• C. P. Lesley

Books We Loved, Aug. 2022

With the Dog Days approaching, it’s still peak time for light reading and books that draw you into another world—think of them as guaranteed Covid-free vacations. Of course, if you have left your house, these books will still provide entertainment for those long daylight hours. This month we offer—in addition to our own novels, available all year round—a trip down Memory Lane that may reinvigorate a present-day romance, a contemporary survival story in a vividly described and not-so-usual setting, and a clowder of cat detectives determined to help their human companions solve a series of deadly crimes. Gotta be something there to enliven your trips to the beach!

Christina Lauren, Love and Other Words (Piatkus, 2018)

Anyone who says they never wonder about the one who got away is probably lying. Even if we’ve reached a point in our lives where we’re completely happy and fulfilled—alone or with a partner—it’s nearly impossible not to wonder, however briefly, how different might life be if the one who got away had actually stuck around. That’s the theme explored in Christina Lauren’s Love and Other Words, when Macy and Elliott—childhood friends turned high-school sweethearts—run into each other in a San Francisco coffee shop, eleven years after the ultimate act of betrayal tore them apart.

Macy, now a pediatric neurologist, is engaged to Sean, an artist with a small daughter. Theirs was a whirlwind romance, and the proposal was unexpected but not necessarily unwelcome. Wedding planning is slow-going, though neither of them are too concerned about it. Life’s busy, after all, and there’s always later. She doesn’t think that her unresolved feelings for Elliott have anything to do with the delay. That is, until he walks into the same coffee shop, she can’t run fast enough to evade his notice, and they’re suddenly back in each other’s lives.

They work to rebuild their relationship, though of course now it’s different. There have been eleven years of silence, after all. Elliott has a girlfriend and Macy a fiancé and future stepdaughter. But Macy can’t deny that all of her old feelings came rushing back the moment she saw him, and she begins to wonder if the life she chose for herself is really the one she’ll be happy living or if she should let herself pursue the one she lost. But to figure that out, she first has to decide how to approach the thing that came between her and Elliott in the first place.—CJH


Nic Saint, Purrfect Murder (Puss in Print, 2017)

I accept that this choice makes me a certified cat lady, but that was pretty clear already, and I can’t think of a better beach read than a bunch of feline detectives led by a lovely ginger tabby named Max who, except for a few white markings and an extra pound or two, could be my own long-gone and much-missed Arthur. Besides, like most cat lovers, I harbor a secret wish to converse with—or at least understand—my feline companions, as Odelia Poole, ace reporter in the small Long Island beach town of Hampton Cove, can do.

This, the first of Max’s literary adventures, introduces the cast of characters. In addition to those already mentioned, Max’s team includes his sidekick, Dooley; Harriet, a beautiful white Persian who is soon consorting with the enemy, in the form of a bullying interloper appropriately named Brutus; and a feral cat who occasionally deigns to tip the scales of justice with a claw in return for a nice helping of kibble or, better yet, raw steak. Among the humans, in addition to Odelia, standouts include her uncle Alex, the local police chief, who has taken pity on a New York City cop fired for accidentally walking in on the mayor getting it on with the commissioner’s wife. This new cop in town, Chase Kingsley, is responsible for the advent of Brutus and, like his cat, Chase combines stellar good looks with a rather rigid interpretation of police work—one that doesn’t include snoopy reporters like Odelia. From Max’s point of view, the hostility between his human and Chase is a blessing; Max dreads the day when these two obvious lovebirds-to-be decide to act on their attraction, which could mean Brutus moving in with Max and Dooley.

There is a mystery here, a missing writer who shows up at the bottom of a well, and by the end we have a satisfying solution, although it all happens rather fast. In later adventures (Max has solved fifty-seven crimes to date), the murders are better plotted and more standard in their presentation of multiple potential killers and deeply buried pasts. But I still recommend starting with this one, because it gives the best setup for what’s to come, and for cat lovers it’s quite frankly adorable, even hilarious at times. After all, who wouldn’t love a detective who crashes on the couch and can’t pass along crucial information because sleuthing has deprived him of his ten-hour daily nap?—CPL


Phyllis M Skoy, What Survives (Black Rose Writing, 2022)

What Survives is bookended by two historical catastrophes, the Düzce region earthquake in Turkey in 1999 and the World Trade Center attacks in New York in 2001. The backstory reveals that Adalet, the protagonist, had previously returned to her family home in provincial Düzce (from her newer home in Istanbul) to inform her parents that she was pregnant. She hoped to appease them by letting them be the first to know—ahead of even Yassar, her husband—in some part to compensate for the fact that she had allowed Yassar’s wealthy, worldly parents to dictate every last detail of their wedding, to the great disappointment of her beloved mother. But she was also afraid of what Yassar would say, since he didn’t really want children yet. When the earthquake struck, not only did Adalet lose both parents and her unborn child, but she herself incurred severe injuries. Following a period of hospitalization, and then a rather awkward period of recovery at the home of Yassar’s parents, she learned that Yassar no longer wanted her in his life—not because she hadn’t gone to him first to say she was pregnant, or even because her legs were disfigured during the earthquake, but because he met someone else just before the quake.

The opening chapters of What Survives find Adalet living in what had been a rental house belonging to Yassar’s parents in the historic but rural town of Avanos, with a car and on an allowance also provided by them. Avanos, Skoy confirms, is a town of few single women and even fewer divorcees. Having attended university in Istanbul, where she dreamed of furthering a career working with the families of deaf children, the all-expenses-paid house in Avanos represents both a solution for Adalet’s current circumstances (she is still recovering and unable to work) and the end of her dreams. One day she wanders into a pottery shop (Avanos is famous for its pottery) and is asked by the feisty, nearly blind old woman whose sons run the place how it is that she seems to have so much free time on her hands. Adalet answers cordially but with characteristic reservation. But the old lady, Fatma, draws her out and eventually gets Adalet to agree to read to her on a regular basis; over time they become friends. When Fatma’s precarious teenage granddaughter Meryem arrives on the scene, the possibility of a second chance to live a real life opens up for Adalet.

There is so much to treasure in What Survives: the characters are well developed and interesting, and the plot is detailed, nuanced, and beautifully paced. The setting is a bonus, especially for readers who have never been to Turkey. Istanbul in particular is deliciously described—so that we can easily envision the bathhouses, the mosques, and the restaurants (and the tasty meals on their menus). But the visuals are only the beginning: Skoy offers us a real feel for Turkey’s unique culture.

This is a serious book about serious times, but despite the earthquake in the beginning and the attack at the end, the byproduct of which Adalet witnesses just days later, there is real life going on here, with all its many obstacles and pleasures. Adalet, a Muslim woman, must navigate between two worlds, the old and the new. Most (but not all) of her decisions bring her self-understanding and growth, making it both a delight and a learning experience to spend time in her company.—JS



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