“Lucy by the Sea” by Elisabeth Strout

Genre: Literary FictionLucy by the sea
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: Sept. 20, 2022

This is Strout’s third “Lucy” novel.  If not familiar with the Lucy tales, you can read this as a standalone book. Once again, Lucy shares her experiences and emotions that have shaped her life. This time, her ex-husband William persuades (almost bullies) her into leaving pandemic-stricken New York City for Maine. I’m sure the author wanted to illustrate why so many people were in denial when COVID first became apparently deadly, but I thought Lucy was written more as a naive, dimwitted person than as someone in denial. It was frustrating since Lucy frequently felt inferior due to her difficult childhood but never acted in such a manner.

Within this plot, Lucy’s narration jumps from subject to subject: her growing intimacy with William; his adultery while they were married; the marital and health problems of their two daughters; the unexpected reappearance of William’s half-sister; and memories of Lucy’s impoverished upbringing, strained relationships with her parents, and her ongoing issues with her sister.

Strout’s voice was so fresh and specific in “My Name Is Lucy Barton” (2016), was already sounding rather tired in “Oh, William!” (2021), and is close to being stale here. Still, the novel has pleasant moments such as when one visits with an old friend with nothing new to say to each other but, still happy to see one another.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Summer Place” by Jennifer Weiner

Genre: Beach Read/Women’s Fiction The summer place
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pub. Date: May 10, 2022

In the book-beach lovers’ world, summer means it’s time for another Jennifer Weiner novel. This year it is “The Summer Place.” The plot is typical of Weiner’s works, with family drama, secrets, and imperfect yet endearing characters. Even though I am not always a fan of Weiner’s books, I read them every summer since they are a terrific way to escape real life. Weiner’s humorous, fast-paced debut 2001 novel, “Good in Bed” has a charming female protagonist who is always dealing with her weight issues, a strong cast of characters, sharp banter, and a take on life’s priorities.  I thoroughly enjoyed it. How I laughed but also felt the woman’s pain when I read that her ex-boyfriend publishes a magazine article about their relationship calling it “Loving a Larger Woman.” I devoured her next 2002 novel, “In her Shoes,” where the tension is between two sisters. One is wild and beautiful while the other sister is stable but not so pretty.

Here the tale revolves around Ronnie Levy’s summer house, which she expected to fill with family through the summers, but is now feeling empty after her husband died and her children are tied up in their own lives. But, when her daughter, Sarah, brings her ten-year-old stepdaughter, Ruby, to the summer house she falls in love with it. Now at the age of twenty-two, Ruby wants to get married at the house. Every family member is dealing with a secret revolving around having an affair that could unravel the fabric of the family. It all comes to a head on the day of the wedding.

It would be a spoiler to tell you who ends up with whom. It is not a spoiler to say Weiner’s books have happy endings. That is the purpose of a beach read. However, this family should not have had a feel-good outcome. I have read about half of Weiner’s thirty-something novels. Somewhere along the line, these endings became too far-fetched to believe, as they were in “Summer Place.” It’s simply too out there to buy into. You need to shift your level of disbelief considerably to accept the plot. Maybe, it is only me who is disappointed and critical of her later books. Still, to the author’s credit, I still read them every summer preferably on a beach.

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“Secrets of Our House” by Rea Frey

top revewier

Genre: Family Drama/Women’s Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s PressSecrets of our House
Pub. Date: February 8, 2022

Women’s fiction seems to be an umbrella term for books about women’s love-life experiences that publishers market to female readers. I have never understood the genre’s name. Women like me enjoy many genres. Novels that are classified as women’s fiction are often clumsily written and filled with silly romantic clichés. Yet, they are not labeled romance, beach books, or chick-lit novels, where you expect the tale to be sappy.  No one would ever call “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy women’s fiction although the story revolves around a woman’s extramarital affair. A more modern example is “We Were the Mulvaneys” by Joyce Carol Oates. A daughter’s reputation is damaged by a rape that tears the family apart. Oates never writes women’s fiction, although her novels often focus on a woman’s love-life experiences. Does anyone have an alternative name for the genre?

This women’s fiction novel revolves around a middle-aged married couple and their 17-year-old daughter. The wife secretly longs for a man who is not her husband. The husband secretly desires a divorce. And the daughter secretly desires not to go to college, but to marry the boy she loves. Get it? Lots of secrets. The repetitive marital angst is way over-the-top. The mother acts like a lovesick teenager no different than her daughter. The young lovers can also irritate with all their drama. At least their angst is age-appropriate, unlike the adults. Where Tolstoy or Oates might portray such a relationship in a believable, engaging way, Frey delivers all the trappings of a plot-driven commercial fiction.  It makes me wonder, do publishers believe women prefer to read books in which the writing only tells a story without stimulating their minds?  Is it just me who thinks this way? Nevertheless, the only part of the novel that I did appreciate is the beauty of nature that is described encompassing their house in the mountains of North Carolina. These sentences paint a colorful picture that shows us a talented author but not enough for me to be able to enjoy the rest of the book.

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“The Hidden Child” by Louise Fein

The Hidden Child

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Pub. Date: Oct. 19, 2021

Mini-Review

This historical fiction looks at the eugenics movement, which promoted selective breeding by removing unwanted genetic features from human beings. In 1929, “Eleanor Hamilton is happily married and mother to a beautiful four-year-old girl, Mabel. Her wealthy husband, Edward, a celebrated war hero, is a leading light in the burgeoning eugenics movement—the very ideas that will soon be embraced by Hitler—and is increasingly important in designing education policy for Great Britain.” (From book blurb). There four year old daughter begins to have seizures and is diagnosed with epilepsy. The novel puts a personal spin on the horrors of selective breeding.  This is a heart-wrenching tale with an unbelievable ending. This reviewer’s side note:  Eugenics was popular in America during much of the first half of the twentieth century, yet it earned its negative association mainly from Adolf Hilter’s obsessive attempts to create a superior Aryan race. America discredited the movement until following the horrors of Nazi Germany.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Landslide” by Susan Conley

Landside

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publisher:  Penguin Random House Canada
Pub. Date: Feb. 2, 2021

Mini-Review

This is a character-driven story about a family living on an island in Maine who are trying to survive the constant rough waters life throws at them. The husband is one of the few remaining fishermen in their declining coastal town. The wife is a documentarian.  Nevertheless, her husband is the true breadwinner between them and money is always tight. While in Canada, a boat the husband is working on explodes. He is severely hurt and must remain in a Canadian hospital for weeks. Also, he may not be able to continue working once released. This worry and their lengthy separation threaten his already shaky marriage. The author does a good job showing the difficulty in a marriage when one of them is often away for days at a time. In essence, the novel is about a fisherman’s wife, alone with her two teenage sons—whom she calls ‘the wolves’—trying to cope in a home that is falling apart while her sons are acting out. The author nails the complexities of modern-day parenting, for a single mom, since she practically is one.  However, the story’s true strength is that the reader gets an inside view of the current lives of coastal Mainers and the hardships that they endure as a local and not a tourist. The novel sometimes can read uneven bouncing back and forth from global warming, to living with a father-in-law who thinks that his daughter-in-law is too easy on his grandsons, to a marriage in crisis. Still, in limited prose, Cloney writes a compelling read.

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“This Shining Life” by Harriet Kline

Genre: General Fiction/Literary Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: June 22, 2021

The Shing Life

This character-driven novel is a sweet yet sad story that revolves around Rich who is a husband, father, brother, and son. Rich will die in the novel. We know this from chapter one. The book takes you through his prognosis until his death and his family’s grief afterward. The author’s descriptive writing will bring you into the mindset of a dying man. As well as his family members who are trying to digest his upcoming death.

Most of the characters have quirky yet lovable personalities including Rich’s 11-year-old son, Ollie, who is autistic. Although, Ollie is very hard to live with his parents adore him. Rich is the best with him when dealing with his rituals. Can you imagine being a parent of a child who will not leave the house without all his socks in case his feet get wet? Yet, Ollie is such a tender and frequently confused soul that it is hard not to like him.  The author never actually states that Ollie is autistic but it becomes obvious through his words, actions, and rituals.  Rich wants to reprimand his parents that it is not Ollie’s fault that their grandson can appear to be disrespectful.  He is not.  It is just that his brain is wired differently. Unfortunately, when he finally gets the courage to confront his stern and ridged father it is too late. Rich is already gone. The message is obvious.

There is much more in this touching family drama than Rich’s premature death.  The author takes on many themes, living with a disability, adult unresolved painful childhood memories, chronic depression, and the stages of grief. Sometimes I thought the author went too heavy on the characters’ exhausting emotions.  It became tedious to read. But then again, maybe that was Kline’s point—to put the reader up close and personal to the death of a loved one.  However, for me, sweet Ollie is what grabbed my interest and held it throughout the novel.  Watching the boy struggle to understand just what is exactly expected of him when the answer is outside his reasoning melted my heart. Without being preachy, the author gives a lesson in patience, understanding, and the meaning of true acceptance.

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The All-Night Sun by Diane Zinna

Genre: Literary Fiction The All-Night Sun
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pub. Date: July 14, 2020

Min-Review

The book’s title comes from the Swedish holiday, Midsummer Eve, which takes place during Sweden’s summer solstice and is celebrated all day and all night under the light of Sweden’s midnight sun. The story revolves around a troubled 28-year-old female adjunct professor and her unlikely friendship with an 18-year-old female Swedish student who invites her teacher home for the summer. The story is actually about grief for they have both lost their parents and are mentally struggling. The teacher stays hidden in the background.  The student craves attention to fill her empty emotions.   The author shines when capturing her characters’ loneliness and grief. Zinna’s best writing is in the strong sensory imaginary that allow the reader to experience Midsummer Eve with its maypoles, crown flower wreaths, singing, and dancing. As well as the turmoil created, when an adult is trying to fit into a teenage world that celebrates as if the holiday is the infamous Woodstock festival from the 1960s. However, although the prose is deep the story manages to drag.  As a fan of literary fiction, I am aware that the novel will be a slow-paced character-driven read that usually focuses on the human condition, and less concerned with a fast-paced plot, which some readers prefer. So, I understand why fans of popular fiction could be turned off by “All Night.”Still, for literary fiction to keep your interest one needs to be invested in the protagonist’s growth, which I was not in this novel.  Still, this is a debut novel and the author shows talent with its beautiful prose.  I look forward to reading her next novel.

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“The Thirty Names of Night” by Zeyn Joukhadar

Genre: LGBTQ/Historical FictionThe Thirty Names of Night
Publisher: Atria Books
Pub. Date: November 3, 2020

There is so much going on in this beautifully written novel. You will meet artists and three generations of Syrian American women. You will learn about French-occupied Syria during the early twentieth century, as well as a long-forgotten NYC neighborhood called Little Syria.  You will also read about birds and ghosts.  The author mixes up the genres. There is historical fiction, literary fiction, magical realism, coming-of-age, speculative fiction, and always LGBTQ fiction.  All the main characters in this novel are queer. There are two alternating narrators, one from the late 1920s and one from the present. In the present, we meet a young trans man, who moves into his grandmother’s NYC apartment to take care of her since her health is failing. In the past, the female protagonist is also an artist. She paints mysterious birds.  The three generations of Syrian Americans are linked together by their secrets, their art, and—here is the magical realism—a species of a bird that wears feathers that seem to hold the key to unlocking their secrets and allowing the characters to break free from society’s restrictions.

When the author wrote his debut novel, “Map of Salt,” he identified as a woman. He now identifies as a man. I mention this in light of the fact that the trans male protagonist talks about his confusion from when he was a child feeling extremely uncomfortable in his female body. This is written with such lucidity that one cannot help but wonder how much is fiction. The scene where the character gets his period is all-telling and so heartbreakingly sad. The child is devastated because, up until that moment, he held out hope that his true body as a male would surface. As his body conspires against him, his delighted mother says that her little girl is growing up. She tells the child that he is a woman now. To add to the child’s confusion, although he hates the feeling that his body is betraying him, he simultaneously loves the feeling of closeness that he is experiencing as his beloved mother braids his hair, sharing female pearls of wisdom now that he has a woman’s body. (When the girl grows to be the young man his mother is deceased but shows up as a ghost that he can see and talk to.  It reads more sweet than weird).  The author writes the child’s conflicting emotions so well that he makes you want to jump into the pages and give the child the word non-binary.  My maternal instincts had me crying for the boy.

Overall, I enjoyed the Syrian immigrant experience as observed in the novel.  As a native New Yorker, I loved the descriptions of Little Syria, which sounded like an Arab version of NYC’s Little Italy. I could have done without the birds, but then again I have never been a fan of magical realism. However, I did think it was clever of the author to make the trans man’s mother an ornithologist to keep the magic as believable as possible.  At times, there was just too much going on in the story to hold my interest. I found myself skimming to get back to the Syrian-American experience, but then again, historical fiction is my favorite genre.  There is no denying Joukhadar’s talent as an author.  The book could have easily been written as a boring teacher’s manual on all the themes in the novel that many of us do need to be educated on.  Instead, what you get is lyrical prose that is captivating as well as educational.  Still, for someone like myself who has trouble with mixed genre novels, the book wasn’t for me. Though, I feel confident that other readers and reviewers will consider it a story-telling feat.

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“A Week at Surfside Beach Short Stories” by Pierce Koslosky Jr

Genre: Literary Fiction/Short StoriesA Week
Publisher: Vertel/Loba
Pub. Date: June 9, 2020

Author Pierce Koslosky Jr. has created sixteen slice-of-life short stories with unrelated characters.  What they do have in common is that they all rent the same beach house with an ocean view, Portofino II-317C. All the characters become temporary inhabitants for one week in a single rental season that spans from May to December.  As a beach lover, how could I resist this collection?  To further capture my interest, Koslosky Jr., along with his family, has gone to Surfside Beach, South Carolina for over twenty-five years, staying in the same blue home where his shorts take place. The image of the house on the book’s cover is the actual house.  My first thought was of Mark Twain’s famous quote, “Write what you know.”Although set at the beach, this is not a typical beach book. It is not fluff. The stories’ characters are of all ages and come from varying backgrounds.  The tones of the shorts fluctuate. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, some are sad, some are thought-provoking. However, they are not all hits with this reviewer. Some are unsurprising, Some are unsurprising, feeling repetitive.

My favorite and, one of the funniest, is “The Right To Bare Arms, June 20-27.”  Going on a vacation with close friends who have a brood of children the same age as your own always seems like a good idea.  However, being on vacation disrupts one’s everyday routines, which is what bonds these two families to one another in the first place.  The battle begins the moment they arrive. They are large families so they rented two homes that sit next to one another, but Portofino II-317C has a glorious ocean view and Portofino II-317B does not. The family that is stuck with 317B begins the feud. Not helping a bit, a Romeo and Juliet situation emerges. The young teens learn to kiss between their braces, making their already annoyed parents see red. The night before they are to return home, the wives set up a dinner at a restaurant on the pier. The purpose is to discuss how to ease back into their normal suburban routines, which force them to depend on one another for car-pooling, school meetings, and after school activities. I chuckle just remembering the scene where they arrive at the restaurant. Two long tables await them—one faces the ocean, the other faces the kitchen.

When a stressed young family with three children goes on a vacation, there is no vacation from the fighting between mom and dad.  Spending every waking moment with three children all under twelve years old would cause any parents to quarrel. “Lucy, June 27-July 4” is a story about three-year-old Lucy who goes missing on the beach while her parents are bickering. This tale is too preachy for my taste.  The author does a good job of laying the foundation, yes. There’s that first moment of panic, the call to the police, the visions of their child on a milk carton. There is good suspense going on here. Also, the author did make me wonder why we enjoy reading so many stories about missing children. Is it because we are grateful that our kids are safe, no one has abducted them? However, none of this stops the tale from feeling tedious. The moral is obvious.

“Swimming Lessons, July 4-11” could feel preachy but doesn’t.  Readers will follow a father brave enough to take on the challenge of going on vacation with his two teenage sons and one of their friends. One thing that can grind the fun to a halt faster than bad weather on a beach vacation is a group of teenagers. Of course, the plane ride is hell, constant bickering and shoving among the boys. Naturally, dad needs a cocktail to calm himself down. Once inside the blue beach house, the attitude among the boys necessitates further cocktails. “Get out of my life, but first drive me here, and buy me this, etc.”  What could be worse?  How about if the oldest, most sullen son was recently arrested for stealing? The week on the beach isn’t a reward, but rather the dad is hoping to teach his oldest a lesson on owning up to one’s mistakes through relaxed, heart-to-heart conversations. If you have ever had a teenager you can guess how these chats can go. This short has many funny scenes because the dad is so over his head. The scenes in which he learns his own lessons also land.  I think this story didn’t have that holierthanthou vibe because of the humor that dominates the tale.

The author has an appealing, folksy style of writing. He packs his characters’ suitcases with sunscreen, kids’ toys, and their individual life experiences. There may be one too many tales with a happy ending. Still, the themes of community, friendship, family, love, and loss create scenarios in which all readers can relate. I mean, who hasn’t spent at least one rainy vacation cramped in a rental or someplace that brings out your worst behaviors?

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“The Second Home” by Christina Clancy

Itsy-Bitsy Mini Review

Genre:  Women’s FictionThe Second Home
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:  June 2, 2020

This is a women’s fiction beach book. The kind I like to read sitting in the sun with a glass of chilled wine in my hand. Considering that I am not usually a fan of women’s fiction and because I read “The Second Home” at the beginning of February, I am surprised that the book kept my interest. The story revolves around a couple with two biological daughters and one adopted son. We follow the kids’ life struggles from their teen years until they are in their thirties. There is rich descriptive writing. The author breathes much life into the families’ generational Cape Cod summer home. (I so wanted to be there). There are thought-provoking dark themes in the plot. However, as the years go by, the story became a bit too melodramatic for my taste. Yet, I went past my 50-page rule and finished the novel. Maybe that is because I enjoyed the family, especially the hippie parents. On the other hand, maybe, it is just that, while reading the novel, I was pretending to be on a warm beach.

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