Friday Book Whimsy: The Book of Polly

Having (thankfully) not had the angst so typical between teenage girls and their mothers, I generally have little interest in reading coming-of-age books. There have been a few exceptions. For example, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, was one of the best books I read in 2013. (That reminds me; I should reread.)

I made an exception also for The Book of Polly, by Kathy Hepinstall, quite simply (I’m somewhat embarrassed to say) because of its title. How can that title not intrigue a reader? The book was wonderful, even beyond its title.

When the book begins, Willow is 10 years old. Her mother, Polly, gave birth to her when she was in her late 50s – a miracle birth of sorts. Willow’s father died while Polly was pregnant, so she never knew him. But with an older mother and no father, Willow lives in fear that her mother will die and leave her all alone.

As for Polly, she is a feisty southern woman who lives for gardening, her margaritas, and her daughter. Despite her love for Willow, she is tough as nails, recognizing that she has to prepare her for a world without her in it for much of Willow’s life.

Willow’s fear of losing her mother leads to her beginning to search for clues about her mother’s past, a search that takes several years. Polly has no interest in sharing her secrets with her daughter, leaving Willow to wonder why her mother left her small town in Louisiana and why she refuses to talk about it. It isn’t until tragedy strikes that she agrees to take Willow back to her home town.

The Book of Polly is sad in parts, and laugh-out-loud in other parts. Its characters are likeable and mostly believable, if somewhat bigger than life. Polly quickly became one of my favorite book characters in recent memory.

The ending was satisfying, something that can make or break a book for this reader.

Treat yourself to this poignant story of love.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Tuscan Child

I will admit to being a fan of the lighthearted Her Royal Spyness mystery series by author Rhys Bowen. The novels are easy reading and somewhat quirky. And I won’t hesitate to be intrigued by any novel that takes place in Italy, particularly Tuscany. So The Tuscan Child, by Rhys Bowen, caught my eye immediately.

Towards the end of World War II, British pilot Hugo Langley is shot down by the Germans, but survives the crash of his airplane by parachuting into the grounds of an abandoned monastery just outside of a German-occupied Italian village in the heart of Tuscany. He would have died except that he was discovered by a young Italian woman named Sofia Bartoli as she gathers food for her starving family. She secretly bandages his wounds and keeps him fed, risking her life and the lives of her family. Days pass, and in the easy manner of many novels, love ensues. When the village is liberated, the British army takes Langley back to Great Britain to heal from his accident. Rumor has it that Sofia is seen driving away with a German officer. So, with great sadness, he puts Sofia in the past, and eventually he marries and has a daughter.

Fast forward to contemporary times, and his daughter Joanna, who has never been close to her father, returns to bury him following his death. As she is going through his things, she stumbles upon a letter he wrote to a mysterious woman named Sofia. It is clear that he loved her very much. What’s more, he talks in his letter about “their golden child” being safe.

What? Joanna knows nothing about a love affair prior to her mother, or a sibling. So, in the way of many novels, she puts her life on hold and travels to the Tuscan village to try and discover her father’s secrets. Perhaps the mysterious Sofia is still alive.

The Tuscan Child is not the Great American Novel. The plot is familiar and the characters are somewhat one-dimensional. But what makes The Tuscan Child a book to be read is the imageries of the countryside of Tuscan Italy, and the mouthwatering discriptions of the food. It is simply a book that nearly DEMANDS a glass of wine and a plate of spaghetti while being read.

Lovers of All Things Italian: This is a novel for you.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Broken Girls

Simone St. James is the author of a series of books, all ghost stories. Ghost stories have never been my cup of tea, but The Broken Girls intrigued me. I decided to turn on the lights to keep the ghosts at bay and give the book a try.

It’s been 20 years since Fiona Sheridan’s sister Deb was found dead on the grounds of a boarding school called Idlewild in a small Vermont town.  Despite the fact that a man was arrested and has been imprisoned for the murder, Fiona hasn’t come to grips with her sister’s death. Something doesn’t seem right. Now, as part of her job as a journalist, she learns that the school—long closed and reportedly haunted—is about to be rehabilitated and reopened.

What Fiona doesn’t know is that 20 years before her sister was killed, another girl went missing from Idlewild, which at that time was a boarding school for throw-away girls: illegitimate, unloved, without parents. So when a body is dug up during the reconstruction, Fiona throws herself into learning the secrets of Idlewild and the truth about her sister’s death.

Part mystery, part thriller, part ghost story, I couldn’t stop reading this book. I’m generally not fond of ghost stories, generally finding them somewhat silly, but Mary Hand—the unsettled ghost who can’t find rest at Idlewild—seemed to enhance the story rather than distract. I found all of the female characters to be strong and interesting. I especially loved the four roommates who kept each other strong in the 1950 story line.

The ending was delivered with a twist, and was quite satisfying. All in all, I enjoyed The Broken Girls very much.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Other Daughter

Author Lauren Willig is perhaps best known for her Pink Carnation series, of which I’ve read exactly none. But given that I’ve liked her writing in other stand-alone books, I decided to give The Other Daughter a try.

Rachel Woodly has been tutored, loved, and taught genteel manners by her hard-working mother after her father doesn’t return from a trip. Rachel was told that he died, and because he died so far away (and it was the 1920s), he was buried where he passed away.

She takes a job as a governess for a wealthy society family. She is traveling with the family in France when her mother takes ill. Rachel doesn’t receive word of her mother’s illness until it’s too late. By time she gets home, her mother has passed away.

While cleaning up her mother’s house, she comes across a newspaper clipping that shows a recent photo of her father – not dead, but instead, quite alive, and an Earl with an entire separate family. Rachel is unable to come to grips with this shocking information, and decides to pass herself off as a society woman with the help of a wealthy acquaintance in order to confront her father.

Her plan works, but she unexpectedly grows to like the woman who is her half-sister. Drama ensues as Rachel learns the truth about what happened between her mother and father, and why he has a whole new life. The story is quite compelling.

Willig is a very good writer, and her story kept me turning pages. The Other Daughter is one of her few attempts at writing a novel with a single perspective instead of the back-and-forth-in-time perspectives that have become so popular. I think that was one of the things I liked best about this book.

I enthusiastically recommend The Other Daughter.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Dry

The Dry, by Jane Harper, takes place in a small town in Australia, the kind of small town where everybody knows everyone else’s family and has their nose into who’s doing what. It’s from that small town that Australian Federal Agent Aaron Falk escapes after one of his friends is found dead decades before, and he was a suspect in her murder. Now, his childhood BFF Luke – who provided Aaron’s with an alibi that kept him from being arrested – has died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, after killing his wife and his young son.

So, after all this time, Falk returns home for the funeral, and to try and come to grips with how this friend could have possibly done something so uncharacteristic, so against his nature. Well, it turns out that Luke’s parents also don’t believe it, and they convince Falk – who isn’t a homicide investigator, but instead conducts financial investigations – to, well, investigate.

But here’s the thing: Falk knows that the alibi that Luke provided years ago was a lie; however, he also knows that he was innocent of the crime. Could the two murders be connected in some way? He reluctantly agrees to spend a few days looking into the deaths.

The author doles out the secrets of both crimes little by little, leaving the reader to suspect different people throughout the book. The plot is set against the worst drought in a century. The writing is so good that you can practically fill the heat and hear the crunch of the grass as the characters walk through the plot.

I found the solution unpredictable almost to the end of the book, though I will admit to figuring it out just a bit before the detective.

The Dry is the first in a series, and her second book – Force of Nature — was released this past February. I’m eager to see if it’s as good as The Dry.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Great Alone

If an author has done his or her job right, there’s something in their novel that drives the story. Something that makes people continue to turn the page. Something that the reader thinks about long after they’ve closed the book.

In The Great Alone, the latest offering from Kristin Hannah (who has written such bestsellers as The Nightingale and Firefly Lane) the “something” is Alaska. Even when Hannah’s latest storyline was so depressing that I wasn’t always sure if I wanted to continue, the Alaskan wilderness kept calling me back.

It’s 1974, and Ernt Allbright returns home from Vietnam after living in a POW camp for a few years. His wife Cora, the daughter of wealthy parents who married Ernt against their will, recognizes immediately that he is a changed man. The man with whom she fell in love and for whom she defied her parents is now sullen,unstable, and dangerously volatile. Their 13-year-old daughter Leni, can’t remember the father who wasn’t so unpredictable.

Feeling the need for a change, Ernt moves his family to a remote area of Alaska, where he hopes to homestead and live off the land. Cora agrees, optimistic that a change is necessary to save the family. It works for a while, but eventually Ernt’s mental instability takes over and things take a nosedive.

The Great Alone is a story of neediness, friendship, and dysfunctional love. It is taut with tension and anger. The incredibly difficult living conditions in this small Alaskan town create a dependence on each other that can benefit or wreck someone as emotionally fragile as Ernt Allbright.

I’ve never been to Alaska. I don’t know if a small town in remote Alaska today would look like it did in this book. While the story is unendingly depressing –ironically, nearly laughingly so – I found myself continuing to turn the pages because I was intrigued by the notion of living in such a wilderness. People relied on one another because, particularly during the winter, there were no others on whom to rely. It’s an intriguing background story for a novel.

I find Hannah’s novels to be somewhat predictable and her characters fairly one dimensional; nevertheless, I will give The Great Alone a weak huzzah for its important topic and setting. If you like Hannah’s other novels, you are likely to enjoy this one as well.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: House at the Edge of Night

My husband and I were lucky enough to spend three months in Europe a few years back. Nearly two of those three months were in Italy. While I don’t have a drop of Italian blood in me, I’m convinced I lived in Italy in a former life! From the time I first stepped foot into the country, I fell in love with the people, the climate, the food, the art, and the culture.

Reading The House at the Edge of Night, by Catherine Banner, was a bit like sitting at a table all day on a piazza in an Italian hill town watching the villagers live their lives. The author managed to successfully capture the flavor of the people of this wonderful country nearly perfectly.

The House at the Edge of Night is a multigenerational saga of a family who lives on the fictional island of Castellamare in southern Italy near Sicily. Amedeo Esposito is an orphan who is taken under the wing of a doctor in Florence. He takes his last name and follows his lead in the medical field. He winds up on Castellamare, where the native people eye him suspiciously – as Italians are wont to do. Eventually he marries his beautiful wife named Pina who is strong-willed and smart as can be. Though it takes a bit, the locals eventually accept him as one of their own.

Unfortunately, Amedeo makes a big mistake that results in two babies being born on the same night – one to his wife and one to the wife of the nasty Count who lives on the island. The Countess claims Amedeo is the baby’s father, and unfortunately, it could be true.

The story goes on from here, as Pino agrees to continue to live with him and raise their family. This leads to that, and Amedeo finally gives up his medical practice to open a café in his home, which is referred to as the house at the edge of night. This café takes on a life of its own, and as the years go by, the café itself is as much a character as the people who walk and talk.

Readers watch the wonderful characters that inhabit the island as they live through world wars, attempts to steal relics, an economic downturn that nearly cripples the population, love affairs, births and deaths. At the end of the day, however, it always comes back to the house at the edge of night.

I loved the story. I found its casual pace to be much like the casual pace of life in Italy. As the author described the food, and particularly the homemade limoncello and limettacello and arangcello that they drank morning, noon, and night, I could taste it. I could feel the hot sun on me as she described the town. I think she really captured the flavor of Italy.

It made me want to make sure my passport was updated!

Here is a link to the book.