HUMOR LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE: FOUR AUNTIES AND A WEDDING

As a reader, there’s a tension when you find a new book that’s a sequel to one you loved.  On one hand, you loved the first book, so you want to see what the author does next.  On the other hand (this is especially a problem when the first book didn’t seem to need or set up a sequel), you’re a little afraid that the second book won’t live up to your expectations and might even make you think differently about the first book.

My instinct is almost always to ignore that concern and throw myself at a sequel to a book I enjoyed.  In the case of Dial A for Aunties, by Jesse Sutanto, the original book was so much fun I was only afraid the author wouldn’t be able to reach those heights of hilarity in a second book.  I mean, how can you top the situation where the protagonist accidentally kills her blind date (a blind date set up for her by her mother, as she finds out) and then gets her mother and her aunts to help her hide the body, only to discover the body showing up all over the place at a huge wedding her family is catering?  

I’m glad to say that Four Aunties and A Wedding, the sequel to Dial A, is every bit as hilarious as the first book, and somehow Sutanto manages to create an even whackier plot with even more absurd complications than in the first book.

Don’t believe me?  Try this: our protagonist is going to get married in London, and she and her larger-than-life family are meeting her fiance’s family at the same time. Knowing Meddy’s mother and aunts, you can just imagine how her mother and aunts will react to a more proper, more restrained family.  Add the wedding planner, whose relatives are almost as warped as Meddy’s mother and aunts, and then have Meddy discover, shortly before the wedding itself, that the wedding planner is actually planning a mafia hit on someone at this wedding, and is blackmailing Meddy to make sure she doesn’t go to the police about it.

I won’t spoil the fun by describing how the characters deal with the complications of Meddy’s discovery (which she feels she’s obliged to keep from Nathan, her fiance, much to his consternation), but trust me, the characters from the first book live up to our expectations and even exceed them (Big Aunt pretending to be the head of a Mafia Family is worth the price of admission all by herself).  I was reading this in an airport lobby, and I caused all kinds of people to turn around and stare at me because I was laughing so much (and so loudly).  It’s that kind of book.

If you need a good laugh, if you couldn’t get enough of Meddy and her wonderful, warped family in the first book, then run, don’t walk, to the library to get your hands on a copy of Four Aunties and a Wedding.  I can’t wait to see what Sutanto is going to do with these characters next.

MAY FIELD OF MYSTERY: RAZORBLADE TEARS

Saturday the Field of Mystery Book group got together to discuss April’s book, The Keeper of Lost Causes, by Jussi Adler-Olson.  While we all liked certain aspects of the book, we had a lively discussion about the aspects of the book different members found problematic.  At our previous meeting, in March, we chose the book for the month of May, since the next meeting will be coming up quickly.  The book is Razorblade Tears, by S. A. Cosby, and copies are already available at the circulation desk.

Razorblade Tears is by the author of the excellent Blacktop Wasteland. Two men, both former convicts, one white, one black, have nothing in common except their gay sons, who are married to each other.  Neither father was terribly accepting of his son’s sexual identity, but when those sons are murdered, the two men find themselves working together to face their prejudices and avenge their sons, trying to do better for their sons after their deaths than the men were able to do when they were still alive.  Cosby’s a great writer of action and suspense, and his characters in Blacktop Wasteland were vivid and unforgettable, so we have every reason to expect an excellent read from this book.

We’ll be meeting on May 7 from 10 a.m. till 11:30.  You can come and pick up a copy of the book at the Circulation Desk now, and we look forward to getting together and discussing the book then.

GRIEF, GUILT AND BASEBALL: EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER

At first glance, Evvie Drake Starts Over, by Linda Holmes, seems like a rom com.  The cover, with its charming house and its cute lobster (indicating that this takes place in Maine), suggests that, and the inside cover description of the plot also makes it sound like a standard sort of romantic comedy: young widow living alone, isolating herself from the town, baseball player who can’t pitch anymore comes to stay in an apartment in her house, sparks arise between the two of them.  You’re thinking you’ve seen this movie before.  But all of that is a bit deceptive.  It’s not a classic romantic comedy, like, for instance, I Hate You More, or To Have and to Hoax.  It’s much closer, in a lot of ways, to Beach Read, by Emily Henry, than it is to either of those lighter, more cheerful (and even silly) books.  

Which is not to say that it’s not a good read.  I’m just trying to give you a little advance warning of the kind of book it isn’t, so you can, if you read it, appreciate it for the book it is.

People in town think Evvie Drake, widow of Dr. Drake, a beloved local doctor, is in deep mourning because her husband died so suddenly in a car accident and she’s just not ready to deal with it.  Evvie is suffering, and is isolating herself from the people in her small town, and may be borderline depressed, but there’s more to her pain than the loss of her husband.  The truth is, she was getting ready to leave him, to the point of having packed her bags and loaded up her car, when she got the call that he was in an accident (this isn’t a spoiler; you see this at the beginning of the book).  Nobody knows that, not even Andy, her closest friend and confidant, just as nobody knows that Evvie’s husband was emotionally abusive and their marriage was a mess. Part of Evvie’s issue is that she thinks people expect her to be feeling a certain way, and she’s feeling guilty because she doesn’t feel that way and she’s lying to everybody about this.

Dean, the boarder, is a former pitcher for the Yankees who’s gotten the “yips,” where suddenly and for no apparent reason, he can’t pitch anymore.  His whole identity was wrapped up in baseball, and so this is a major issue for him, even before you add in all the harassment from the media and people on the internet, and his name being used as a synonym for choking. He’s a friend of Andy’s, and Andy steers him to Evvie’s house because Evvie could use the rent, and Andy also thinks Evvie needs to stop isolating herself.

In a certain type of story, what would happen is that Dean would discover his pitching again because of the love of a good woman (or his getting away from it all in Maine), and he would help Evvie deal with her guilt and her grief and the two of them would end up happily ever after. And there’s a point in this book where that almost seems about to happen, but fortunately for us all, the author doesn’t take the easy way out, any more than Evvie or Dean does. They find their way to their own resolutions, and while there is a happy ending (in this, we definitely have the rom com standard), it’s not the obvious one, even though it feels right for these particular people in this particular situation.

There are some great secondary characters in this book as well (one of the things I look for in a rom com), and I especially liked the relationship between Evvie and Andy. It’s so unusual and refreshing to see a deep friendship between a man and a woman that’s purely platonic without even a hint of “will they or won’t they”.  It’s not a perfect relationship, and the two of them have to work on their boundaries and trust issues, but they care enough about each other that they do that work.  Andy’s daughters, whom he’s raising as a single father, are also fun characters in their relationship with Evvie as well as with their father.  They come across as real, if quirky, children, which is another thing I appreciate (I’m tired of the precocious kids who come across like adults in smaller bodies).  You get the feeling this is a real world, with people who all have their own lives that they continue to live even when the author isn’t paying attention to them.  

While there’s definitely humor here, and there’s also romance, it’s not really a book that’s heavily into either of those things.  It’s a good read, with characters you care about and a plot that feels realistic as well as charming. For a light read that’s not too frothy, that’s romantic and sexy but not excessively so (and I realize everybody has their own drawn lines on what’s excessive; this was muted enough to pass muster for me), you could hardly do better than Evvie Drake Starts Over.

READING AS A BOOK CLUB LEADER

All my life I’ve been a voracious reader.  For the last several years, I’ve also been the leader of book groups (at the moment, I’m leading three different ones), and as such, I’ve been the one who’s chosen the group of selections from which my group(s) would choose the next month’s book.  In general, as I’ve written before (here), at least one aspect of the selections I make is their availability in the library system (and, for my senior citizens’ group, the availability of large print copies in the system), but obviously that’s not all I use.  I read various blogs about books, I look for prize winners (of all sorts of prizes from the most well known to the more obscure ones), and I plunge into the end of year lists where different reviewers choose what they consider to be the best of the year.

I also use my own reading to help me choose what books I think would work.  On a number of occasions (mostly in Field Notes, but that’s mostly because that’s the longest-running of my groups), I’ve offered books I’ve already read as selections, not because I’m lazy or know I won’t have enough time to read yet another book (though I have to admit, sometimes that’s the case), but because I’m familiar with the book and know that it would fit the group and provide for a good discussion (one of the recent instances of that was when we read The Echo Wife for the Field Notes Group).  Sometimes when I’m describing the selections up for a vote, people will ask me whether I’ve read the book or not, and often I’ll feel a stab of guilt if I haven’t read it.

Lately I’ve begun to notice that leading book groups has changed the way I read all my books, including but not limited to the ones I offer my groups.  It’s not that I take notes along the way of what happens in the book, or who the characters are or the like.  There are members of two of my book groups who do that to the books we read, and I find it admirable, but it’s not the way I work, not even if it would make my life easier.  No, the change in my reading is more subtle than that, but it’s definitely there.

There’s a part of me, whatever I’m reading, that’s always evaluating my book for a potential choice for one of my groups.  It used to be that I could just dive into a book and absorb it with no thoughts beyond “what’s going to happen next?” or “wow, this is a fun read!” or variations on those themes, and while I still have those thoughts, they’re no longer the only thoughts running through my mind. Now there’s also a part of me that’s evaluating the book with the members of my book groups in mind (e.g., “She would never like this part,” or “this is the kind of book he would really like” or “what on earth would we discuss about this one?”), looking at the length of the book, the way it’s structured, the kinds of plot lines, the language, with thoughts of which people would reject the book because of this and which people might be able to enjoy the book despite these quirks. It’s as if there are two people reading at the same time, one who’s just having fun with the book, and the other who’s analyzing it as a possible choice for discussion. Sometimes having that second reader in my mind detracts a little from the pleasure the first reader is having with the book.  That analytical reader never really adds anything to the enjoyment of the book as a book, and the only reason I still have that other reader sharing my books is because I can’t seem to get rid of her.

When you consider that I come up with at least a dozen books for my groups to peruse a month (sometimes I offer five choices per group, but it’s never fewer than four), it makes perfect sense that I’m using my voracious reading habits to help me make those choices.  And I have to admit that it’s satisfying when a group chooses a book that I’ve already read and enjoyed, because then I know I’m going to like the book, whatever the group feels about it (at the same time, it can be hard to take when the group as a collective doesn’t like a book I was crazy about, and that’s happened, too).

Possibly at some point, when I’m no longer leading book groups (if and when that ever happens), I’ll be able to read purely for pleasure again, but in the meantime, these days whenever I’m reading anything, be it fiction or nonfiction, I’m always reading it with two sets of (metaphorical) eyes.