Modern Lit: East Coast Girls, by Kerry Kletter

East Coast GirlsEast Coast Girls by Kerry Kletter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four high school girls, intelligent, pretty, and vivacious, share a series of idyllic summers on the beaches of Long Island. All of them have less than ideal home lives, and their deep friendship helps to fill that void. Their final vacation together after graduating is bittersweet, separation looming as they prepare to set forth as individuals into life’s next phase. Driving home on their last day, they vow to remain close and visit often, when the unthinkable happens. East Coast Girls is the story of how each copes with a future quite different than what was confidently expected.  Now, at age 30, they meet at the beach one last time, but not without trepidation.

For the reader, what happened on that tragic night is a mystery, clarified slowly and haltingly, until the book ends. None of the women, for that matter, know the whole truth about what actually took place. This is what motivated me to keep reading, because much of the tale, related by each of characters in turn, seemed like a coming of age novel.  Having outgrown the support system they had created, and in the absence of any other, their confidence has dwindled in the face of the daunting difficulties that life pitches at them.

The summer reunion is beautifully developed. It is in this sequence that the characters are their most authentic. It reminded me of the movie The Breakfast Club, which in essence was a successful group therapy session. As in the film, these struggling, damaged women somehow find the nerve to speak painful truths to one another, and can come to understand and accept those truths because they are told by people they once trusted and can come to trust again. During this process, the reader ultimately learns about the traumatic experience that once had the power to divide them, and now has the power to unite.

Difficult material. Well done, Kerry Kletter!

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Historical Fiction: Before I Met You, by Lisa Jewell

Before I Met You
My rating 4 of 5 stars

Splitting a story between two parallel time frames has become a popular convention in historical fiction, and Lisa Jewell does that seamlessly in Before I Met You. The novel opens on the island of Guernsey when young Betty meets her aging but still glamorous grandmother, Arlette, at her crumbling clifftop mansion. Betty will stay on as caregiver as Arlette slips into dementia and dies several years later. Arlette’s will leaves a small inheritance to her granddaughter, and intriguingly, a much larger one to an unknown individual named Clara Pickle, who lives in England. Betty decides to move back there to try to locate Clara.
From this point forward, Betty’s story, set in 1995, will mirror Arlette’s, which took place in the 1920’s. Both are romantic tales involving two young women setting out for adventure, struggling to start building lives of their own in Bohemian Soho. Both find low-paying jobs and cramped flats, and both will become enamored of two famous musicians. In chapters alternating between the jazz age and the age of heavy metal, Betty and Arlette each have experiences they never imagined. Both will have to make difficult choices. One of them will face heartbreak, the other, a happier resolution. Arlette’s story is the more compelling, mainly because of the verve and color that infuse her era and the genuine charm of her love interest. Betty’s, which bogs down from time to time, is enlivened by her search for the elusive Ms. Pickle, who turns out to be a lovely example of characterization. The book’s conclusion is truly edifying. Quite often, novels that feature very young protagonists fail to capture my interest, but, particularly in its second half, Before I Met You managed very well to do so.

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It’s a Mystery: Bring Me Back, by B.A. Paris

 

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For twelve years, Finn has endured widespread suspicions that he murdered his girlfriend Layla, who disappeared without a trace while the were vacationing in France. In the dearth of evidence about how and why that happened, no charges were ever brought, and Finn eventually managed to adapt, sadly moving on with his life, his regrets over her loss never far from his mind. In a twist of fate, he is now engaged to Layla’s sister Ellen, whom he’d met a while back at a memorial service. Finn is contented with this relationship, until one day, Ellen finds a tiny Russian doll on the wall outside their house. What a coincidence, seeing that both Layla and her sister both played with such dolls in childhood. When more figurines keep showing up – through the mail, at the pub, on the sidewalk – Finn becomes hopeful that Layla may still be alive, and perhaps has come back. A series of mysterious emails convince him that she has, and now his happiness is shattered.

Bring Me Back is one of the many psychological thrillers spawned by Gone Girl several years ago. The characters of Finn and Layla take turns narrating both the present and the backstory, and it gradually becomes apparent that each of them carry significant emotional baggage. Although the going is slow, the suspense builds inexorably, leaving Finn and the reader in a delicious quandary regarding the truth about Layla, and that’s why the ending comes as such a gigantic, wtf letdown. Both the resolution and its aftermath stretch credulity way past the breaking point, spoiling beyond repair what had been an intriguing plot. I suspect that a second reading could reveal a few hints regarding what was to come, but I’m not interested in finding out and will leave it at that.

 

It’s a Mystery : The Perfect Wife, by Blake Pierce

The Perfect Wife (Jessie Hunt #1)The perfect  dupe

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

For a criminal profiler in training, Jesse Hunt is amazingly clueless . Less than halfway through this book, it was glaringly obvious that there was something rotten in Westport Beach, but Jesse’s incapable of adding 2 and 2. Her perfect husband is behaving suspiciously and erratically. Her practicum supervisors are breaking all the ironclad rules for her , and the infamous serial killer she’s interviewing knows all about Jesse’s life, past and present. She’s witnessing neighbors running around naked. This plot is so transparent and derivative, the writing so juvenile, the protagonist so gullible and hapless, that I couldn’t bring myself to finish The Perfect Wife.

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It’s a Mystery: The Detective’s Daughter, by Lesley Thomson

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Detective’s Daughter  does not have a straightforward opening, which is off putting to many readers. It reads as a collection of unrelated short stories, and requires some patience until things start to become clearer. These are backstories, and they’re well worth the wait.

On a sunny day in 1981, young mother Kate Rokesmith is found murdered along the banks of the Thames in Hammersmith. Hours later, her little boy, Jonathan, is found huddled at the foot of sculpture he always enjoyed visiting, and police deduce that he probably witnessed to killing, but the trauma leaves him unwilling/unable to answer their questions.  A single witness, a neighbor,  saw the pair head off for their walk, but otherwise there is a frustrating dearth of information. The police suspect the husband, but lack any semblance of evidence, and the case goes cold. This is one of the cases that has  obsessed former DCS Terry Darnell for thirty years, even into retirement. When he dies suddenly of a heart attack, his semi-estranged daughter, Stella, owner of a professional cleaning business, sets about clearing his house, and a box  of papers she was sorting through indicates that he was actively pursuing the case. When she hires  Jack Harmon to serve a cleaner to her new dentist, Stella finds him decidedly quirky, but surprisingly effective and efficient. It isn’t long before he becomes as interested as she is in the unsolved crime. What ensues is a distinctly cerebral mystery that grows harder and harder to put down. Along the way, Stella learns things about her dad as well as herself that she had never before considered or even recognized. More than a simple police procedural, The Detective’s Daughter is a book about relationships, with vivid, realistic characters, eerie surprises, and several genuinely suspenseful moments.

While reading this novel, I did a web search about the setting, finding many evocative photos that helped bring the story to life. Finished the book this afternoon, and now I’m off to start Ghost Girl, the second book in this series, eager to know more about how Stella and Jack develop as characters. Can’t wait!

It’s a Mystery: The Lake House, by Kate Morton

The Lake House

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Readers who enjoy historical fiction, gothic mystery, and family saga would do well to check out the works of Australian novelist Kate Morton, who knows how to combine these elements into an intriguing tale. The Lake House is set in Cornwall, at the family home of the wealthy Edevanes, who like most families, have their share of secrets. Nevertheless, life has rolled along along quite smoothly until in 1933, at their traditional Midsummer Eve party, two year old Theo Edevane vanishes without a trace. Decades later, disgraced detective Sadie Sparrow, on leave for leaking details about a 2003 missing child case to the press, stumbles upon the abandoned house while walking her grandfather’s dogs. Sadie has a secret of her own that led to her lapse of good judgment. The story leapfrogs between past and present, with Sadie putting her investigative prowess into finding out just what happened to Theo. The reader learns about the back story from chapters narrated by the reclusive Eleanor Edevane, now a successful writer of mysteries.

This is a lengthy novel that could do with some paring down. The descriptions are effectively evocative, but there are a few too many of them. With all the bouncing between time periods, it was easy to lose track of the many threads and to forget who some of the various characters are. But this is a mystery with many strengths as well. The historical sections bring alive the first three decades of the century, particularly those dealing with the First World War and its aftermath. Life among the leisured class is also portrayed, with all that it entailed for women; Alice is a decidedly forward thinking young woman. There are many well devised theories about what happened to Theo, which the Edevanes do not share with one another. Ultimately, the mystery is resolved only when Sadie tracks down the now eighty year old Alice, and the pair pools their talents to uncover the truth. For me, the ending demanded too much credulity, tying up the story in a neat but “Oh, puleeeze!” kind of way. But until that moment, The Lake House was a pleasure in spite of its flaws.

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It’s a Mystery: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train 5 of 5 stars

Rear Window meets Gone Girl in The Girl on the Train, the debut novel of former journalist Paula Hawkins. Rachel Watkins is the eponymous girl, in actuality a 30-something divorcee still reeling from the breakup of her marriage, for which she takes the blame, all of it. Her ex, Tom, remarried instantly and now resides where he and Rachel lived with his new wife, Anna, and year old daughter. Rachel can’t stop herself from hounding them with tearful, demanding phone calls, most placed in the middle of the night. The novel’s plot revolves around what Rachel sees everyday on the train to London, which passes by the back gardens of her former house and neighborhood. A strong first clue to Rachel’s state of mind lies in the fantasy she spins out daily about a couple she observes having coffee each morning from the deck of one of the other houses. Another comes when it becomes apparent how much wine and gin she’s habitually drinking. Finally, we learn that Rachel is taking the train each day to preserve the illusion that she still has the job that she lost because of her drinking problem. One morning she sees the woman, Megan, kissing a man not her husband, and a few days later, Rachel’s shocked to learn that Megan has, as they say in the UK, gone missing. She offers information about that stolen kiss to the police, who consider her an unreliable witness, so she chooses to tell Megan’s husband, Scott.

Rachel is the protagonist in the story, as unreliable a narrator as ever conjured up in the pages of a book. As she becomes immersed in the mystery, she grows more and more unstable, and begins having vivid flashbacks to traumatic experiences that she doesn’t remember. Her point of view, mainly stream of consciousness, alternates with those of Megan and Anna, who are as grounded in denial as Rachel is. All three characters are profoundly disturbed, though at first it appears that Anna and Megan are more functional than Rachel. Tom and Scott, while having no narrator duties, show themselves to be abusive and manipulative. What makes The Girl on the Train so compelling is the remarkable way in which Paula Hawkins presents the interplay among the characters and the manner in which they tailor their perceptions and behaviors to suit their personal needs and self images. Sometimes we all delude ourselves, of course, but these characters have lost their own integrity and connection to reality. We never can tell quite what is lurking right under their facades. As their narratives come together during the latter chapters, the suspense becomes intense, more so because there hasn’t been a lot of warning (few telling slip ups here) and we aren’t quite sure how any of these people will react. Despite the dark, depressive atmosphere, which never really eases, there are glimmers of hope at the end, but this is no easy beach read.

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It’s a Mystery: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlFatal attraction, two ways

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nick and Amy approached their marriage in the same way most Americans do, by trying their hardest to please each other and submerging any personality traits or personal desires that might be viewed as negative. According to comedian Yakov Smirnoff, who also has a master’s degree in psychology, “Falling in love is a chemical reaction. But it wears off in a year. That’s why you need a strong line of communication… which includes laughter.” Like many couples, Nick and Amy never considered the possibility that the chemistry would change, and when it did, they checked out of their relationship without ever trying to adapt. This story is related by two supremely unreliable, self absorbed narrators, Nick and Amy themselves, who haven’t the faintest clue how to confront and resolve their problems. When they reach the end of the rope during their 5th year together, Nick plunges into a secret affair and Amy devises a diabolical way to teach her husband the lesson she believes he needs to learn.

The plot of Gone Girl is a like the one in the old movie, Fatal Attraction, but Amy is a much smarter avenger than the Glenn Close character. As in Fatal Attraction, Amy has ample reason for her fury against her lying, cheating husband, which is certainly justifiable, but she goes way over the top in the way she expresses it without ever recognizing her own role in their crash and burn. Throughout the first three quarters of Gone Girl, Amy is far and away the crazy one. Then the pathology deep in Nick’s character begins to assert itself, and by the denouement, many other people undeservedly become collateral damage in their catastrophe. This is a creepy, amoral couple who clearly deserve each other. Gillian Flynn handles all this mayhem with flair and elegance. Her presentation of Nick’s take on the marriage when juxtaposed with Amy’s makes the reader wonder if she’s talking about the same relationship; there is not a breath of honesty to be found. And the suspense, which at times is agonizing, never comes to an end , not even when the book does. What starts out slowly becomes un-put-downable. Noir fiction at its best.

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It’s a Mystery: A Secret Kept, by Tatiana De Rosnay

A Secret Kept

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Many reviewers have read and reviewed A Secret Kept after having done so with Tatiana De Rosnay’s first novel, The Secret Key, which received critical acclaim. The general consensus seems to that A Secret Kept can’t hold a candle to its predecessor. Not having read The Secret Key, I’m not hampered by expectations. This book is about a pair of middle aged French siblings, Antoine Rey and his sister Melanie. When they were children, their family took a series of vacations at Noirmoutier Island, and to celebrate Melanie’s 40th birthday, Antoine takes her on a surprise holiday there, hoping to rekindle happy memories. The visit does rekindle memories, but some of them are disturbing. On their way back home, Melanie confides to Antoine that she’s remembered something very disturbing about their mother, who died young. Suddenly, however, their car veers off the road. Antoine is not injured, but Melanie must spend several months in recovery, during which he finds himself suspended with all sorts of questions and speculation, wondering when she will be able to recall the momentous news. ,

The trajectory of this book follows the course of Antoine’s struggle to come to terms with an unwanted divorce. He still loves his wife, who has remarried, and his children, whom he sees on bimonthly visits. Desperately unhappy, he meets a free spirited woman who works as the hospital mortician, and he is stunned to realize that he’s falling in love with her. Melanie finally remembers and divulges the secret she’s discovered about their mother, and set out on a search to uncover how she died so many years ago.

A Secret Kept is a sort of family saga, recounted in real time and in a series of flashbacks. The Reys have always been an uncommunicative family, and, in addition to learning how to live his life anew, Antoine must learn to break out of that destructive pattern if he’s going to become the sort of father and lover that he would like to be. His newly found knowledge about his parents’ secret past, initially a shock, proves to be the key to first finding, and then reinventing himself. This well crafted novel is meditative and full of angst, but not overwhelmingly so, and it’s interesting to watch how Antoine handles having to change much what he thought he knew about who he was. In some places, it’s slow going, but generally worth persevering to the open-ended conclusion. The information about Noirmoutier, which can be reached by a road that’s obliterated by the tide twice is day, is fascinating, and the place becomes an apt metaphor for the book’s central theme.

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