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Magical Realism

GUEST REVIEW:  Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

GUEST REVIEW: Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

Dear Ms. Allen,

I am a huge fan. There’s just no use starting out with any other introduction than that. A clever friend gifted me a copy of Garden Spells several years ago, and it was love at first sight. I quickly devoured each of your successive books, and while I can never quite decide if The Peach Keeper is my favorite or if The Sugar Queen owns that spot, what I do know is I have loved each one of your beautiful stories. So it was with great pleasure I sat down with this latest blend of magical realism and southern comfort. As a child, I spent several formative years in Virginia. My mother’s sister and her family lived a few hours away in North Carolina, and every spring and summer we eagerly climbed in the car and drove south to spend a few weeks with them. These trips were magical to me, and these novels, with their humid nights, slow-roasting barbecue, and softly lilting drawl send me right back to night games with my cousins and catching fireflies in cupped hands.

Eby Pim never expected to marry the man she did. Coming as she does from a long line of women determined to marry money, Eby was always the sad exception to the rule. Less lovely, less ambitious than her mother, sister, grandmother, she was perhaps the most surprised of all when she and George fell in love. He was rich. But the money was new and meant very little to either of them except as an escape from their interfering families. And so Eby and George embarked on an indefinite honeymoon, spending months and months in Europe. Paris, mostly, where they acquired a troubled young woman by the name of Lisette. Lisette never speaks, preferring to write her thoughts and questions down on a notebook she keeps around her neck. When word of a death in the family cuts their time in Europe short, Eby and George return home to Georgia with Lisette in tow. And when the lure of their money proves too much for Eby’s family, they decide to wash their hands of it, getting rid of it all and buying a stretch of land known as Lost Lake, where they set up a small summer resort amid the swamps and cypress knees. Years later, Eby’s widowed niece Kate finds her way back to Lost Lake. She brings with her her free spirited 8-year-old daughter Devin and a fledgling determination to take up and make some sense of the scattered threads of her life.

Lost Lake is very pleasant. It is a very pleasant novel. And there’s the rub. Pleasantness abounds, along with a very nice level of quirk and charm. But it never crosses over into deeper waters, at least not for me. Most of Ms. Allen’s novels trade point of view chapters back and forth between a couple or three “main” protagonists. Sometimes I gravitate more toward one than the others, and sometimes I fall for them equally. Either way the overall balance generally works for me. But in Lost Lake, quite a few different characters share the limelight (what there is of it), and I was never allowed to spend enough time with any one of them to develop genuine feelings for them and their fate. I wanted to. The chapters from Eby’s past are heady and lovely. I followed her through the streets and over the bridges of Paris and would have happily spent the rest of the novel unraveling the threads of Lisette’s mysterious past. Likewise, I was just as willing to accompany Kate on her journey to revive herself and her faltering relationship with her young daughter.

Kate had been thirteen when her father died. No more weekend road trips. No more hours spent after school in her father’s video store, watching movie after movie. Her mother had gone a little crazy after that, like she’d pulled the in the event of an emergency switch that the women in her family told her to pull if her husband ever died, and this was what happened.

She wouldn’t come out of her room for months. Kate had lived on bagels, sandwich meat, and microwaved popcorn for most of eighth grade. She had hidden when well-meaning neighbors knocked on the door, after the first time she’d let them in and they’d worried why her mother wouldn’t see them.

There was still a place inside Kate that resented her mother’s grief when her father died. She still remembered what her mother had said to her on the day Kate and Matt went to the court house to get married. I hope you never lose him. It had felt like a portent. Kate hadn’t been as obvious about it as her mother, but, sure enough, she had still pulled that same switch. And she should have known that Devin had caught on. Children always know when their mothers are crazy—they just never admit it, not out loud, to anyone.

Goodness, it is lovely writing. Strong enough to see you through to the end even when you’re not as invested as you would have liked. In theory, I liked the idea of Kate and Eby (two women living under the same family curse) coming together in this place apart from the rest of the world and . . . figuring things out. In practice, its meaningfulness felt muffled. Neither story was given enough page time to really land. I didn’t dislike any of the wispy and enticing peripheral characters. In fact, I liked them all: brazen Bulahdeen, shameless Selma, diffident Jack, imperious Cricket, and the heartbreaking trio Wes, Luc, and Billy. I just didn’t love any of them. The painful part is that I could literally feel that potential love of mine ghosting out there on the horizon for the entire length of the book. I knew it was possible. It just never materialized. Instead I felt distracted and removed, not disgruntled per se, but just gently fond when I wanted to be infatuated, like I was reading an abridged version of the full story. B-

Cheers,

Angie

Angie is a bookish sort with a soft spot for urban fantasy, YA, historicals, and mysteries. Ever since she read The Witch of Blackbird Pond and made the acquaintance of one Nat Eaton, stories with no romantic subplot need not apply. Her favorite authors include Robin McKinley, Juliet Marillier, Sharon Shinn, Mary Stewart, Megan Whelan Turner, Kristin Cashore, Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, and Ellen Emerson White. You can find Angie at her blog www.angie-ville.com or on Twitter @angiebookgirl.

 

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REVIEW:  Dream Lake by Lisa Kleypas

REVIEW: Dream Lake by Lisa Kleypas

Dear Ms. Kleypas:

I am a big fan of your writing and even when you announced the move into mystical realism, I was undeterred in my fandom. Yes, the magical realism was so light as to be unnecessary in the previous work and yes it wasn’t well integrated into the story but I enjoyed the characters and the romance and the tension between the two that I overlooked the magical realism. In Dream Lake, however, the paranormal element is so overpowering and inseparable that it nearly ruined the story for me. Ruined is a harsh word but the ghostly element pervaded every corner of the book like insidious smell of smoke that permeates items not even singed in a fire. No corner is safe.

Dream Lake Lisa KleypasThe story opens with the ghost point of view. I don’t know who the ghost is and I don’t care. I don’t care because he isn’t corporeal and never will be. I don’t care if he haunts the house or goes on to a better life. But I can’t escape him. He narrates the first four chapters.  Half the time I’m not even sure if he is narrating anymore or whether it is some unembodied omniscient voice. For example, as we are told the entire backstory of the Nolan family and how they came to live at the house that the ghost was supposedly tied to until he was then sucked into Alex’s sphere and couldn’t escape.

His voice is maudlin and predictable. Worse, he is ghost ex machina. When Sam and Alex, two brothers, get testy with each other rather than allowing the reader to infer for herself the chill in the air, the ghost spells it out “The ghost was perplexed by an unfamiliar sensation, a raw chill that would have caused him to shiver if he’d had a human form. It was a depth of despair that even th ghost, in his bleak solitude, had never experienced — and it radiated from Alex Nolan.”

and later “Although he hadn’t been able to read Alex’s thoughts as he had sat on the front porch, the ghost had felt them.” The transition from Alex’s point of view to the ghost’s point of view was often confusing making me wonder at times who was narrating the story.   The ghost wavers from old-fashioned mores and language to a snarky modern tone of voice.  The ghost is one half smart-aleck and the other half wise sage, serving whatever purpose Alex needs at the time whether it is appropriate responses in courting Lucy or attempting to get through an alcoholic haze.  “Part of you is dying, the Part of you that drinks to avoid pain But avoid pain only feeds it.” Wax On, Wax off

Moving on from the ghost are the two other main characters: Alex the drunk and Zoe the chef.  (Zoe’s magic is in the restorative power of her food).

Despite my aforementioned complaints, there are examples of good dialogue throughout the book.  Alex has a troubled relationship with his brothers and it is not easily resolved.  The other brothers are too wrapped up in their own lives and really don’t make much effort in saving Alex, not that Alex would want their help.  “If your life were graphed in a pie chart, half of it would be ‘shitface’ and the other half would be ‘hungover‘” says his brother Sam.

The middle of the story was more palatable. I breathed a sigh of relief when the story switch to Zoe’s point of view because it was ghostless. But I felt like she got the short shrift. Abandoned by her father, Zoe’s main family was her grandmother.  The grandmother was suffering from early onset dementia. Very little of Zoe’s inevitable grief at losing her only family was shown to us.  The one  scene with her father was painful for every one but her. Zoe wasn’t particularly interesting despite her marvelous cooking skills. I would have loved to try her oatmeal, described as almost like an oatmeal cake with warm milk poured around it.  The food that she makes for Alex every morning sound like a culinary marvel.  But Zoe as a person lacked backbone.  For instance, she has an ex husband who married her, cheated on her with a man, and then left her.  He comes running back to her for comfort after the man he left her for breaks up with him.   She easily forgives him, comforts him.

Alex’s alcoholism was healed through drying out and Zoe’s magical cooking but I never felt invested.  Rather than drawing us closer to Alex and feeling his pain, I felt the ghost narrated version of this story distanced us from the characters. We were seeing his recovery primarily through a third party rather than the character’s point of view.  I’m still on board for more of these books. I can only hope that there are no more ghosts.  The set up for the next book appears to be between a Billionaire and a witch.  C-

Best regards

Jane

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