SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE by Jean Kwok

Searching For Sylvie Lee – which has dominated summer best-of lists and is the June Today Show Read With Jenna pick – is the third novel from Jean Kwok (after Girl In Translation (reviewed here) and Mambo In Chinatown (reviewed here). It came out at the beginning of the month and I just finished it on audio.

Like Kwok’s earlier books, Searching For Sylvie Lee is about immigration, identity, family and loss. Sylvie Lee was born to Chinese parents in New York City but was sent to live with her grandmother and cousins in the Netherlands as an infant. She moved back to the States as an awkward 9 year-old, joining her parents and baby sister Amy in New York, but never felt that she fit in. She worked hard, attended Princeton and married a white guy from a rich family and got a job at an investment bank. When the novel opens, she has gone back to the Netherlands to see her dying grandmother and reconnect with her family in Amsterdam. When Sylvie disappears while in Amsterdam, her cousin Lukas calls Amy (now in her 20s) to see if she has heard from her. Amy, frantic, travels to the Netherlands to retrace her sister’s steps and try to find out what happened to her.

Kwok is expert at communicating the loneliness and isolation that comes from feeling that you don’t belong, or that you are far from people who love and understand you. She does it again here in Searching For Sylvie Lee. Sylvie never fit in in Amsterdam as a child, one of only a few Chinese kids in her school, and when she moved back in with her parents in New York, their family unit had formed without her. Meanwhile, there are secrets and resentments among her Amsterdam family that Sylvie never understood, relying only on her grandmother and cousin for emotional intimacy. The theme of disconnection and misunderstanding is threaded strongly through Searching For Sylvie Lee, even as the thriller-y mystery of Sylvie’s fate propels the story along.

I especially enjoyed Kwok’s atmospheric descriptions of Amsterdam and Venice, where Sylvie and Lukas spend a weekend. Those cities play their own role in the book, with the buildings and water in both providing backdrops to pivotal scenes and interactions. The gondolas, the bicycles, even the food come into sharp relief through Kwok’s sensuous writing. The scenery also reinforces the sense of loneliness that often pervades the book.

Searching For Sylvie Lee is a bit of a departure from Kwok’s earlier books, and while I am not naturally drawn to thrillers, there is enough else here to make for a very compelling read.

I listened to Searching For Sylvie Lee on audio. There are three narrators, one each for Amy, Sylvie and their mother. The narrators – Angela Lin, Samantha Quan and Caroline McLaughlin – did a very good job of conveying these three characters’ different viewpoints and personalities. The rapid rotation among the three voices kept the audio moving at a fast pace, but not too fast to blur the emotional impact of Kwok’s writing. On the most recent episode of The Readerly Report podcast, Kwok talked to Nicole and me about the process of choosing narrators for the audio version (she was heavily involved) and why she felt it was so important to have three different voices.

EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER by Linda Holmes

Tonight I finished a book that I really enjoyed, and I’m sad because I wanted it to keep going. The book is Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes.

Evvie Drake is a thirtysomething woman living in Maine. Her husband Tim was killed in a car accident, and almost two two years have passed with her living in seclusion in the large house they shared. When her best friend Andy suggests that she rent out an apartment connected to the house, and also supplies the tenant – his old friend Dean, a World-Series-winning pitcher who can’t hit his target anymore – Evvie reluctantly agrees. She can use the money, and, it turns out, the company.

Dean moves in with Evvie, and thus begins a friendship between two flawed adults that has the potential to turn into something more. Evvie and Dean’s relationship is at the heart of Evvie Drake Starts Over, and I found it totally irresistible. They are adults, and they have adult conversations and do adult things. They’ve got their issues, which they slowly reveal to each other, and they are both just completely relatable. (Well, Dean is an MLB pitcher, so he’s not that relatable, but he’s very appealing nonetheless.)

It helps that Holmes – a pop culture reporter for NPR and the host of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast – is a funny, observant writer who puts her characters into totally believable situations. She is full of empathy for them too, which made this book so compelling. Evvie Drake Starts Over is an easy read, but not necessarily a light one. There’s death, disappointment, estrangement, emotional abuse – a lot of difficult things to deal with. AND THERE IS BASEBALL! I am a HUGE baseball fan and I loved the baseball parts. (But if you don’t like baseball, don’t worry- the baseball parts aren’t that long or very technical). I just wish Dean hadn’t been a Yankee.

There are so many little details in the book that I loved… Dean’s pinball machine, the depiction of a hotel restaurant they went to, a domestic mishap at the end involving a can of nails – these are the types of things that I notice and that make me feel like I am there experiencing what’s happening in the pages. I can’t believe this is Holmes’ first novel.

Evvie Drake Starts Over is a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable summer read. I am so glad I read it. I just wish I still had 20 pages left.

THE MOTHER-IN-LAW by Sally Hepworth

The Mother-In-Law is a domestic thriller with a complex character at its core: Diana, devoted wife and mother and mother-in-law to Lucy. When Diana turns up dead of an apparent suicide and the facts don’t add up (the autopsy reveals that she didn’t have breast cancer, as she had told her kids, and her suicide note is buried deep in a drawer), the question becomes, did someone kill her? Why?

Diana is an interesting woman. She’s deeply in love with her husband, and a loving mother to her children, but she refuses to use her sizable wealth to help them, even when they plead. She’s very judgmental of her daughter-in-law, and does typical mother-in-law stuff intended to undermine Lucy and withhold affection. The book is told through flashbacks after Diana’s death, as Hepworth teases out Diana’s relationships from Lucy and Diana’s perspectives, offering a view of a woman who was highly principled but also imperfect. Diana made mistakes where her family was concerned, and those mistakes created motives that conceivably could have fueled a murder by more than one suspect.

The Mother-in-Law caught my eye because of unique setup and the relationship at its heart. It is a fast read, one that I’d characterize as popcorn. It gets you hooked, but in the end, it’s pretty light. To be honest, I couldn’t even remember how it all resolved when I sat down to write this review. (I think I remember now but I am not near the book and can’t confirm.) I am not always the biggest fan of psychological thrillers, as I find them light on character development and ultimately forgettable. And while there is more emphasis on character in The Mother-In-Law than in many other thrillers, in the end, it’s a psychological thriller and a mystery, which just aren’t my favorite genres.

I’d recommend The Mother-in-Law as a beach or travel read. It’s engrossing and engaging while you’re reading it, but in the end it’s still pretty popcorn-y.

Everything You Need To Know About EDIWTB

Hi EDIWTB Readers! There are a lot of new visitors here, so I thought it would be a good time to give an update on the blog, and let you know about some other places where you can connect with me and other readers.

This blog, Everyday I Write The Book, is where I post reviews of the books I’ve read. I generally read contemporary and literary fiction, with some memoirs and non-fiction thrown in. This year, I gave myself a goal of 60 books, and I’m on pace to meet that goal. I have a busy life with kids and a full-time job, so while this number is a lot lower than most of the book bloggers I know, it’s (kind of) manageable for me. I post reviews here pretty much every week. You can subscribe to updates via email, or follow the EDIWTB Facebook page, where I post links to each of my reviews.

This year, I also started the EDIWTB 2019 Reading Challenge, which consists of 12 books in 12 categories over the course of the year. We have a Facebook group for the challenge, so if you’re interested in joining or following along, just request to be added to the group. I have gotten the easy categories out of the way – debut novel, memoir – and have the hard ones left, like book written the year I was born and self-help. The rest of the year will be interesting.

In addition to this blog, I also co-host a weekly podcast about books called The Readerly Report with my friend Nicole Bonia, who is a great reader. Our tastes mostly overlap, but she is more adventurous than I am. We talk about reading trends, books we’ve finished, upcoming releases, new paperbacks and more. We also have fantastic guests on the show like Anne Bogel and Ron Charles as well as fellow blogger/podcasters like Sarah Dickinson and Catherine Gilmore. The podcast is a great complement to EDIWTB. The Readerly Report has a Facebook page and a Facebook group – please follow and join.

You can also find me on Instagram, where I post photos of the books I read next to my dog Lucky, who has the exact same expression in every photo.

I LOVE hearing from EDIWTB readers. What have you read that you found out about on this blog? What have you read that I should read? Did I get something totally wrong? Tell me! You can email me at gayle@everydayiwritethebookblog.com or comment on the blog.

Thank you for reading and for your support and enthusiasm for the blog. I look forward to connecting!

Oh, and where the blog’s bizarre name came from? The 80s, of course! It’s a song by Elvis Costello.

FOREVER IS THE WORST LONG TIME by Camille Pagán

Forever Is The Worst Long Time by Camille Pagán is a bittersweet story about the unexpected paths that life can take – and the adjustments we make to accommodate them. The book centers on a love triangle: in his mid 20s, James Hernandez travels from Michigan to NY to meet his best friend Rob’s new girlfriend, Lou. Unfortunately for him, he falls in love with her, kicking off a frustrating decade of longing and stasis in the rest of his life. An aspiring author, he can’t commit to a book, and, in his romantic life, he shies from longterm commitment as well. When Rob and Lou hit a rough patch in their marriage, James find himself with an opportunity to act, finally, on his feelings – a reckless decision that has serious ramifications for all three.

I was expecting a light read when I picked up Forever Is The Worst Long Time, and it started out that way. But as the book progressed and the characters got older, the book got more serious. I don’t want to give away too much in this review, but I found this book to be moving and quite memorable. There are a lot of relationships to explore here – friendships, parents and children, and couples – and Pagán skillfully conveys how they evolve and mature over time.

I can only find one thing to complain about: I didn’t find Lou as compelling as I needed her to be to be the convincing center of this long triangle. She was sort of opaque, with her inner feelings a mystery through a lot of the book. I wanted to understand her better – or at least understand why she deserved to be the object of Jim’s love for so long.

I listened to Forever Is The Worst Long Time on audio until I chose to finish it off in print. The narrator, Timothy Andres Pabon, was an excellent choice for James, who narrates the book. His depiction of James as steady, understated and quiet was spot on. (Unfortunately, like many male narrators, his female voices were not good.)

Forever Is The Worst Long Time was a pleasant surprise for me. I’ll be looking into other books by Pagán.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens

Does this book need any introduction? Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is the debut novel that came out last August, was selected by Reese Witherspoon as a book club pick, and has simply exploded ever since, with over 1.5 million books sold through March. I mean, it’s everywhere, right? My book club read this New York Times article about it and was intrigued, so we picked it for our June book.

Where The Crawdads Sing is about Kya, a girl living on the North Carolina coastline whose family abandons her, one by one, leaving her to raise and fend for herself in a barebones shack without running water or electricity. She grows up on her own, known to people in neighboring towns only as the Marsh Girl. She never attends school and supports herself by selling seafood early in the mornings. Kya does develop an intense love for her surrounding, teaching herself about the creatures living in the marsh and the patterns of the water.

As a teenager, Kya befriends Tate, a boy who fishes near her shack. Tate pulls Kya out of her shell, teaching her to read and becoming the first person Kya trusts, emotionally. When Tate goes off to college, their relationship is put to the test. Kya becomes involved with another man from the nearby town, and when he shows up dead a few years later, she becomes the prime suspect.

Crawdads is a compulsively readable mix of a murder mystery, a love story and an ode to nature. While I was reading it, I kept thinking, “This is all very unrealistic and too convenient,” and yet I had a hard time putting it down, especially toward the end. Is all the hoopla over this book deserved? Maybe not. But it was a good read and I am happy for Owens for the success she has enjoyed with this debut novel. It has a fresh premise and feels different from a lot of the books I’ve read lately. If you’re on the fence about Crawdads because you fear the hype, give it a try. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.

THE FARM by Joanne Ramos

I am back from Book Expo! I had a great few days in NY last week picking up books, meeting authors and hearing about what’s coming out later this year. When the book boxes arrive, I’ll take some pics and let you know what I am excited about. Lots of good titles heading our way later in 2019! I am most excited about the upcoming J. Ryan Stradal release, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, and some new buzzy fiction that I got my hands on, like Ask Again, Yes and Miracle Creek.

Back to reviews.

The Farm by Joanne Ramos takes on a fresh, original topic: the business of surrogacy and its class implications in America. Golden Oaks is a compound outside of New York City that caters to the superrich who want to have children without having to carry them. Golden Oaks carefully screens surrogates, implants them with fertilized eggs, and then once they are pregnant, provides them with healthy food, medical supervision, supervised exercise and seclusion so that the babies they are carrying have the best chance at a healthy full-term pregnancy. Golden Oaks clients are extremely wealthy, while the women carrying their babies are mostly poor minorities who serve as surrogates for the big payout.

Jane is a Filipina nursing home aide with a baby of her own who is referred to Golden Oaks by her much older cousin, Evelyn. Serving as a Host at Golden Oaks is very lucrative for Jane, but it comes with a cost: she cannot see her own daughter while she’s there, except on the rare occasions when her Client approves. Jane befriends a white Host named Reagan, who, after a rocky start, becomes a trusted friend. Together, Reagan and Jane start to question some of the policies at Golden Oaks, where the surrogates have none of the power and lose control over their own bodies and actions.

What’s good about The Farm: I loved the beginning, where Ramos explored the business of Filipina nannying and baby nursing. Her explanation of the dynamics between white Manhattan mothers and the women who care for their kids was fascinating. (One image that stood out at me: the plastic takeout containers that are fished out of NYC apartment trash cans, cleaned, and removed by nannies, only to be sent to the Philippines in large shipping crates and used by their families back at home, thousands of miles away.) And the setup at Golden Oaks was interesting too, not quite verging on dystopian, but certainly thought-provoking. The Asian-American brainchild behind Golden Oaks, an MBA wunderkind named Mae, is ruthless and calculating, viewing her Hosts as uteruses with the occasional irritating personal issues to be dealt with.

What’s not as good: The Farm changed about halfway through to a thriller, as Jane, unable to reach her cousin to check on her daughter, decides she needs to escape from Golden Oaks. I didn’t enjoy the second half nearly as much as the first. I much preferred the first half, which had a lot to say about economic inequality and the difficult choices women face when they have to provide for their own kids while taking care of those of another.

So this was a mixed bag for me. Nicole and I are discussing The Farm on The Readerly Report for our June book club discussion, so stay tuned for what promises to be a spirited conversation.