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Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Kwan’

Put down the remote. Take a break from streaming Hamilton. Don’t you want to read books where stuff happens? We have you covered.

Boy, does stuff happen in Lake Life (Simon and Schuster, digital galley), the impressive first novel from UCF writing prof David James Poissant, following his story collection The Heaven of Animals. The Starling family’s annual summer vacation at their old North Carolina lake house is shadowed by parents Richard and Lisa’s plans to sell the house and retire from academia to Florida. But before grown sons Michael and Thad can recover from the news, a drowning gives rise to revelations and recriminations that rock the family, which includes Michael’s wife Diane and Thad’s partner Jake. Poissant fluently rotates perspectives among the six main characters, each with at least one secret: Alcoholism, infidelity, unexpected pregnancy, suicide attempts, grief that won’t let go. Emotions run deep before roiling to the surface. There’s heartbreak, humor, suspense. Yes, it slips into melodrama — the deer incident — and Poissant sometimes overwrites, as in the drawn-out ending. But excess can be forgiven in a book this good. I’ll read it again.

“Bananas.” That’s what I like best about Elisabeth, the new mother in J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel Friends and Strangers (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). Whenever Elizabeth catches herself being judgmental, she says “Bananas” before she can blurt out what she really thinks. And Elisabeth is judgy — about the upstate New York College town where she recently moved with her husband; about the members of her new book club, not as cool as her Brooklyn friends; about her nearby in-laws, so different from her own unhappy, withholding parents; about her younger sister, an Instagram star who borrows money; about the women who apply to be part-time nanny to baby Gil. But then Elisabeth meets Sam, a senior scholarship student at the college with babysitting experience who is good with Gil. No doubt Sam is a find. Trouble is, Elisabeth sees her as a friend. Sullivan’s novel is about the complicated relationship between the two women, about good intentions and privilege and boundaries. Elisabeth and Sam share the narrative, and Sam, with her youthful enthusiasms, her hot sleazy London boyfriend, her consideration for others, is a character to care about. As for Elisabeth, “bananas.” I can’t help it. I wanted more Sam and less Elisabeth. Still, I’ll take them both during lockdown.

In Kevin Kwan’s frothy Sex and Vanity (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), lovely Lucie has suitors named George and Cecil, a brother Freddy and a cousin Charlotte. There’s also a room with a view, which is your final clue that Kwan is putting his “Crazy Rich Asians” spin on E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel.  Kwan subs Capri and the Hamptons for Florence and England, the better to satirize the decadent privilege of his 21st-century characters. Chinese-American Lucie sparks with Chinese-Australian George at a lavish destination wedding, but once back home in New York, she becomes engaged to WASP Cecil. Then George reappears. Kwan has fun with fashion, food and footnotes, and takes name-dropping to new levels — the D’Arcys plus Charles and Camilla.  And lest you forget the wonderful Merchant-Ivory film, where Maggie Smith played Charlotte, there’s a passing reference to the Dowager Countess of Grantham.  Tres amusant.

 

Even if Connie Schultz hadn’t used a quote from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as an epigraph to her first novel, The Daughters of Erietown (Random House, purchased hardcover), I would still recognize the influence of Betty Smith’s well-loved book. Smith wrote about working-class life in Depression-era Brooklyn. Schultz’s family saga takes place in a blue-collar town in northeast Ohio in the decades following World War II. In a prologue set in 1974, Samantha “Sam” McGinty sets off for college at Kent State. The car ride with her parents, Brick and Ellie, and younger brother Reilly hints at past trauma in the family and life in Erietown, which Schultz then relates in flashback. Ellie, raised by her grandparents, falls in love with high school sports star Brick, and a hurry-up marriage derails plans for college. Brick becomes a union man at the local power plant; Ellie stays home with the kids. It’s the ’50s and then the ’60s, and Schultz writes movingly of the changing times and the McGintys’ struggle to adjust, not always successfully. The period details and cultural commentary, combined with Schultz’s compassion for her flawed characters, makes for a moving and involving story.

 

I binged more books, but I’m having computer problems. Once I get the technical issues resolved, I’ll post about Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas, The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor, The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths, Home Before Dark by Riley Sager, The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Lives of Edie Pritchard by Larry Watson and Hieroglyphs by Jill McCorkle. I liked them all.

 

 

 

 

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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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