April 29, 2019

Book Review: The Favorite Daughter by Kaira Rouda

Source: Vine

Publication Date: May 21, 2019

The perfect home. The perfect family. The perfect lie.

Jane Harris lives in a sparkling home in an oceanfront gated community in Orange County. It’s a place that seems too beautiful to be touched by sadness. But exactly one year ago, Jane’s oldest daughter, Mary, died in a tragic accident and Jane has been grief-stricken ever since. Lost in a haze of anti-depressants, she’s barely even left the house. Now that’s all about to change.

It’s time for Jane to reclaim her life and her family. Jane’s husband, David, has planned a memorial service for Mary and three days later, their youngest daughter, Betsy, graduates high school. Yet as Jane reemerges into the world, it’s clear her family has changed without her. Her husband has been working long days—and nights—at the office. Her daughter seems distant, even secretive. And her beloved Mary was always such a good girl—dutiful and loving. But does someone know more about Mary, and about her last day, than they’ve revealed?

The bonds between mothers and daughters, and husbands and wives should never be broken. But you never know how far someone will go to keep a family together…

Not everything is at seems in The Favorite Daughter.  In fact soon after starting, I quickly realized that very little of what the narrator, Jane Harris, perceives or declares can be taken as accurate. Unreliable narrator?  Oh, heck yes.  At first you might feel some sort of pity for her, perhaps excusing her strange behavior because of her daughter’s death, but it is very clear that something is very, very wrong with her entire life and that she herself is just unlikeable.  

You might feel, as I did, a thorough distaste for being in Jane’s head.  She is a narcissist through and through.  Everything revolves around her.  Every man is in love with her.  She is the most attractive woman wherever she goes.  And she is the smartest person in the room - always.  This is literally what goes through her head.  Are you nuts? I would ask in my own head as I read along.  

As much as I disliked Jane, I still felt compelled to continue reading.  Partly because I know people like her, as I suspect most do.  Although Jane is a rather extreme narcissist, I regularly work with someone who has a lot of her traits and it always boggles me how this person can act the way they do.  How do they think???  Well, if you’re curious to see what goes through a narcissist’s head, this is your chance.

Another reason why I kept reading was, as the full extent of Jane’s deviant personality becomes revealed, I just simply wanted to know – is she going to get away with it?  

April 22, 2019

Book Review: Watching You by Lisa Jewell

 Melville Heights is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Bristol, England; home to doctors and lawyers and old-money academics. It’s not the sort of place where people are brutally murdered in their own kitchens. But it is the sort of place where everyone has a secret. And everyone is watching you.

As the headmaster credited with turning around the local school, Tom Fitzwilliam is beloved by one and all—including Joey Mullen, his new neighbor, who quickly develops an intense infatuation with this thoroughly charming yet unavailable man. Joey thinks her crush is a secret, but Tom’s teenaged son Freddie—a prodigy with aspirations of becoming a spy for MI5—excels in observing people and has witnessed Joey behaving strangely around his father.

One of Tom’s students, Jenna Tripp, also lives on the same street, and she’s not convinced her teacher is as squeaky clean as he seems. For one thing, he has taken a particular liking to her best friend and fellow classmate, and Jenna’s mother—whose mental health has admittedly been deteriorating in recent years—is convinced that Mr. Fitzwilliam is stalking her.

Meanwhile, twenty years earlier, a schoolgirl writes in her diary, charting her doomed obsession with a handsome young English teacher named Mr. Fitzwilliam…

From the pre-prologue diary entry, the scene is set. You’re absolutely sure you know what is going to happen and what happened in the past. You’re pretty sure you know what the dark secret of one of the characters is.  What you won’t know is who is the victim and who the murderer. Chapters are divided from different points of view, so well into the novel, you will have several different theories as to who, what, and why. Is the handsome Mr. Fitzwilliam really as perfect as he seems?  What is he hiding?  Is Jenna’s mom going crazy or does she know something about what happened years ago? By novel’s end, the whole tragic story emerges.  There are some hints as the novel develops but I won’t lie – I was shocked and saddened by the denouement. 

April 16, 2019

Koh Phi Phi Day Trip

When I was planning my trip to Thailand, I didn’t want to stay at Ko Phi Phi because I wanted to seek out lesser known and quieter spots.  But once I saw this breathtaking, panoramic view, I kept open the possibility of a short visit to this infamous party island.  

I took a speedboat from Koh Lanta, booked the day before with Satun Pakbara.  It took about an hour and docked at busy Tonsai Bay.  As you exit the pier, you will enter Tonsai Village – full of shops, eateries, and hotels.  Go to your right and keep going until you see a sign for the viewpoint. Keep following the signs, which will twist and turn throughout the village and eventually take you to a flight of stairs.  

The climb up to the viewpoint will take about 15-20 minutes.  It can be exerting, even if you’re moderately fit.  The heat will make it even more challenging.  But believe me when I say that the view is completely worth it.  

At some point, you will have to pay a fee to keep going.  The viewpoint, it turns out, is on private land.  However, it is a small fee, about the equivalent of a little over one U.S. dollar.  The pay point is also where you can buy drinks and go to the restroom, for about 10 baht.  

Immediately after paying is where Viewpoint #1 is located.  Although it is quite a lovely overlook, do not stop here, keep going!  

After a more leisurely climb to the top, you will reach Viewpoint #3.  Do not ask me where Viewpoint #2 is because I don’t remember passing it.  

Viewpoint #3 is photo-ready, with a wooden platform and several large, flat rocks where you can pose and take pictures to your heart’s content.  

There is also a cafĂ©, should you want to linger and do more than catch your breath before heading back down.  

I suggest coming to the viewpoint as early as you can or as soon as you dock – The earlier in the day, the cooler and the less crowded.  Also, make sure to bring some water – you’re going to need it during and after that hot climb.  I saw some people bringing bags of food as well for a picturesque picnic at the top. 

After the viewpoint, I decided to find a nice beach and do nothing for the rest of my time at Ko Phi Phi. If you walk straight from Tonsai Bay to the other end of the island, you will come upon Loh Dalum Beach, which is much quieter and less crowded.  There are some longtail boats docked on either side but a huge swathe of the waters by the beach are cordoned off for swimmers.  I spent a happy couple of hours here just lying under the sun, swimming, and generally relaxing.

To go back to Koh Lanta, I pre-booked a ferry from Tigerline.  I went back to the pier at Tonsai Bay and checked in with personnel by a table near the boats and ferries.  I was given a sticker and then shown which boat to board.  A word about ferries – they usually leave later than the stated time. I ended up waiting almost an hour before it left.  I guess I was on “Thai time.”  

Although, I knew Koh Phi Phi had more beautiful spots to offer, but I loved spending the day here as a quick little getaway within a getaway.

April 15, 2019

Book Review: Sunburn by Laura Lippman

One is playing a long game. But which one?

They meet at a local tavern in the small town of Belleville, Delaware. Polly is set on heading west. Adam says he’s also passing through. Yet she stays and he stays—drawn to this mysterious redhead whose quiet stillness both unnerves and excites him. Over the course of a punishing summer, Polly and Adam abandon themselves to a steamy, inexorable affair. Still, each holds something back from the other—dangerous, even lethal, secrets.

Then someone dies. Was it an accident, or part of a plan? By now, Adam and Polly are so ensnared in each other’s lives and lies that neither one knows how to get away—or even if they want to. Is their love strong enough to withstand the truth, or will it ultimately destroy them?

Something—or someone—has to give.

Which one will it be?

Sunburn is a scorcher of a mystery with a very intriguing protagonist at its core.  

I’ll tell you this – you’re going to think you know what Polly is all about and what she wants. First you will think she’s a cold-hearted femme fatale who’s done the unthinkable.  But with every chapter, every revelation, Polly becomes someone else – a victim, a weakling, a terrible mother, a ruthless criminal, even a murderer? One thing is for sure – she has an end-game in mind and the reader is never completely sure what her driving force is until almost to the end.  

Sunburn is my first Laura Lippman novel and I am officially a fan.  Lippman is masterful at hooking the reader and keeping you invested and guessing.  But what she’s best at is describing characters and their inner lives to such eerie specificity - she truly knows the human psyche. 

April 9, 2019

Koh Lipe

As much fun as I was having exploring Bangkok, after a few days, I was longing to go south and see Thailand’s famous islands.  My first island stop was Koh Lipe and I immediately fell in love.  It was and still remains vividly as the quintessential island of my Thailand fantasies – white sandy beaches, clear blue waters, and a slow, unhurried, and uncrowded vibe.  

I started my adventure by flying from Bangkok to Hat Yai airport on Thai Smile.  The flight cost the equivalent of $47 US dollars and took a little over an hour. Flying is the only way you can reach Koh Lipe in the same day.  But even with a plane flight, my whole journey took the better part of the day. If flying, it is advised that your flight lands by 10 a.m.  You still need to drive to the Pakbara Pier, which is about 2 hours from the airport.  

From Pakbara, you need to take either a speedboat or ferry to Koh Lipe, which takes at least 1 ½ hours.  I had arranged in advance with Satun Pakbara for the ride to the pier, as well as the speedboat to Koh Lipe.  After using other companies for other trips, I found Satun Pakbara to be the most organized and so I highly recommend them. 

If you didn’t make advance arrangements, you can buy a ride plus boat trip combo ticket at the airport.  There are kiosks by the airport exit.  Or you can get a taxi and then take your chances once you get to the pier. I strongly urge you to make advance arrangements.  There are only so many ferry crossings per day.  My speedboat to Koh Lipe was full.  Also Satun Pakbara will arrange your transportation from the Koh Lipe dock to your hotel.  They made the entire journey super easy.  

Once at Pakbara Pier, you might have to wait until your speedboat is ready.  There are plenty of places to grab lunch outside of the waiting area.  Within the waiting area, there is a snack shop, plenty of seats and restrooms as well.

Once your speedboat is ready for boarding, the boat personnel will first load the front with your luggage.  After all the luggage, then passengers can start boarding.  There are readily accessible lifejackets over the seats. 

The ride itself was very smooth but my favorite part was a surprise stopover at Koh Kai for 15 minutes.  Koh Kai is a very small, but charming island that I wish I could have spent more time exploring.  As it was, I got a quick, delightful taste of what was to come.  

Koh Lipe does not have a dock, per say.  One of two things will happen upon arriving or departing the island. The way I arrived was to transfer from the speedboat to a longtail boat for a 5-minute ride to the beach.  The luggage arrives soon after from another longtail boat.  Passengers were able to disembark from longtail boat onto a blue pier boardwalk. However, upon departing Koh Lipe, with a different company, passengers had to board the longtail boats from the beach, carrying their luggage and getting into the water.  It was a more physically exerting and wet experience.  

Koh Lipe is extremely walkable.  You can walk from end to end in 15 minutes.  The only times I used tuktuks were with my luggage.  

There are three beaches in Koh Lipe.  Pattaya Beach, where you arrive and depart, is very busy and noisy, with boats.  Sunrise Beach, as the name implies, is the best place to catch the sun rise, and in my opinion, is the best beach of the three.  Sunset Beach is, of course, where to watch the sunset.  

One night, I decided to check out Sunset Beach, which is a 15-minute walk from Sunrise Beach.  I found the experience to be … just okay.  The beach was littered with trash, unfortunately, and I just didn’t get the same magical experience as with Sunrise Beach.  

Actually, sunrises and sunsets are pretty spectacular from Sunrise Beach.  Let you in on a little secret – you can get the beach almost to yourself during sunrise because although everyone can catch the sun set, not everyone wants to get up before dawn.  

But if you decide to catch the sun set at Sunset Beach, there are restaurants lining the road leading up to the beach if you want to stay for dinner.

Every island has a street called walking street and is typically where you will find the highest concentration of stores, restaurants and bars. This is where you go to eat, drink, shop and … to walk, especially at nighttime.  

One thing I noticed was that everything was more expensive at Koh Lipe than Bangkok or neighboring islands.  Hotel rooms, food, drinks, everything just simply cost more. That doesn’t mean however, that there aren’t bargains to be had.  You can still eat and drink within your budget.  Just make sure to shop around before buying or consuming anything.

As I stated earlier, leaving Koh Lipe was a different process and experience than when I arrived.  I think it had to do with the fact that I used a different company.  This time, I used Tigerline, which apparently doesn’t have use of the blue boardwalks onto the beach.  Passengers had to drag or carry their luggage on the beach, then carry onto the waiting longtail boats.  If anything can convince you to pack light, this will.  

One tip I almost forgot is to be at the beach 30 minutes before departure and check in.  The staff will confirm where you are going and your hotel at your destination.  This is for arrangements once you arrive.  My next destination was Koh Lanta and upon arrival there, I had someone waiting to take me to my hotel.  This is included in your ticket.  

Once you board the longtail boat with your luggage, it will take you to a giant floating platform where you will disembark with your luggage. And then board again the speedboat or ferry to your next destination.  

April 8, 2019

Book Review: The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond

Newlyweds Alice and Jake are a picture-perfect couple. Alice, once a singer in a well-known rock band, is now a successful lawyer. Jake is a partner in an up-and-coming psychology practice. Their life together holds endless possibilities. After receiving an enticing wedding gift from one of Alice’s prominent clients, they decide to join an exclusive and mysterious group known only as The Pact.

The goal of The Pact seems simple: to keep marriages happy and intact. And most of its rules make sense. Always answer the phone when your spouse calls. Exchange thoughtful gifts monthly. Plan a trip together once per quarter. . . . 

Never mention The Pact to anyone.

Alice and Jake are initially seduced by the glamorous parties, the sense of community, their widening social circle of like-minded couples. And then one of them breaks the rules.
The young lovers are about to discover that for adherents to The Pact, membership, like marriage, is for life. And The Pact will go to any lengths to enforce that rule. For Jake and Alice, the marriage of their dreams is about to become their worst nightmare.

My main delight regarding The Marriage Pact has nothing to do with the writing or the plot – but simply with the setting of the San Francisco Bay Area. I could tell Michelle Richmond actually knew what she was talking because she wove local, nontouristy details that were like little Easter eggs – oh, I know that! I would exclaim as I came upon them. It’s heartwarming to see a place you know well and love represented authentically in fiction.  

But aside from the setting, what about the writing and the plot, you ask?  In one word, superb.  At first I was skeptical – how intelligent could Alice and Jake be if they allowed themselves to be sucked into this Pact and couldn’t they just drop out anytime they wanted? But the seduction of the couple is very convincing. Everything seems reasonable and common sensical – at first, and then things start getting intense, too intense.  It doesn’t take long before the demands of the Pact become overbearing, then downright scary.  

Plots like these work only when the protagonists act like you would act.  If they do everything you can think of the escape their predicament but are thwarted at every turn by seemingly omnipotent and omniscient forces.  I felt dread turning into panic for Alice and Jake as things go from worse to I think they're trapped for good.  Could their marriage, or they themselves, possibly survive The Pact?  

April 2, 2019

Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Train Station

Chances are, if you are taking a day trip from Bangkok by train, such as to Ayutthaya, you will be using the Hua Lamphong Train Station.  

First, take the MRT to the Hua Lamphong stop.  Here is a quick explanation of the Bangkok metro system. The Hua Lamphong MRT station exits onto the train station of the same name. 

Only a few steps from the MRT and you can be in line to purchase a train ticket.  Don’t fear – the signs are in English, as well as Thai, and the staff at the window speak enough English for you to conduct a transaction.  

A quick word about the trains – only first class has air conditioning. Second and Third Class have fans only. Third Class seats, although extremely cheap, do not have reserve seats so you might have to stand for your journey if the train is full.  

3rd class only trains also don’t have dining cars, but they do have vendors that periodically stroll the aisles selling cold drinks, fruit, and even meals – typical street food fare.  

There are also restrooms at the end of each car.  

The Hua Lamphong train station is equipped with restrooms, even showers, luggage storage, a book store and other souvenir shops.  

After my return trip to Ayutthaya, I decided to explore the train station a little bit more and found a group of eateries next to the waiting area. You first buy a coupon at the front area and then pick your food cafeteria style.  This was a quick, inexpensive and delicious meal before heading back to my hotel.  

Bangkok's Chatuchak Market

My impressions of Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market? Depending on your personality – you’re going to either feel like you’re entering shopping nirvana or your worst nightmare.  Be prepared for aisles and aisles of sheer STUFF. I think I read somewhere that if you can’t find it here – then it doesn’t exist.  I like to shop myself and I went to Chatuchak with some souvenir items in mind, but I have to admit that the volume and sameness of the merchandise overwhelmed me. I left as soon as I found what I wanted. 

But practicalities first. Either take the MRT to the Chatachuk Station or the BTS Skytrain to  Mo Chit.  As you exit the Skytrain station, you will be by a park next to the market. Cross the street and enter.  

My tips are as follows:

Figure out what you want to buy first before going in.  Items are roughly grouped together.  Clothes are in some sections, furniture in another, and plants in yet another. There are signs to tell you which section you are in.  Scout out the general marked prices for what you want before bargaining.  

If you’re with a group, a good place to meet up is the clock tower in the middle of the market.  

There are some places to eat inside the market but the majority of food stalls are concentrated on the perimeter, close to Skytrain exit.  Be aware that on Mondays, there are far fewer stalls due to street cleaning.

If you get sick of the press of crowds at Chatuchak, there is a lovely green park next to it, perfect for picknicking or relaxing.

If you’re looking for souvenirs – you will be spoiled for choice in Chatuchak.  However, I cannot classify it as a must-see while in Bangkok. 

April 1, 2019

Book Review: Bloodleaf by Crystal Smith

Source: Vine

Publication Date: March 12, 2019

Princess Aurelia is a prisoner to her crown and the heir that nobody wants. Surrounded by spirits and banned from using her blood-magic, Aurelia flees her country after a devastating assassination attempt. To escape her fate, Aurelia disguises herself as a commoner in a new land and discovers a happiness her crown has never allowed. As she forges new bonds and perfects her magic, she begins to fall for a man who is forbidden to rule beside her. But the ghosts that haunt Aurelia refuse to abandon her, and she finds herself succumbing to their call as they expose a nefarious plot that only she can defeat. Will she be forced to choose between the weight of the crown and the freedom of her new life?

It didn’t take long after starting Bloodleaf before it became a bona fide leave-me-alone, I-wish-I-didn’t-have-to-work pageturner for me.  Crystal Smith has created a fully-formed world swirling with the mythology of rich, dark magic.  Blood magic, to be precise.  And blood is spilled – there are deaths within the first few pages, more deaths as Aurelia journeys from innocent princess to a strong, powerful young woman. 

Bloodleaf’s strength lies in its protagonist. Although she does some rash things, Aurelia’s heart and bravery make for a heroine worth rooting for.  I am also taken with Smith’s choice of “love interest” for Aurelia and how their relationship develops.  

I can’t claim to understand every twist and turn the plot makes, but Bloodleaf is a thrilling ride of the imagination. One big twist I did see coming but there are so many other surprises that it didn’t take away from my enjoyment.  Although Bloodleaf is touted as part of a trilogy, it ends very decisively.  No cliffhangers at all, just a sense of wanting for Aurelia’s adventures to continue.  

Most in our land knew of bloodleaf-the vile poison that only grows on old battlefields or other soil upon which blood has been spilt-but no one ever spoke of the bloom… A magical flower.  A miracle cure.  Said to be able to heal nearly any wound, stave off any fever-but bloodleaf only bloomed when blood was shed a second time and spread across those thirsty, loathsome leaves. Which meant that for every one life saved by bloodleaf flower, two have already been lost.