The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A. J. FikryThe Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When this novel begins, the odds are against A.J. Fikrey's chances of happiness. He is widowed, having lost his wife in an accident when she drove an author home after an appearance at A.J.'s bookstore on Alice Island. He should have been driving, he thinks, but he can't drive; he has absence seizures. One plate of hurled vindaloo changes everything: when he wakes up after a binge, it has been cleaned up, but his prized copy of Tamerlane has been purloined.

Absence is a key trope in this story. The philandering husband of Ismay, A.J.'s sister-in-law, is often absent. His longtime friend, a publisher's representative, has died. He has decided to drink until he and his store are gone, too.

But - one almost-Christmas day, there is a sudden presence: an abandoned toddler girl, Maya, with a note pinned to her Elmo doll saying that her mother hopes the child will grow up to be a reader. "Funny world, right?" muses Lambiase, the police officer. "Someone steals a book from you; someone else leaves you a baby."

A.J. does not believe in fate, but he does believe in responsibility. He shocks everyone by deciding to adopt Maya. The social worker shocks herself by agreeing to the adoption, reasoning that she always loved orphan stories like Anne of Green Gables. Ismay, Lambiase, Amelia (the new publisher's rep), and the townspeople soon coalesce around the widower and the preternatually-verbal little girl, who tells A.J. she loves him after he sings "99 Luftballons" during her baths.  "I warned her about giving love that hasn't yet been earned," he says, "but honestly, I think it's the influence of that insidious Elmo."

Maya thrives in the bookstore, which also thrives as her new father adds children's books, books for the women's discussion group (Bel Canto, after he runs out of books with the word "wife" in the title), and a new group for Lambiase and his police friends. A bottle of Purell sits on the counter ("please disinfect before handling the infanta"), and Maya sits on the floor, learning to read and write. Love has appeared where it was least expected.

Each chapter is introduced by A.J., who loves short stories and has written an appreciation of some of the most elegant of the genre. (If only there were an anthology of these stories, to deepen the reader's appreciation for the elegance of this book!) The theme or circumstance of each story, including selections such as "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" (Salinger) and "What Feels Like the World" by Richard Bausch) is mirrored in the storyline. ("A Diamond As Big As the Ritz" is a favorite, but not The Great Gatsby, which A.J. thinks was "overgroomed... like a garden topiary.")

What began as absence leads to happiness. A.J. expresses his gratitude when he "closes his eyes and thanks whomever, the higher power, with all his porcupine heart." So will the reader, who should remember that nothing in well-plotted fiction is accidental. Pay attention. It will be worth it.

I received a galley of this book from NetGalley. This is a fair review.

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Guidebook to Murder

Guidebook to MurderGuidebook to Murder by Lynn Cahoon

Quaint, pretty South Cove, California, is home to Jill Gardner, a former lawyer who has found her bliss in running a bookstore-café, Coffee, Books, and More. When she was a newcomer in town, octogenarian Miss Emily was her first friend, offering iced tea and a sympathetic ear. Now the town is threatening to knock down Miss Emily's ramshackle house to build sleek condos. Jill goes to see her friend and to mow her lawn, only to find the old woman dead in her bed, with a teacup and a Regency romance on the nightstand. Only faint marks on her neck hint that she didn't die of natural causes.

As the plot unfolds, many characters present themselves as possible suspects, including disgruntled distant relatives and a would-be land developer whose trophy wife's dog bites Jill in her own café. Miss Emily and her property prove to have had secrets that could have inspired homicide. Add the sudden disappearance of Jill's friend Amy, whose presence on the job at Town Hall could have obstructed some of the less savory plans for the old house, and you have a storyline that keeps you reading, wondering, and hoping.

Often, the first of a proposed cozy series is stuffed with backstory and explication. I found myself wishing for more early detail about Miss Emily than her protective outburst against a teen who mowed down her fairy ring, and some details about the town itself from the book that one of the suspects purchases from Jill. Perhaps the author will be more generous about the town and its residents as the series progresses.

Three stars: I guessed the perp too soon, I disliked the thankfully-brief appearance of a faux gypsy, and lack of backstory. Kudos, however, for the Oxford comma in the name of Jill's café!

I received a free galley of this book from NetGalley. This is a fair reivew.

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The Memory Book

The Memory BookThe Memory Book by Rowan Coleman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The blank book is bound in red leather, and filled with textured paper that seems to "chime against the tip of a pen." The book - Claire's memory book - was bought by Claire's husband Greg on the advice of a counselor who thought it would be good therapy for her to write down the memories that her early Alzheimer's has begun to steal.

Four characters fill the book with narratives. Ruth, Claire's mother, writes about going on holiday with her daughter shortly after her own husband died of the same disease now devastating her daughter. Claire chronicles her deterioration, the unexpected joy of marrying Greg when her daughter Caitlin was a teenager, getting lost in the park and in time as the disease progresses. She worries that her three-year-old daughter, Esther, will forget her and will never know her love. Caitlin, pregnant and dropped-out of college, writes of her determination to exclude the father of her unborn baby from her life, unaware (at first) that she is about to repeat a decision that Claire had made - and now regrets. Greg writes of the unexpected joy he felt when he learned that he was to become a father.

Who are we if our memories are gone? Can you love if the people you loved are now strangers, or if you are no longer moored in time and space? The narrative moves forward and back through the pages of the memory book, and alternating chapters told from each character's point of view. Caitlin decides to follow her mother's advice and find her father, whom she had thought abandoned her. Will he welcome her? See himself in her? Love her? Claire takes pleasure in becoming friends with a man she meets in a cafe because he sees her purely as herself, not as a woman whose personhood is seeping away. These are affecting and sympathetic characters. The reader will care.

The literary device of a memory book is appealing, but there is so little deviation in tone amongst the writings and the alternating chapters that it begins to be a distraction. This is especially true of the chapters and pages by Claire. The woman whose mind is drifting into chaos, who can no longer read a picture book to Esther, and who plots gleeful, childish escapades with her three-year-old simply can not be writing long, nuanced commentaries about identity, emboli, and Jane Eyre. It simply is not believable.

Recommended, with reservations.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. This is an honest review.

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Murder and Mendelssohn

Murder and Mendelssohn (Phryne Fisher #20)Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry Greenwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a romp! Miss Phryne Fisher is the heroine of this mystery, twentieth in a series that has some parallels to the Maisie Dobbs mysteries. Both sleuths served in World War I as medical personnel, experience painful flashbacks from the carnage they saw, and call upon contacts from their war experience to help them solve crimes. But where Maisie is thoughtful, philosophical, modest, and faithful, Phryne is sophisticated witty, wealthy, and, well, easy.

Aristocratic Phryne surrounds herself with luxury, an adoring staff, brilliant adopted children, and lovers. One daughter is so clever that she "lives on tea and pencils." The other is preparing to be a chef under the tutelage of Mrs. Butler, who can whip up a feast in no time while her husband drinks tea so strong it could dye stockings. The household includes a sleek black cat, but Phryne, with her sleek black bob, green eyes, and white teeth that snap through a croissant, may be more feline than Ember.

The mystery: who killed the choirmaster as he was prepping a herd of randy and rowdy young volunteers to sing Mendelssohn's "Elijah"? Honestly, who cares? One character calls Mendelssohn's work "the musical equivalent of fairy dust." The dead conductor was loathed by all for his general boorishness and for being a "hands pig" - a groper. All agree that "he really got on someone's quince."

The young men and women couple and part, as do older men and men, while  Phryne renews an affair with a beloved man whose usual preference is men(and who is in love with a violet-eyed intellectual). Unrequited love is soon requited. Phryne takes it all in with eyes so flinty that anyone else's would garner the equivalent of "the hardness of fudge" on a Mohr scale.

The mystery? It's solved. Minuets and randy madrigals are performed. All's well that ends well.

Why only 4 stars? Because there were so many choristers that I could not keep them sorted out, because I guessed the murderer before eighty pages had passed, and because I have a low tolerance for violet-eyed angels who bedazzle with talk of Chebyshev polynomials. The book is fun to read. Go for it! After all, if the author begins by acknowledging the services of a "Duty Wombat," you know you're going to a good party.

I received this book from Net Galley. This is an honest review.

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