Friday Book Whimsy: The Great Pretenders

The Great Pretenders, by Laura Kalpakian, puts us face-to-face with 1950s America.

Roxanne Granville spent her childhood at a movie studio run by her famous grandfather. Her parents were actors who had little to do with Roxanne. Movies are part of her life, but it’s the 1950s, and things are changing drastically. Her grandfather has bought into the Red Scare, and has fired many people for being “red”, even if they were his friends, and even if the accusations aren’t true.

Roxanne’s beloved grandmother has died, and leaves her personal money to Roxanne. This allows Roxanne to open her own agency where she will represent screenwriters, and distance herself from her grandfather. But it isn’t long before these same writers — men and women with whom she grew up loving — to ask her to help get their writing into the right hands by having someone else’s name on the script.

It works. Until things start getting complicated. And one of her biggest complications is falling in love with a Black journalist — a man who has become an activist in the civil rights movement.

I grew up in the 1950s, but have little memory of the so-called Red Scare, or how deeply it impacted Hollywood. I, of course, am familiar with the situation of Black Americans long before the Black Lives Matter movement. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine how seriously separated the races were in the 1950s and 1960s.

I really enjoyed the book. I certainly grimaced at the situations that took place throughout the story. Still, I liked the characters — at least the ones who were the good guys . The glamour and romance of Hollywood was so well written that I could picture the dresses and see the movie stars smoking their cigarettes in restaurants as they awaited their martinis. The mental pictures drawn by the author kept me on the edge of my seat as secrets became exposed and it became more and more clear that Roxanne and Terrance’s love affair was going to be out in the open eventually.

I enjoyed the book very much, and recommend it enthusiastically.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Italian Party

The only thing better than a novel set in Siena, Italy, is a novel set in Siena in the 1950s during the Cold War. Author Christina Lynch’s debut novel is a somewhat muddled but often clever mix of mystery, romance, and history, with a dash of spy thriller thrown in for good measure.

Scottie and Michael are newlyweds, each with a secret. Michael’s job, allegedly a American-built tractor salesman, takes him to Siena, in the heart of Tuscany. Scottie immediately embraces the food, the people, the culture of Italy, but Michael’s secret prevents him from enjoying their new home in the same way.

When Scottie’s Italian language teacher — a teenager who has a bit of a crush on the pretty American woman — disappears, Scottie takes it upon herself to try and find out what happened to her friend and language teacher. What follows is a almost-believable whodunnit.

The story is somewhat weak, and I found the ending to be a bit off-putting. Still, the setting was spectacular and fun. The author bribes her reader with stories about hearty Tuscan wines and delicious food. She tosses in funny, if somewhat sad, history about the fear of Communism following World War II and America’s self-appointed role in preventing its rise. She also gives the reader a taste of what it was like to be a woman in the 50s, or, for that matter, a man. Lynch even gives the reader a dash of the Palio — Siena’s famous horserace.

If you are a lover of All Things Italian — as am I — you will enjoy this novel.

Here is a link to the book.