Vera’s breakout novel is a sweeping, emotional tale that puts her characters, and her readers, through an emotional wringer.

THE TASTE OF SUGAR

A sprawling family epic that stretches from the mountains of Puerto Rico to Hawaii and across decades of love, famine, and war.

Valentina Sánchez comes from a middle-class, urban family in late-19th-century Puerto Rico. Her family has modest dreams, but Valentina luxuriates in her fantasies of marrying a handsome man and seeing Paris. When the dashing Vicente Vega, son of a very wealthy (or so Valentina assumes) coffee farmer, sweeps her off her feet at a cousin’s wedding, Valentina is determined to go against her family’s wishes and marry for love. However, Valentina’s marriage to Vicente never takes flight. Between fending off the advances of her lecherous father-in-law and dealing with the starkly unromantic realities of being married to a coffee farmer who’s actually quite poor, happiness eludes Valentina. As the novel creeps into the 20th century, Valentina’s suffering increases alongside Puerto Rico’s. Caught in the crossfire of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rican farmers experience Spanish tax hikes, drought, American devaluation of the peso, and finally American occupation. Hurricane San Ciriaco kills thousands and washes away not just farms, but Puerto Rico’s dreams of self-rule. Eventually, Vicente and Valentina are lured by false promises to Hawaii, another U.S. territory described as paradise but rife with violence and exploitation. Vera tells a grand story using innovative techniques. The chapters tend to be short and are frequently interspersed with letters, detours into the past, and theatrical monologues. The Vega and Sánchez families are made up of vivid, fully realized characters, and Vera has a knack for writing dialogue that is full of personality. Her descriptions of Puerto Rico’s natural beauty are impressive: “[Vicente and Valentina] meant only to look up at the stars from the veranda, but the scent of orchids lured them into the garden and soon they were enveloped by coconut palms. Las damas de noches opened their white petals for the moon, and the moon mistook the silver embroidery on Valentina’s dress for stars.” Where the novel runs ashore is in grappling with historical events. Vega chronicles the exploitation of Puerto Rico by the Spanish and then the Americans, and the reader will emerge with a deep sense of Puerto Rican history and suffering that has been lost to most Americans, but at times the author's devotion to historical details and anecdotes pushes the beautifully wrought characters aside.

Vera’s breakout novel is a sweeping, emotional tale that puts her characters, and her readers, through an emotional wringer.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63149-773-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2020

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Light on suspense but still a solid page-turner.

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THE LAST THING HE TOLD ME

When a devoted husband and father disappears, his wife and daughter set out to find him.

Hannah Hall is deeply in love with her husband of one year, Owen Michaels. She’s also determined to win over his 16-year-old daughter, Bailey, who has made it very clear that she’s not thrilled with her new stepmother. Despite the drama, the family is mostly a happy one. They live in a lovely houseboat in Sausalito; Hannah is a woodturner whose handmade furniture brings in high-dollar clientele; and Owen works for The Shop, a successful tech firm. Their lives are shattered, however, when Hannah receives a note saying “Protect her” and can’t reach Owen by phone. Then there’s the bag full of cash Bailey finds in her school locker and the shocking news that The Shop’s CEO has been taken into custody. Hannah learns that the FBI has been investigating the firm for about a year regarding some hot new software they took to market before it was fully functional, falsifying their financial statements. Hannah refuses to believe her husband is involved in the fraud, and a U.S. marshal assigned to the case claims Owen isn’t a suspect. Hannah doesn’t know whom to trust, though, and she and Bailey resolve to root out the clues that might lead to Owen. They must also learn to trust one another. Hannah’s narrative alternates past and present, detailing her early days with Owen alongside her current hunt for him, and author Dave throws in a touch of danger and a few surprises. But what really drives the story is the evolving nature of Hannah and Bailey’s relationship, which is by turns poignant and frustrating but always realistic.

Light on suspense but still a solid page-turner.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5011-7134-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

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THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days. Was it a hoax? Or did her husband resort to foul play?

When Agatha meets Archie on a dance floor in 1912, the obscure yet handsome pilot quickly sweeps her off her feet with his daring. Archie seems smitten with her. Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha consents to marry Archie rather than her intended, the reliable yet boring Reggie Lucy. Although the war keeps them apart, straining their early marriage, Agatha finds meaningful work as a nurse and dispensary assistant, jobs that teach her a lot about poisons, knowledge that helps shape her early short stories and novels. While Agatha’s career flourishes after the war, Archie suffers setback after setback. Determined to keep her man happy, Agatha finds herself cooking elaborate meals, squelching her natural affections for their daughter (after all, Archie must always feel like the most important person in her life), and downplaying her own troubles, including her grief over her mother's death. Nonetheless, Archie grows increasingly morose. In fact, he is away from home the day Agatha disappears. By the time Detective Chief Constable Kenward arrives, Agatha has already been missing for a day. After discovering—and burning—a mysterious letter from Agatha, Archie is less than eager to help the police. His reluctance and arrogance work against him, and soon the police, the newspapers, the Christies’ staff, and even his daughter’s classmates suspect him of harming his wife. Benedict concocts a worthy mystery of her own, as chapters alternate between Archie’s negotiation of the investigation and Agatha’s recounting of their relationship. She keeps the reader guessing: Which narrator is reliable? Who is the real villain?

A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4926-8272-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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