This is Part Two of my summer review of books – see last week for Part One. Welcome to my virtual bookstore – Happy Browsing!
Anne Tyler was typical Anne Tyler – French Braid was a quirky family saga – it opens with a long-ago family vacation with three teenagers who have nothing in common and their peculiar parents, including a mother who put her aspirations to be a painter ahead of her children and gradually moved out of the family home over the years to a studio. Perhaps she thought they wouldn’t notice? I don’t often read Anne Tyler as I just don’t get her – sure it’s readable, but what was the point of it all? I actually had to google this one to refresh my memory as I read it last spring, it was that forgettable.
Our House won a 2019 British mystery award, so I thought I’d give it a try. I loved Louise Candlish’s last book, The Other Passenger, but this lacked by comparison. I guess you could call it a domestic drama. A woman arrives home to find another couple moving into their house, which her estranged husband has sold without her knowledge and then vanished. You could tell it was going to be a train wreck, so it wasn’t very suspenseful.
The Personal Librarian – Historical tale about the life of Belle da Costa Green – a black woman who passed for white in the 1920’s, she was employed as JP Morgan’s personal assistant and helped him assemble the vast treasures of the Morgan Library and Museum. Something about the writing was off – perhaps because it was co-written. She led a fascinating life, so it should have been a better book, but then I’m generally not a big fan of first-person narrative…especially by two different people.
I really enjoyed The Lost Chapter even though I tend to avoid multi-generational/female friendship sagas. Partially set at a finishing school in Lyon France in 1957, a friendship between a proper British girl and an independent brash American, ends badly. Decades later, 80 year old Flo discovers that her friend has written a fictional book about their time there. An artist, she befriends Alice a troubled teen, and along with her mother Carla, they impart on a road trip to France to confront her past. Well done – I would like to read more by Carolyn Bishop. As for the finishing school and the rules for female behaviour – how the world has changed.
The Long Weekend – another one I had to google to refresh my memory. Three women go away for a long weekend in a remote corner of England, (without cell service of course) only to find a note waiting for them saying that one of their husbands will be murdered. Suspenseful, from what I remember.
Verity – The librarian said this book was popular, but I am not familiar with the author, probably because I don’t read romance novels. She also wrote It Ends With Us. Billed as a romantic thriller, I abandoned it about fifty pages in and googled the ending on Goodreads, which justified my decision not to waste any more time on it. A struggling young writer is hired by a charming man to finish a book his injured wife was writing. If you want to read graphic details about two people having an affair while the wife is lying comatose upstairs, then I guess this is the book for you. It was reissued recently with an exclusive new chapter after the author did a reading of it somewhere. I think it was supposed to clarify the shocking ending? Or perhaps it was a money grab?
Iona Iversons’ Rules – charming tale about a group of people who ride the same London subway car every day, and how they meet, as the first rule of commuting is don’t talk to strangers. A cheery read – I find I’m reading more light fiction by British novelists these days. It might have to do with the sad state of the world – they’re always good for a cuppa tea and a keep calm and carry on reading mentality. I was so impressed with this, I ordered Clare Pooley’s second book, The Authenticity Project, which was also a selection of my library book club.
A lonely elderly patron leaves a green notebook in a local café with his life story in it, and urges others to write down the truth about their lives. The cafe owner finds it, adds her story and passes it along. Very good for light fiction, but in real life does a recovering cocaine addict who called you a bad name ever turn into the man of your dreams?
Bloomsbury Girls – I loved this book and blogged about it in my literary salon (see link) – combines two of my favorite genres, historical fiction and bookstores. Three women working in a London bookstore during the 1950’s – the times they are a changing….
The Family Remains is a stand-alone sequel to Lisa Jewell’s, The Family Upstairs from several years ago, which was about two families sharing a cult-like existence in an old Chelsea mansion, until 3 of the adults turn up dead. The author said her readers wondered what happened to the four teenagers in the house, so she felt the need to write a sequel. I found The Family Upstairs to be a disturbing story, but this was better, except for that little unnecessary twist at the end.
The Last to Vanish – a mystery about a North Carolina inn set in a small town near the Appalachian trail, named the most dangerous town in the country. Six hikers have disappeared from the area in the past ten years. Heavy on atmosphere (how much rustling in the woods can there be), and a fairly slow plot, but a nice ending.
The Couple at Number Nine – British murder mystery about a young couple who are gifted a cottage when her grandmother develops Alzheimer’s and is placed in a care home. They uncover two bodies while digging for an extension, and a crime investigation ensues. This is more of a family drama/saga than a true suspense thriller, but the characters are well developed, and I enjoyed it. I would order more books by this author.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris – a short novella (120 pages) about a British char woman (cleaning lady) who scrimps and saves to buy a Dior dress. Written in 1958, I found the style dated and the Cockney slang/dialogue, difficult to read. A lot of repetitive description of Mrs. Harris being twinkly eyed and apple cheeked although wrinkly, gray-haired and middle aged but I found the tone of the book somewhat disparaging when she was described as a grotesque sight upon donning the vision of her dreams, a long frothy tulle and velvet concoction suitable for a jeune femme. I guess views on aging have changed. I love vintage fashion from the 50’s and am curious to see what they have done with the movie, which had fairly good reviews. The book was written by a male author I had never heard of, and I was astonished by his extensive list of books, 50 according to the flyleaf, including Thomasina the Cat, which I remember as a 1963 Disney movie and The Poisideon Adventure, from 1972. He must have been popular in his day. The second part of this book, was Mrs. Harris Goes to New York, which I did not read as I had to return to the library, and I just couldn’t handle any more of the accent and the description. There are four books in the series, including Mrs. Harris Goes to Moscow……not likely.
Out of Her Depth – was like the The Great Gatsby only set in a Tuscan villa a hundred years later – the young and beautiful and then the outsider. (Yes, the rich are different than you and me.) A young protagonist from an unfashionable part of London can’t believe her luck in landing a summer job at a Tuscan villa, where she meets a group of rich British college students on vacation. Even though I’m not the demographic for this type of psychological thriller I ordered it because it was a murder mystery set in Italy, although there was so little description of the country and the food (other than a few plates of pasta) that the novel could just as easily have been set anywhere. More character than plot driven, the story is told partially in flashback twenty years later when one of the group has just been released from jail for a murder he didn’t commit. There was some bad language, (it was young people and they tend to talk that way) but the characters were so mesmerizing and the plot-line so suspenseful, I managed to ignore it, although I was disappointed in the ending.
The other book, The Lost Ticket, was another heartwarming light British read – strangers aboard a London bus unite to help an elderly man with dementia find his missed love connection in this new novel from the author of The Last Chance Library. He lost the bus ticket with her phone number on it back in 1962. It sounded promising but I had to return it to the library as I had too many books out. (Two or three is comfortable, as I read about book a week, but seven is way too many and then I start to feel stressed…..I know, I know…..but such is retirement stress….that and medical appointments.)
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a decorating book, but I saw this mentioned on another blog. It was okay to browse through, but the print was so small (is this a trend, and no I don’t have cataracts yet) but as I’m not a fan of the serene staged minimalist look, I didn’t find it too inspiring, although I did like all the white/cream backgrounds and some of the photos were pretty. There are four sections on how to beautify your home according to the seasons. I vote for fall – bring on the scented candles.
And last but not least, Between Two Kingdoms – a memoir of a life interrupted – a riveting but depressing account of a 22 year old college graduate who is diagnosed with leukemia with a poor prognosis shortly after she moves to Paris, and her grueling three year battle to survive. The last third of the book deals with her cross-country road trip, after she is declared in remission, to visit some of the people who had written her letters during her ordeal. (She had a blog and syndicated newspaper column.) This book was also my library book club selection and the consensus was, it was a good read but not for everyone. Certainly not for anyone facing a cancer diagnosis as it was heavy on horrible details. (While the treatment for leukemia can be notoriously long, I’ve known some cancer patients who were well enough to work throughout their treatment, and one treated for lymphoma who didn’t even lose his hair.) There was lots to discuss about this book, as in A) Why did it take so long to diagnosis her? B) I can’t believe her boyfriend/fiance stuck around as long as he did, he must have been a saint. Two years without a day off? And C) The whole road trip thing at the end just seemed like such a foolhardy decision – to put her life at risk like that when she wasn’t fully recovered, especially for a person with very little driving experience. She left New York in a borrowed car, driving the wrong way down a one-way street, not even knowing how to merge into expressway traffic, not to mention she was alone, camping, mostly in winter, staying in isolated places and sketchy motels. I wondered if she embarked on the trip to have something to write about? Really I was horrified by it, and worried about her having a relapse. Having fought her way out of a such an excruciating ordeal, you’d think she would have been a bit kinder to her body, although she admitted she has had to learn to accept the limitations of her immune system. Very well written though. (pg. 274 – “After you’ve had the ceiling cave in on you – whether through illness or some other catastrophe – you don’t assume structural stability. You must learn to live on fault lines.”) Sadly, this past year her cancer returned after a six year remission, and she underwent a second bone marrow transplant.
To recover from that read, I switched to TV for light entertainment.
I’m sure this will be the last Downton Abbey movie. While it was nice to see the old gang again, the story-line was thin, the fashions and scenery frumpy, except for the bit in the south of France, and don’t get me started on the ending…. it will be forever how I remember them.
Hotel Portofino – I missed the first two episodes of this Masterpiece mini-series set at in hotel along the Italian Riviera in the 1920’s during the fascist/Mussolini period, so I ordered the DVD from the library. The setting was gorgeous and the fashions lovely, but the storyline wasn’t that good, and some of the characters seemed miscast. I found the main character, Bella, the hotel proprietress, particularly annoying. It’s no Downton Abbey, but worth tuning in for the scenery – maybe Season Two will be better. It’s set in the same area as Enchanted April, a movie and book I loved.
And finally, I was excited to read that our library headquarters was holding their annual book sale of redundant copies – these would be excess copies from book club kits, once popular bestsellers, generally fairly good stuff unlike most book sales which are often the dregs from someone’s basement. I’ve never gone as it’s always early on a Saturday morning, and the location is out of the way, but because it was from 1-8pm and well advertised and there would be three years of books on sale, over a thousand people showed up in the first TWO hours. By the time I got there around 3 pm, (it rained, so I dawdled, plus I knew there would be parking issues as it was at the fairgrounds), there was NOTHING left but empty tables. The organizers were surprised at the turnout, as it usually only attracts a couple of hundred people. It was so disappointing, as I’m still trying to accumulate books for my little library, but also encouraging in a way, as it tells us the pandemic has made so many of us into READERS!