One Foot in the Grove
By Kelly Lane (2016)
She’s known nationwide as the Runaway Bride, a Boston public relations expert who left her popular TV weatherman fiancé at the altar in a viral video that shows her in an unflattering light. In order to get away from the flurry of media attention, Eva Knox returns to her family’s plantaion inn in Abundance, Georgia, to help run her father’s new olive grove, and to market its award-winning olive oils. Her sisters Pep and Daphne welcome Eva back, but not everyone in the small town is happy to see her: eighteen years ago, she left her first fiancé at the altar, and fled Abundance for Boston.
The last thing anyone in this story needs at this stressful time is for someone on the paid staff to be murdered right at the edge of the olive grove, but that’s what they get, and as Eva tries to sort things out, her life may also be at risk. Our heroine has a cute puppy, a handsome sheriff, and all kinds of personal issues to deal with, and because she seems remarkably resilient even while privately going through boxes of Kleenex in her cabin behind the inn, she’s easily embraced by the reader.
There’s lots of local flavor here, with enough description of Eva’s hometown and its people to give the novel all the color it needs. Author Kelly Lane mostly saves the olive oil talk for later in the series. I do want to know as much as I can about olive trees and olive oil from a character who is now immersed in this world, but I can wait, because Lane’s already won me over with good characters and a really well-paced narrative. I suspect it doesn’t take a lot to assemble the ingredients for a good series in this genre, but I know it takes a good writer to keep me engaged this well, especially given the interesting timeline the plot sticks to, which I will not spoil. I’m perfectly fine with a writer who sticks to the formula; how nice instead to find one who can really put a story together, too. More, please.
To Brew or Not to Brew
by Joyce Tremel (2015)
I was in the mood for a mystery series I hadn’t tried yet, so when I saw To Brew or Not to Brew on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, I was instantly intrigued. It’s the first book by a new writer, in an anticipated new series. Getting in on the ground floor is always appealing. If it turns out to be great, I can say I was there at the very beginning.
Greatness may not be forthcoming, but this first story of Maxine “Max” O’Hara, a Pittsburgh native returning home to open a brewpub after years of studying the craft in Germany, has some potential. Max is likable and smart, passionate about brewing and (a requirement in murder mysteries of this sort) stubbornly independent. She makes friends easily with her neighboring entrepreneurs, providing (also a requirement) a colorful assortment of supporting characters. Her family ties are strong, and her family is large, and of course there is the best friend of an older brother, on whom Max has had a lifelong crush but who sees her only as a kid-sister figure. Uh huh.
In addition to the hassle of settling a menu, hiring and training a staff, and getting her building ready for final inspection, she has to deal with someone who doesn’t want her to open, as evidenced by the murder of one of her employees. Max’s father is a detective with the police department, but when the death is officially ruled an accident, it’s up to Max to figure out who the culprit is.
It’s mostly a by-the-numbers mystery with the usual parade of secondary characters. I don’t find the family members especially endearing, and Max’s business-owner friends are still flat, with no genuinely attractive qualities. Remember when you read A is for Alibi and you were first introduced to Kinsey’s landlord Henry, and how much you liked him? Or how you wish you knew someone like Rosie, the owner of the local tavern? There’s nobody like that here, although Max’s friends are certainly likable enough. The love interest situation isn’t bad, but the character isn’t developed well enough to say anything meaningful about him.
Still, it’s good enough, mostly on the strength of Max’s efficiency as a manager and her good radar for good people. She’s admirable, which (after likability) is one of the most important qualities in mystery series central characters, and she’s easy to root for. Count me in for a few more.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013)
Park is the only Asian kid in his neighborhood, but it’s not his being half Korean that alienates him from his schoolmates; rather, it’s a feeling that the stuff he cares about is meaningless to his peers, and he can’t even bring himself to feign interest in whatever they’re into. For reasons that are at first unclear, the others leave Park alone. He’s learned to avoid confrontation, but that’s not entirely it: he sits in the back of the school bus right in front of the class jerks, yet he’s learned not to be singled out for anything, and nobody messes with him.
The new girl in school is not so skilled at avoiding being bullied. Eleanor is large, and she dresses in weird clothes, and she’s smarter than the other girls, and she’s oblivious to Park’s mentally telegraphed messages to stay away from him. She sits right next to him and pretends not to hear the name-calling by others nearby.
Park doesn’t understand the girl, and he doesn’t understand why everything she does calls everyone’s attention to her, when her strategy should clearly be the opposite. It’s as if she’s inviting the ridicule that comes her way. But what Park really doesn’t understand is why he sympathizes with her, and in that weird way friendships sometimes emerge, Park and Eleanor develop a very real friendship, Park flinging himself wide open to anything his family or classmates might say about him. So sincere are his feelings that he doesn’t care what people think.
Eleanor, however, holds Park at armslength, unwilling to let him know the truth about her life and family. Park can’t come over. Park can’t call on the phone. Park can’t even walk her all the way to her front door.
Eleanor & Park broke my heart within minutes of my opening it, and then it kept breaking it, pretty much all the way through. By the time I turned the last page, my heart felt as if it had been wrung out until there was nothing left. Author Rainbow Rowell, whose Fangirl I admired for its clear, distinct voice, walks a delicate line in this novel, carefully not telling us everything but telling us just enough. My feeling upon completing Fangirl was that Rowell had spent her whole life learning how to write, but not enough of it learning how to write a story. I can pretty much dismiss that thinking now, because here is a story I couldn’t get enough of, with characters worth getting to know. It isn’t just Eleanor and Park, but also their parents, grandparents, and even some of their antagonists who we get to know on multiple levels.
There are plans to turn this story into a movie. Honestly, I can’t wait. I wan’t to spend as much time with these characters as possible.
Four stars out of five.
The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson (2013)
Book Three of Fire and Thorns.
Elisa decides that the only way to bring lasting peace to her kingdom is to meet the enemy on its turf and to negotiate a treaty. She has already demonstrated a talent for bargaining fairly while disarming her rivals with kindness and clarity; now she will have to do it without the protection of castle walls or army, in a land where everyone would sooner kill her than speak with her. She and her escorts then must race back to her kingdom, which has already been taken over by a traitor, in order to prevent more war.
One of the great challenges for a writer in this genre is dealing with all the travel, which in most cases takes weeks or months. Although author Rae Carson handles it pretty well throughout this series, there are times in this third book where it gets as wearisome for the reader as it does the protagonist. She gets by on the strength of good characters, but it’s still a bit much, and just about nothing that happens during the journey is even close to as interesting as what happens at its endpoints.
Elisa is a briiliantly conceived character, a female model of brains, communication skills, moral problem-solving, and sympathy. Where brawn must be employed, she does what’s necessary, but it is her ability to relate to people, seeing into their motivations and fears, that saves her people. “Peace is such hard work. Harder than war,” Elisa says. “It takes way more effort to forgive than to kill.” Because Carson never frames Elisa’s issues in certain black-and-white terms, there is an ever-present feeling that Elisa only thinks she’s doing the right thing at any given time. That little bit of not being sure is her greatest asset, because it leaves her open to collaboration and failure, and it makes her a much more interesting character than if she were absolutely clear on every decision.
It’s a satisfying conclusion to a most excellent trilogy, perhaps the best serial fiction for young readers since Harry Potter.
The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern
It’s easy to fall into a reading rut, which isn’t so bad when unread novels by your longtime favorites are stacked next to your bed in teetering piles, small monuments to the nights of your childhood when you were first introduced to the characters by the glow of a flashlight beneath the blankets. At this moment, recently published books by Lynne Rae Perkins, Cynthia Kadohata, and Rebecca Stead lie within armsreach of my pillow, but as eagerly as I anticipate diving into their pages, I felt the desire several weeks ago to bring home from the bookstore something I was unfamiliar with, by a writer I’d never heard of, as kind of an injection of newness into my reading life. This is why I picked up The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern.
I carried it around for three weeks before getting through chapter two, seriously regretting my moment of spontaneity. Its setup was interesting enough: a fifth-grade girl sits at her ailing father’s bedside in a hospital room, explaining in her tween voice how they both got there. She quickly introduces us to her older, hotter sisters (“So I called Tiffany and Layla and they opened their doors at the same time because they’re pretty much the same person. With the same brain. And the same bra size”), her classic-rock-loving, wheelchair-bound father, and her no-nonsense, ex-hippie mother, and leads us through a recollection of her tenth birthday exactly a year ago.
Maggie’s voice is instantly recognizable as that of a smart, inquisitive, overachieving pre-adolescent girl, eager to satisfy her own lofty ambitions despite very little urging by her parents or teachers, one of those self-driven, self-centered young people who hasn’t yet discovered her own limitations, except those limitations imposed on her by the grownups (and sisters) in her life. My problem with getting from chapter one to chapter two had everything to do with that voice. So well does it represent the mannerisms of typical (smart) fifth-grade girlspeak that it was just about unbearable in large doses, at least near the beginning of the book. I love listening to children tell me their stories, but not for four hours, which is what I predicted would be necessary to read this to the end.
When I finally got tired of carrying the book around, and when the call of those other unread books shifted into urgency, I made up my mind to power through, and before I reached the midpoint, I discovered that I had not only gotten used to Maggie’s voice, but I had grown fond of it. I was amused by the (certainly intentional) anachronisms, Maggie’s keen (yet naive) attention to detail, and her ability to let us see situations from other character’s points of view even while she, as narrator, is completely oblivious to them herself. I stopped noticing how many of Maggie’s sentences begin with conjunctions, and I started noticing how skillful the author is in painting one picture for young readers and a different picture for older readers.
Maggie’s father is seriously unwell in a way that makes this story an easy tear-jerker of sorts, but Sovern doesn’t earn sentiment with greeting-card syrupiness. Instead, she gives us flashes of revelation as we see how his condition affects each member of his family. Maggie is being kept largely in the dark when it comes to details of his illness, but when Maggie describes for us how her sister, not her mother, comes to an awards breakfast at school, we see a bigger picture that Maggie herself hasn’t opened her eyes to.
The Meaning of Maggie should appeal to a pretty wide range of tweeners, but it will be special to overachieving students who feel alienated because of their love for learning. I was won over by Maggie’s cluelessness with social situations and by the author’s great skill in creating her narrator’s self-centered view while giving her readers a wider angle.
Paper Towns by John Green (2008)
Quentin “Q” Jacobsen is a few weeks from graduating high school, a few weeks from his last summer before heading to Duke, and a few weeks from leaving a pretty good childhood behind. A big part of this childhood, his lifelong crush Margo, can’t wait a few weeks, and after one crazy night involving three catfish, hair-remover, blue spray paint, a large quantity of Vaseline, and a dozen tulips, she disappears, leaving a strange set of clues Q is sure are meant to lead him to her. Margo and Q are connected by a discovery they made at nine years old—a dead man’s body in the local park—and Q can’t say for sure if he is meant to find Margo or just her body.
With the help of his friends Radar and Ben, Q follows one lead after another, exploring a series of “paper towns,” those many residential subdivisions in central Florida that for some reason were never completed, empty lots and empty buildings where there were meant to be families and laughter. Although his friends understand the importance of finding Margo, they are also consumed with band practice, video games, and who’s taking whom to the school prom, leaving Q to do much of the tracking by himself, all alone with his sense of urgency and bafflement.
There is no question that John Green can write. His voice is easy to read and he’s gifted with a sense of timing that catches the reader off guard with its wit. While I think he can be ostentatious in his style, more than just slightly show-offy, he writes with a flourish young readers can recognize and appreciate. His is a flair for situational humor with heavy doses of irony, an enjoyment of the absurd, and a talent for linguistic cleverness. I fully get why he is the darling of smart teens on Tumblr.
I have read two of Green’s other novels, Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, and I appreciated the author’s wordsmithing but thought his plots were juvenile, as if Green had spent his whole life learning how to write and not enough of it learning how to write a story. Halfway into Paper Towns, I realized I had laughed aloud at least six times, and knew I was going to have to recommend the book just for that, but I dreaded what I knew was coming: a plot point that would disappoint me, a climax suited for a teen movie but not a teen novel, and a resolution that would leave me yearning for less.
Those things never came, although there is a long car ride that will translate wonderfully for the film (which is in theaters now and which I have not yet seen) but doesn’t hold up to the would-this-really-happen standard a good novel should aspire to. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by the novel’s final pages. There are stretches in the middle that get a bit long—Green forces us through too many ruminative passages on Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” for example, but if those sections feel a little bit like exercises at writer’s camp, they can be excused for where they finally take us. This is so far the best thing I’ve read by Green, and it’s the first of his novels I can recommend without reservation.
4 of 5 stars (I really like it)