I got to be a beta reader on this rich, textured novel of three very different sisters in search of a brother they never knew they had. Here's my review:
Five stars to Holly Robinson's latest novel, Beach Plum Island! Atmospheric, multilayered and filled with a subtle tension that never lets up, Beach Plum Island will keep you turning pages as you follow the story of a fractured family trying to heal itself in spite of grief, secrets, and a mystery bequeathed to the most vulnerable sister of the three by their dying father. Written from three points of view, the voice and perspective of each sister rings true and distinct: Ava's free-spirited practicality and romantic heart; Elaine's brittle sophistication, secret woundedness and staccato humor; and teenaged Gigi's raw emotions and awkward but vibrant personality. This novel leaves me satisfied and yet thoughtful, a haunting remainder of the journey I've taken with these three sisters.
Part of what I realized as I read this book was that, though its billed as “women's fiction” I felt that “family mystery” even more accurately described what was actually going on in the book, and through my many talks with Holly, I enjoyed seeing her embrace this as her unique slant on the genre. Here's what Holly had to say on the subject:
What is a Mystery Novel? You Be the Judge!
I have gobbled down mystery novels like chocolate-drenched pretzels since I was a child, when my grandfather would bring home stacks of paperbacks from the library to read while he smoked his pipe after dinner. He had a pile of “already read” mysteries on one side of his chair, and on the other were the “don't you dare touch them until I read them first” books. I stole from both piles.
Because of my grandfather, I grew up with a hefty appetite for plots featuring stabbings, shootings, kidnappings, burglaries, rapes, criminal syndicates, and terrorist attacks. I learned to especially love noir books—Raymond Chandler novels were my favorite—and anything with a savvy female sleuth, from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple, or the more contemporary Lisbeth Salander and Barbara Havers.
After getting a biology degree, I discovered that writing fiction was more fun than dissecting frogs, and earned an MFA in creative writing. That degree required me to not only read the literary greats—James Joyce, Henry James, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf, among others—but to analyze them. As I did, I discovered something about myself: I actually prefer fiction that not only has a tensely-paced plot, but characters with emotional depth. I also love lush settings and sentences with enough imagery to make them sing.
Where did that leave me? As a reader, I stopped having the patience to read mystery novels without at least a modicum of character development. Robert Parker's crime series featuring Spenser, for instance, bores me silly. I admire his wit but hate how Spenser never lets up on his bad boy quips and his girlfriend Susan rarely eats more than a lettuce leaf. I don't really care about what happens to any of the characters, because I'm not emotionally invested in them. And if I can't bring myself to care, what's the point of reading the books?
On the other hand, literary tomes that are all about the language, with introspective characters but little to no action or plot tension, try my patience. That's why I was so delighted when I discovered Toby Neal's LEI CRIME SERIES, where we have a dandy female sleuth with a dark past, lots of emotional tension, romance galore, and a setting that makes me want to get on a plane to Hawaii right now.
I tried writing a detective novel once, I confess, and I was bad at it. Really bad. I also tried writing literary novels, exercising my chops on characters who were so emotionally complex that even I, their creator, couldn't understand them.
Then I hit my stride: I began writing what I call “family mysteries.” By this, I mean books with the same tense narrative pace as a page-turning mystery, but the plot line isn't about an unsolved murder or a crime mob. The question to be answered must be about something that happened in the main character's family before the book opens and has been kept secret. The main characters must confront new challenges as they unravel the clues leading them to answers they never could have imagined before this crisis in their lives. Along the way, they learn and grow and form new emotional relationships, romantic and otherwise.
For instance, in BEACH PLUM ISLAND, my newest novel (Penguin, April 2014), the book opens with a daughter whose dying father has just told her that she must find her brother and tell him the truth. There's just one problem: She never knew she had a brother, so where is he? And what's the truth?
This deathbed confession necessarily sparks a series of complicated events and emotional interactions between family members—some of whom have been estranged from each other–as they unravel clues to discover their father's secret and why it was guarded so closely.
Is my novel a mystery? Is it literary fiction? Or is it women's fiction, which is how the publisher has branded it for the marketplace? What makes one novel “just” fiction and another a mystery?
The more I read and write, the more I think genres were made to be busted wide open. As readers and writers, we owe it to ourselves to explore the infinite possibilities in how good stories are told. -Holly Robinson
THANKS for visiting the blog, Holly. Readers, check out Holly's book for a different kind of mystery that you'll never forget.
Holly Robinson is a journalist, a celebrity ghost writer, and the author of THE GERBIL FARMER'S DAUGHTER: A MEMOIR (Crown 2010), the self-published novel SLEEPING TIGERS (2011), and two novels published by NAL Penguin, THE WISHING HILL (2013) and BEACH PLUM ISLAND (April 2014). She holds a B.A. in biology from Clark University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Holly lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and their five children, where they are fixing up a 1700's Colonial one shingle at a time. To learn more about Holly or to read excerpts of her work, please visit www.authorhollyrobinson.com.
Ah, Toby, where would I be without your steady cheering and mentoring? You are the muse of all muses! Thank you so much for inviting me to visit your gorgeous web site.
Thank you–I enjoyed the post. Please be aware that the link to Holly’s website isn’t correct. (It tried to take me to http://tobyneal.net/2014/03/28/beach-plum-island-five-star-family-mystery-holly-robinson/www.authorhollyrobinson.com)
Oh, thank you Susan, I think I fixed it! Aloha!
Thanks so much, Susan & Toby!
This sounds like EXACTLY my kind of genre! I’ll have to look her work up, for sure. Toby, I love how you promote other authors here as well. I’m very much of the “we all need to help each other or none of us are going to make it” mindset, and it’s awesome when I see my role models following that. 🙂
Thank you so much, Shalora! And I echo your sentiments about reaching out to help one another. Toby is the queen of mentoring. I feel so lucky to have her guide my journey.