libaire’s White Fur is just one of many in that tradition.

However, this particular reimagining digs its nails deep into the conventions of typical love story narratives, tearing away at any hint of superficiality. Elise and Jamie’s individual narratives do not bind together seamlessly like those of other lovers; it’s stitched together precariously like the neck of Frankenstein’s monster, and the reader is often left to wonder how long their passion can sustain that bond.

Libaire explores and maintains the initial friction and passion of Elise and Jamie’s relationship, and, through some magical sleight of hand, effortlessly shapes the edges of their clashing lives into a double helix strand connected by a bond that only Elise has the foresight to recognize…

In the beginning, Elise Perez and Jamie Hyde would not have spoken two words to each other had Elise’s curiosity and rage against Jamie’s roommate, Matt, gotten the best of her. They are neighbors in a worn down section of New Haven, Connecticut, where Jamie is a junior at Yale, and Elise has just recently drifted away from the Manhattan projects in which she grew up. Jamie is the heir to an obscene amount of family money and is expected to work at the family’s firm upon graduation. He is rich, white, polite, “liberal,” and all-in-all, everything someone like him is supposed to be. Except, that is, for his penchant for disassociation and for poking at the nagging piece of glass in his brain that reminds him he’s simply floating through his life. He is not tangible, or legible, or capable of meaningful human contact.

Elise, on the other hand, is from a different world entirely:

“She didn’t leave home last summer with a plan. Twenty years old, she never finished high school, she was half-white and half-Puerto Rican, childless, employed at the time, not lost and not found, not incarcerated, not beautiful and not ugly and not ordinary. She doesn’t check any box; her face has Boricua contours and her skin is alabaster.”

—excerpt from Jardine Libaire’s White Fur

Libaire has a distinct talent for stringing together the disjointed odds and ends of her characters to forge a pointed image into the reader’s mind that cannot be dislodged and that stays with the reader long after he or she has walked away from the book. Her words build images that come from a deep, instinctive knowledge of time, place, class, and love wrangled. Very few writers can do both of their characters equal justice. And though Elise was the character with whom I instantly connected, both she and Jamie are as chiseled and nuanced as a Michelangelo.

Like most star-crossed lovers, Elise and Jamie have an instant, largely physical attraction. Jamie is blind to any hint of anything deeper than that, and he is often embarrassed by Elise’s unabashed street speech and mannerisms. Elise is besotted with him in a way that is cringe inducing. It’s obsessive and all-consuming. But she sees something there that no one else can. And love, that elusive, fleeting thing that Jamie cannot fathom, blooms, becoming a slow revelation.

The inherent precariousness of their love story—weighed down by their class distinctions—makes the reader wonder if, or when, these lovers will end in tragedy. Romeo and Juliet had their poison and a dagger. Elise and Jamie have a rifle in a Wyoming motel room. The events leading up to that ultimate decision comes after a period of tension, followed by one of intense joy. After Elise’s calculated pursuit of Jamie, and his hesitant reciprocation, the two end up in a high end flat in Manhattan for the summer. Jamie works at Sotheby’s during the day, and Elise wanders. The night is for love and food and the occasional club. Their world expands to include the wayward vagabonds and everyday people of New York City; it constricts at any hint of contact with the world that Jamie comes from.

Elise—with her box braids and razor sharp tongue—is not the Hydes’ idea of a suitable match for their son. What they think is a phase or Jamie’s idea of a charity case, quickly turns into the makings of a publicity nightmare for this upstanding, old-New York family. Jamie’s father has the typical condescending rich man attitudes toward the poor, and his son is deeply disgusted by his ignorance.

Jamie renounces his fortune, and the pair live in a blissful bubble where the nights always come back to love. Their wandering is an opportunity for Libaire to explore the chasms and sharp edges of 1980s Manhattan—a world in which working people still exist, where the projects are still in the clutches of the War on Drugs, and a where a meager life could still be a happy one. The eight months of their courtship and increasingly insular life lead to one night in which Jamie’s recursive, exploratory mind nearly kills him. Elise alone has to figure out what to do, and the fallout of this accident almost ends everything.

Libaire’s novel is one that fits into the stagnant heat of summer and the frigid depths of winter equally. The prose is sharp, poetic, and strung together from the fragments of two disparate lives; with just a few brushstrokes, Libaire creates a master work of Elise and Jamie’s love story in White Fur. It is a story you will not forget.

On “The Arrangement” by Sarah Dunn

51+4sQrv9jL__SX319_BO1,204,203,200_It was the cover that got me: the cool blue comforter, the rumpled white sheets, pillows with suggestive indentations on them. For several months, I had been meaning to check The Arrangement off my to-be-read list, and it seemed like an appropriate beach read. And it is that–a good beach read. There’s no better place to scoff and roll my eyes at imaginary characters than at the beach. I didn’t much care what happened to the characters in the end, but there were enough nuggets of comedy to keep me reading.

That comedic relief prevented the novel from taking itself too seriously, which was a pleasant surprise when I realized The Arrangement was going to lack that dishy Gossip Girl/Sex and the City quality. The church chicken massacre towards the end of the novel is what I’ve come to refer to as the climax, and, as gruesome as it was, the humor was evident.

Of course, the humor is needed in Beekman–an upscale suburb just outside the city–where aggressive stay-at-home-moms abound and aloof husbands pretend their lives are good. Some people have their shit together a little more than others, but everyone has a certain modicum of dysfunction. Owen and Lucy McIntire have an autistic son who requires special care, but their marriage appears to be fine. Even they think so. But when two friends suggest they’re going to try having an open marriage, Owen and Lucy decide they should try it as well.

Owen finds a partner immediately–the gregarious, overly-familiar Izzy–who the reader can tell is bat-shit crazy from the get go. Dunn frustratingly tries to make Owen seem like a good guy in the end by having Izzy see a doctor before he continues to sleep with her for fear of fathering a child with this clingy woman who “chores” him after every sexual encounter they have. He won’t do tasks around his own house, but not pissing off Izzy is more important to his sex life than pissing his wife off. In a weird twist of fate, Izzy has advanced stage uterine cancer, which she would not have known if Owen hadn’t pushed her to see the doctor. Just for everyone in the cheap seats: THIS IS A TERRIBLE THING TO SUGGEST. This is not closure. This does not negate the moral conundrum of the entire novel. Izzy’s letter is a shitty cop-out ending that does not address any of the serious concerns of Lucy and Owen’s marriage. In the end, I still didn’t know what was wrong with them, other than the fact that Owen is a smug asshole and Lucy should have left him.

Lucy should have left Owen before the whole “arrangement” even started. But I guess that’s my personal judgment coming into effect. I couldn’t help but picture the marriages of people in my immediate family, and I have to say–all the women I know would have chewed that motherfucker out in a hot second. In fact, they would have chewed out a lot of the characters in this book. It was incredibly difficult for me to suspend my judgment for the sake of empathy, and a good book, no matter the class or tribe affiliation of the characters involved will allow you to empathize. I can only surmise, then, that The Arrangement is not a good book. One of the only redeeming facts of this book is that, while The Arrangement is a novel for and about white people of a certain class, Dunn makes it clear that she doesn’t want it to be anything else, and, in several instances, makes fun of it for that very reason. This circles back to the “not taking itself too seriously” thing.

In addition to how insufferable the characters are, Dunn seemed to have had a difficult time integrating subplots into the overarching narrative. The story of Gordon Allen–Beekman’s resident bigot billionaire–and his wife is the only story that’s worth telling for its ultimate tale of redemption (and its humor), but the other threads fail so convincingly to integrate into the main narrative that they aren’t worth mentioning. Dunn attempted to introduce new character perspectives more than halfway through the book, and only followed one subplot for a couple pages. These stories failed to advance the larger narrative and weren’t particularly well-crafted.

The Arrangement is ultimately a mindless beach read that won’t anger the reader too much if he or she refrains from investing in Dunn’s characters. Yes, they’re weak-willed and confused, but at least their wealthy. Watching wealthy people do weird, amoral things in fiction is a keen pastime of mine. It helps me not to take things too seriously…alas, that seems to be the driving theme behind this book: it will not be taken seriously.

On “Marlena” by Julie Buntin

51n+GHTDlNL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Julie Buntin‘s debut novel, Marlena, examines the nuance and power of young female friendship, the lasting effects of guilt, and the rampant drug abuse present in rural areas of the United States. It’s quite a lot to tackle in less than 300 pages, but Buntin isn’t any other author; every line is crafted to a sharp point that digs deep into the aspects of adolescence that haunt us long into adulthood. I’m not sure that many authors would have been up to the task, but Buntin’s unsentimental prose and pitch-perfect characterization comprise an affecting novel that—as many great books do—encourages rereading.

It’s hard to overstate how influential adolescent friendships can be on an individual’s development, especially a young woman. Countless authors, from Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, to Elena Ferrante and Margaret Atwood, have explored that nearly unbreakable bond between women who are drawn to each other for reasons that aren’t entirely understood. But it is that particular strength of adolescent attachment that Buntin navigates with astounding acuity.

The narrative shifts back and forth between Cat as a 15-year-old who is becoming increasingly enmeshed in the tantalizing web Marlena weaves, and Cat as an adult, pondering how her brief time with Marlena has changed her life irrevocably. Young Cat has the observer’s intelligence of an avid reader. She looks at the world with a level of maturity beyond her age, and Marlena’s presence makes her even more aware of the dark lining that wraps around beautiful things—like Michigan, like Marlena.

But Cat’s perspicacity isn’t enough to right Marlena’s increasing dependence on prescription pills, and her eventual (inevitable) heroin use. Marlena’s ill-fated tale of addiction, whether intentionally or unintentionally, functions as a microcosm in its depiction of a larger phenomenon. It seems now that nearly everyone knows someone who has made the leap from prescription drugs to heroin. It’s cheaper and makes for a faster high. Pharmaceutical companies—the world’s most powerful kingpins—make a killing (literally) peddling pills to people in the country’s poorest communities.

And yet, Marlena believes she is doing the right thing in avoiding meth—the substance that has sunk its claws into everyone around her. Her father and boyfriend cook it, and it caused her mother to leave. To Marlena, pills are what doctors prescribe to people anyway. No harm in that, right?

As an adult, Cat seizes the moments in hindsight when she could have done something to save Marlena, but she was too enraptured with her, too dependent on the feeling of being part of a whole. Their friendship is the propulsive force that moves her, sharpening her senses to take in a world that can only exist in their rural section of Michigan—a dead end town that somehow contains multitudes.

When Marlena’s little brother Sal calls Cat to tell her he’s in New York and wants to talk about everything that happened in the past, she is forced to take stock of just how much Marlena’s brief presence in her life has changed who she’s become—someone who often drinks to excess, who has a strained relationship with her father and brother, who feels an innate empathy for outsiders and addicts.

In some ways, the “Peter Pan” effect has taken hold of fragments of Cat’s memories of Marlena, which is generally the natural way of things; Cat grows older, Marlena will always be a teenager. Building that dynamic into a narrative successfully without making Marlena seem like a tragic hero is a difficult task, one that Buntin handles brilliantly.

Yes, Marlena possesses a disarming, feral beauty; consciously understated intelligence; and a beautiful singing voice. But Cat also remembers Marlena’s mercurial nature, her occasional condescension, her secretiveness, and her unwashed hair.

Buntin begins the novel with a scene that becomes even more poignant once the reader finishes the book. It’s Marlena speeding dangerously towards the lake in their town, not showing any signs of stopping. Cat is screaming, afraid. But Marlena keeps driving, foot pressed down on the pedal, deep in one of her drug-induced manias. And Cat hates her in that moment.

Even though those negative feelings never last, they become a dark lining on all their happiest moments—the moments Adult Cat looks on with regret for not having done something more for Marlena.

In the end, Buntin has strung together a novel that is equal parts a love story, a tragedy, and an ode to the harsh beauty and danger of Michigan. But Marlena is primarily about guilt; how to deal with it; where to lay blame; how to make peace with the past. I’m not sure the answers are clear-cut, but the questions themselves are enough to jolt the reader into awareness.

On “The Royal We” by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

22875451This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Like me, I’m sure every asocial hermit with more than a touch of Anglophilia loves nothing more than to sit around on a lazy Saturday morning drinking tea and reading Kate Middleton fan fiction…No? That’s just me? Well, if you do share my proclivities, or just enjoy a breezy beach read, look no further than The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. This dynamic duo has produced the dishiest, compulsively readable romantic novel in recent memory.

The Royal We has all the right ingredients to make a great love story that blissfully excludes the heavy handedness of most romcom-esque novels; there’s usually quite a lot of formula and very little depth, but Cocks and Morgan have conjured that most coveted mix of romance, comedy, and blunder to produce summer reading gold.

The story unfolds on the morning of Rebecca “Bex” Porter’s wedding day as looks back on her relationship with Prince Nicholas of Wales. Sectioned off into the significant years of their relationship, Bex starts at the beginning—her year abroad at Oxford where Nick is the first person to greet her, at which time she makes a comment about the royal family having syphilis. (An amazing moment. I laughed like an idiot.)

Of course, she has no idea who he is at that moment, but they soon begin spending more and more and more time together. They bond over trash TV and American junk food and drink their way through all the pubs in Oxford. But he’s a prince. Bex knows it can’t be more than a flirtation. Plus, she’s already hooked up with their mutual friend, and one of Nick’s closest allies, Clive.

Things are tricky, and Nick is already under immense pressure from his domineering father, Prince Richard. He must be present at elite gatherings, emitting just the right amount of charm and wit without seeming too glib. Bex can see Nick has mastered his public façade. But what’s beneath it?

After a whirlwind series of heated moments, the pair decides to become a couple, but only their closest friends know. Keeping their relationship a secret from the public turns out to be difficult, but not as difficult as it becomes when Nick reveals their romance to the royal family, and the pair becomes an “unofficial” item to the press. Bex must be her best at all times, and worse, her twin sister Lacey still continues to make a spectacle out of herself in public for the sake of attention.

As life becomes more difficult for the two at the hands of the press and Nick’s growing list of duties, they must make a decision about the future. Will they really get married, or it back to Iowa for Bex?

Cocks and Morgan build the narrative beautifully. It’s seductive, charming, hilarious at times, and impeccably well written. Even if people think the novel is a cheap rip off of the Will and Kate courtship, it’s still extremely well done. More than that, readers are forced to think about just how much they consume the type of tabloid press that exposes the lives of these individuals for the whole world to see.

On one hand, we often say these high-profile people get what’s coming to them, but Nick was born into his life, and Bex…well…Bex has to decide if she can go along for the ride for the rest of her life—the future Queen of England. Every lighthearted moment the couple shares comes at the cost of intense of public scrutiny when they leave the confines of their sanctuaries. It also doesn’t help that Lacey is running wild and some members of the couple’s friend group seem to be turning against them.

It’s all a matter of empathizing with the people whose lives we consume as entertainment, and the authors explore these fabricated (but very familiar) lives with care, dignity, and the humor that comes along with everyday life.

There were moments in the story where I could see the obvious parallels between the novel and the real British royal family, but it’s always done with a hint of good-natured ribbing. And, more than that, those hints never mask the obvious talent Cocks and Morgan have when it comes to developing plot structure and imbuing each character with carefully crafted personalities that never cease to grow along with the main characters.

I cannot recommend The Royal We highly enough to readers looking for a fun, fast read for the summer. Of course, you have to read it to get ready for the upcoming film adaptation—just pop on some sunglasses and park yourself in a beach chair. And don’t forget the sunscreen! Once you’ve started Cocks and Morgan’s brilliant novel, you won’t want to stop until you’ve turned the last page.

On “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

61-1atkJmYL__SX333_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

George Saunders is highly regarded as a short story writer, gaining recognition and accolades like the O.Henry Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, and the MacArthur Fellowship. When he announced the publication of his first novel, the literary world held its breath in anticipation, wondering what the acclaimed writer would do with his departure from the short story form. What we got—Lincoln in the Bardo—is one of the strangest, funniest, and most heartbreaking novels in recent memory.

The novel, set in 1862, concerns the death of Abraham Lincoln‘s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie. A few long hours leads to a fever that won’t break. Everyone knows young Willie isn’t doing well, but Abraham and Mary Todd are obligated to hold one of their lavish parties anyway. Throughout the night, both parents check on Willie, but it’s too late.

Guilt plagues Abraham Lincoln and his wife as they lay him to rest in the historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. If only they had forgone the party that night. If only Lincoln wasn’t—at that moment—responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers as the Civil War builds to a frenzy. It takes everything in his power to leave Willie behind and keep moving.

It is only after Willie’s funeral, when everyone has left, that the characters of the Bardo appear. Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas comprise the youngster’s slapdash welcoming crew. In this halfway point between life and death, the people of the cemetery don’t really believe they’re dead; they’re just in their “sick-boxes” waiting to rejoin their loved ones.

As the reader finds out, the people here have refused to let go of the “previous place,” where they can’t quite remember what life was like, but they repeat the stories that leave them longing for what never happened in life. Hans Vollman, for example, married a woman much younger than himself. Rather than force himself on her on their wedding night, he took the time to build a friendship with her, which then blossomed into romantic love.

On the day the couple was to finally consummate their union, he is hit in the head by a beam in his workshop, never knowing the love of his dear wife. It’s only in true Saunders fashion that, in the Bardo, Hans Vollman has a constant, unceasing erection from the failure to satisfy his anticipation. The way he does this is subtle, but when you realize what “member” everyone is talking about, it becomes the funniest thing.

Tragically, Roger Bevins III, slit his wrists in the previous place, but he believes he’s still on his kitchen floor waiting for his family to find him. In life, his “proclivity,” as he calls it, was a love for men. But his lover decides to “live the right way” and ends their relationship leaving him despondent. It is only at the moment when it’s too late that he realizes he wants nothing more than to live. In the Bardo, Bevins has ears and eyes that appear at the slightest sensory input because he’s all too eager to take in everything all at once.

Unfortunately, the Reverend, Vollman, and Bevins know that children cannot stay in the Bardo for long before horrible things start to happen to them. But they cannot convince young Willie to let go.

Saunders’ narrative shifts seamlessly from the surreal to the tragic. Lincoln must grapple the weight of grief, while Willie must come to terms with the fact of his death even though he can’t bear to leave his father behind. The novel’s finest moments show the inner workings of the president’s mind as he weighs the meaning of his sorrow with the overarching theme of death that extends from the Bardo to the battlefields of the war.

What’s incredible about Lincoln in the Bardo is its structure. Many writers have drawn acclaim for their manipulation of conventional form, but Saunders’ work is stunning for the sheer amount of research it must have taken to build the fabric of certain pieces of the narrative. For example, the night of Willie’s death/the Lincoln’s party, Saunders tells the story with excerpts from real primary sources and historical texts along with made up sources and texts. Some of them agree, some do not, but they allow for the reader to see various texts working in concert to form a completely new piece of art.

Even paragraphs in the Bardo scenes are attributed to specific characters, almost as if it were a play. The multiple perspectives from myriad voices are the product of painstaking effort on Saunders’ part.

While it takes a few chapters to get used to Saunders’ style, Lincoln in the Bardo is well worth the effort, and I imagine many people can finish it in one sitting. This compelling story of a father losing his son, fighting with grief and guilt while also shaping the landscape of the United States is unabashedly ambitious and completely unmissable.

On “Gin & Daggers” by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain

Image result for gin & daggersOkay, so my foray into the never ending Murder, She Wrote series of novels co-authored by “Jessica Fletcher” and Donald Bain can be attributed to a steady diet of the hit 1980s television show starring Angela Lansbury. It continues to be my mother’s favorite show. Not just because Jessica was such a snappy dresser, and smart as a whip, of course. But also because Lansbury bears uncanny resemblance to my grandmother.

Our mutual television obsession turned into a budding literary obsession on my part. Because I nearly always feel obligated to get myself into as many book series as possible, I immediately picked up Gin & Daggers from the library when I found out there was a such a series based on the show.

It was so worth it. Gin & Daggers is a delight and the perfect way to pass time if you’re a fan of the show. Donald Bain does an admirable job transferring Jessica Fletcher into a character in a novel. For the most part, her dialogue, especially her responses to people. I can here the distinct moral rightness of the Lansbury brogue.

The first novel in the series concerns the murder of Jessica’s good friend and world famous mystery writer, Marjorie Ainsworth. When the suspicion falls on Jessica, she must explore the motives of the cast of characters present at Marjorie’s estate that night to clear her name.

Her quest for the real killer takes her all over London, with plenty of cozy stops at pubs to eat fine meals and drink port. It’s delightful. And it made me homesick to that beautiful city and its prickly people.

The bottom line here is, if you’re a fan of Murder, She Wrote, you’ll love these books. Seen all twelve seasons more than once? Try reading one of twenty-ish (?) novels written by Bain. Time well spent, my friends.