Friday Book Whimsy: The Lost Summers of Newport

I have always loved reading novels about how the rich lived during the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, with their big mansions on Fifth Avenue in NYC and their so-called “cottages” in Newport, RI. The Lost Summers of Newport paints a picture with words of the world of the rich, and there are no better “word painters” than Beatriz Williams, Karen White, and Lauren Willig.

The three have authored several novels, each tackling a chapter. I have enjoyed some more than others. The Lost Summers of Newport is almost certainly my favorite. The stories of the three women are interesting, though all very different.

It’s 2019, and Andie Figuero, a struggling single mother, has agreed to produce a reality television program called Mansion Makeover. The program features mansions in need of repairs, and it seems like a fit for Andie, who has her degree in historic preservation. However, things become complicated when her bosses want her to concentrate on the rumors of the families who lived there instead of the work being done on the house.

It’s 1957, and Lucia “Lucky” Sprague is stuck in an unhappy marriage with an alcoholic husband. She would like nothing better than to run away with the man she loves, Teddy, and her little girl, Joanie. But results of some of her actions and secrets she learns too late seemingly prevent her from finding true happiness.

It’s 1899, and Ellen Daniels is hired by John Sprague to teach his sister to sing. His goal is to get her married off to a wealthy Italian prince in order to save his home. He will stop at nothing to ensure the match takes place, and he holds Ellen fully responsible in making that happen. She has little choice, however, because she is running from her own demons. Sprague’s sister Maybelle, as quiet and demure as can be, has no interest in the prince, but wants to find love elsewhere.

The secrets that connect the women are revealed to us as the story moves along. I was so interested in the secrets myself that I could scarcely put the book down.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Our Woman in Moscow

Remember the good ol’ days (at least the good ol’ literary and film days) when the Soviet Union and the Communists therein were our archenemies? We’ve tried to make the radical Muslims and the Chinese Communists our enemies in books and films, but it’s never been quite the same. Cold War spies on both sides of the Iron Curtain just make dandy enemies. And great stories.

Author Beatriz Williams offers readers a dandy look at the United States, Europe and the Soviet Union in the days following the end of WWII. The communist party has taken over the Soviet Union, and no one was to be trusted. They could be agents. They could be double agents. Secrets abounded.

Iris and her sister Ruth are living in Italy during the last days of the war. Iris meets and falls in love with Sasha Digby, a U.S. Embassy official with communist sympathies. Ruth and Iris have a falling out. Ruth returns to the U.S. Iris marries Sasha, and the two continue to live in Italy until they vanish.

Some time later, Ruth receives a cryptic message from Iris, indicating that she and Sasha are in Moscow, she is about to deliver a baby, and she wants out of the Soviet Union. Despite her feelings about Iris and Sasha, Ruth agrees to go undercover with an American counterintelligence agent posing as her husband in an effort to return Iris to safety. But there is a spy in their mix, and no one is sure who it is and what side the spy is on.

Our Woman in Moscow is a terrific spy thriller with a unexpected ending.

I like all of Beatriz Williams’ books, and particularly like that she ties characters and storylines together. Even in this novel, Aunt Violet makes an appearance.

I highly recommend this book.

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 Wicked Redhead

Beatriz Williams: Oh, how you mess with your readers’ minds. Or at least my mind, because you had me so confused I didn’t know which way was up.

Back in 2017, Williams released Cocoa Beach, which is referred to as a “standalone novel,” meaning not part of one of her series. I reviewed that book here. I didn’t care for Cocoa Beach much, and was annoyed by the confusion created by references and ties to other of her books which readers may or may not have read. The author does this so often that she literally has a family tree available to readers to keep track of who is whom. But most annoyingly, she ended that book with reference to a redheaded woman and a man arriving at the home of the main characters, clearly in trouble. We are never told who they are or where they came from. Hello Sequel.

Well, if I had been paying attention, I would have recalled a redhead who escaped certain death at the end of another one of her novels, The Wicked City (a book I read but never reviewed).

Here it is, three years later, and we are able to access The Wicked Redhead, and finally tie the stories together. Interestingly, the publishers call The Wicked Redhead the second in “the Wicked City books,” never mentioning the standalone novel Cocoa Beach.

Having said all of that, I must admit that I liked The Wicked Redhead very much. Perhaps it was just because I could finally tie all of the stories together.

It’s 1924, and beautiful Ginger Kelly and her disgraced prohibition agent lover Oliver Anson Marshall arrive at the home of friends, running away from trouble and mayhem which left Gin’s evil stepfather dead. Accompanying them is Gin’s little sister Patsy. Mysteriously, Oliver is asked to return to his prohibition duties, leaving Gin and Patsy behind. It isn’t long before Gin is persuaded to undertake an odd duty by Oliver’s mother.

Meanwhile, it’s 1998, and Ella Dommerich (whom we met in The Wicked City) has discovered her husband is not only being unfaithful, but messing around with prostitutes. She leaves him, and quickly falls for her landlord Hector, whom we also met in that same book. She comes across some vintage postcards featuring a beautiful redheaded woman wearing little clothing. Having resigned her job, she has little to do, so begins researching this woman’s background.

It doesn’t take much imagination to tie the two stories together, but I will admit to being caught up in the process. Even though I find some of Williams’ tricks annoying, I will acknowledge that the woman can write a good yarn.

Some of the story is simply not believable, at least to this reader. Overall, however, I really enjoyed putting the pieces together.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: The Glass Ocean

It is not their first rodeo when it comes to co-authoring a book for fiction-writers Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig. A couple of years ago, the three prolific novelists co-authored The Forgotten Room, a bestselling novel that I reviewed and frankly didn’t like all that much.

So, it was with some trepidation that I decided to read their newest crack at co-writing a historical novel, The Glass Ocean. I’m happy that I took the risk, because I liked this effort much more than I liked The Forgotten Room. In fact, I looked back at my review of The Forgotten Room to see if I was somewhat unfair. Book reviews are subjective, of course, but I concluded that my review was on point as far as my opinion of that book went.

Like The Forgotten RoomThe Glass Ocean is the tale of three women from different eras But this book also features a doomed ship, the Lusitania. Socialite Caroline and her husband Gil are passengers on the ship that was fated to never reach its destination, and led to the United States declaring war on Germany in 1917. The Lusitania, of course, was destroyed by the Germans, and many of the passengers who died were Americans. Gil talks Caroline into accompanying him on the ship’s maiden voyage, and she reluctantly agrees. She loves her husband, but their marriage seems to be shaky and Gil is secretive and distant. Robert Langford, a long-time friend of Caroline’s, is happy to keep her company in his stead and books passage.

In the meantime, Tess and her sister are also passengers. They are small-time con artists, but Tess is ready to go straight. Her sister convinces her that this will be their last dishonest effort, and it will change their lives. It involves a piece of music — a lost Strauss waltz which belongs to Gil and is being carried to England on the ship.

Meanwhile, fast-forwarding to this century, Sarah — who is the great granddaughter of one of the Lusitania’s porters — wants to write a book about the ship because she discovers some interesting information that would offer the world a different angle. She turns to Robert Langford’s great grandson John, who is looking for something to do since his career in Parliament has been damaged because of an unrelated family scandal.

There are secrets galore in this lively novel, and many questions about loyalty. Who are patriots and who are German spies?

Some controversy about whether the Lusitania was, in fact, carrying weapons to England as the Germans maintained or was simply a passenger ship continues to this day. The book, in fact, is unclear about the ship’s role in the war. It isn’t unclear, however, about whether the characters help or harm the war efforts.

I found The Glass Ocean to be a very interesting and informative novel.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Summer Wives

It’s 1951, and young Miranda Schuyler joins her mother on Winthrop Island. She is still reeling from the death of her beloved father in World War II. Her mother is finally beginning a new life by marrying one of the wealthy summer inhabitants of the island, Hugh Fisher, and everyone should be happy.

Shortly after her arrival, Miranda witnesses a young lobsterman diving from his boat to save another fisherman who has been knocked into the water. She runs to help and is immediately attracted to the young lobsterman, Joseph.

It isn’t long, however, before Miranda realizes that though the island’s inhabitants appear to get along, there is an invisible dividing line between the full-time residents and the rich summer residents. Furthermore, there is hanky-panky afoot; hence, the novel’s title: The Summer Wives.

Miranda returns to the island in 1969, and readers learn that much has happened in the interim, including Joseph being put in prison for murdering Miranda’s stepfather Hugh. But now Joseph has escaped and Miranda is suspected of hiding him.

In author Beatriz Williams’ typical style, the story is told from different perspectives and  even from different years. The story flows, however, despite the different viewpoints.

The author has made a career out of books featuring different members of the Schuyler family. It is even possible to obtain a family tree of the Schuyler clan.

The Summer Wives is one of my favorite books from this author.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Cocoa Beach

What comes first, the chicken or the egg? That was the question I asked myself as I read Cocoa Beach, the latest novel from Beatriz Williams.

As with many of the author’s novels, the story is connected in some way to characters in another of her books. It took me a bit to realize that the main character of Cocoa Beach was the sister of one of the main characters in A Certain Age, a novel that I read and liked very much, despite a slow start. As I read this latest book, I found myself wondering if the author wrote these two books in the wrong order, as Cocoa Beach is somewhat of a prequel.

The novel tells the back story of Virginia Fortescue, the sister of Sophie Fortescue of A Certain Age fame. Cocoa Beach is a mystery novel from the get-go. In fact, the very first chapter is an incriminating letter from the man who will become Virginia’s husband, setting the stage for what might have been a really interesting story.

Except that it wasn’t. Instead, it was a confusing back-and-forth story about Virginia during World War I where she works as a driver and first meets Simon and then about Virginia a few years later in the Roaring 20s when she is trying to figure out who is trying to kill her, and why. Is it her husband? Is it his brother? Most of the time I just found myself trying to figure out what year it was and who was doing what. I found it to be most confusing.

The location was new and different for the author. While many of her novels take place in New York City, Cocoa Beach took place in, well, Cocoa Beach, Florida, as well as Miami, Florida.

As Virginia tries to figure out what is going on, she keeps hearing about what is happening back home in New York with her sister Sophie and her father, accused of killing her mother (part of the plot of A Certain Age). It added to the muddle and confusion of the novel.

I must say that the author kept us wondering until the very end just who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. But Williams pulled a trick that I simply loathe: at the very end of the novel, something happens that ensures that there will be a sequel. It frankly was so badly written that I sat and stared at the book for some time, wondering if I had missed something.

I simply didn’t care for this book. I found it entirely too confusing and silly. That’s a hard pill for me to swallow from an author whom I like so much.

Thumbs down on this one.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: A Certain Age

I’ve gone through a period where it seems as though many books I’ve read take place during either World War I or World War II. I don’t need to tell you that, while they are often interesting, they are also invariably and understandably sad.

Perhaps the time period in which it takes place – the 1920s — is the thing I liked best about A Certain Age, a novel by one of my favorite authors, Beatriz Williams. That time of glamour and jazz in which people acted as though Prohibition didn’t exist, and women were freed from their corsets and gaining more and more independence. And what could be better than a novel set in the Roaring Twenties in New York City?

Wealthy Mrs. Theresa Marshall, a woman approaching middle age and bored with her marriage to a rich older man who is a serial philanderer, fights her boredom by becoming involved in an affair with a considerably younger man. She has no plans to divorce her husband, as they have a kind of understanding. But her young lover Octavian, has fallen for her and would like to get married. That is, until he meets Sophie, the daughter of a newly-wealthy man who has a mysterious past. If you are an opera fan, the plot might be familiar to you as the book is loosely based on an opera by Richard Strauss called Der Rosenkavalier.

One of my favorite things about Beatriz Williams is that many of her novels are based on different members of the wealthy Schuyler family. As such, many of the stories are loosely related. In A Certain Age, Sophie’s best friend is Julie Schuyler, who we learn is the great aunt of the main characters in three of my favorite Williams novels: Tiny Schuyler of Tiny Little Thing, Pepper Schuyler of Along the Infinite Sea, and Vivian Schuyler of The Secret Life of Violet Grant, all of whom are sisters. Not necessarily pertinent to the story, but fun nevertheless.

I will admit that it took me a bit of time to get into the novel. I felt it started slowly. Furthermore, I initially found Theresa to be offputting. She appeared to be shallow and every time she called Octavian Boyo, which she did all the time, my skin crawled. As the novel progressed, however, I began to understand the complicated Mrs. Marshall, and even grew somewhat fond of her. Sophie was a wonderful character, and I loved watching her come into herself, despite her sad past.

A Certain Age is a romantic novel wrapped in a mystery, and the ending was satisfying, if somewhat predictable. I love Beatriz Williams’ writing, and A Certain Age didn’t disappoint.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: 2016 Favorites

pile-of-booksMy reading goal every year is 100 books. I’m not sure I have ever hit my goal, but I have come close. For example, in 2015, I read a total of 93 books. I’m afraid in 2016, I was a bit of a slacker, having only read 88 books – a couple of which were, quite honestly, novellas. In my world, they counted! Especially since I’m not graded on quantity. And I’m thankful I’m not rated on quality, because I don’t use the New York Times Book Review for my book choosing. Actually, I’m not graded on anything being retired and all….

Anyway, I post a book review each week, so if you are a faithful Friday Book Whimsy reader, you will be familiar with all of the books I am going to feature as my favorite five books of the year. The books may or may not have been published in 2016; they have just been read by me in the past year.  Frankly, most are books published in earlier years.

My five favorite reads in 2016, in no particular order….

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrick Backman
Britt-Marie is a 60-something woman who leaves her controlling husband after she learns he is having an affair. She is compulsive and entirely set in her ways. She has been since she was a little girl and her much-adored sister is killed in a car accident. It should have been you, is the message that Britt-Marie got regularly from her mom, whether or not it was spoken out loud. So Britt-Marie begins the process of starting a new life. The only job she is able to find is the manager of a recreation center in a very small town. She has spent most of her life taking care of others and has no idea who Britt-Marie is and why anyone would care. But she learns that people do care, and begins to put together a new life where people accept her for who she is.

What I liked best about the book: Britt-Marie. I loved the main character so, so much. The book was entirely feel-good, and who didn’t need that this past year?

The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore
The novel examines the invention of the light bulb, and the eventual replacement of gas lighting with electric lights in this entirely readable, eminently fascinating account of the legal battle waged between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. There is no one less interested in science than I, and yet I found the book to be fascinating. Moore uses real characters such as Edison, Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, and Paul Kravath to give readers a snapshot of life in NYC in the late 1800s and how progress is REALLY made. It unexpectedly provided me with one of my favorite reads of the year.

What I liked best about the book: I love to learn about history and science via novels, as I find that so much easier to read. Moore was able to pique my interest in the notion of inventing and patents. It takes good writing to successfully accomplish that task.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
This novel is everything I would hate in a book. The entire story is told via emails, text messages, flashbacks, school documents, and so forth. There is no driving narrative and virtually no dialogue. It is really all about the characters, but Semple does it so well that this book was a total pleasure to read. I had it in my library for a long time before I finally picked it up and read it, almost straight through. Bernadette is the star of the show, despite her quirky, agoraphobic nature. She is likable and believable. I would like to have her as my best friend. I don’t regularly reread books, but I will read this book again and again.

What I liked best about the book: The author’s characters are the best thing about the novel. Despite the fact that there is no driving narrative, she was able to paint clear and distinct pictures of each character through her unusual writing style.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
There is a plethora of novels available about World War II, and lots of good ones. I found The Nightingale to be one of the best I’ve read (and I’ve read more than my share) simply because it offered a different perspective on the awful war. Two sisters from a small village in France experience the war from entirely different perspectives – one as the woman and wife left behind to care as best she can for everyone around her, and one who becomes part of the French resistance. The look at the war from the women’s perspective, as well as Hannah’s beautiful writing, made this one of my favorite reads of 2016.

What I liked best about the book: There are many books – novels and nonfiction alike – about the horrific treatment of the Jews, and about the miserable conditions of the fighting men and women, but I liked reading about what it was like to try and keep your world in order under wartime conditions as the woman back home.

Tiny Little Thing, by Beatriz Williams
Christina “Tiny” Schuyler was the so-called good sister of the three Schuyler girls. She did everything the right way. She was good in school, she married well, and she was the perfect political wife to her ambitious husband. But what is missing is love. It made for a wonderful book with a thoroughly satisfying ending. Tiny Little Thing was the first book I had ever read by author Beatriz Williams, and I have read several since. They almost always have some connection to the Schuyler family, and they are very good. But Tiny Little Thing is my favorite.

What I liked best about the book:  Blackmail, adultery, Vietnam, dirty politics – all wrapped in a 1960s package. It took me a bit to get into the novel, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down.


Friday Book Whimsy: Along the Infinite Sea

imgresWhen last I saw Pepper Schuyler in Tiny Little Thing, she was pregnant with her boss’ child (modeled clearly after one of the Kennedys) and had found and completely rehabbed a vintage Mercedes Benz that she discovered hidden in her aunt’s barn. At the end of that book, Pepper had taken off in the car to places unknown.

Pepper Schuyler is the youngest of the three Schuyler sisters about whom author Beatriz Williams writes many of her books. I met Tiny and Pepper in Tiny Little Thing, and Vivian in The Secret Life of Violet Grant. The fictitious Schuyler family is old East Coast money which probably wasn’t earned legally and which provides for a grand way of life in the 1960s, when the stories are told.

Early in Along the Infinite Sea, Pepper sells her car for a whopping (especially in 1966 dollars) $300,000 to Annabelle Dummerich, a beautiful and glamourous newly-widowed 50-something woman who has a mysterious past. Annabelle takes pregnant Pepper under her wing and brings her home to her beautiful house by the ocean in Palm Beach.

From then on, the author uses her favorite style – back and forth in time and place – from Pepper’s story in 1966 East Coast United States to 1935 Europe – Germany and France – as the world begins to prepare for war and where Annabelle begins her mysterious journey.

Annabelle’s story involves a love affair with a German Jew who she later learns is a resistance fighter. She falls in love, and he with her, but she learns a secret about her lover which leads to her marrying Johann von Kleist, a Nazi officer. She is pregnant with her Jewish lover’s baby, and he knows this and agrees to raise the child as his own.

The story touches on the persecution of Jews, before and during WWII, the role women played in history, and the power that wealth can bring. Williams’ story-telling is amazing. Her back-and-forth writing style, often ending chapters at a critical moment, thereby preventing the reader from putting the book down.

Williams’ novels definitely have a romance element, but while plentiful, the romance doesn’t drive the plot. The story was realistic and compelling.

I believe we have run out of sisters, so I am eager to see how Williams’ tackles other subjects. Along the Infinite Sea  is a book that I can recommend with confidence.

Here is a link to the book.