Summer Reading–for the winter months…

I wrote this at the end of the summer, yet somehow  “forgot” to post it.  Oh well, if it’s possible to promote such lame ideas as “Christmas in August,” then why not “Summer Reading for January?”  Here goes…

I was never a tomboy, and I haven’t had much of an identity crisis on the subject of femininity—I love slinky black dresses, flowery peasant tops, female vocalists that who leave no doubt that they are indeed girls.  But occasionally, through the years, there have been a few instances in which I’m simply not in touch with my feminine side, I guess.

For instance, I have never, for one moment, wanted to be a nurse.  I love flowers, but only when someone else does the planting, pruning, and other stuff that requires sunscreen and gardening gloves.  Cookware is a necessity, like air and water, but nothing I ever want to receive as a personal gift.  And, contrary to what the majority of women are reading and watching on TV these days, I have no desire whatsoever for remodeling a house.  Ever.

A lifetime avid reader, my “book consumption” has grown to amazing proportions since my retirement last year.  Living in a community where the closest bookstores are an hour away, the highlight of my week is often seeing the UPS man who bears the ever-so-beautiful trademark of Amazon.com.  Attending literary conferences, I’ve heard the repeated pleas to support my local independent bookstore, but such nirvana simply doesn’t exist in my neck of the woods, leaving me to form a special friendship with online book suppliers all over the country. I buy books for only a few cents each, paying the shipping charge only once, and becoming a “preferred customer” at dozens of independent stores.  As for new books, Amazon knows all my favorite authors, alerting me to pre-order months ahead and often having the book in my hand before it hits the stores.

However, my “summer reading list” of the past two weeks has brought to question a new faction in my female identity crisis, one that I didn’t see coming until it blindsided me—for the first time ever, I lay out the last six books I’d read, just to make I wasn’t confusing them.  Sure, they might be considered in the “chick lit” category, but they were nice stories, with real characters and freshly derived plot lines.  They were cleanly organized, with tear-jerking moments here and there, and they were well-written tales I’d be more than proud to claim as my own—yet, read back-to-back, there was a certain sameness I couldn’t quite get over.  I’d wake up in the night, grabbing one copy or the other to re-familiarize myself with which characters belonged in which book.  It’s like I wanted them all to know each other, to cheat on each other, or at least to have one big social outing and match together those closest in nature, maybe even cancel out a few duplicates.

But that wasn’t the problem at all; the characters were not the same, but it seemed that every story involved renovating a house.  My literary life had become a non-stop episode of Trading Spaces, and I hadn’t watched such a show since the original This Old House.  Tim Allen is a hilarious comedic actor, but I find even the three-minute segments of his Tool Time skits too grueling to bear.  So how the hell did I end up with week’s worth of How-To/House Beautiful books?

Picture if you dare, a would-be trailer for my summer-reads composite book review.  Book #1 – The Beach Trees by Karen White.  The cover, though pretty in its own right, gives nothing away about the actual plot.  Blue sky, waves at low tide, the skeletal outline of a nondescript tree in the upper left corner, a sand-beached driftwood log in the bottom right.  No birds pictured, but I can hear the faint cry of gulls against the slapping waters, fading into the opening bars of Chicago’s “Wishing You Were Here,” (with backup vocals by The Beach Boys!)  As the book opens, protagonist Julie Holt is leaving her home, her job, and life as she knows it for a foreign address in Biloxi, Mississippi, taking the son of her recently deceased best friend to a summer home Julie has never seen.  Julie is no stranger to tragedy; at the young age of twelve her sister is taken while Julie is supposed to be watching her. Consumed by a life of searching for Chelsea, Julie is now imposed with motherhood; her late friend Monica has left a beach house and her five-year-old son Beau in Julie’s care.

Julie arrives to find that the beach house no longer exists, destroyed by Katrina. She is devastated and has no idea what to do next. Monica had told her to see Ray Von, an elderly woman who gives her a portrait that Julie’s own great-grandfather had painted and that is worth a lot of money. She tells her to take Beau to New Orleans to meet Beau’s great-grandmother Aimee and that she can be sure of a place to stay there.

Julie dreads the meeting as she will have to tell Aimee and Monica’s brother Trey that Monica has passed away, but she knows that both Beau and his family deserve to know each other. The family is shocked and heartbroken, but at least now they know what happened to Monica after she disappeared ten years ago. They are thrilled to have a piece of Monica in Beau and encourage Julie to stay, however, it turns out that Monica only owned half of the beach house property.  Her brother Trey is hurt and angry, seeming to want Julie out of the picture. As Julie and Trey begin to rebuild the beach house called River Song, they discover that they have much more in common than they thought.  Moving forward towards a goodbye to their respective siblings, the two subplots submerge in a predictable but well-planned narrative.

Yes, they build a house.  But even though the beach house must be completely rebuilt from the foundation upward, White is careful not to “drown the reader” in too many structural and architectural details.  A character-driven tale, each physical description rendered of the construction has specific meaning to the characters involved.  Parallels between the building of a living space and the building of a relationship are easy to see without being trite or redundant.  Current historical information also enhances the storyline. The Beach Trees is a pleasant and thoughtful read.

Book #2 – Summer Rental by Mary Kay Andrews was not exactly what I expected, but a nice adventure nonetheless.  Having read all of this Georgia author’s previous tales, the cover was no surprise—brightly colorful as those before it, this one a background of crisp, white shingles with teal and hot pink lettering.  A variety of “beach chairs” completed the front; neon stripes, solid canvas, Adirondack, and a folding aluminum chair with strips of bright plastic woven as a seat—a type chair I had not seen since my mother “re-wove” some for our family in the early 60’s! Taking me back to my first beach vacations about that time, the Beach Boys continued the “track-in-my-head” as I headed into the “fun, fun, fun” I knew lay just inside the cover.

Andrews’s love of food and antiques seems to make it’s way into all her books, in fact, my favorite chicken salad recipe comes from Little Bitty Lies, so I was quite surprised to find no recipes in her latest saga. Savannah Breeze would be an excellent how-to guidebook for counterfeiting antique furniture, so as soon as I read of the many problems (stove with one working burner, less-than-sturdy window unit air conditioners, supplied “flatware” is plastic) with the Summer Rental cottage, I feared an upcoming treatise on bad advertising in real estate, but this was not the case.  As three childhood friends (and an unexpected guest) spend a month of bonding time in a broken-down cottage on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Andrews focuses on her characters’ secrets and relationships, a plot which unfolds to the reader but is undetected by the characters, and a feel-good tale of friendships, old and new.  Though the overall story is predictable and some of the dialogue a bit cheesy, it has all the key elements of a good summer read; if you can’t spend a month in salt sea air, reading it is the next best thing.

Book #3, One Summer by David Baladacci, isn’t a bad read, but I’m guessing it’s had some pretty disappointed readers. Baladacci, known for best-selling legal thrillers like Last Man Standing, The Simple Truth, and The Camel Club, has gone way out on a limb with this Nicolas Sparks-like “miracle story” reminiscent of every other drama on Lifetime. Boasting a cover that could hang in any oceanside local gallery, a lighthouse at low tide, complete with far-off seagulls herald the reader with “yes, it’s another beach story.”  Bring up the Kenny G music.  It’s in pastels—it’ll be sad, but probably end like all Lifetime movies—“with hope for tomorrow.”  I probably should stop here, but…

In the beginning, Jack Armstrong, former army ranger and war hero, is a terminally ill family man just praying to make it through Christmas. This brought to my mind the term author Larry Brown referred to as “sandbagging”—placing every possibly hardship on a character, then adding one more.

On Christmas Eve, Jack’s wife and childhood sweetheart, Lizzie, is killed in a car wreck while on a medicine run for Jack.  Plans are made by Jack’s mother-in-law: the three children will be divided up among aunts and uncles across the country, and Jack will be put into hospice. Miraculously, Jack’s health turns around, and he’s able to reclaim his kids and follow Lizzie’s last verbalized wish, to take the kids to the South Carolina shore where she grew up. There, where Jack tries to reassemble the family and learn how to be a single parent, he works to renovate the cottage that Lizzie loved, complete with a nonfunctioning lighthouse. Jack, a contractor by trade, becomes somewhat obsessed with the lighthouse, trying to hold his family together but oftentimes retreating to the lighthouse, where he can be alone with his memories. Just as they’re beginning to settle into a functional family again, Jack’s mother-in-law uses his obsession with the lighthouse as an excuse to sue for custody of the kids. Jack loses custody; in a brutally drawn out last scene, Jack finds the inner strength of the soldier he once was, sets out to find his daughter who has run away, then rescues her.  Oh yeah – the dysfunctional lighthouse, which he never fixed, suddenly works, and saves the day.  Didn’t you see that one coming?

The book’s actual narrative is not badly written—I found myself actually tearing up a time or two, but this is not a book I’ll want to read again—I’m actually glad I purchased it on Kindle and no trees died for it.  Did I say how I’d never wanted to rebuild a house?  Make that triple-ditto for a lighthouse…

Books #4, 5, & 6 were all penned by Atlanta author Wendy Wax.  The Accidental Bestseller is the first book I read by this author, and is possibly my favorite summer read thus far. The cover is boring, out-of-focus, and leaves not a clue for the reader—but that’s okay; this one delivers! Written from multiple viewpoints, it centers around four female authors who met at the beginning of their careers and act as a support network for one another.  The main protagonist, Kendall Aims, has been “sandbagged” a bit herself: the opening scene finds her waiting for a coveted writing award, one they all believe she has “in the bag,” and she loses.  She is then approached by her agent, informing her that she will be dropped after her next book, but must still deliver on time or pay back her advance, which has already gone into her twins’s college tuition.  Depressed beyond despair, she opts to fly home to Atlanta a day early, where she discovers her husband has a younger mistress in tow, a realtor who has a key to their home and has already placed their house for sale, unbeknownst to her.  Kendall flees Atlanta and retreats to her childhood vacation home, a dilapidated cabin in the mountains of North Carolina.

Unable to think, much less write, Kendall suddenly finds solace in “fixing things” around the cabin, a strange pastime for a woman who has never before even held a hammer or a screwdriver.  She becomes obsessed with TLC and HGTV, staying up all night as she watches others build new lives with power tools.  Home Depot becomes her personal crack house. She has not written the first word of her new book—she can’t, but she has a tool belt and an expanding array of shiny new implements.  She is out of control.  Once again, I will remind you that I have no desire to renovate a house, but this is different!  I can stand it because it’s so absurd, and who knows?  Maybe with that much sandbagging, I, too, could become a Tool Time junkie, though I highly doubt it.  It’s not what I do normally, but at least the author makes it possible for me to imagine it…

Kendall’s three friends come to the mountain cabin, ready to help in whatever ways they can.  First hiding her power tools and making her go back to her real work, they secretly collaborate on a book that incorporates real details of all four of their lives. A clever side story (or a book-within-the book) also reveals many aspects of the publishing process seldom explained to those outside that elite world. Since all I know about the publishing industry is that I can’t get my foot in the door, this was like a realty show for people a few rungs up the ladder from me.   The characters’ “insider’s view” of publishing was as interesting as the story itself; this was the most page-turning experience I’ve had in quite a while. Even when plot lines were predictable, there was always an element of learning something new in each turn.  I can honestly say I hated to see this one end.

Magnolia Wednesdays (#5) is typical southern chick lit, but not bad. With a tasteful, pretty cover worthy of Fanny Flagg, this one’s background score switches to classic country, a strong, upscale female voice like Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert.  The book begins as Vivian Gray, an investigative reporter for a big news company in New York, is filming an FBI sting operation. Hidden in an alley preparing to get the story first, Vivi is shot in the derriere while the camera is running.  When she awakens in the hospital, the whole world has seen the event on “YouTube.”

Learning that the station is about to replace her, Vivian quits. Jobless, with her boyfriend working a story in Iran, she discovers she is pregnant. She secretly takes a job writing a column on suburban lifestyles, using an assumed name while moving back to suburban Atlanta with her sister.

The happenings are predictable, but hilariously intriguing. You know she’ll be caught, but keep reading and rooting for her in an “I Love Lucy” sort of mindset.  There wasn’t a single cliffhanger or surprise in the whole book, yet I loved it.  Then again, maybe it was because there were no saws, hammers, or renovations…

Wax’s latest book, Ten Beach Road (#6) has believable characters, a stripped-from-the-headlines kind of plot twist, and beautiful descriptions of southernmost Florida only a native could capture.  Three strangers discover they share something horrible in common: their crooked financial manager has vanished, and with him are their life savings. The only thing left is the one third they each own in Bella Flora, an ancient, historically significant waterfront vacation home that needs massive renovation (or total demolition.) Banding together, they attempt to do the “grunt work” for a contractor working on contingency.

Before I go on—okay, I like the plot.  I love the characters.  I enjoyed the pacing, BUT—

One of the characters has just lost her job on an HGTV home improvement show.  Her estranged mother, interior-designer-to-the-stars with her on Lifetime Channel series, climbs aboard the project for her own made-for-TV reasons.

Another character is an aspiring filmmaker, following their progress with expertly edited weekly updates on YouTube.  These clips go viral, garnering a worldwide audience and ending with an offer of the group’s own How-to/Fixer-Upper series on another reality-based network.

The name-dropping of TV shows, architectural aids, name-brand furniture, appliances, gardening tools, you-name-it are enough to make the I-never-wanna-renovate-ANYTHING run screaming into the night—FOREVER!

I love the idea, but wish I could get the Home-Depot-Disabled version, with all the brand names and do-it-yourself guides left out—I might actually read that one again.

Okay, what did I learn from this part of my summer reading experience?  In retrospect, it’s interesting to learn that Karen White (#1) and Wendy Wax (#’s 4, 5, & 6) are friends; I wonder if they’re revamping a writers’ cabin together, making joint trips to Home Depot.  As for Mary Kay Andrews, I’m guessing she is exactly on track with where she wants to be.  I will read her next book, and probably the next and the next, though I’m thinking she may join the Kindle shelf—other than recipes, I don’t reread much of hers.  I’ll buy the next Baldacci on Kindle as well, though I think it’s a safe bet to say he’ll be moving back to the more believable kind of thrills.  After all, do we really NEED more than one Nicholas Sparks?  And, (drumroll please…)

I just ordered Wendy Wax’s first four novels for one cent plus shipping.  I really love her characters and style and can’t wait to trip away to chick lit heaven—reading on her website that the RESEARCH for Ten Beach Road turned her into an HGTV addict is  not a problem for me—I’m getting the before, not the after.

I’m hoping this female identity crisis is a passing phase—I guess the Flip This House craze is an outlet for those who aren’t hoping to be the next American Idol and are too afraid of snakes and such for trying the Island Survival idea.  I intend to stick to my guns—no power tools, kitchen gadgets, or mini-gardening tractors for me, not now or ever.  (And the nursing profession is still safe from me as well.)  I always knew the day would come that I could officially call myself old—but I never figured it would be for my lack of expertise in shopping at Home Depot.  Oh well, guess I’ll go read a book.

Fiction.  With no power tools.  And Allison Krauss in the background…

Happy Summer Reading!

elaine

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