Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams

Along the Infinite SeaAlong the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Review copy provided by the publisher

Pepper Schuyler has just finished restoring a vintage Mercedes and sold it at auction, with the resulting funds earmarked to take care of her and her unborn child for the next several years. It is 1966 and even though Pepper is an independent, savvy woman, the fact that she had an affair with a married, important politician and is pregnant with his child would be a huge scandal if word got out – so she needs to take care of herself and not rely on anyone else. Meanwhile, the car’s new owner, Annabelle Dommerich, has secrets of her own. She purchased the car because it was the exact same car she used to flee Nazi Germany twenty-five years earlier. As the two women get to know each other, Pepper learns that Annabelle’s story is shocking and inspiring – and she still has unanswered questions about her future, just like Pepper.

I am a Beatriz Williams fan like you wouldn’t believe. I haven’t read all of her books, but every single one I’ve read has been nothing short of delightful. Along the Infinite Sea is the third book in her series about the three Schuyler sisters (I read and HIGHLY enjoyed the first two) and what I liked about this trilogy is that each of the three are absolute stand-alone novels as well. I was surprised to find that while I was interested in Pepper’s story, it was the story Annabelle told that truly swept me away and didn’t allow me to put the book down.

There is so much intrigue surrounding Annabelle’s story. The gist of it is this – she had a passionate affair with a man named Stefan who she fell madly, deeply in love with in the first few days of knowing him. Stefan left to “take care of things” and while he was gone, she heard through a friend of a friend that he was married and planned to stay with his wife. While she was learning this awful fact, she met a man twenty years her senior, Johann, who had recently lost his wife, was raising four children on his own, and had a very important position in the German military. When she told Johann of her pregnancy, he offered to marry her, raise her baby as his own, and give them both the life he thought they deserved – so, thinking she would never see Stefan again, she agreed. The rest of the book is a breathless tale of learning what happened to Annabelle as she discovered that her husband is not only in the German military, but is a full-on Nazi, and she hopes against all hope that she may see Stefan again someday.

At one point the reader isn’t sure if Annabelle ended up with Stefan or Johann, as the book goes from past to present, and in the present her “husband” is alluded to in such a way that it could have been either man. Of course, as the reader, you have a major hope that it’s one over the other (love over money, obviously!) but it’s really unclear until the last few pages what Annabelle’s life turned out to be. I was on pins and needles throughout this ENTIRE book – hoping so very desperately that things would turn out for Annabelle, that she would end up having this incredible life with a man who truly loved her and she loved him deeply in return. On top of the love story, please keep in mind that this is pre-World War II we are talking about, and we are talking about this character being married to a Nazi – oh and wait, did I mention that Stefan is a Jew? Forgot that part. So you can imagine with this awful war about to start, with terrifying attitudes about Jews abound in much of Europe, the stakes for everyone here were crazy high. It was an edge-of-your seat kind of read, in the best possible way.

Pepper’s story was much more tame, yes she had a baby on the way and that was a big deal, huge concern, her reputation was in tatters, and she couldn’t even communicate with her family about her situation, but compared to Annabelle’s all that stuff is silly. At least, that’s how I felt as I was reading the book. But in these dual narrative kind of books it is inevitable to be more invested in one of the two stories than the other, so I was fine with it. I didn’t dislike Pepper, and was interested in her story, it’s just that I was always anxious to get back to Annabelle!

Anyway, I really super enjoyed this novel and Beatriz Williams continues to have a place in my heart. She can be counted on to always deliver quality novels with amazingly interesting female main characters, complex individuals and exciting stories. I love her stuff and this was one more example of why I do. Read any of her books and you won’t be disappointed.

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The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

The Opposite of EveryoneThe Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson
Published by William Morrow

Paula Voss is in her early thirties, working as an attorney in Atlanta, when she receives a postcard from her long-estranged mother, letting her know that she won’t be needing the check Paula sends her every month because she has terminal cancer and she will be dead soon. When Paula was a girl, she and her mother lived a mostly nomadic existence until the day that Paula did something unforgivable at age eleven, landing her in foster care and her mother in prison. Upon receipt of this postcard, she is forced to attempt to find her mother and unbury the years of secrets and lies that lie between the two of them.

Jackson has such a talent for creating characters that feel in such a deep, true way like real people – flawed people, but real people nonetheless. That was completely the case here with Paula – within the first twenty or thirty pages, I felt like I knew her, I felt like she and I were friends and she was telling me the story of her life.

And what a story it was – Jackson goes back and forth in time in the book, between what’s happening to Paula today and then back to her childhood, right before and after she made the decision that caused the huge rift between her mother and herself. The way the story was told was so effective because it really kept me on the hook, waiting for more about what happened to Paula as a child and hoping desperately that it wasn’t as bad as I feared it was. Also, I was so hopeful that she would have some kind of resolution to the estrangement between herself and her mother. No spoilers, but the way that Jackson ties everything up is not perfect but certainly realistic and happy enough to satisfy just about any reader. It’s the perfect mix of “happy ending” while being realistic about what would make sense to happen to these characters.

I listened to the audio of this novel and I have to say that audio is the way to go for any Joshilyn Jackson book. She narrates them herself, and her flawed, funny, smart, Southern female characters just come to life with her voice.

Joshilyn Jackson has done it again – this is a wonderful story with a great character just trying to weather the storm that is life. I have enjoyed every single one of her books and The Opposite of Everyone is no different.

When We Were Worthy by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

When We Were WorthyWhen We Were Worthy by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen
Published by Lake Union Publishing
Review copy provided by the publisher via SheReads

The small town of Worthy, Georgia is shattered when three high school cheerleaders are killed in a car accident caused by another student at their school. Told from the points of view of four women – Ava, a teacher at the school; Marglyn, the mother of one of the cheerleaders; Darcy, the mother of the boy who drove the car that killed the girls; and Leah, the fourth member of the group of girls, the one who was not in the car that night – this is the story of how the town deals with a horrifying tragedy and how the mystery of what really happened that night is concluded.

When We Were Worthy was a great reading experience – the kind of book that I can’t help but race through, desperate to find out the characters’ fate and fill in the missing details about their lives and this huge event that had reverberating impacts among the community. I loved getting to know these characters, trying to understand their motivations, feelings, and behaviors, and trying to predict how things would turn out for them. The story is told from four different points of view, and while sometimes this format can turn into a big mess, Whalen handled it extremely well, deftly weaving the voices of these four women throughout the book, gradually showing the reader each of their personalities as the book went on.

One thing this novel does really well is illuminate that particular period in a person’s life that is called being a teenager. These teens think they know everything, think they understand the world around them and their part within it, and in some cases their eyes are more open to the realities of the world than the parents and teachers in their lives, but in a lot of cases they are just incredibly naïve. It is an interesting period in life for a lot of reasons, but primarily because the juxtaposition of feeling like an adult in body and mind while at the same time, not having money or freedom or the right to do a lot of things. The teenagers in this book are exactly like that – they think they get it, they think they rule the world (or at least, their small town that essentially is their world), but they have no idea how swiftly life can be taken from them, how quickly everything can change in an instant. That’s the part of life that they aren’t worldly enough yet to get – they think they are invincible and, unfortunately, nobody is.

And let’s talk about the adults in the novel – they were more messed up than the kids in some cases. Every single person in this novel is dealing with demons, struggling with something, and making choices that profoundly affect their families. The adults really don’t have things together any better than the teens do, and unfortunately that comes with some majorly bad consequences for a few of them. I did like about this novel that Whalen mostly wraps up everyone’s stories in a way that is satisfying and makes sense, while not giving people a perfect, happy ending. It’s true to life the way she handles these characters’ situations and life choices. If I had ONE criticism of the book – and I really just have this one – I will say that there was one storyline with one particular character that I felt added nothing to the story whatsoever and was, frankly, unnecessary and a distraction from everything that I thought the book really should have been focusing on. However, it was an extra element of drama so I’m sure plenty of readers were interested in that particular plot line. I just didn’t think it was helpful to the overall story at all.

Anyway, I really liked When We Were Worthy! It was equal parts character-driven and plot-driven and I thought Whalen did a great job with both elements of the book. Highly recommended.

In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen

In Farleigh FieldIn Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen
Published by Lake Union Publishing

This novel centers around Lord Westingham and his wife and five daughters who reside at Farleigh Place, an elaborate estate about an hour away from London in the first few years of World War II. Family friend Ben Creswell is tasked with uncovering the mystery of a British airman who fell from the sky and perished in fields of Farleigh, a job that brings him closer to the woman he loves, Pamela, the middle Westingham daughter. Meanwhile, Pam is working in covert operations decoding German radio broadcasts while her lover, Jeremy, is stuck at a German war camp as a POW. Pam’s sister Margot is in Paris, choosing to stay with her French lover Gaston who may or may not be part of the Resistance there, and this relationship begins to put Margot in jeopardy. The novel shows how this war affects everyone in Europe, from the richest of them all to the poorest folks, and these characters become an integral part of the war effort.

This is an interesting novel because while it centers around the Second World War, it’s rather mild in its handling of the horrors of the war. This could be for two reasons. One, it’s the early stages of the war, so the characters haven’t truly understood the full reality of what’s at stake here and what Hitler is really capable of. Two, these characters are the most privileged of the British, so even how the war affects them is mild compared to the people who were in London at the time, getting bombed all over the place, losing homes and businesses and everything. It was interesting to see the war from this perspective, although a little strange because knowing the history, things got a LOT worse for people like the Westinghams before they got better.

Anyway, the biggest plot point of this story is around the man who landed in Farleigh Field after his parachute failed to open – who is he? Is he a German spy? Is he truly a British soldier? Why did he flee his plane directly over Farleigh? Ben is tasked with uncovering this mystery, and ultimately the mystery is solved by Ben and Pamela working together. The way that Bowen wrapped up this mystery made sense and, while fairly predictable, I didn’t totally guess until close to the very end.

Another big element of the story itself were the characters within it. I had a love-hate relationship with most of the characters. Pamela was extremely frustrating – she had a very important job, but she still thought very little of herself to the point that she wasn’t really that proud of what she was doing. She was also in love with a total asshole (Jeremy) and unable to see the amazing guy right in front of her who was in love with her (Ben). I liked Margot, but honestly I would have liked to see more of her story and less of Pamela’s, she seemed much more plucky and interesting than her sister. There was an older sister who was married and mostly on the sidelines, a younger sister who was slightly too young to be a major character (18) and a much younger sister who was a part of the story but just a kid – although she ultimately became the hero by the end of the book.

I liked the book but overall it was just okay. It held my interest and it kept me wanting to find out how the mystery would turn out, but as a war novel it was overall a bit disappointing. I think I’ve read so many World War II books that at this point, I expect there to be a ton of emotion, heart, and high stakes in these books, and In Farleigh Field just didn’t have those elements. So, overall not my favorite, but definitely an interesting concept and I liked that it was set in a time and place during the war that I hadn’t read much about before.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindhu

Marriage of a Thousand LiesMarriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindhu
Published by Soho Press
Review copy provided by the publisher

Lucky is a gay woman married to a gay man, Kris. The two of them decided to get married after they both attempted to come out to their conservative Sri Lankan families and were met with the immediate reality of their families wanting to disown them. They’ve been married a few years when Lucky finds out that her childhood best friend, who she happens to be in love with, Nisha, is getting married. Armed with that news as well as news of her grandmother being sick, Lucky spends a few months at her mother’s home in Boston, forced to confront the truth about herself and whether she will get to keep her family, her sexual orientation, and her best friend – or if she will have to choose between the three.

I adored this novel. I don’t think I’ve read any books before about the ways in which being gay plays out differently in different cultures, and definitely not what that looks like when one generation is American and the older generation is more old-school and traditional in their thinking. Lucky and Kris are stuck in this place of wanting to be loved and accepted by their families, wanting relationships with them, but knowing for sure that being themselves and being honest with their families about what that actually means will cause them to be disowned. The pain that this causes in Lucky is excruciating, and the way that Sindhu writes the character of Nisha is even more painful – she’s buckling under her family’s pressure and agreeing to an arranged marriage, to a straight man she barely knows much less likes, when she knows for one hundred percent sure that she is gay and in love with Lucky. The way that Sindhu writes these two characters with such love and care, so much nuance in their personalities and in their relationship with one another, is incredible. I truly felt their deep, heartbreaking, breathtaking pain as they tried to navigate their futures knowing full well they had no future together if they wanted their families to love them.

There’s a lot going on here – it’s not just that Lucky and Kris are gay and their families don’t know, there are other issues at play, too. Lucky’s father divorced her mother several years ago after falling in love with her mother’s best friend. Lucky’s older sister, Shyama, is married to a man she doesn’t really like (after breaking up with the white man she was in love with) because the relationship was arranged by both sets of parents, and she seems miserable in her life as a wife and mother. Lucky’s other sister ran away from the family years ago after her boyfriend, a black man, was not accepted by Lucky’s parents, and Lucky hasn’t seen or heard from her in years. This family has fallen apart in so many ways, yet Lucky is still so desperate for their love and acceptance that she is literally lying to them every time she sees or speaks to them by denying her sexuality. To say that it is heartbreaking is the understatement of the year.

One aspect of the novel that isn’t discussed much is the situation with Kris. He was an immigrant on a student visa when he and Lucky got married, and if they decide to be honest with themselves and divorce, he will have to go back to Sri Lanka – which he absolutely can’t imagine doing. But the complexities of this fact of his life combined with his being gay and possibly having to go back to a place where almost no one will accept him are not discussed much at all. I get that the novel is mainly focused on Lucky, but I liked Kris, or what the reader sees from him at least, and wanted more about him.

In the end Lucky has to make some major compromises and decide what she needs in life in order to accept herself and be at peace with the relationships she has to give up in order to be authentic to herself. The ending of the book is bittersweet – in one way, she resolves some of her own demons, but in another way, her demons are only getting started as the reader can see that she has an uncertain future ahead of her. There are no easy answers here, and Sindhu certainly didn’t shy away from how difficult and emotionally challenging these characters’ lives are. I really enjoyed this novel and felt deeply for the characters within. Highly recommended.

The Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner

The Forever SummerThe Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner
Published by Little, Brown and Company

When attorney Marin Bishop loses her job and her fiancé in the same week, she can’t imagine any more surprises in her life – until she gets a call from a stranger, Rachel, who explains that she and Marin are biological sisters and Rachel is on her way to meet their biological grandmother. Marin’s parents have been happily married since before Marin’s birth, so while this news is extremely confusing and she remains in denial about Rachel’s claims, she agrees to accompany her to their supposed biological grandmother’s beach house. At the last minute, Marin’s mother tells her that she and her father are getting a divorce and she’d like to accompany Marin and Rachel on this trip – even though she still refuses to tell Marin the truth about her paternity. This road trip is just the beginning of a summer filled with secrets being outed, lives being changed forever, and relationships evolving as these three women figure out the truth about their pasts and futures.

The Forever Summer started off with a lot of promise, but it has SO much going on that it ended up being a bit much for me. I will just be honest and say upfront that I just did not enjoy the book. About halfway through, I wanted to give up because there was just too much drama – most of it unrealistic – but a small part of me did want to know what would happen to the characters, so I pushed on.

Without spoilers, I will just say that way too many bad things happened to these characters in a short period of time to the point where it felt like a soap opera and not a novel. It was just too much – unrealistic melodrama at its finest. I totally get why people could love this, though – there are multiple characters with Major Issues to focus on, complicated family dramas, big reveals towards the end of the book, all kinds of stuff to keep the reader interested. I have to admit, I was kept on my toes throughout most of the book as I waited anxiously to find out what would happen to these characters. But the reason I wanted to find out how things would turn out wasn’t because I cared, necessarily, it was more that I had already invested time into the book and wanted that time to pay off somehow.

Overall I didn’t HATE the book but just can’t recommend it. Plenty of people would enjoy The Forever Summer but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

How It Went DownHow It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson is shot and killed in his neighborhood while leaving a convenience store, in full view of several friends and acquaintances. His shocking death rattles his friends and family, and as his community tries to piece together what happened that day, different people have different opinions and notions about what they think they saw that day, and what kind of person Tariq really was. This novel is told from the perspective of several of his friends, a few acquaintances, his mother, his grandmother, and his sister, and it becomes clear as the book goes on that no one really has the full picture of how it went down that day.

This book is tough, guys. Kids being killed for no apparent reason – hell, anyone getting killed for ANY reason – is a really difficult subject. The subject itself is rough but add to the subject matter what’s going on now with KKK members and Nazis marching in Charlottesville, people being killed for opposing the obvious hatred and bigotry we saw there – it’s just heavy, guys. My heart is just so heavy these days.

But anyway, back to the book. How It Went Down is fantastic although so difficult to read. The way that Magoon is able to show these different perspectives of an incident that took seconds to occur, and how each person who was present saw things differently, people who weren’t there have Very Strong Opinions about what happened to Tariq, it’s just so true to life when these horrific things happen to real people.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, but with severe reservations. It’s done extremely well, the characters are vivid and true to life and nuanced and not one character is a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. Magoon created such realness within these pages, so much truth and genuine emotions. But it’s tough, because sometimes things like this happen in real life, and there are no answers as to why, and people have to live with the fact that their brother or son or best friend or sister or mother died and there’s no real explanation for it. How It Went Down is wonderfully done but oh so painful to read.