Friday Book Whimsy: A Dangerous Crossing

A murder mystery on a cruise ship just as the world is about to embark on another war appealed to me. After all, if Hercule Poirot could solve a murder mystery on the Orient Express, why couldn’t the same thing happen on a cruise ship?

It’s 1939, and Lily Shepherd is eager to leave her home and her difficult life in England for Australia, where she is promised a job as a domestic worker as part of a relocation program.

She boards a cruise ship where, despite the fact that she is a second-class passenger, there is still promise of romance and music and cocktails. It isn’t long before Lily and her two roommates meet a wealthy and mysterious couple with a rather twisted relationship. They don’t even seem to like one another, but they certainly know how to have fun. Lily becomes friends with some of the livelier passengers, and becomes smitten with one man that she hopes has similar feelings.

In a clever twist, the author — Rachel Rhys — opens up A Dangerous Crossing with a prologue in which the boat is already docked in Australia and a woman being led off of the boat in handcuffs, having been accused of a murder. The remainder of the book challenges readers to figure out who is murdered and who is the murderer.

Rachel Rhys is a pen name for a British author who has written a number of suspense novels, but this is her first attempt at an historical novel. I found the book quite readable, though the characters were a bit flat. The ending rather took me by surprise, though I had partially figured out what was going on.

If you don’t mind a bit of slogging along, and if you can suspend belief long enough to buy the notion that a second class cruise passenger could intermingle with first class passengers in 1939, you might enjoy the story. It is a relatively light read with lots of glamorous clothes and lifestyle descriptions.

Here is a link to the book.

 

 

Friday Book Whimsy: Caroline: Little House, Revisited

I will confess to you — and is my face red to do so! — that I have never read a single Little House on the Prairie book by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I did watch the television program, but frankly not religiously. Still, I like All Things Westernso when I learned about Caroline: Little House, Revisited, a new novel by Sarah Miller, I was all in.

The novel was authorized by Little House Heritage Trust, the first knock-off to earn this honor. Caroline: Little House, Revisited tells the familiar story of the Ingalls’ journey from their home in Wisconsin to the Indian territories of Kansas. But, rather than telling it from the perspective of Laura, this story is told from the perspective of Caroline — Ma, as she is known to most of us.

In this novel, we are told about the perils facing the family on their journey, and also as they made their new life in the unfamiliar Indian territory in Kansas. Caroline, it would seem, is the glue that held the family together. She is not fearless — far from it, in fact. Her new life terrifies her, but she works endlessly and uncomplainingly, to keep her family fed and clothed and safe from all kinds of dangers.

The novel provides a picture of life in the 1870s in unsettled middle America. It provides a good look at what it must have been like to move, uninvited, into what had been Indian land — both from the settlers viewpoints and the viewpoints of the Indians. The story isn’t presented as black and white, but rather, gray.

The book shows the relationship between Charles and Caroline, and, if accurate, they were truly uncharacteristically in love. It confirms the books’ and television show’s assertion that Laura was a tomboy and extremely close to her father. It demonstrates the absolute reliance upon neighbors, whether you liked them or not.

Man, it was hard work being a woman in the pioneer days of unsettled territories. While I have always looked with some envy on pioneer women, this book makes me once again realize that I would never have made it. I am no Caroline Ingalls.

I loved this book and recommend it highly.

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.


Friday Book Whimsy: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is author Gail Honeyman’s first book, and her debut novel, like her main character, is completely fine.

Eleanor Oliphant is 28 years old. She lives alone in a small apartment and works in an office. She has no friends and limited social skills. She says what she thinks without a filter. Her main activities are drinking too much vodka on weekends and talking to her mother on the telephone once a week or so.

Eleanor’s quiet life is disrupted when she meets Raymond, who is the IT person in her office. He is as kind as he is unkempt and unattractive. They become friends. The friendship is cemented when they help an old man they find unconscious and ill on the street. They take him to a hospital, where his life is saved.

As the novel progresses, the reader learns — little by little — about Eleanor’s completely dysfunctional upbringing. Eleanor, herself, knew little about her past life. As she becomes more comfortable with her friendship with Raymond, she gives him permission to look into her past. What he learns is horrifying.

The reader is kept in the dark as to where Eleanor’s mother actually is. It might be prison. It might be a psychiatric facility. It isn’t until the very end that the reader learns the surprising truth about Eleanor and her mother.

While Eleanor’s past is dark, the novel really isn’t. Eleanor is completely likable, as is Raymond. The novel is sad in places, but laugh out loud funny in other places. I have rarely enjoyed a story or liked a character so well.

The novel was somewhat overlong and this reader felt a bit more editing would have been helpful. Still, I recommend Elearnor Oliphant is Complete Fine wholeheartedly and without reservation. Because she is. Completely fine, that is.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell you She’s Sorry, by  Swedish author Fredrik Backman, is – as I understand it – the second in a trilogy that includes A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie Was Here. I enjoyed A Man Called Ove very much, and Britt-Marie Was Here (which I read first, not knowing at the time that it was actually the third book in a trilogy) is one of my favorite books of all-time.

So, I began reading this book with great confidence. I thought I would like it. I wanted to like it. I tried like crazy to like it. Unfortunately, I simply didn’t.

Elsa is 7 years old, and her grandmother is her best friend. Her mother and father are divorced and in new relationships. Elsa is bullied at school, but the distractions of everyday life prevent either her mother or father from handling Elsa’s problems very effectively. Only her grandmother, who doesn’t seem to care much about what others think of her, is Elsa’s true champion.

The two of them are so close that they have a secret language and a secret world – the Land of Almost Asleep. It was the great deal of time that the author devoted to this fantasy land that prevented me from enjoying the book. I tried. I skimmed over these parts, but I knew that they were probably important, and they were. My boredom and disinterest in the fantasy part of this novel prevented me from getting out of it what it seems most readers enjoyed.

Elsa’s feelings about her grandmother are best defined by Elsa herself, thusly: Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details. Even when you are wrong. Especially then, in fact.

As a grandmother, I can attest that there are no truer words spoken. That quote is the best thing in the book, as far as this reader is concerned.

The ending tied together the many stories, but by that time I had lost interest. It was fun to see that Britt-Marie was in this book, which (as I mentioned above) was actually published before the novel devoted to her. It gave me good background for that novel.

I am definitely in the minority in my dislike of the book, so I suggest if you liked the other books, you should give this one a try.

Here is a link to the book.

 

Friday Book Whimsy: The Mitford Murders

The author of The Mitford Murders – Jessica Fellowes — is the niece of Julian Fellowes. She has co-authored several Downton Abbey companion books alongside her uncle. So it is not surprising that the novel – which I think is her first crack at fiction – has quite a feel of Downton Abbey to it. That, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s what prompted this reader to pick up the book.

The story is based on a real-life event – the actual murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, the goddaughter of famous nurse Florence Nightingale. The murder, which took place during the middle of the day on a train in 1920, was never solved in real life. Fellowes takes a stab at solving the mystery via her fictional protagonist Louise Cannon.

Louise is on the run from her wicked uncle who has promised great harm to Louise and/or her mother should she not continue to steal for him. She takes a job as a nanny to the Mitford children. Continuing with the combination of fiction and nonfiction, the Mitfords were a real-life and controversial British family known for their style and their politics. In this novel, Louise happens to ride on the train on which the murder takes place. Her connections to the Mitford family – and particularly her relationship with Nancy Mitford – keeps her connected to the murder case, which is being worked on by two young police detectives.

The book promises to be the first in a series that will feature Louise Cannon and one of the police officers, who develop a romantic connection.

The story had a fun upstairs/downstairs feel to it, though some of the characters and situations were a bit predictable. Fellowes’ writing could have a bit more literary drive to it. I found that I wasn’t particularly compelled to pick up the novel once I had put it down. The best thing about the book is that it is a so-called locked room mystery, something I always find fun and challenging.

I think there is hope for the series with a bit of character development and creativity.

It is a book that fans of Downton Abbey and other upstairs/downstairs novels might enjoy. Very light reading.

Here is a link to the book.

 

Friday Book Whimsy: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America

Author Bill Bryson is one of the funniest writers I’ve ever read, if not the funniest. There have been times when I have been reading one of his books and have laughed so hard that I cried. A Walk in the Woods comes to mind.

I’m pretty sure I read The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America when it was first published in the late 1980s, because I’ve read most of his books. And since I kept the book all these years, I’m pretty sure I liked it. Perhaps my skin was thicker in those days.

Bryson was born and spent his formative years in Des Moines, Iowa. He attended Drake University – a private college in Des Moines – for a couple of years before he dropped out and began traveling abroad. He met his wife in England, and lived there until 2013 or so, when he returned to the United States.

While still living in England, he returned to Iowa for his father’s funeral, and decided to travel around the country visiting mostly small towns and writing about his observations. The idea has so much merit, but the result, unfortunately, is a mean-spirited, smug account about mostly rural America.

I don’t think I know a writer who can turn a cleverer phrase. Some of his thoughts are so ingenious and funny that it makes me sad that I didn’t write them. But mostly, he seemed bored with small towns, tired and complaining about corn and wheat fields, and positively mean about the people who make up the bread basket of this country. He sounded like a snotty European who thinks America consists of nothing but fools.

I seriously thought that if I had to read one more word about fat women and stupid men I would throw the book across the room. I understand that America excels at commercialism, but some of the souvenir shops about which he endlessly complained are the bread and butter of many families.

Despite how funny the book was in places, I had to stop reading because I just felt mean laughing at his jokes.

I have to give this book a thumbs down, I’m afraid.

Here is a link to the book.