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Archive for the ‘family secrets’ Tag

Family Mystery, Mysterious Family   Leave a comment

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I thought I had Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway figured out about halfway through. I was close, but close doesn’t count when murder and deceit are involved.

Ware masterfully creates a sympathetic main character in Harriet “Hal” Westaway, a 21-year-old plagued by debt and loneliness with no known relatives. That is, until a letter arrives naming her as a beneficiary in the will of someone identified as her grandmother. Hal knows this isn’t possible but schemes to learn more, even going so far as to concoct a plan to gain some portion of the will by misrepresenting herself. She makes her living as a tarot card reader who has learned how to tell people what they want to hear based on what they reveal about themselves. Hal is certain she can use the same approach with the Westaway family.

Of course, Hal is not the only one keeping secrets. Much of the fun lies in trying to determine the evil player among the deceased’s other living relatives. It’s clear Mrs. Westaway, the grandmother, was not a loving mother and her grown sons, Hal’s uncles, claim they want nothing to do with anything from her will. That is until it’s revealed that Hal is to inherit the bulk.

A short-tempered, intimidating housekeeper and methodically revealed truths add to Hal’s distress.

It’s hard to go wrong with vivid descriptions of the cold, wet landscape surrounding the dark, old mansion. Thus, Ware sets the scene for an engaging mystery.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway
Four Bookmarks
Scott Press, 2018
368 pages

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Uncovering the Past   2 comments

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The Tuscan Child is a book that makes you hungry for Italy, especially its food. Rhys Bowen’s story alternates between two different time periods: 1944 and 1973.

The former recounts British pilot Hugo Langley’s efforts to survive after parachuting from his stricken plane over German-occupied Tuscany. The latter, and bulk of the novel, picks up with his daughter, Joanna, following Hugo’s death. She discovers an unopened letter addressed to Sophia in a small Tuscan village. The letter includes a reference to their “beautiful boy.” With little else to go on, Joanna travels to Italy learn more about Sophia and the boy, who could be her brother.

The chapters involving Hugo answer some of the mystery; others are left to Joanna to solve.

Sophia discovers the wounded pilot and helps keep in him hidden in a bombed-out monastery. She’s limited by scarce resources and the inability to leave home without raising suspicion among the townspeople and Germans. Although it is only a month, Hugo and Sophia fall in love.

Joanna is unable to learn anything about Sophia and none of the old timers in the village knew anything of a wounded pilot. Still, shortly after her arrival, one man suggests he has information for Joanna. Before he’s able to share anything, he’s murdered and Joanna becomes a suspect.

Bowen has crafted a double mystery: one involving the boy and the other the murderer. In the process of unearthing secrets, Joanna is treated to meals lovingly prepared by her guest house owner.

The Tuscan Child
Four Bookmarks
Lake Union Publishing, 2018
336 pages

Seeing What We Want to See   Leave a comment

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Don’t be fooled by the fact that Erika L. Sanchez’s novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, falls into the Young Adult category. Family relationships, immigration, education and mental health are among the issues Sanchez addresses. These are matters that should be of interest to everyone, regardless of age.

Julia Reyes, a bright and funny 15-year-old girl, lives with her family in a poor Chicago neighborhood. Her parents entered the U.S. illegally years before and work in menial jobs. Julia dreams of being a writer and going to college in New York City. Her older sister, Olga, considered the good and obedient daughter, has just died in a freak accident.

Julia and her parents express their grief differently, but none are able to reach out to the other for support. Julia has always been at odds with her mother while her father has grown more distant. Much to Julia’s annoyance, Olga was idolized by everyone around her – especially her mother. Yet, Julia discovers some questionable items in Olga’s bedroom leading her to suspect no one in her family truly knew her seemingly perfect sister.

The author incorporates humor and has crafted well-developed characters to move the narrative beyond the life of a poor inner city girl. Julia is aware of the limitations around her, but doesn’t want them to define her. As she struggles to learn more about Olga, she learns things about her parents and herself. Fortunately, Sanchez uses a light hand when conveying such heavy themes.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2017
344 pages

Get Lost   Leave a comment

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Watch Me Disappear is disappointing. Sorry. There’s no hemming and hawing on this one. Yet, I read all 300-plus pages waiting for some redeeming elements. Some surfaced only to quickly fade. It wasn’t exactly a slog, but it was far from a nice walk in the woods.

There is a hike, though; at least references to one, which is part of the story.

Jonathan and Billie Flanagan, with Olive their 16-year-old daughter, live in Berkeley. By all appearances they’re a happy family. He’s a workaholic for a hi-tech publication, Billie is an out-doorsy bon vivant, stay-at-home mom occasional graphic designer with a past, of course. Olive is a bright introvert at a private school.

The narrative follows the grief-stricken father and daughter dealing with the presumed-dead Billie who, nearly a year earlier, goes missing while on a solo backpacking trek on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Jonathan quits his job to write a memoir about Billie, the love of his life. Interspersed among the chapters are pages Jonathan has written. They reveal as much about him as about Billie. Meanwhile, Olive begins having visions of her mother offering hints as to her possible whereabouts. Thus, the two begin separate searches to find the missing woman.

Part of the problem with Janelle Brown’s novel is that it’s predictable; the few surprises are just that, too few. It doesn’t help that Olive is the only appealing character or that the ending – and this reveals nothing – is very tidy.

Watch Me Disappear
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Spiegel & Grau, 2017
358 pages

Family Knots   Leave a comment

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Families can be so complicated and Anne Tyler has banked on this fact in all of her novels. Her most recent, A Spool of Blue Thread, is no exception.

Abby and Red Whitshank are the kind of folks that raise their four kids, go to work every day, are regarded favorably, pay their bills, have a peripheral connection to a church and know little about either each other or their family history. At one point, in a jesting tone, the omniscient narrator notes there are two family stories: one about the family home on Bouton Road in a respectable, comfortable Baltimore neighborhood, and the other about Red’s sister’s marriage.

Of course, there are more, many more. And Tyler slowly, almost teasingly, reveals them. There’s a good reason why she spends so much time describing the Bouton Road house built by Red’s father.

Initially, the novel appears to focus on Denny, the ne’er-do-well son who floats in and out of the family’s vision. Once he’s clearly established as unreliable and secretive, the focus shifts. Multiple times. Denny has two sisters, but they are the least developed characters. Stem, the youngest son, soon becomes a focal point, as do Red’s parents. Though separated by a generation, the secrets and pasts associated with these three are what move the narrative.

Tyler is not afraid to throw in surprises, which in retrospect were actually subtly foreshadowed. Her ability to show the strengths and foibles of family life are engaging, occasionally humorous and always insightful.

A Spool of Blue Thread
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
368 pages

An Allende Misstep   Leave a comment

Isabel Allende is among my favorite authors. I am reminded of how I feel about my kids: I love them even though they sometimes do things I don’t always like. Allende’s most recent novel, The Japanese Lover, is like that.

The story involves too many secrets, predictable plot lines and cardboard characters. Alma Belasco, a woman of means in her 80s, moves into Lark House, an unconventional nursing home. There she meets 23-year-old care-giver, Irina Bazili. The two bond, and soon Irina is helping Alma’s grandson, Seth, work on a book about Alma and the Belasco family history.

Of course, Irina has a past about which little is revealed, but Alma has secrets, too. As Seth and Irina learn more about Alma, it’s apparent there’s a lost love. Yawn. The younger couple believes the romance is still going strong, although this is all based on speculation.

There was, in fact, a lover. He started out as the youngest son of the Belasco family’s Japanese gardener and Alma’s childhood best friend. One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative is when Ichimei and his family are uprooted from their San Francisco home and relocated, with thousands of other Japanese-Americans, to an internment camp.

Given his role as title character, Ichimei is one-dimensional. Even Alma could have been so much more – especially in Allende’s hands. Alas, this is one of those books I didn’t like much; nonetheless, I look forward to the author’s next work.

The Japanese Lover
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Atria Books, 2015
322 pages

The Silent Treatment   Leave a comment

 

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Florence Gordon is a crotchety old woman. Actually, she’s not that old (75), and bitchy is a better description. Yet, this title character of Brian Morton’s novel is certainly likeable – not lovable, but fascinating. Hers is a forceful, no-nonsense personality. Although she’s a writer and considered an icon among feminists, she’s a poor communicator.

Sure, she’s written numerous essays, has plans to write her memoir and speaks her mind. The trouble is she doesn’t share what’s in her heart. Neither does anyone else in her family: her son, Daniel; his wife, Janine who adores Florence; nor their daughter, college-age daughter, Emily. This is a family of secrets. They hold tight to the things that should be shared with kin. Sadly, they spend a lot of time interpreting, often erroneously, one another’s actions.

Florence is put off by Janine’s adoration and seemingly disappointed by Daniel’s career choice: a cop. Still, Florence and Emily slowly start to build a relationship beyond something perfunctory. Emily helps her grandmother with some research. The latter is surprised to discover that her granddaughter is intelligent and perceptive.

The writing is terse, yet the characters and New York City setting are well-portrayed. Morton does a fine job, especially with the females, of inviting the reader to see what’s inside the characters’ heads. An absent character, Janine and Daniel’s son, is alluded to as a talker. Perhaps he could have gotten Florence to open up. That would have made for a completely different, but not necessarily better, story.

Florence Gordon
Four Bookmarks
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
306 pages