(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
Sunshine Estates: Rx for Rosedale
By Lynn Shirey
Self-published / ISBN: 978-1-440-40568-6
One of the things I really like about an open submission policy is that it brings in a whole variety of different kinds of publications; that's not only more interesting for both you and me, but keeps me on my toes more as a critic, keeps me looking at different kinds of books and adopting different kinds of mindsets all the time. For example, it's easy for someone in their twenties to find plenty in the underground arts to keep them happy, since most of it is done by people their age and concerning those kinds of issues; and for people like me in their thirties, forties and fifties, those who can still handle a decent amount of this material but only the stuff of the highest quality, there are places precisely like CCLaP to help them out. But what about people, say, now in their sixties and seventies, former beatniks and hippies now having to think about old-person issues like medication and surgery and retirement communities for the first time? A surprisingly large amount of them continue to want smart, unexpected storylines in what they read, even as their tastes and interests suffer the profound slowdown and nostalgification that happens with any generation of "the aged;" so where is a good place for these people to turn?
And nicely enough, yet another answer to this question arrived here recently at CCLaP; it's the self-published Sunshine Estates: Rx for Rosedale, by an author named Lynn Shirey who is just beginning to creep into retirement age for the first time herself. And perhaps it's because I don't read such novels often, but I found this book a delightful surprise, one that deals with a whole slew of baby-boomer retirement issues I had never thought of before -- retired gay couples, Viagra abuse, the subdued rage of former corporate-raiding stockbrokers now with way too much time on their hands. It's perhaps not the most perfect choice for all you young hipsters out there, but definitely the perfect gift for your parents or grandparents, safe in knowing that you're giving them something intelligent and thought-provoking but still dealing with issues they'll find inherently interesting.
In fact, everything from the hyphenated title to the characters and the setting make this feel more like the beginning of a franchise than a standalone book; it's the story of early-age retirees John and Laurel Cie, a middle-class liberal bus-taking couple originally from the creative-class bastion of Portland. They've decided recently to settle at a corporate retirement community in northern California (an "old folks home" as he jokingly refers to it, to which she shouts back in CorporateSpeak glee, "Active retirement lifestyle development! Active retirement lifestyle development!"); and indeed, most of the book is a gentle examination of all the issues that come with such a community, from a lesbian hippie couple to a retired right-wing shock jock, to the all-out class war that breaks out between the tennis players and the golfers. And in the case of Lauren, a true-crime Nancy Grace nut whose nosiness is something her husband has been complaining about for decades, all this extra time in such a hothouse environment brings out the amateur sleuth in her, especially when a mysterious death coincides with a new "rehirement" job as neighborhood dogsitter.
It's through this combination that Laurel uncovers all the dark and just plain weird secrets lying underneath the wood-paneled veneer of this sleepy planned community; the pre-feminist women with tattooed makeup, the rampant infidelity among Viagra-gobbling widowers, the continuing culture war between the younger retirees in the "active living" wing and the crotchety oldsters (many of them the retirees' literal parents) in the "assisted living" wing. Thankfully, though, Shirey doesn't just limit her book to such observations, but also builds a surprisingly solid crime thriller around them, including an incredibly charming section involving an old college friend paying a visit, the two of them goading each other over bottle after bottle of affordable Napa Valley wine into more and more "Cagney and Lacey" style zaniness, just like they've inspired in each other for decades. And then not only that, but Shirey handles the entire thing with a lot of humor and style, as well as surprising changes to what seem at first are going to be a series of cardboard-cutout minor characters. (For example, check out the aforementioned retired nutjob right-wing talk-show host, who begins the novel making life miserable for his neighbors in any way he can, just to eat up spare time in his day, but who becomes a very different person indeed by the end of it all.)
Now to be sure, this novel suffers from a pile of beginner's problems as well; stilted dialogue, a plot that's minimally original but not terribly so, characters that sometimes broadcast their eventual goodie or baddie status well ahead of time. I will say this, though, that the novel presents a really engaging mix of plot, character and style, what I consider the three main pillars of any good novel, as well as a lot more subversive surprises than I was expecting from a book of this type, while not so subversive that it'll make older readers frown in distaste. Ultimately the best compliment I can give Sunshine Estates is this, which I really do mean as a compliment: that I could see it easily getting turned into a pleasant television movie for Lifetime, or even serve as a pilot for a gentle crime-solving series geared specifically for older, feistier women of the countercultural era. I don't think there's anything wrong with a book aspiring to this, as long as it's smart and funny and unexpected; and this is, which is why I recommend it without reservation, and especially to older lovers of the arts who are sometimes just so hard to shop for.
Out of 10: 8.6