Friday Book Whimsy: The Lions of Fifth Avenue

I love to learn things while reading an enjoyable novel. I have learned more about some of the landmarks of New York City from author Fiona Davis than I would have if I had read a history book on the magnificent city. Did you know, for example, that there was once an art school in Grand Central Station? I learned that in The Masterpiece, by the same author. Did you know that cattle used to graze outside of the Dakota Apartments, home to many famous people? You would if you had read The Address.

I certainly had no idea that there was once an apartment inside the enormous New York City Public Library where the superintendent of the library could reside with the family. The apartment still exists, in fact, though it is apparently no longer used as an apartment.

NYC’s main library is located on Fifth Avenue and guarded by the famous sculpted lions. In 1913, Laura Lyons and her family move to New York City from their quiet home in the country where her husband is the superintendent. His job allows them to live in the apartment hidden deep within the library. It’s a big change for the family, but not as big as the one that Laura seeks. She dreams of attending the Columbia School of Journalism and becoming a journalist.

With the help of family and friends, she manages to come up with the money for the year-long program. She not only learns how to investigate and write a story, she learns that there are women who have so much more freedom than she ever has. Laura gets caught up in the excitement, and it changes her life — and the lives of her family — immensely.

At the same time, some priceless books and manuscripts go missing, and everything points to her husband being the culprit. Laura knows this can’t be true, but is too caught up in her new life to take it as seriously as she might.

In the back-and-forth style so popular these days, the author also introduces us to Laura’s granddaughter Sadie, who is also a librarian at the same library in 1993. Ironically, she must also deal with books and manuscripts that are going missing, and she is a prime suspect. While trying to figure out what’s going on, she learns that a similar thing happened to her grandfather. Could the two things be related?

I will admit that this was not my favorite of Fiona Davis’ novels. That prize goes to The Chelsea Girls, a novel about the McCarthy hearings. But as a lover of books, and a HUGE fan of libraries, I found the book references interesting, and the clear love of literature shown by the main characters heart-warming.

Part mystery, part romance, part women’s fiction, The Lions of Fifth Avenue makes for a decent read.

Here is a link to the book.

 

Friday Book Whimsy: Her Last Flight

I love author Beatriz Williams’ books. Most of them feature the Schuyler family, or some subset of that family. It’s fun to follow their paths. While I was fully aware that Her Last Flight would have nothing to do with the Schuyler family, being a fan of historical fiction, I looked forward to reading the author’s newest novel.

While not really historical fiction, the story is loosely related to that of Amelia Earhart’s and her famed last doomed flight. In this novel, it is 1947, and photojournalist Janey Everett arrives in Hawaii after having learned of the location of Irene Foster, the famous woman aviator who was believed lost in her final flight. Irene first denies being the famous aviator, but once Everett tells her that she has confirmed the death of Foster’s beloved friend and lover Sam Mallory, Foster comes clean.

Everett purports to be writing a novel about Mallory, who was believed killed in a Spanish Civil War battle in the late 1930s. Using journalistic skills and perseverance, little by little, Everett learns the truth about Irene, her husband George Morrow, and the man she loved above all others, Sam Mallory. In the process, readers enjoy twists and turns that confuse and delight.

I love Williams’ writing. It is direct, funny, and keeps readers on their toes. The story provided an interesting look at the early days of aviation, and how women developed their own role in the process.

Her Last Flight is one of my favorite Williams’ novels to date.

Here is a link to the book.

 

Friday Book Whimsy: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Earlier this year when we were really pretty confined to our homes and there was little else to do but read, I read a surprisingly good novel called Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I say surprisingly because the format was very unusual, written as an oral biography. Normally I like more traditional formats. But once I started reading it, I was drawn in completely. I reviewed that book here. 

To be completely honest, I didn’t realize that the author of that book was the same as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo until I was through a couple of chapters. I should have, however, because once again the format was somewhat unusual. While much traditional than Daisy Jones, it still took a bit of getting used to.

Evelyn Hugo was a poor Cuban-American girl who grew up in NYC with an abusive father. She was determined to get out of her situation. She knew it was possible because she was simply beautiful. Movie star beautiful. As soon as she could, she used her beauty to get out of NYC and into movies. This led to that, and she eventually became famous, in fact, a Hollywood institution.

And now she is ready to tell her story. But she will only tell her story to an unknown writer named Monique Grant. Nobody is more confused than Monique herself as to why the Hollywood legend insisted on her writing the biography. Evelyn insists on only one thing: Monique must tell Evelyn’s true story, every bit of it.

We learn about the actress via her interviews with Monique. And she breaks down her story by each husband.

“Who was the love of your life?” Monique asks the actress early on. The truth, in fact, many truths, came as a surprise to this reader. Through the interviews, we learn about the strength of one woman to change her very world. We learn the true meaning of love.

It was a wonderful book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Distant Dead

Sometimes characters in books seem like paper dolls with painted on smiles and personalities that are ablaze with bright but unrealistic color. In The Distant Dead by Heather Young, the characters are complex and realistic, living with broken dreams and grit sprinkled with hope.

Young Sal Prentiss walks into the fire station of his small Nevada town one morning to report that he just discovered the body of Adam Merkel, his math teacher. Merkel had been burned alive. Sal was particularly shocked because he and Merkel had developed a close relationship.

Nora Wheaton is the social studies teacher, and about the only person with whom Merkel had connected. She grew up in the town but had hoped to use her archeology degree to get away from Nevada and see the world. Unfortunately, she is forced to care for her aging and ill father, who still mourns the death of a son.

Nora wants to find out the truth about Merkel’s death, not in small part because she feels sorry for Sal, who lost his mother to a drug overdose and lives with his strange and creepy uncles. As she continues to dig, she learns unexpected truths about Merkel, about Sal, about his mother, and about his uncles. She also learns that happiness can come from unexpected places.

I enjoyed the story about small town secrets, both good and bad. The characters were interesting and believable.  The ending was hopeful, though the book was fairly dark. I will definitely read the author’s debut novel, The Lost Girls.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: These is My Words

I love books that take place during the days of the pioneers. Oh, I know. We aren’t supposed to like pioneers any more. I can’t help it. I find that period fascinating. I had an unusual break between books that have been pouring in from the library as of late. I took the opportunity to reread a book that I read many moons ago, and really enjoyed: These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, by Nancy E. Turner.

One of the reasons I enjoyed the book the first time — and again this time — is because it takes place in the Arizona Territory in the late 1880s. Since I am a part-time resident of Arizona, I am particularly interested how that uniquely-western state was founded.

The book is unusual in that it is written entirely as a journal. The journal’s author is young Sarah Prine, who documents her family’s travels from their original home in the northwest United States to the Arizona Territory. Land was available at a cheap rate for those brave enough to face the obvious dangers and willing to work hard.

In addition, the diary continues after they have settled and become successful ranchers. Their imminent success didn’t come easy, and the tales she tells of Indian attacks and robbers and rattlesnakes and birthing children in the wilderness are as interesting as they are horrifying. I enjoyed every word of the book.

The author goes on to write two more novels, making the books a trilogy. Sarah’s Quilt and The Star Garden are equally good, at least as I remember.

The books make me glad I live in the 21st Century, even with a pandemic.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Silence

For some reason, despite living right now in one of the most difficult times in my life thanks to COVID-19, the book styles of my choice has been mysteries and thrillers. Susan Allott’s debut novel The Silence caught my eye, and then delivered big time.

It’s 1997, and Isla Green — newly sober and hanging on by a thread — receives a phone call from her father Joe. He tells her that their old neighbor (and Isla’s babysitter) Mandy, who has been missing for 30 years — has been discovered, unfortunately dead. She had been in a troubled marriage, and most people believed she had fled and started a new life somewhere. Unfortunately for Joe, he is believed to be the last one to see her prior to her going missing, and therefore has become the prime suspect.

Isla reluctantly returns to the former home in Australia that she had gladly fled years before to provide support for her father. She is surprised when she learns that her mother isn’t so sure that her father isn’t guilty.

Isla begins looking into things, and it isn’t long before she starts learning family secrets — both about her father and her mother, but also about her neighbor Mandy and Mandy’s husband Steve.

Allott’s novel delve into substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness, but in a way that is intelligent, and not preachy. One of the saddest facets of the story was learning that the colonial Australians — under the guises of good will — would remove without permission children of Aboriginal natives who they believed could live a better life in a white family. It was very sad.

The Silence provided me a meaty read with plenty of clever and surprising twists and taught me a few things to boot. I liked the book very much.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Girls in the Garden

The idea of living in a gated community where children run around freely, in and out of each other’s houses, sounds delightful. But perhaps this freedom doesn’t protect the children as much as one might think. After all, sometimes the danger is within the gates. The Girls in the Garden, by Lisa Jewell, gives us a taste of that kind of a life.

After Clare’s husband Chris burns down their house without knowing whether his wife and two daughters are inside (they weren’t), he is committed to a mental health facility. Clare and her daughters, 11-year-old Pip and 12-year-old Grace, move to just such a place. Things seem fine. The girls make friends. Clare learns to survive without her husband.

And then the night of Grace’s 13th birthday party, Pip finds her sister unconscious and near death, overdosed on sleeping pills. Until Grace awakens from her coma, no one knows how this travesty happened.

Readers are led down one path and then another. Just when you are certain you know who tried to kill Grace, that person becomes just another red herring.

Lisa Jewell is one of my favorite authors. I believe I have enjoyed every book of hers that I have read. While The Girls in the Garden was not necessarily my favorite of her’s, I think the author’s writing is exceptional, and was enough to make me enjoy the book.

And enough to want to put my arms around my grandkids and keep them close.

This one is a thumbs up.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Sweeney Sisters

I am one of three sisters, and trite as it might seem, my sisters are also my best friends. There is something about that family bond that brings people close even with personality differences.

The Sweeney Sisters, by Lian Dolan, is a story about three sisters who feel that same family bond. They all have red hair, inherited from their late mother, but that is the only thing about the three that is similar. Their differences don’t impact their love for one another.

When their father suddenly dies, the three women must come together to prepare for his funeral and handle his affairs. This is no easy task as he is a famous author, and he had committed to another novel, which is finished but missing. The situation is massively complicated when they suddenly learn that they have another sister, the result of an affair their father had with a neighbor.

Liza, Maggie, and Tricia Sweeney must suddenly accept the fact that their father was no angel. They must try to understand how their father could have been unfaithful to their mother. And their new half sister Serena must try to find a place within this tight family circle.

Dolan’s characters are flawed, and sometimes predictable. But because of my relationship with my own sisters, I loved seeing these three — then four — girls come together to accept the new twists and turns in their lives. And I loved the way they all accepted each other despite their differences.

I enjoyed this book very much. And the fact that their house was ocean-front didn’t hurt things a bit.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Ghosts of Harvard

Twists and turns run rampant in Ghosts of Harvard, a book by Francesca Serritella. The book can’t decide if it’s a mystery, a ghost story, or a teaching tool. Despite a few flaws, I decided it was, in the end, just a good book to read during a quarantine.

Cady Archer can’t come to grips with the fact that her brilliant, but schizophrenic, brother killed himself while attending Harvard University. Against her parents’ wishes, she elects  to attend the prestigious university to find out first hand what drove her brother to jump out his dorm window to his death. Armed with her brother’s notebook that contains his thoughts and unexplained and indecipherable numbers, she sets out to find the answers to her questions.

But before long, Cady begins hearing the same voices that haunted her brother. Is she also schizophrenic or are there actually ghosts that haunt the Harvard campus? The ghosts, however,  don’t slow her down, and she doesn’t give up until she solves the puzzle. She nearly loses her life in the process.

I learned a bit about schizophrenia and what it can do to a person’s life. And not just the person suffering with the disease, but the entire family. I also learned a lot about what life is like at a prestigious and very challenging university with lots of history, both good and bad.

It’s true that some of the book made me roll my eyes. I struggled a bit with the Cady, who is the main character. Perhaps it’s because I am a mother, but I really, really wanted her to stop skipping classes and not studying for tests. But it wasn’t a book that I was interested in abandoning. And I’m glad I finished it, because the ending caught me by surprise.

Ghosts of Harvard served its purpose in providing a break from some difficult times.

Here is a link to the book.

 

Friday Book Whimsy: The Holdout

A few years ago, The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore, was surprisingly among my top three books of that year. Surprising, because that novel was about the invention of the light bulb. Who da thought? Not only did I learn a lot about electricity from The Last Days of Night, But I also learned that Graham Moore was an extremely talented writer. The Holdout once again demonstrates the author’s talent, this time telling a story of the power of persuasion.

Jessica Silver is a 15-year-old girl, missing and presumed dead. Not just dead, but murdered by Bobby Nock, one of her teachers and African American. He is, in fact, on trial for her murder, and it appears to be an open-and-shut case. However, after lengthy deliberation, Maya Seale, the only jury member to question Nock’s guilt, manages to convince the other jury members that the prosecution hasn’t proved his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. They vote to acquit. However, one of the jury members regrets what he did, and spends the next few years trying to prove Nock’s guilt, even though he can’t be tried again.

Ten years later, the jury members reunite to participate in filming of a documentary about the trial. Later that night, one of the jury members — the one who regretted his decision — is found murdered, and Maya, now herself a successful defense attorney, is the chief suspect.

This new murder investigation provides clues to the original murder trial in unexpected ways. The author cleverly gives the reader insights into the minds of each juror by allowing each one to tell their story. Their own stories leads to a surprising conclusion.

I loved this book, and recommend it very highly.

Here is a link to the book.