Endless Beach by Jenny Colgan (2018)

This book is a sequel to Cafe by the Sea

Once again Jenny Colgan takes us back to the rugged and remote Scottish island of Mure to continue the story of Flora and Joel, along with the rest of the MacKenzie family and the other island residents.

After their improbably but passionate romance at the end of Cafe of the Sea, Flora happily agrees to stay on Mure and run her cafe while Joel plans to work in New York City and return to island as much as possible. While this seems like the perfect solution for the new couple, Flora soon grows uncertain about the arrangement. Joel leaves for weeks, even months, at a time, then sweeps back onto the island with little notice and for impossibly short intervals, and the couple do nothing but make love. Exciting as this was at first, Flora wants to go out, have friends over, and (desperately, though she keeps this from Joel) to travel with him to America.

Joel, on the other hand, wants Flora and Mure to be an escape with no demands, no socializing, and no surprises. He feels content, but Flora feels hidden away like a secret. In a moment of daring, Flora flies to NYC on her own (with her last cent, seeing as her business is not making much money) to surprise Joel and everything goes horribly wrong. Joel is not happy to see her, she feels heartbroken and humiliated and their fights do nothing to get at the heart of their problems. Flora returns home certain things are over between them.

Meanwhile, two other romances are developing on the island. Flora’s brother Fintan has started a relationship with the billionaire American developer, Colton, who working to build a resort on the island. After the shock of his coming out, the MacKenzie clan is happy to support their love. Their relationship is a bright and happy contrast to Flora and Joel’s crumbling one. However, Colton’s promised re-invigoration of the island economy by opening the resort has yet to materialize. Plans to open to the Rock Resort and employ many islanders (and buy food from the MacKenzie family farm and cafe) seem to have stalled and Colton seems unconcerned.

Another complicated relationship — not quite a romance, though — is budding between the school teacher Lorna and the town’s doctor Saif. Lorna is madly in love with Saif, but his story is complicated. A Syrian war refugee who was settled on Mure in exchange for citizenship, Saif is wild with grief for the wife and children whom he was separated from while fleeing. He is thankful for Lorna’s companionship but wants nothing more. When word comes that his children have been found and will be coming home, he is thrilled and terrified. Lorna’s kindness and support help him adjust to his new life. While Lorna is happy to help, she begins to fear she has spend too long and fallen too deeply in love with a man who will never be hers.

While these romances ebb and flow, something big is brewing. Flora senses that Colton’s lack of interest in opening the resort is more than procrastinating and fears for the islanders who have pinned so many hopes on its money and jobs. She says nothing, not wanting to dull her brothers happiness.

Will she lose Joel and the Cafe all in one summer?

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017)

EOICF

This novel was a total gem, it completely caught me off-guard with its achingly tender story of grief, loneliness, and the need for human connection. Told by a singularly unique narrator, the socially-challenged introvert Eleanor Oliphant, whose honesty and frankness are simultaneous shocking and hilarious, who gives the story a wholly fresh look at social isolation.

When we first meet Eleanor, she is living a tightly regimented and austere life. She has work, errands, and drinking vodka, but very little else. No friends, no outings, no traveling. Having lived this way most of her adult life, Eleanor seems reasonably convinced that she is content and struggles to imagine what more she could ask for from her life. After all, she reasons, she has a home, a job, and enough money to make ends meet; why bother adding in the complexities and complications that acquaintances or hobbies might bring?

What Eleanor fails to see clearly is that these rigid routines and this vigilance against any social connection is a form of protection from having to expose her self and her horrific past to others. She is different and well-aware of it, and she sees no reason to draw attention to her flaws. She wrongly assumes that she is unable to be like other people, that her childhood was so awful that she missed her chance to learn to be normal.

“Unexceptional….Average…I aspire to be average. I’ve been the focus of far too much attention in my time. Pass me over, move along please, nothing to see here.” (27)

Then, a few small events take place that open Eleanor’s world up just the slightest bit. She sees a local rock band play and develops a crush (her first!) on the singer and promptly decides to court him. Additionally, she and Raymond, a coworker, stop to help an elderly man who is injured, leading them to form a friendship with the man and his family. Eleanor would just as well leave the man and his family to their own, but Raymond insists that visiting with them is the proper thing to do.

These seemingly inconsequential events are almost explosive in Eleanor’s tightly controlled and solitary life. Suddenly, she has feelings. She has needs. She must talk to others, think of their needs and feelings, she must change her routines to accommodate them. She is slightly stunned at how much these small acts demand from her…and she is stunned at how they spotlight how horribly, desperately lonely she is.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer — a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying you would not dare mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.” (227)

As her horizons broaden and her heart widens, so also does her past — so long hidden and ignored — begin to resurface. Eleanor is scared to look too closely, scared that she might not survive learning about her childhood and the reasons she was raised without a family in the foster system. She feels equally compelling urges to expand her world to include others and to stop her past from haunting her.

In the end, the need for others, for their companionship and care and touch and concern, so overwhelming and so she begins the slow, painful work of facing her demons. By exorcising them, she can make room in her life for happiness.

Cafe by The Sea by Jenny Colgan (2017)

Alternately, and again, more accurately, titled Summer Seaside Kitchen #1

Flora Mackenzie is a bit out of step. She lives in London and works for a high-powered legal firm, but somehow always feels lonely and out of place. London is a long way, and vastly different, from the tiny, Scottish island she grew up on. As much as she tries to appreciate the lively and diverse city, she cannot seem to shake the feeling that it is all too crowded and noisy to be enjoyed.

Her only respite from her rather lonely life is her time spent fantasizing about her boss, Joel. Joel is a brash, cold American attorney who never gives quiet, plain Flora a second glance; but Flora cannot help daydreaming about him falling in love with her.

Imagine her shock when she is called into his office and told she being sent to her remote island home to help one of the firm’s billionaire clients fight to keep the local council from building a wind-farm on his property.

Flora is stunned at the request. Returning home should be something wonderful to anticipate, but Flora has not been back since her beloved mother died and she had a falling out with her father and brothers. They had expected her to return home, give up her independence and her fancy job, to help care for them and run the family farm. Enraged and heartbroken with grief, she refused and made it clear she was not interested in having a no-nothing life in the middle of nowhere.

Now she has to return, swallow her pride, and make peace with her family, something she is not thrilled to do. However, Joel plans to accompany her to the island and — given the chance to be near him — she agrees.

Flora is staggered to find out how much she missed the island and its rugged beauty. She feels she is able to breathe again with so much wide open space and so few people. Even her family is glad to have her and open to burying the unpleasantness from years before. To her shock, being on the island is not making her grief over her mother worse, but rather helping to heal it…once again being on the island, in the home, that her mother so greatly loved.

Joel and Flora develop a plan to help their client and it means that Flora will stay on the island all summer, helping to build bridges between the billionaire and the hardworking people who call the island home. Joel and Flora also begin to build a relationship, slowly and tentatively, away from the stress and chaos of London.

A fun, cheerful story with beautiful descriptions of the Scottish Isles, with a dash of magic to round it out.

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan

This book is also alternately (and far, far more accurately titled) The Little Shop of Happy Ever After.

In this super-sweet modern romantic comedy, readers are introduced to shy, retiring, and often-overlooked Nina Redmond. Nina has just been told she will be downsized from her job as a librarian and she is heartbroken. Her entire life is books, books, books — reading them, recommending them, and collecting them — and she cannot imagine what she will do next.

When an off-hand suggestion is made that she set up a mobile bookshop as an alternative career, Nina dismisses the notion. How could an introvert with no business skills and fear of new things do something so daring? The idea does not go away, rather it takes up residence in Nina’s mind and suddenly its all she can think of…having her own little shop where she can still connect people to books that can change their lives.

When the plan is outright dismissed by her two (in my opinion rather unkind and selfish) friends as impossible, Nina is stung. No one at all, it seems, believes in her ability to start her life over. Spurred on by a lack of choice, Nina starts a search for a van she might transform into a bookshop and finds one: only it is for sale in a small village in Scottish Highlands.

She travels there, shocking everyone including herself, and makes an offer to buy the van. While visiting, she becomes enchanted with the lush countryside, the wide-open spaces, and the dreamy, slow pace of life outside of the city. A series of events transpire to prevent Nina from taking the van all the way back to England, and so — emboldened by her recent acts of daring — Nina stays in Scotland.

Soon, Nina begins to dream of a romance as wild and beautiful as the Highland landscapes that have so captivated her and she hastily decides on a man to star in her dreams. The less than ideal circumstances of that relationship leave her doubting her ability to build a dream life — including a man to share it — after all.

This is a romance novel, however, and there is always another romance interest waiting in the wings…or in Nina’s case, right next door.

Bookshop was a breezy and lovely novel, and its descriptions of the Scottish Highlands, its people, food, and customs, were delightful touches. We are all thrilled, if not surprised, when Nina gets her happy ever after.

Reminiscent of Nina George’s Little Paris Bookshop (reviewed here: https://wp.me/p6N6mT-4z ) with characters full of grit and moxy that remind me of some of the best Nora Roberts romance novels, this one was worth the read.

 

Connections In Death by JD Robb (2019)

JD Robb is back with yet another installation of the futuristic, sci-fi, cop procedural In Death series. Connections in Death is — amazingly– the 49th book in the series. While the books continue to have interesting (but not incredibly unique) plot lines and the ongoing character dramas are engaging (but not completely enthralling,) the books in the series are becoming a tad stale and formulaic: indeed, they have become interchangeable. All that said, if you are a fast reader who is facing the summer reading months without a good series of books to have on hand for travel (or beach, pool, hammock, porch swing) reading, these are prolific finds are fun to read and commonplace at free book drives and thrift stores. Reading them in order is best, but to each her own.

In Connections in Death, Eve Dallas, her partner Peabody, her hunky husband Roarke, and their usual cast of friends, return with us to NYC circa 2061 to solve a murder that has been staged to look like an overdose. The victim happens to be the brother of one of Roarke’s employees, a young man who had — by all accounts — turned his life around after being jailed for gang activities. Clean and sober, employed, and out of the gang, the man was building his life back up…only to be killed in a manner that made his loved ones doubt if he had been lying to them all along.

Eve and Peabody know immediately that the OD was staged and begin to follow the threads of evidence from the dead body to a gang headquarters and the offices of a shady lawyer. The case does not feel like a gang crime: too planned out, not enough violence; nor does it feel like a random attack. It turns out that it is part of an elaborate plan that will claim the lives of at least three more people before Eve can connect all the dots. At the end of the day, Eve and her team will not only catch the killer, but bring done not one, but two gangs in the process.

Outer Order, Inner Calm by Gretchen Rubin (2019)

Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness

OOIC

It’s not everyday that your favorite non-fiction author (and personal happiness guru) publishes a brand new book, but today was one of those days…Outer Order Inner Calm was delivered to my doorstep and I read it cover to cover in just few hours.

The book, which is small in size and short in length, is a collection of ideas aimed at helping readers tidy up the messes in their lives. In contrast to the wildly popular Marie Kondo (whose book I reviewed 3 years ago, https://wp.me/p6N6mT-1vG ) who gives an ultra-specific set of steps to her readers for how to unclutter, Rubin’s book is more a catch-all of ideas, spanning many theories and levels of engagement. For example, Kondo asks followers to empty their homes of EVERY single item of clothing at once; Rubin offers a “one drawer when you have 5 minutes” approach.

For super-fans of her work (like me) the theories put forth in Outer Order will seem familiar, as they have populated her books and her podcast for years. However, it is handy to have them all in one collection. For readers new to Rubin, there are plenty of inspiring methods to get a better handle on all that stuff filling our closets, drawers, and offices.

Here are some of my favorite take-aways from the book:

  • Clutter can create enormous amounts of conflict in relationships. Recognizing this makes us better able to keep our own messes under wraps and helps us create plans for tidying to prevent stress.
  • Whether you want it to or not, your clutter sends messages to others about who you are and what you value. I once had a co-worker whose office was so overwhelmingly messy, that I hesitated to leave important documents for her to review. I could not help but see her as unreliable and her mess as having the potential to derail projects. Needless to say, we did not work together well.
  • By getting rid of junk, I can make room for my future self: new hobbies, new art, new books, more entertaining and less cleaning.
  • “Don’t Care, Don’t Bother” – If it truly doesn’t matter to you to have your underwear perfectly folded or your cabinets alphabetized, don’t do it! Focus on cleaning and organizing the things you care about and let the other things go. After all, being an adult means making your own choices about how to spend your time. Personally I do not care at all if my kids drawers are tidy and neat…if they close, I’m happy.
  • “Are you furnishing a fantasy?” Just buying something does not mean you will use it…admit to yourself that buying a treadmill does not means you will start running. It can be hard not living up to the idealized notion of who we might be, but it is essential to stop buying and storing things that we are not using. I once has a friend whose house was laden with bookshelf after bookshelf of classic novels that he had never read. When anyone asked about a specific book (which happened constantly,) the man would hem and haw awkwardly before admitting he was planning to read it. Those books seems a constant source of guilt and shame. He should have filled the shelves with the sci-fi he actually read!
  • Ditto for “outdated you” clutter:” just because you rode horses in middle school does not warrant keeping a closet of riding clothes and cowboy boots. It’s okay to grow up and out of phases.
  • You do not have keep inherited clutter. Just because an item has sentimental value to someone else does not mean you must attach the same meaning to that object. You certainly do not have to be harsh or hurtful, but you also do not need to accept other people’s clutter…no one can dictate sentiment.
  • Even if it seems ridiculous, in some situations cleaning and putting items away can soothe anxiety and feelings of lack of control.
  • Refuse to store someone else’s clutter! If someone has no room for the item, you don’t either.
  • One memento or souvenir can be far more poignant and meaningful that dozens from the same trip. Curate only extra-special, small items.
  • Beware thinking “my clutter is different than yours” and therefore not worthy of cleaning up. Clean it up!
  • Store it at the store. This one is a gem. Resist the urge to buy something “just in case” or because “might need it one day.” It will be there, if and when you need it.
  • Proceed Solo. You do not need your family, roommates, or office mates buy in to tidy up. Tackle what you can on your own.
  • Get rid of worthless items. What else do you need to know? Do not keep things that are broken, that you have replaced, that cannot be repaired, that look tired, dirty or torn.
  • Cultivate a child-free zone. This is one that my husband and I have practiced since we became parents: we keep our bedroom and our living room* free from childhood related clutter. No toys, no clothes, no backpacks, no books (and in this house that is a HUGE feat), or any other items that belong to our kids can be left out in these areas. They have the rest of the house (and the garage,) including their own bedrooms, where those items can live. This way we have a bedroom that remains a sanctuary just for the two of us and a living room we can all use for quiet time, listening to records, or entertaining, no Legos or Harry Potter books underfoot.

While it contains nothing ground-breaking, Outer Order was a cheerful and filled with useful tips that you can put into practice today…no waiting needed!

 

 

*Since we often get asked by parents of infants, yes this was true even when are kids were very little! We stored all the baby gear (which we bought almost none) in the hall closet or in the nursery, with the exception of the high-chair.

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler (1988)

Inspired by how much I enjoyed Anne Tyler’s most recent novel, Clock Dance (reviewed here: https://wp.me/p6N6mT-396 ) I pulled out a copy of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel from 1988, Breathing Lessons, to read.

Through her main characters, long-time married couple Maggie and Ira, Tyler muses on middle marriage: time wasted, fights without resolutions, lack of consideration and causal cruelty. Maggie and Ira both know they are hunkered down in their corners, certain they are right and refusing to see things from the others perspective. On a day when they are set to attend the funeral of an old friend, Maggie becomes convinced they can turn their lives around.

Maggie is unhappy at how her life has turned out, and by the sense that she is constantly a source of disappointment for her family, particularly her husband. If only, she thinks, she could tamp down her flights of fancy, be practical rather than fanciful, and stop wanting so much from her life. She is sporadically hopeful that things can change, but often finds that not be to the case.

“[When] Maggie remembered feeling the glassy sheet of Ira’s disapproval, she grew numbly, wearily certain that there was no such thing on this earth as real change. You could change husbands, but not the situation. You could change who, but not what. We’re all just spinning here, she thought, and she pictured the world a little blue tea cup, revolving like those rides at Kiddie Land where everyone is pinned to his place by centrifugal force.” 46

For years now, she has longed to rebuild her relationship with daughter-in-law and granddaughter, thrown away after her childishly stubborn adult son refused to make his relationship with them work. Ira, against the marriage from the start, feels she should just accept that they are gone for good. In fact, he thinks its for the best not to have the drama and chaos of his son’s family to contend with. Suddenly, Maggie finds that she is no longer willing to suppress her longing for them…her husband and son be damned. She will try to have a relationship with them on her own terms if the other two won’t come around. (This is a wonderful foreshadowing of the leap Willa will make in Clock Dance when she is given a — albeit, non-traditional — chance to have a daughter and granddaughter.)

Ira knows that no one gets what they want in life, no matter how much they hope and dream. Life, he laments, is a series of responsibilities and regrets that one should simple face with grim determination. Disappointment cannot be avoided or mitigated, Ira believes, so one should bear it in silence. He sees how his wife wears her heart on her sleeve, so emotional, feeling so much (and worse) and needing so much. If he could just bully her into setting aside her impractical, useless desire for their granddaughter, she could suffer through life alongside him. How much more hurt can she stand?

Ira and Maggie both seem to know, without ever talking about it, that they are at a crossroads. Are they going to commit to improving their marriage or are they determined to remain miserable? Can they let go of the things that did not go the way they wanted and focus on the good days still to come? Most importantly, can they rise above their disappointment in their adult son and take matters into their own hands to forge a relationship with their daughter-in-law and granddaughter?

So they turn left instead of right, they seek out the two young women who have left a hole in their lives, and try to repair the damage. They take a risk, hoping to re-establish some youth, laughter, fun in their lives.

But Ira and Maggie are both too much themselves and things go horribly wrong. Maggie pushes, cajoles, over-promises and tries so very hard that every looks on her with pity and then, when things fall apart, anger. Ira, on the other-hand, refuses to have hope; he stonewalls, undercuts Maggie at every turn, and in the end sabotages their chance to reforge this relationship. Their inability to meet in the middle meant they were back at the beginning. “Maggie had a sudden view of her life as circular. It forever repeated itself and it was entirely lacking in hope.” (315)

Sad but not altogether hopeless, Tyler’s portrait of Maggie and Ira almost seems to belong on the stage. Both characters so farcical, so determinedly themselves, heading down a well-worn path, settling themselves up to make the same mistakes. Wonderful and piercing, Breathing Lessons seems to hold a view of marriage that is fading away: one where two teens marry, have kids, and then hunker down, their marriage is something to endure. No therapy, no self-help books, or trial separations as a way to improve things and no divorce to sever the relationship entirely: rather, they will live on a martial limbo where things are fine but never wonderful, bad but never terrible.