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Posts Tagged ‘Dorothea Benton Frank’

The summer books are beginning to roll in, offering diversion for the long, hot months ahead. If you were a fan of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, you’re no doubt longing to dive into her new one, Into the Water (Penguin, purchased hardcover). Alas, I found it a bit of slog, with too many narrators muddying the waters. One even says as much: “How is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides and grotesque historical misogynistic drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.” The most recent victim is Nel Abbott, a single mother who loved swimming and was writing a book about Beckford village’s “Drowning Pool,” where “troublesome women” have perished since the days of witch hunts. Did Nel fall or was she pushed from the cliffs?  It’s not clear, unlike the obvious suicide of schoolgirl Katie, which her grief-stricken mother Louise somehow blames on Nel. Pretty much every one in Beckford has an opinion. The rotating chorus of voices includes, just for starters,  Nel’s teenage daughter, her estranged sister, a secretive copper, his mousy wife, a high school teacher and an elderly psychic. Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine did this Hitchcockian style of suspense and misdirection very well, Hawkins not so much. At least not yet.

Scott Turow is a pro at writing substantive legal thrillers, and Testimony (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley) is further proof as middle-aged Midwest attorney Bill ten Boom heads to the Hague. The rumors of a heinous war crime have circulated for years: In 2004, 400 Romas — Gypsies — living in a Bosnian refugee camp all vanished one night never to be seen again. Now, more than a decade later, a surviving witness has come forward to testify to the circumstances, and it’s up to Boom and a Belgian investigator to determine the truth of his testimony. Were the masked men with guns who herded the villagers into trucks Serb paramilitary, or were they from a nearby American base? The complicated case takes Boone to Bosnia and elsewhere in Europe, and he encounters such fascinating characters as a femme fatale Roma lawyer, a retired American general and a ruthless war criminal with blood on his hands and more murder in mind. Befitting the intricacy of the house-of-cards plot, the pace is mostly measured, even slow, the exception being a heart-stopping kidnapping scene. Things are not what they seem, and so things do not go as planned. But as in the masterful Presumed Innocent, Turow doesn’t miss a trick.

Now for the fun stuff. The late Michael Crichton’s recently discovered and newly published Dragon Teeth (HarperCollins, digital galley) combines the historical suspense of The Great Train Robbery with the ancestors of the featured creatures in Jurassic Park. That’s right, these dinosaurs are dead — fossilized, in fact — and fought over by real-life paleontologists during the “Bone Wars” in frontier America. Fictional Yale student and tenderfoot William Johnson signs on with a dinosaur-digging expedition in the summer of 1876. Left behind in Cheyenne by one eccentric professor,  he joins a rival group going to Montana and encounters gunslingers, buffalo and enough Wild West adventure to fill a book.

Dorothea Benton Frank writes vacations in a book. In Same Beach, Next Year (Morrow, review copy), two couples’ 20-year-friendship is cemented by joint summer visits at Wild Dunes resort in lowcountry South Carolina, but is threatened by jealousy on both sides.  Eliza, who shares narration with husband Adam, knows that Eve, now married to handsome doctor Carl, and Adam were high school sweethearts. What she doesn’t know is that Eve’s witch of a mother, Cookie, drove the young lovers apart, and that sparks still fly between the old flames. Still, the see-saw plot often takes a backseat to the descriptions of the lush landscape, both in the lowcountry and on the Greek island of Corfu, and the delicious dishes concocted by sassy Eliza. (Eve is a terrible cook).

You don’t have to have read Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend to be entertained by his new novel. Rich People Problems (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). Kwan catches us up quickly on the major characters — Nick Young, who risked disinheritance to marry less well-off Rachel, and his cousin Astrid, desperate to get out of her marriage, and Kitty Pong, insanely jealous of her fashionista stepdaughter Colette. All these people be crazy rich, but the richest of all is Su-Yi, Nick’s grandmother and matriarch of the Shang-Long clan. When it appears that Su-Yi is on her deathbed, family members from near and far rush to her massive Singapore estate, where they can share their rich people problems while waiting to share in the family fortune. It’s all over the top and wildly funny: the people, the clothes, the jewelry, the food, and, yes, even the footnotes.

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badmonkeyLet’s see: A severed arm, a voodoo queen, a Medicare fraudster, a fugitive schoolteacher, a sexy coroner, a Yankee developer, a Bahamian fisherman, a demoted cop, an ambitious sheriff, a murderous widow, a pill-pushing doctor, hungry sharks, restaurant roaches, a tiny terrier, an obese Siamese, a poorly behaved primate. And, oh yes, a hurricane with a wimpy name. Carl Hiaasen doesn’t miss a trick in Bad Monkey (Knopf, digital galley), which makes it don’t-miss summer reading.

This black comedy crime caper may strike some as outlandish, but Floridians will laugh with recognition because the Sunshine State is so ripe for satirization. I found it perfectly plausible that disgraced Keys cop/health inspector Andrew Yancy would use a severed arm to angle his way into a homicide investigation and to woo a Miami medical examiner. Also, that the hairy arm in question would later go missing in a Callaway golf bag, but the media would miss the story because of the unfortunate decapitation of a country music star who collided with a cruise ship. “Rule one: A celebrity head always trumps an anonymous arm.”

Such “sad but true” details, combined with a pretzel plot and gleeful writing, make Bad Monkey a laugh-aloud romp. Carlheads, rejoice! 

lastoriginalI have a good friend (yes, Dean, you) who does a wicked snort when something strikes him funny. I’m more grin-and-giggle, but I admit to several good snorts while reading Dorothea Benton Frank’s chatty The Last Original Wife (Morrow, digital galley). In this “she said, he said” tale of a long marriage on the rocks, Leslie Anne Greene Carter, 58, and Wesley Carter, 63, confess all (or almost) in separate therapy sessions. Les, for example, explains how an incident on a vacation trip to Scotland led her to take a vacation back home to Charleston from Atlanta and reassess her life. Wes’s side of the Scotland trip has him almost missing his tee time at St. Andrews.

The laughs come because sympathetic Les’s observations on everything from “the Barbies,” Wes’s friends’ new young wives, to a romantic encounter with an old friend, are so spot-on. “I was sick-to-death with feeling bad about not being some hot number with fake tan, straight hair, and a bald you-know-what. (I still don’t understand that last one),” she says. Les makes a good case for being taken-for-granted and unloved, but she’s not mean or vengeful, even when she finds Wes has been poor-mouthing for years. A sudden urge to kick him in the teeth passes.

Readers, however, might like to give Wes kick in the you know where, he’s so self-absorbed and clueless. He’s not a bad guy; he just doesn’t get it — that is until mortality comes knocking and their two grown children come home to roost. Can this marriage be saved? Kudos to Frank for making Les see that whatever comes next, she first has to save herself.

crazyrichThe set-up of Kevin Kwan’s funny first novel is familiar: Boyfriend invites girlfriend to a family wedding so she can meet his relatives, but doesn’t tell her they’re wealthy snobs. So what’s different here? Handsome New York history prof Nicholas Young fails to tell ABC (American-born Chinese) Rachel Chu that he’s Singapore’s most eligible bachelor and that his family isn’t just rich but fabulously, extravagantly wealthy. Hence the appropos title Crazy Rich Asians (Doubleday, digital galley).

Rachel is stunned by the lavish lifestyle of private planes, opulent estates, designer clothes, old money. Although Nicholas’ cousins, glam fashionista Astrid and friendly flamboyant Oliver, are welcoming, his resolute mother Eleanor is already conspiring with her close friends to thwart any engagement. So are numerous back-stabbing socialites who see themselves as Nicholas’ princess bride. Rachel’s no slouch in the looks and education department, but she’s not connected to the Taipei Chus, or to any other dynastic Chinese family. No wonder she worries about fitting in with the Youngs and their ilk, “whose lives revolve around making money, spending money, flaunting money, comparing money, hiding money, controlling others with money, and ruining their lives over money.” 

Kwan’s comedy of manners is itself rich with telling details, Malay slang and Cantonese phrases, all defined in context or in footnotes, some of them delightfully snarky. Crazy Rich Asians is crazy good.

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Four beach books for the Fourth, or for whenever you want your reading lite.

I’ll never again watch Dancing with the Stars without thinking of Deirdre Griffin, the title character in Claire Cook’s lively Wallflower in Bloom (Touchstone, library hardcover). Deirdre, fed up with assisting her brother Tag’s rocketing career as a self-help guru and her own sorry love life, uses his fans and her social-networking skills to become the hit show’s first non-celebrity contestant.  Even as Deirdre, weighed down with extra pounds and poor self-esteem, struggles to learn the cha-cha with dance partner Ilya, Tag and the family begin to reevaluate her role in holding them together. Cook spices her cute Cinderella story with inside show trivia — I want some illusion mesh of my very own — and humorous self-help aphorisms.

Reality TV also figures in the plot of Wendy Wax’s Ocean Road (Berkley, paperback galley from publicist), a stand-alone sequel to last year’s Ten Beach Road. The three women — Maddie, Avery, and Nicole — who became friends renovating a Florida Gulf beach house — head to Miami, along with Maddie’s grown daughter and Avery’s estranged mother. They’ll be filming the pilot for a home improvement show called “Do-Over,” and the neglected mansion owned by ancient vaudevillian Max is badly in need of repair. But the film crew seems intent on capturing the women’s messy personal lives instead of their renovations, and outside forces, including an actor on location, a secret from the past and hurricane season, threaten to thwart the whole project. Pleasantly predictable, the book offers fascinating DIY details and a delightful supporting cast (the Oscar goes to Max) as the women hammer out their problems and shore up their friendship.

I felt completely at home reading Dorothea Benton Frank’s Porch Lights (William Morrow, library hardcover), and not just because it takes place in my part of the world — the South Carolina Lowcountry — and I know the author. I think it’s because I’m from a family of talkers, and Frank’s two narrators — Jackie, a widowed Army nurse, and Annie Britt, her opinionated mother — can talk a blue streak. After Jackie’s firefighter husband is killed in the line of duty, she takes their traumatized 10-year-old son from New York to the family house on Sullivan’s Island. Annie, who drove off her husband Buster with her meddling ways and constant chatter, tries to comfort Jackie and young Charlie with down-home meals and a heaping helping of good intentions. Fortunately, neighbor Deb, sister-in-law Maureen and Buster himself help  keep mother and daughter from driving each other crazy. At times, reading Porch Lights is like being on a conference call with two of your best gal pals, who hardly come up for air as they talk, talk, talk, skittering from subject to subject like a couple of water bugs. They entertain, overwhelm and keep on keeping on.

Kate Klise rotates among four narrators in her zippy In the Bag (Morrow, paperback review copy). Teenager Webb and his dad Andrew are in coach on the flight to Paris, while Daisy and her teen daughter Coco are in first class. On a whim, Andrew sticks a mash note in Daisy’s carry-on, but what brings the two single parents and offspring together is checked luggage. Webb arrives in Madrid with Coco’s black duffel bag, and Coco is dismayed to discover she has Webb’s duffel in Paris. The two tech-saavy teens soon find one another on the Internet and their e-mail exchanges propel the story fast-forward as the initial mix-up leads to comic complications and conspiracies.

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Sorry I’ve been away so long. The last week or so I’ve been happily hibernating from the heat, eating lemonade bars and getting lost in books.  I motored through Maine and then went south to Folly Beach. Destination reading, so to speak. (I also solved quite a few mysteries along the way, but that’s a future post).

J. Courtney Sullivan wrote about four women in 2009’s Commencement, rotating perspectives as a quartet of recent Smith College graduates told of their coming of age in the new millenium. In Maine, the four women who tell the story are all members of the Irish-Catholic Kelleher clan of Boston.

Matriarch Alice, 83, and her late husband Daniel built a cottage on the Maine coast where the family has summered for 60 years. All the generations once piled in together on top of one another, but since Daniel’s death a decade ago, the children have divided up the months they’ll spend with their mother. An elderly beauty with a critical tongue, Alice has increasingly turned to alcohol and the church to assauge the guilt she has carried for years.

Eldest daughter Kathleen, 58, is estranged from her difficult mother, having remade herself in her 40s after a painful divorce. She quit drinking and used the money her father left her to move to California with her laid-back boyfriend Arlo, with whom she runs a successful worm farm. She worries about her daughter Maggie, a 32-year-old free-lance writer living in New York who continues to make mistakes with men.

Sister-in-law Ann-Marie is closer than any of them to Alice, and when it appears that Maggie’s plans to spend June in Maine have been cut short, Ann-Marie efficiently rearranges her own life, including babysitting her young grandchildren, and ships her latest dollhouse project to the cottage. That Maggie, hiding a surprise pregnancy, is still in residence hardly disconcerts her. She’s obsessed with perfecting her miniature furnishings while harboring romantic notions about a neighbor.

Sullivan takes her time setting the bucolic scene, while family secrets, grudges and lies simmer in the background. But when all four women end up together, watch out for the fireworks.

Sullivan has a deft hand with memorable set pieces, from Alice’s searing memories to Ann-Marie’s inevitable meltdown. The Kellehers are a family in love with their own mythology, and mothers, daughters and daughter-in-law all confront the ways in which it has shaped their lives as women for better or worse.

At 400 pages, Maine is one of those summer books that you sink into for the duration and finish with a sigh of satisfaction. Dorothea Benton Frank’s Folly Beach is as frothy as its name, a happy holiday of a novel that may set you to humming “Summertime.”

Cate Cooper belts out the tune from the bathtub of the “Porgy House,” the tiny old cottage on Folly where playwrights Dorothy and Dubose Heyward lived in 1934 while collaborating with George Gershwin on what would become “Porgy and Bess.” Like other native Charlestonians, Cate knows it was adapted from Heyward’s play about the city’s Gullah culture, but now she’s more curious about the house’s former residents, leading players in the Charleston Renaissance of the 1920s.

Cate needs something to think about other than her present predicament. She’s gone from riches to rags practically overnight because of her scheming husband’s recent suicide. Rather than move in with her sister Patty, living nearby in New Jersey, Cate retreats to the safe haven of Folly, where her Aunt Daisy raised both girls with the help of her partner Etta. Daisy, whose health issues have increased with age, asks for Cate’s help with her rental house business and installs her in the Porgy House.

This is a familiar plot for Frank’s fans — a woman at mid-life finding herself at a crossroads and turning to her Lowcountry South Carolina roots. Cate is not exactly a merry widow, but she’s happy to be single again when a handsome history professor obligingly appears on the scene. John Risley encourages her research on the Heywards, especially Harvard-educated Dorothy, and Cate decides to wite a play about the playwright.

It’s Cate’s one-woman show about Dorothy that intersperses her own chatty narration and which separates the novel from Frank’s previous best-sellers. The play-within-the-book explores talented Dorothy’s life and her  devotion to her husband, with plenty of period touches and literary name-dropping to lend authenticity.

Cate’s story of family, love and pecan pie, on the other hand, is a Karo-syrupy fairy tale heavy on happy endings. Still, who doesn’t want dessert on vacation?  “Summertime.  . .”

Open Book: I read the digital galley of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine (Knopf) via NetGalley, and a review copy of Dorothea Benton Frank’s Folly Beach (William Morrow). I first met Dottie about 10 years ago, and we keep in touch via e-mail, Facebook, mutual friends and her sister Lynn on Edisto Beach.

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