Monday, July 9, 2012

Beach and Pool Reads

On lazy, hot summer days, my taste in reading gets rather lazy too so I'll keep adding to this post with the string of "beach reads" that I've got lined up for the next few weeks.

Beach Season
This book is actually a collection of four novellas by fairly well known romance authors, Lisa Jackson, Cathy Lamb, Holly Chamberlin and Rosalind Noonan.  Three stories follow the same arc - a lonely single woman escapes to a seaside location, meets a man, falls in love, tries to fight the love, then the couple ends up together and lives happily ever after. The fourth is somewhat different - on the eve of her wedding, a woman's fiancĂ© gets into a serious car accident and emerges with amnesia so he does not remember her.  She fights to regain his memory and his love.  And, since this is a book of happy endings, she does.

At First Sight by Nicholas Sparks
I'd run out of books on a Sunday so picked this off my daughter's shelves.  Sparks really only tells one story - couple meets, falls in love, runs into troubles and just when you think they're going to be happy someone dies.  But by the end the survivors are on the mend again.  Predictable and sappy but passes the time away.

Burnt Mountain by Anne Rivers Siddons
It's been years since I read anything by Siddons - and I'm not sure why I've waited so long.  She writes easy to read but interesting stories that delve into the secrets of families.  In this book the main character is Thayer, a young Southern woman whose father dies when she's a child.  After his death she struggles with her mother who has always had aspirations of moving out of her small town near Atlanta and becoming part of Buckhead society.  Instead her mother-in-law moves in with her and, until her death, provides Thayer the only source of stable love.  Thayer's first love is at 17, but unfortunately the Jewish boy she falls for doesn't meet her mother's social standards and she does horrible things to keep them apart, which only come to light years later.  Instead she marries an Irish man whose obsession with Celtic lore eventually slides into madness.  It's fascinating to follow Thayer as she deals with betrayal by all those closest to her.

The Cottage at Glass Beach by Heather Barbieri
This book was actually a bit boring.  And frankly confusing - I couldn't tell is some of the characters were real or mythological beings concocted by troubled and lonely characters looking for support.  I read to the end hoping for resolution but never got any - so I still don't know who really existed and who didn't.  Now that I've told you there's nothing to be gained by sticking with it until the end, I'm not sure I'd bother reading it at all.

Bond Girl by Erin Duffy
Now this was an easy and fun read.  The author is actually very funny - she seems to be very familiar with the inner workings of Wall Street (I think she actually worked on the street prior to being a writer).  Her imagery and metaphors - though clearly based in the sad truth - are extremely humorous.  The novel tells the story of Alex, the daughter of an investment banker who dreams of her own career on Wall Street.  Straight out of college she joins an established firm as an analyst in the Government Bond department.  She's treated like garbage - not even given a desk, just a fold up chair that she uses to shadow bond salesmen (the emphasis on men), on the back of which someone has scrawled "Girlie" which becomes her moniker.  The only other woman in the department (excluding the secretaries, naturally) has grown bitter and jaded and manages to "outasshole" all the male assholes.  But with a tough personality and great sense of humour - Alex perseveres, to be promoted and treated like a younger sister by most of the guys (excluding one who she "dates" - his ugly true colours hinted at throughout but only revealed toward the end, and a married, older, fat client who pursues her relentlessly).  When the 2008 downturn hits - the workplace becomes even more unbearable and Alex must decide whether her dream is really worth it.  Though this book reveals the sad truth of the sexism that I'm sure still exists on Wall Street, the humour and Alex's likeability made this a really enjoyable book for me.

Summer Breeze
Nancy Thayer's summer books are always pleasant, breezy reading; enjoyable without being the least bit taxing.  This one is slightly different than most of her others which are set on Nantucket in that it's set inland near Amherst, Massachusetts.  The primary characters are three 30ish women who end up living next door to each other on a small lake.  It's a typical story of friendship and love, with some jealousy thrown in.  The characters are flawed but likeable.  A relaxing way to spend a summer afternoon by the pool.

Off Season by Anne Rivers Siddons
Somehow this is the third book I've read in about two weeks that's filled with Irish mythology and magical realism - I've had enough of it.  It just bores and confounds me.  This story deals with Lilly, a recently widowed woman who returns to her family cottage in Maine to mourn her husband and remember her childhood.  The early parts, which deal with her first childhood love, the loss of her mother and her growing dependence on her father are interesting.  Once she meets and marries her rather weird husband I found my interest waning.  I've read better by this author.

Between Sisters by Kristin Hannah
Not as sad as some of her books though it does have its "tear jerker" moments.  Hannah tells the story of two half sisters who have little in common but a lousy childhood with an even lousier mother.  As a teenager the desperate older sister locates the younger sisters father and leaves her with him to pursue university and a career.  The father's a good guy, so that's not the problem, but the sisters have trouble getting over the feelings of abandoning and abandonment.  Years later, faced with the younger sister's wedding and health crisis, the sisters recreate the closeness they had as children and both find love as well.  It's sappy and predictable but a good summer read.

Heat Wave by Nancy Thayer
Another one of Thayer's steamy Nantucket based romances.  Carley's husband dies suddenly leaving her a 32 year old widow with two daughters and, to her surprise, no money.  Her in-laws want her to move in with them.  To their dismay she not only resists but decides to turn the family home she lives in into a B&B in order to make ends meet.  At the same time the husband of one of her best friends leaves her for their other best friend.  Her dead husband's law partner, swoops into rescue her and, after her initial resistance for fear of her reputation, and a few other twists, they all live happily ever after.  An easy beach read - no concentration necessary but the story's fun anyway.

Living Single by Holly Chamberlin
I've not read anything by this author but picked up a couple of her books at the grocery store because they looked like mindless summer reading.  She's not the best writer but the story was entertaining enough.  It follows a year in the life of Erin, a 35 year old single woman who has a great career but wants to be married and have children.  Instead she enters into a disastrous clearly dead end affair with a married man.  In the end she learns from it but at times you want to shake her for being so gullible.

The Summer of Us by Holly Chamberlin
I liked this one a lot more than Living Single though it's written in the same informal, first person voice (in this case, switching between the perspectives of the three main characters in different chapters).  Three twenty nine year old strangers living in Boston decide to rent a summer cottage in Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard.  They all arrive late to the event that matches people with cottages so they end up with an old dump.  At first they seem very different - a mouthy, abrasive, workaholic who's trying desperately to leave her impoverished small town New Hampshire roots behind her; a spoiled, rich Jewish girl from Long Island who's looking for a husband (using a highly developed rating system); and an uptight WASP from Michigan who's ambivalent about her engagement to her long time boyfriend who she now sees for the ass that he is.  Over the course of the summer the girls move in and out of relationships with varying degrees of success but end up becoming close friends.  At times humorous, it makes for an fun summer read.

Summer Friends by Holly Chamberlin
The last of the trio of books I picked up by this author, and by far my favourite.  First of all this one is not written in the somewhat annoying first person voice of the other two but a more standard third person perspective.  It deals with childhood friends who meet up again at almost 50 after nearly 30 years of estrangement.  The girls had met as children when the wealthier, worldlier of the two, Maggie, summered in Delphine's native Maine home town.  They are inseparable each summer and anxiously write each other letters during their winters apart.  Maggie convinces Delphine to attend college with her in Boston and they room together seemingly happy for four years, Delphine even becoming engaged to a journalist with a promising future.  But, for reasons she never explains she breaks off the engagement, and ends her friendship with Maggie, returning to help her family run their farm and diner back in Maine.  She never marries or has children though she becomes devoted to her nieces and nephews.  Maggie gets an MBA, marries a powerful lawyer, has two children who move to California for college, and, feeling restless, decides to return to Maine for a summer vacation and to reconnect with Delphine.  But she's not made to feel welcome and has to work to regain Delphine's trust and find out why she left all those years before.  It's this rebuilding of the relationship, interspersed with a few chapters set in their past, that makes for an interesting read.

Summerland by Elin Hilderbrand
This book reminds me that not all beach reads are created equally - Hilderbrand is a much more skilled writer than Holly Chamberlin.  Like most of her books, this book takes place on the island of Nantucket and is written from the perspective of year round residents rather than summer visitors.  In fact, the idea behind the book's name is to counter the supposition that Nantucket is merely "summer land" and to show that people live real lives on the island.  On the night of the high school graduation there is a terrible car crash involving four juniors that leaves the driver, Penny, dead and her twin brother Hobby, a star athlete, in a coma with 16 broken bones.  Penny's boyfriend, Jake, and a family friend, Demeter, walk away with only emotional scars.  The book tells the story of these four teenagers as the survivors deal with the aftermath of the crash as well as their parents, Zoe, the mother of the twins whose husband died of a massive heart attack while she was pregnant with them, Jake's parents, Jordan and Ava, and Demeter's parents, Al and Lynne.  Each of the teenagers feels responsible for the crash in some way or another and they all deal with it in different ways.  Their parents try to help but, despite being close to their kids on the surface, are clueless about certain important secrets, and Jordan and Zoe have their own secrets that may have played a role.  Hobby turns out to be my favourite character - he's insightful, caring and wise beyond his years.  Yet again Hilderbrand has turned out a very entertaining book with characters you can really understand.

The Beach House by Mary Alice Monroe
I really enjoyed this straightforward and predictable book - because it was well written and explored the relationships between mothers and children and men and women in the south.  Cara (actually Caretta - named after the loggerhead turtles her mother has always adored) loses her hot shot job at an ad agency in Chicago just when her mother invites her back to her beach house in South Carolina to "sort out their things".  Cara left in anger twenty years earlier and has only returned once, for her father's funeral.  She finds her mother ill and being cared for by an 18 year old pregnant girl who is escaping an abusive relationship with the baby's father.  Reluctantly Cara follows her mother and becomes a "turtle lady" - one of a group of women who guard loggerhead nests on South Carolina's beaches in an effort to save as many of the babies as they can.  Through this process she learns the truth about her mother's marriage, past and feelings for her.  She also meets and falls for Brett, someone she'd worshiped from afar in high school but never spoken to.  As the summer progresses and the baby loggerheads make their way to the sea, Cara discovers what's really important to her and how to pursue her dreams.

The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner
All of Jennifer Weiner's books follow roughly the same formula - an insecure woman (usually about their weight, this time about scars sustained from a car accident that killed her parents) is fairly successful in her career but unlucky in love until she finds the right man for her and after a few misunderstandings they live happily ever after.  What makes the books readable though is Weiner's humour - her observations on human nature and her turns of phrase are funny enough to make me laugh out loud.  In this book, Ruth Saunders moves from the Boston area to LA with her 70 something grandmother who has raised her since her parents died.  It wouldn't be a Jennifer Weiner story without a brash but loving Jewish grandmother thrown in.  Ruth tries to make it as a comedy writer while her grandmother works as an extra and becomes engaged.  Ruth works as an assistant - first with one company where she's used and tossed away by a fellow writer (well arguably she makes a fool of herself on her own).  Then she works for "The Two Daves" production company and falls for one of the Daves who has supported her in her quest to write a comedy show which is eventually picked up by a studio and a network.  The more difficult it becomes to see her TV show butchered by the studio, the network and the lame actors they insist upon, the closer she gets to Dave.  And, as always, it works out well in the end.

Calico Joe by John Grisham
I haven't read a Grisham novel in years but decided to try this one since it's not his typical lawyer story but about baseball.  "Calico Joe" is a rookie called up by the Cubs in the 1970s who has a record breaking start.  The book is narrated by the son of the not so great Mets pitcher (and even worse husband and father) who ended Calico Joe's career with a pitch to his head.  Many years later he endeavours to bring the two back together for the first time so his father will finally publicly admit what happened.  It's a short, well written tale.  Not great but entertaining enough to help pass an afternoon.  I wouldn't read it if you can't stand baseball - some of the scenes go into tremendous detail about the games.

Beach House Memories by Mary Alice Monroe
This book is a prequel to Monroe's, The Beach House, which was first published about 10 years ago then re-released this year in conjunction with this book.  I didn't enjoy it quite as much but that may be just because I read both books so close together and I got a bit tired of the story.  In this book we hear more about a year in the life of Lovey, the mother of the main character in The Beach House.  In the mid-1970s Lovey is struggling with her role as repressed, Southern wife and mother.  And, in particular, the difficulty of living with her husband who abuses her both emotionally and physically.  This particular summer she escapes to her beloved beach house on one of the South Carolina barrier islands and finds love with a naturalist come to study the islands loggerhead turtles.  They are both married and try to resist the relationship but cannot deny their attraction nor can Lovey resist the self-esteem boost she gets from being with someone who values her knowledge of, and devotion to, the turtles.  They contemplate facing the scandal divorce would cause for themselves and their family and we learn why Lovey makes the choices she does.  The end is not a surprise if you've read The Beach House but it's interesting enough to fill in the blanks after the fact.

Swimming Lessons by Mary Alice Monroe
A sequel to The Beach House, this book takes place 5 years later and the protagonist is Toy, the formerly unwed, pregnant, homeless teenager who was taken under the wing of Lovey and her daughter Cara.  Toy is now a mother to 5 year old, Little Lovey, college graduate and turtle expert at the Charleston aquarium.  The story focuses on her relationship with her co-worker, Ethan, the troubles caused by the sudden reappearance of Little Lovey's father, and her development of a turtle hospital at the aquarium.  There are side stories dealing with Cara and her husband's futile efforts to conceive, the aftermath of their friend Emmi's divorce, and the impact of aging on their irascible neighbour, Flo.  But the best part of the book is following Toy maturation as she comes to terms with her horrible past and the success she's made of her life.  A nice easy afternoon's read.

Ocean Beach by Wendy Wax
One last beach read for the Labour Day weekend.  This one wasn't bad though it seemed a bit like a sequel (I haven't checked whether it is or not) - I felt like I should have known about some of the events  from the past that the characters discussed.  Five women arrive to renovate the dilapidated home of a 90 year old comedian, Max, who promised his wife on her deathbed that he'd repair the house for their son who'd been abducted as a toddler and never found.  The women think they've signed up to renovate the house and show its progress on a television show only to discover instead they're starring in a reality show that follows every minute of not only the renovations but their private lives.  The women are all too strapped for cash to back out.  This leads to clashes between the women, the camera crew assigned to them, the network executives and various other characters who wander in and out of their lives, including their families, boyfriends, and workmen.  In the end the house is transformed, the women's lives are getting back on track and they solved the mystery of Max's son.  Not great but not terrible.

Beach Colors by Shelley Noble
Okay this was really my last read of the summer since I finished it a couple of days after Labour Day.  But it was a perfect ending - a light fluffy romance with a happy ending.  Margaux is a NY fashion designer whose husband stole all her money, mortgaged their home and her business then disappeared so she was left to deal with the foreclosure and the empty bank accounts.  She has little money and nowhere to go while her lawyer and the police try to track him down so she returns to the home in Connecticut where she spent her summers as a child.  There she reconnects with her mother, her two best friends and Nick, a "townie" who had a crush on her from afar all those years ago and is now the chief of police.  While building (or rebuilding) her relationships with them, and Connor, Nick's orphaned nephew who he's raising together with his mother, she manages to design clothing, find seamstresses to sew the collection (including Nick's mother which is very handy) and open a boutique.  Her collection is such a success several fashion houses try to lure her back to her old life and she has to decide which of her dreams is most important.  I'm sure based on this information alone, you can guess what she chooses.

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