The Summer Wives: A Novel by Beatriz Williams

Summer Wives, or paramours, are perfect for the three months of June, July, and August for the men who love them prior to returning to those women who, for better or worse, take up the mantle as their duly married spouses. It kind of reminds me of the sign on our motor boat, “All marriages performed by Captain good one trip only”.

Here are young virginal girls full of passion who are attracted to men who aren’t necessarily destined to be their mate. When villager Bianca Medeiro gives herself to the handsome, prosperous Hugh Fisher she considers herself his wife, so imagine her distress when said husband intends to wed fellow socialite Abigail Dumont. Despite Hugh’s pledges of love and devotion, too late she realizes that it’s just a summer romance which he intends to continue each year when their nouveau riche family returns to Winthrop Island for the season. That’s in 1930.

Twenty one years later Hugh Fisher’s nineteen year old daughter, Isobel, is engaged to the affluent Clayton Monk, yet she’s not sure they’ll suit over the long haul. Anyway, her dad is remarrying and she needs to spend time with her new sister, Miranda Schuyler. Step sister “Peaches” is attracted to the son of the light house keeper, Joseph Vargus, who makes a good impression when he rescues an elderly Portuguese fisherman who fell off his boat. There’s an instant chemistry between the two, even though Isobel warns her “he’s mine”. Not to worry, they barely have any time together when a tragedy occurs which sends Miranda spinning off in a new direction.

Eighteen years after that, Miranda returns, now a successful actress who needs some time away to recuperate after a car accident. She hasn’t spoken to her Mom or Isobel since her departure and the house where she spent that fateful summer is in disrepair, especially since her stepfather is dead and the money has dried up. Isobel never married and Miranda’s husband, well let’s just say he’s the reason she’s hiding out in Long Island Sound. An added plus is the fact that Joseph might be somewhere around the island after his recent escape from prison, just a couple of years before he was set to released from his twenty year murder sentence.

The Summer Wives: A Novel by Beatriz Williams is told from three perspectives, Bianca Medeiro in 1930, eighteen year old Miranda Schuyler in 1951, and the now 36 year old Miranda “Thomas” in 1969 – each time period divided into the months of June, July, and August, where the details are eked out a little at a time until the complete picture (via the two epilogues) is revealed.

Is there a true villain in this saga, or a series of miscommunications which result in actions that simply can’t be undone? Either way, there’s a bunch of questionable plot points which make one wonder, “oh, no, you didn’t just go there” and though the end run isn’t exactly rocket science, this is still an enjoyable, if not predictable, read.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and the publisher for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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March by Geraldine Brooks

If one were to ask my favorite childhood author, although a difficult choice, I would have to say Louisa May Alcott, specifically Little Women (although there are other of her novels which I also hold dear). There’s a reason I named by third daughter Elizabeth, though she’s a Liz or Izzy and not a Beth.

Perhaps I was responding to the authentic voice of the author. Certainly basing her novel on members of her own family brought a touch of normalcy to the words. Of course, as a nine year old I didn’t ponder these things, I only knew that I had grown to love each of the sisters, reveling in their interactions with one another and their struggles in their daily lives. I was also attracted to the time period and the formal language, so different than the common vernacular of Brooklyn in the 1960s. Jo’s love of books and writing was another draw, binding her to my heart in a way that few other literary characters managed to accomplish.

So when I discovered that the title of the book March by Geraldine Brooks was actually in reference to the absentee father in Little Women, I decided that this was a novel which needed to jump to the top of my “To Read” list. Although I had heard of March (after all it was published over ten years ago), at that time in my life the focus was on children’s books as I was working in an Elementary/Middle School Library. Luckily, a good book remains readable whether opened the day it’s published or years later, especially one which has been so thoroughly researched.

I can see why March won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2006 due to the talent of Brooks who was able to successfully replicate Alcott’s style from the original novel. Bronson Alcott, a teacher not a preacher, was a fascinating man who obviously had a big impact on Louisa’s life. The chance to get a better glimpse of this individual, even via a fictional lens, is an opportunity not to be missed. Using the background of Alcott’s family (with a few poetic liberties) plus the details from Little Women set during the time frame of the Civil War, the reader gets a glimpse into the life of Robin (Father) March who is off at War throughout a major portion of Little Women. We get his young years as a peddler in the South, eventually becoming a preacher and settling in Cambridge where he meets his wife Marmee, with their abolitionist tendencies leading to his decision to meet the battle cry as a Chaplain at the age of thirty nine leaving behind his wife and four daughters.

Here we experience the conflict through March’s eyes with all the horror and inhumanity which war entails. We get the cleaned up version which he includes in his letters to his family, then the nitty gritty including the moments which he would rather forget but feels guiltily compelled to reveal. Occasionally there are reflections he shares which mirror the original work, but the majority of the story veers off into his own previously unreleased past. It’s not until Marmee gets the letter that her husband is gravely wounded that we begin a true parallel to Little Women as details from this book intertwine with her discoveries about her husband’s past. While most of March is from the father’s point of view, while he lays sick in the hospital, it is his wife who picks up the story and reveals the events leading up to his eventual return home to his daughters, including the gravely ill Beth.

While some of the actions of wartime made me squeamish, the realism of the story, along with memories of my childhood favorite, kept me engaged throughout the novel. That events which occurred at the beginning of March’s tale had an impact on later circumstances shows the talent of Brooks who was able to draw the entire contents of her plot full circle. The PTSD which infiltrates the protagonists being, makes one wonder about his future as a husband and father as even common events seem to bring up ghastly memories of his guilt ridden experiences from over the previous year, forcing him to live a double life, presenting an artificial front to hide his own internal conflicts. While not necessarily reflected in Alcott’s work, it gives the reader a new perspective into the inner workings of a patriot who has discovered that supposed “heroism” comes with a lot of baggage.

Five stars.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

I was happy with this simple, but witty little story of three Australian families. The first wife is struggling with her unfaithful husband, well, not quite unfaithful yet, but thinking about it. It’s who he’s been playing mind games with that has her completely in a dither, so it’s off to Mummy’s with her little boy to sort things out. Then there’s the widow who has never gotten over the tragic death of her teenage daughter. She’s the school secretary who everybody pussyfoots around in deference to her sensibilities. Finally there’s the -oh so perfect wife – who isn’t quite sure how or why she and her husband haven’t done the deed in like forever, or at least six months. Is she losing her appeal? After all, she’s given birth to three daughters who command a lot of her attention and he does travel a lot. Then she finds “the letter”!

These minor crisis were enough to keep my interest, but then, bang, half way through The Husband’s Secret, author Liane Moriarty pulls her first twist and my attention notches up a level or two. Of course, I expected this, after all, twists are this author’s trademark, and I remained open for the next surprise which braided these three lives together. While there is a satisfying resolution, this is not a happily ever after tale, just as life itself isn’t without its complications due to the numerous minute choices we make. An epilogue gives us the “what ifs” that we each can’t but wonder about our own lives.

An engaging, well written novel (even though I listened to the audio version, expertly performed by Caroline Lee who has read other books by this author). My only complaint is that I didn’t get to this book sooner.

Five Stars

The Cabin at the End of the Woods: A Novel by Paul Tremblay

This one is a bit of a psychological thriller with a paranormal twist combined with some religious overtones, and for me, it didn’t work. Despite its short, almost novella length, I couldn’t wait for The Cabin At the End of the World: A Novel to be over. Paul Tremblay’s try at suspense was simply gratuitous violence which was painful to read.

It starts out sweetly with a strange man stopping at a little red cabin deep in the woods which a family had rented to relax for the summer in New Hampshire. Leonard is talking to a seven year girl, Wen, who is catching grasshoppers and transferring them into a glass jar, naming and recording each one for further observation. This precocious child had been adopted in China by two dads, Eric and Andrew, who together were a genuine, loving family. (While there is a touch of homophobia in this book, the inclusion of a same sex marriage is secondary to the overall theme). Leonard and his three “friends”, have a different sort of agenda, one which should appall every reader. The rationale for their actions is questionable, if not insane, while the couple’s reaction to the situation is totally understandable. I suppose Tremblay wanted the reader to make some sense out of the chaos caused by these intruders, but the clues he does give do not begin to explain the reasons for this lunacy, leaving us more confused at the end then we were when we started.

While I don’t go looking for titles which feature blood and gore, I don’t necessarily avoid them either, but in this case I question, not only the premise, but the results – and a biblical reference or two just seems like a sop for a weary reader to justify all the bizarre behaviors.

The story is told from the viewpoint of several of the characters, but their thoughts are disjointed and the change in tenses (I’m not a fan of present tense narration) is annoying at best. Perhaps this story would translate better as a visual via Netflix or Amazon Prime for those who like the carnage of Horror Movies, just don’t expect me to be one of the viewers.

Overall, not my favorite.
Two and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Wolf On A String by Benjamin Black

If you are looking for a murder mystery, there is one here in Wolf On A String by Benjamin Black, but it is incidental to the historical aspect of this fictionalized tale of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II from Prussia, told during a brief span during the winter of 1599/1600. Yes, there’s a brutal death when Rudolf’s current young paramour is discovered frozen with her throat slit. The one who discovers her body, Christian Stern, is charged with finding her killer (but not until after he is questioned and thrown into prison as a possible suspect). Luckily the traveling scholar from Regensburg is taken under the Emperor’s wing, especially since Rudolf had a recent dream and our young hero fits the premonition of Christ appearing on a starry night with the appropriate name to match. Without any power or authority, Christian’s quest is hampered especially since the court intrigue leaves him at a loss of whom to trust. As Dr Kroll, the father of the slaughtered Magdalena warns, if you don’t chose a side, one will be chosen for you. Since this is medieval times, it’s either Rome and the Pope, or Luther. Either way, everyone is dispensable, including the ruler who is eventually dethroned by his brother.

This book reflects the constant threats surrounding the city of Prague which forces its residents to make the most of each moment. The Gourmond Fryer spends his free time enjoying luscious meals while Christian’s appetite leans more towards the delights of the female gender of his acquaintance. Everyone imbibes their favorite beverage. The taciturn dwarf, Jesse Schenckel is a pet of sorts for The Emperor, reciprocating the hatred he sees in the eyes of the courtiers, slinking around and turning up unexpectedly at the most inopportune times.

As long as we are looking into the life of Rudolf II, The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was known for his amazing collection of fine art, (many of the chartered works he commissioned were lascivious), as well as the rare artifacts he coveted such as a grain of sand from the Garden of Eden and a unicorn’s horn. His love of the unusual extended to mechanical moving devices including scientific instruments (his collection of clocks was world renowned) and he provided support for the studies of natural philosophers including botanists and astronomers. In the book Christian is given a tour of the “cabinet of curiosities” which represented the three kingdoms of nature (Rudolf’s massive set of gems and minerals were studied by scholars) housed in the northern wing built in the Hradcany Castle for just this purpose. A lion and tiger, part of his menagerie of exotic animals, were allowed to roam the castle. The Emperor was also considered an intellectual devotee of the occult arts, especially alchemy, and due to these interests plus the learning which he supported, his “hobbies” were believed to have led to the scientific revolution as a part of the Renaissance.

Between our protagonist’s visits to the royal chambers is the machinations surrounding court life, the ruthless players moving to expand their own power at the expense of others, often using Christian’s favor for their own needs, with the truth being covertly hidden despite the open acknowledgment of each other’s secrets. While our young scholar had dreamed of becoming indispensable to the monarch, he begins to realize that life in Prague is not turning out quite as expected with his life being dictated by the whims of others instead of through his own talents. We know he survives the ordeal since this is a story narrated by an older version of himself reflecting back on the decisions of his youth.

As the story comes to a close, the author presents a note to the reader explaining which characters are total fabrications, which are parodies of real individuals, and which are well known personages from that time period. He shares the fate of Rudolf and his Chamberlain which occurs about twelve years past the date of this story – but hold off on reading these after thoughts if you don’t want to be exposed to the clues necessary to solve the mystery. As an aside, Rudolf’s life long quest to discover the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone was obviously never realized and his massive collections were dismantled or neglected after his reign was ended.

A quick read with some clever turns of a phrase along with some occasional excessively long sentences and a few new words to add to ones vocabulary. I learned a bit about the musical term wolf on a string – an unwanted howling sound caused by a certain vibration of a violin. You are welcome to make projections based on the “significance” of the title.

Of note is that the name Benjamin Black is a pseudonym for award winning author John Banville. After seeing a picture of the author I felt he looked a bit like the country western singer Johnnie Cash, also known as the “Man in Black”. Coincidence? Four stars.

For Every One by Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynolds is an articulate, intelligent, up and coming young black author who is determined to fill the neglected niche of literature for African American boys. While Reynolds himself didn’t read his first novel until he was seventeen (Black Boy by Richard Wright) he realized that there was definitely a gap in authentic offerings for youth which he was determined to rectify. His beginning efforts led to the John Steptoe Award for New Talent as well as numerous Honor Awards from the American Library Association.

A poet from elementary school (his first published work was for his grandmother’s funeral when he was ten), Reynolds had the unique opportunity of presenting a poem at the opening of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC, his hometown. Originally entitled Jump Anyway, this work has recently been published as a book entitled For Every One promoting the need for holding on to our dreams in spite of the obstacles we too often face. This is a highly personal work reflecting some of the setbacks in the author’s own life including the fact he had to move home at the age of twenty eight (he had been living in NYC pursuing a writing career). Since a career in writing hadn’t been lucrative enough to pay the rent, Reynolds held a variety of jobs from working at a book store specializing in African American Literature (while in college) to being a manager in retail in Manhattan (he also worked at a Lord and Taylor in Maryland) to a position as caseworker in a mental health clinic where his father was a director. Bringing all these experiences to the table can’t help but enrich his writings. The author was reminded by his friend Chris Myers, son of the well known black author, Walter Dean Myers, that with the aging of his dad (who died in 2014) there is a definite need for the black voice to be reflected in children’s literature, especially for young minority boys.

Not a typical college student (perhaps turned off by the more traditional approach to literature), Reynolds struggled to get his BA in English at the University of Maryland. I’m sure this experience has tempered his outlook as an author writing for a nontraditional audience. A former nonreader himself, Reynolds recognizes that books can be intimidating to many children, not just the subject matter but the amount of printing found on each page. With the poetic format of For Every One, there are fewer words per page, spread out in such a way as to be inviting to those who don’t normally read books. Despite the lack of prose, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of content or meaning behind the words. Ultimately, the goal is to make it cool for kids to pick up a book, especially one of his books, where word of mouth might get those reluctant readers to actually engage with the written word. Others must agree since this title was on the New York Times best seller list for children’s literature. While meant to appeal to minority boys, the idea of searching for a better way of life is a universal theme sure to appeal to a much wider audience.

James Reynolds is an author to watch.
Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and Atheneum Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Sunny (Track, Book 3) by Jason Reynolds

My bad. I was part way through the book before I realized I wasn’t reading the musings of a young girl, but instead a diary written by a twelve year old black boy dealing with a slightly unusual life style. Yes, he’s home schooled. Yes, he calls his dad Darryl. Yes, his “teacher” is not his mom, but her best friend, Aurelia, a woman with more than her share of tattoos who looks at life a little differently than a “normal” adult. It’s just that his parents, childhood sweethearts, had a plan in place way before his birth, and life is going along just as it’s supposed to, with one possible exception – his mom was a victim of maternal death. While the author doesn’t go into depth about this issue which has become more frequent in the United States over the last twenty years (with an increased rate in the African American community), it is a topic that should be front and center, especially since numerous governmental policies have resulted in the closing of community centers providing prenatal care (like Planned Parenthood) which has had a negative impact on women’s health issues. Of course, that isn’t James Reynold’s main focus in his current middle school novel, Sunny, but the impact it has on this black boy and his father is definitely worth mentioning.

Of course, part of my problem in approaching this book was that I didn’t realize it was book three in the Track series. Sunny Lancaster is a member of The Defenders, an elite track team, and his only real contact with the outside world. The members of the team are like family with Reynold’s featuring each of the players in their own book. Of course, Darryl encourages his talented son who easily beats his competitors. This is the sport his mother excelled at and now Sunny has the opportunity to emulate his missing parent. Yet, nobody asks Sunny what he really wants. It’s up to the notes in his diary to reveal his true inner feelings about life, his dad, and, of course, the mother he never met.

Simply written, with enough meat to keep the young reader engaged, I would suggest the reader start with book 1, Ghost, and perhaps book 2, Patina (the only girl on the team), to develop a full appreciation for Sunny. (I’m curious about book 4, Lu, who seems to have a few “problems” of his own). Less than two hundred pages, this would be an excellent addition to a middle school library and even some high school students will find the series enjoyable. While basketball or football (perhaps baseball or soccer) are more popular, track and field is a sport that most kids have experienced, either in gym class or during those fun field day competitions celebrated at the end of the school year. A good choice for either of the sexes, but especially for those hard to please preteen boys. I’ve also heard that the audiobook read by Guy Lockard is well worth a listen.

Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and Atheneum Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.The

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