Do Not Become Alarmed

shopping-3Maile Meloy hooked me with her Apothecary series for young adults; when Meloy’s fellow Guggenheim winner, Ann Patchett, praised Do Not Be Alarmed, the book became my next must read. Unfortunately, I started the book late at night and pulled my first all-nighter in a long time to finish it. I just couldn’t put it down.

If you’ve cruised to the Panama Canal and toured the Central American countries along the way, you will immediately connect with the venue. When three families decide to explore one of the ports of call – what seems like Costa Rica (although Meloy does not actually name it), their lives are traumatized and changed forever. The husbands take advantage of a golf club connection to spend the day on the links and the three wives with children ranging from six to fifteen hire Pedro, a handsome young local, to drive them to ziplining through the trees. When Pedro’s vehicle gets a flat tire, the plot takes the turn from happy vacation to danger.

The parents’ interpersonal issues offer some relief to the constant terrors the children face, from drug-dealing kidnappers to hungry crocodiles. Meloy manages to feed their helplessness and shows a range of ways people deal with threat.  But it’s the children who captured my attention, from 6 year old June who worries about her bunny, eight year old diabetic Sebastian who will not survive without his insulin, fourteen year old Isabel blooming into adolescence, and calm centered eleven year old Marcus. My favorite was Penny, an eleven year old who reminded me of Reese Witherspoon in her perspicacious role as a teenager in the movie “Election.”

Do Not Become Alarmed is a thrill ride; the ending brings all the strings together as almost an afterthought. And you wonder what kind of lives they will all have, especially the children, years later when their misery catches up with them.

If you liked Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Meloy’s Do Not Become Alarmed will give you the same thrilling yet thoughtful experience. You may find it as impossible to put down as I did.

 

Read my review of The Apothecary –  here

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Leaving Lucy Pear

9781101981764_p0_v1_s192x300  Anna Solomon’s sad tale of a baby left in an orchard in Leaving Lucy Pear has a cast of characters whose lives relate to her desertion in a little village in Cape Ann, Massachusetts in 1917.  I had expected only a version of the same theme I had read in other books – The Forgotten Garden, Light on Snow, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, and many more, but Solomon’s book holds its own with an underlying struggle of classes driving the classic redemption of the lost child.

Lucy is a minor character as the story begins with her under a pear tree, left by her wealthy teenage mother unwilling to give her up to a strict Jewish orphanage,  and found by a poor Irish family stealing the pears. Solomon evokes admiration for the tough Irish Emma, whose drunk fisherman husband is only home long enough to make her pregnant every year and pity for Bea, the lonely teenager who became pregnant after one assignation with a handsome naval officer.  Solomon does not alternate chapters on the mothers, as expected, but slowly reveals each of the mother’s lives through a series of related characters as well as their past and present, as she skips though the years.

Ten years after leaving her baby in a pear orchard, Bea, has grown into a women’s rights and Prohibition advocate, married to a handsome Boston banker.  She lives in Cape Ann with her aging Uncle Ira in an imposing house near the pear orchard.  Josiah, married into wealth on the island and hoping to gain Bea’s endorsement for mayor, arranges to have Emma, now a mother of nine children with her husband at sea, to care for Ira.  Emma recognizes Bea as the mother of Lucy but Bea does not learn of Lucy’s new home until much later in the story.

Solomon adds political and class story lines as she addresses the parallel lives of the mothers.  The famous trial of Sacco and Vanzetti punctuates the plot in an underlying voice accusing both the wealthy land owners – the outsiders on the Cape – and the poor working class locals. Ira’s brother, who is a successful shoe manufacturer changed his Jewish name to one better suited to the Protestant New England upper class, while his wife,  Bea’s mother, is a pitiful pretender at the country club, overdressing and fracturing her vocabulary as she tries to fit in.   She later becomes the catalyst for a strange twist of fate I did not see coming.

As the characters grow into their lives, Soloman slyly dismisses the reader’s assumptions about their motivations, revealing surprising yet reasonable secrets protecting their characters’ flaws.  Emma’s risks in having an affair with Josiah, Bea’s selfless crusades to protect her fragile ego, Albert’s steadfastness despite his yearning, Lucy’s disguising herself in a boy’s clothing – all eventually merge into revelations.

As I read, I found myself googling Sacco and Vanzetti, their trial, its effects, their execution, and much later vindication by Gov. Michael Dukakis.  I looked for Cape Ann, not as popular as Cape Cod, at the other end of the half moon of land off the coast of Massachusetts.  I wondered about the pears and found orchards still producing, with aged cinnamon pear vinegar and Stone Ruination Ale.

Lucy is almost a minor character in the plot, but has grown into a feisty and capable girl.  The ending brings her full circle to face both mothers.  Hints of her final decision, as she tries to manage the pull of both mothers, may be predictable and hopeful, but no less sad for an independent ten year old.  I’m hoping for a sequel to follow Lucy as she grows into womanhood.

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Mary Alice Monroe – Summer Reads

Tourist destinations with famous beaches often suffer abuse threatening to destroy the very attractions leading outsiders to find them.  Mary Alice Monroe offers beach readers a chance to wile away the hours while alerting them to be aware of their responsibility to their surroundings.

Gregory Cowles Inside the List  for the New York Times introduced me to Monroe’s low country summer novels  and her quest to save the environment.  Making my way through the first paperback – “The Summer Girls” – with saving the dolphins as the target, I enjoyed a quick read with romance and a reminder to be aware – our actions more often affect everyone and everything around us.

9781476758831_p0_v4_s192x300  The Summer Girls, the first book in the Lowcountry Summer Trilogy features three half sisters brought together after years apart by their aging grandmother. Each has her own life issues to resolve: Dora with an autistic son and a pending divorce; Carson, without a job and the possibility of battling alcoholism; Harper, struggling to be free of an overbearing mother. They have the same dead father in common.

The budding romance between Carson and the handsome NOAA biologist as well as Carson’s interaction with her autistic nephew drive Monroe’s real focus on eco-tourism.  She noted in her interview:  “No one comes to my novels to learn about pelicans or turtles…they come for the people, for the emotions.  But that’s how I hook them.”

Although the plot sounds like a soap opera, Monroe connects her characters to realistic problems, and showcases her underlying environmental theme to educate as well as to warn.  I read the paperback in a day, feeling satisfied and informed.  Knowing the author has a catalog of over twenty books, with missions to save the turtles, pelicans, and more, I may seek out another when I need a thoughtful break.

 

Summer Mysteries

Magpie Murders
9780062645241_p0_v6_s192x300   The housekeeper trips on the vacuum cleaner cord and falls down the steps to her death; within days her employer’s head is chopped off with a sword, and suspects are everywhere.  Almost every character has the motivation to kill the victims in Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders.

Book editor, Susan Ryeland introduces the story with a delicious warning, promising more than the next best seller by one of her popular writers, Alan Conway.  In a clever mystery within a mystery, Horowitz channels Agatha Christie in a crime story with more than red herrings and formulaic clues.  Pay attention when you read or you will miss something.

After the editor’s short preface, the character in her author’s book, Atticus Pund, decides to solve one last crime in the three months the doctor has given him to live.  With his trusty assistant, Fowler, he leads the investigation of the English manor house murders.

If you are a fan of Agatha Christie, you know, however complicated the plot and no matter how many characters you cannot remember, she will save you in the last chapter with her wrap-up and reveal not only the murderer but also the cause and effect.  But, what if the last chapters were missing?

After following the suspects and Pund’s finally declaring he knows who did it, the story suddenly stops and Horowitz drags the reader reluctantly back to the opening scene of the editor reading a book soon to be published.  Not having the last chapter, she begins to summarize the action and decipher the clues to uncover the ending in pages she hopes will be on her desk when she returns to her office.  Happily, just like Christie, she neatly recalls all those meaningful incidents the reader has forgotten.

The story now shifts and gains momentum as the book editor becomes the detective, not only looking for those lost chapters but also possibly looking for the murderer of her author.  As she questions each suspect, she uncovers his idiosyncratic humor placed within each of his mystery books, and the hidden clues about people he knew,  creating characters based on those he would mock.  Horowitz sprinkles the narrative with references to real authors the reader will recognize.

Although I usually hurry through the last pages, wanting the solution – and I did peek at the cryptic last line on the last page (“I had been the detective and now I was the murderer”) – I slowed down for the last hundred pages, reluctant for the story to end.  When it does…each of the murders is solved, and I never suspected whodunit.

Horowitz is a new author for me, and when I researched his background I found not only is he the author of the teen spy series featuring Alex Rider but  was also commissioned by the Conan Doyle Estate  to write two new Sherlock Holmes novel, and commissioned by the Ian Fleming Estate to write the James Bond novel Trigger Mortis.  In Magpie Murders, Horowitz references Sophie Hannah’s authorized reboot of Agatha Christie in The Monogram Murders.  

In an interview with the New York Times, Horowitz said he has already finished his next adult murder mystery, in which he has written himself into the plot. “Of course, I’m the one who is constantly fooled,” he said. He added, “A book does magic without saying, “Pick a card.” A whodunit is, at its best, a huge magic trick that says, “I’m going to tell you a story.”

I can’t wait to read it.

 

Earthly Remains: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

9780802126474_p0_v2_s192x300  Guido Brunetti is the kind of police commissario you would want in your corner.  He is civilized and soft-spoken, reads the classics every night, loves his university professor wife and precocious children.  Guido is an honorable man amidst the corruption.  As a fan of Leon’s series, I enjoy her descriptions of the rhythms of life in Venice and Guido’s family as much as the solving of the crime.

In this twenty-sixth book in the series, Commissario Brunetti needs a break.  After faking a heart attack to save his colleague from attacking a nefarious criminal, Brunetti is sent to the emergency room, and the doctor readily prescribes him two weeks of rest, away from the bureaucracy and crime of Venice.  Conveniently, his wife’s wealthy family owns an isolated villa on a nearby island with a stocked library for the erudite detective (Leon provides titles) and the promise of exercise rowing the deserted canals surrounding it.

Brunetti passes his days with the caretaker of the estate, Davide Casati, an old friend of his father, rowing into the laguna and checking on Casati’s beehives, until the death of bees and a sudden storm shatters his idyll.

Casati is found dead, and Brunetti finds himself back in investigator mode.  As he researches the man’s death, Brunetti finds an insidious cover-up of toxic waste illegally dumped in the laguna, leading him to question whether Casati’s death was accident or murder.  Leon answers in the end, but not without a strong statement about pollution and its effect on the environment.

Related Reviews:   More Guido Brunetti Mysteries

 

 

 

The Light of Paris

9780399158919_p0_v3_s192x300  Unhappy with your life decisions?  Feeling unloved?  Want a change?  Paris is the answer, according to Eleanor Brown in her second novel – The Light of Paris.  With alternate chapters telling the story of Madeleine, a frustrated artist with frizzy hair, and Margie, her grandmother who is sent on the world tour to escape being an old maid at twenty-four, Brown focuses on the life changing decisions of both.  Separated by a generation, both face the consequences of choosing – is it better to be safe and do what is expected or follow the riskier path to your own bliss?  Both women are determined to escape the low expectations of family and friends.

Brown uses old letters to reveal Margie’s secrets from the nineteen twenties when she spends three months in Paris, after refusing her parents’s choice for her husband.  Of course she finds romance – this is Paris – and her life neatly reverts to type when she gets pregnant.  But during those glorious months when Margie finds herself, Brown uses vivid  descriptions of the city and the people who used Paris as their muse to counter the triteness of the story line.  Margie discovers Paris in one of the best times to be there.

As she is reading her grandmother’s letters, Madeleine is struggling with her own demons.  After years in an unhappy marriage with a controlling husband (he tells her she’s fat and won’t let her eat chocolate – grounds for divorce right there), she returns to her childhood home just as her mother has decided to sell it.  Making peace with memories of her miserable youth lead her to an epiphany – life is too short to waste trying to be something you are not.

Without the quick wit and Shakespearean quotes of her first novel, The Weird Sisters, this book falls a little short.  But with heady romance and life altering role modeling, The Light in Paris delivers a quick easy read.  It is Paris, after all – too bad we can’t all solve our problems by running off to be there.

Review of The Weird Sisters