Friday Book Whimsy: The Only Woman in the Room

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Austria with the advantage of being extremely beautiful. Her beauty, along with well-to-do parents, made life more comfortable — and safer — in the pre-World War II years when it was much better to keep her Jewish background a secret. Instead, she became a well-known actress with a Catholic background……

The Only Woman in the Room, an historical novel by Marie Benedict, tells the story of this woman who later became Hollywood leading lady Hedy Lamarr.

Her beauty and grace led her into the arms (and ultimately into marriage) of a high-level German arms seller with strong ties to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. She was convinced by her father that marrying such a man would keep the family safe. Though she originally loved him, it didn’t take long to see his jealous and controlling side. She began to quietly save money, and eventually escaped to Paris. The conversations she overheard as his wife, however, made her a valuable asset to the Allies.

She made her way to Hollywood where she became famous working for Louis B. Mayer. Her fame was responsible for her success in raising money for the war effort. Eventually, however, she became aware that the newest technology — radio-controlled torpedoes — could be easily jammed. Working with a friend, they came up with an invention that would prevent the jamming. Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy never took the invention seriously. She was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Lamarr’s story is interesting, and while I found the book somewhat dull in parts, I admit I enjoyed the history lesson. I recommend the book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Tending Roses

Sometimes I dream about moving to a small town where everybody knows your name and you can walk to anywhere you need to go and the stress level is virtually nonexistent. But then I remember that there wouldn’t be a Whole Foods three-quarters of a mile from my house and I would be hard pressed to find an Asian market or a symphony hall. So I am satisfy my urge by reading about such a community.

For that reason, I enjoyed Tending Roses, the first in a series by Lisa Wingate. I had previously read — and reviewed — Before We Were Yours, also by the same author. I really liked that book and the author’s writing style. Tending Roses is very different, much cozier than the somewhat disturbing Before We Were Yours.

Kate and her husband Ben, along with their baby Joshua, come to visit Kate’s grandmother, mostly at the behest of other family members. Grandma Rose lives alone in the house where she brought up her children, but now, because of aging and increasing dementia, the family believes it is time for her to move into a nursing home. Kate has been asked to break the news to her grandmother.

It isn’t long before Kate realizes this is easier said than done. Grandma Rose is very happy where she is, and it becomes increasingly clear to Kate why this is so. The slower life in the smaller town is a big change — and a refreshing one — from their busy life in Chicago.

Days turn into weeks turn into months, and Kate becomes more and more peaceful. Adding to her quiet joy is a journal of stories apparently written by her grandmother that tell the tale of her life, and her wonderful memories of being a child and raising her family in this small town.

The book has a quiet charm that was refreshing after reading some of the graphic mysteries I mostly enjoy. I found myself rooting for Kate to convince her family that a slower, easier life is the way to go.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls

Author Anissa Gray’s debut novel, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, reminds the reader that there is a story behind every person and his and/or her story unavoidably shapes each person’s life.

Their personal story certainly shapes the lives of sisters Althea, Lillian, Viola, and their brother Joe. After their mother dies, the eldest — Althea — takes over raising her siblings. Their father is in and out of their life, and often violent. Therefore, Althea’s sisters and brother are shocked when she and her husband Proctor are arrested and convicted of defrauding many poor and elderly people via a nonprofit they created. The two go to prison.

Lillian takes over raising Althea’s kids, one of whom was responsible for reporting her parents’ illegal activity. The story — told through each of the sisters’ perspective — slowly but surely provides background as to what happened in their lives and how each has coped over the years.

The story moved slowly in some parts. While the subject matter is dark, I can’t quite say that it was an entirely depressing book. As the story progresses, the focus turns to how forgiveness and love can change lives.

I found it hard sometimes to connect with the characters, who often seemed a bit like caricatures. And the comparison by some reviewers to An American Marriage seems to fall short. I loved that book, and I’m afraid I could take or leave this debut novel.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story

While mostly disliking autobiographies and (even more) MEMOIRS, I always have enjoyed biographies. Still, it is unusual that I would have picked up a biography about Jerry Lee Lewis, a musician who was just enough before my time to merely peak my interest. I dance to Great Balls of Fire (or used to) at weddings, and that’s about it.

But this biography was brought to my attention in another book I was reading, and it was mentioned mostly because of the book’s author, New York Times journalist Rick Bragg. Bragg was born and reared in Alabama, and much of his writing that isn’t news-related includes stories about his family and growing up in the south.

THAT’S what caught my attention.

I have read books by Bragg before, and he is one of those writers that makes me ashamed to call myself a writer. His ability to tell a story is enviable.

That’s the reason that I couldn’t put the book down. In fact, the only reason that it took me as long as it did to read the book was because I went back and forth between Wikipedia and YouTube to learn about Jerry Lee Lewis’s music and to watch the videos. I was unfamiliar with much of his music and knew almost none of his history (except for the part about marrying his 13-year-old cousin).

Jerry Lee Lewis’ story is fascinating, and his love for music and specifically his love for original rock and roll  is legendary. I, of course, knew nothing about it. I believe that only added to my interest in the book.

The musician has had ups and downs throughout his career. He currently is still living, and up until recently, still performing.

While the book is primarily about the life of the famous musician, it is also about life in the 30s and 40s and 50s in the south, and about the history of country music, hillbilly music, rockabilly music, and mostly rock and roll.

I found it to be a remarkably enjoyable, if somewhat lengthy, read.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Au Pair

I patiently awaited my turn at the library for The Au Pair by Emma Rous because you just can’t beat a thriller that involves a nanny or an au pair. Really, you can’t beat any story involving a near-stranger taking care of your kids. And an au pair is just THAT much more interesting and potentially nefarious because no one really knows what an au pair is.

Seraphine and Daniel are adult twins who live near the sea on the Norfolk coast of the UK. They, along with their elder brother Edgar, are mourning the accidental death of their father. As Seraphine is going through his things, she stumbles upon — as characters in such stories tend to do — a photograph of their mother holding a newborn baby. Seraphine knows it’s either she or Danny, but can’t figure out why it’s only one of them. And it further gets her to wondering just why her mother committed suicide just hours after she and Danny were born and why the au pair who was hired to care for little Edgar disappeared that same day.

Though I felt the plot was somewhat flawed (aren’t there a number of reasons why her mother would only be holding one of the babies?), I found the story interesting enough that I kept on reading.

I’m mostly glad I did, because I liked the author’s character development. The mental instability of the mother made her a sympathetic character. The fact that Seraphine’s brothers (mostly) rallied around her quest to discover the secrets of her family’s past felt real. The ending provided a few surprises.

The ending however, also seemed very contrived, almost as though the author got tired of writing the story and just wanted to wrap things up. I found her conclusion confusing and somewhat predictable and unrealistic. That somewhat spoiled what I thought was otherwise a pretty decent read.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Witch Elm

Tana French is an Irish author known primarily for her award-winning Dublin Murder Squad series. Much as I love mysteries, I haven’t read a single one of the books in this series.

But something about her latest book — The Witch Elm — caught my interest. Perhaps it was the title, as I am a sucker for an interesting title — and for witches, for that matter. The Witch Elm, unfortunately, featured no witches and was not nearly as interesting as the title suggested. The only thing that kept me reading was the author’s talent for writing. Her talent for character creation certainly lacks substance, at least as far as this novel indicates.

By his own definition, Toby is one lucky fellow. He also happens to be one of the the least likable characters I’ve ever encountered in a book. He has lived a charmed life, which has resulted in him getting by with a lot of incompetence and mischief that most wouldn’t. He is, in fact, celebrating with his friends the fact that he wasn’t fired from his lucrative job for cause the night his life changes forever.

After returning home, he is surprised by burglars, who not only take his valuable belongings, but beat him nearly to death. He survives, but serious head injuries keep him in the hospital for a long time, and he is cognitively challenged.

Once released, he decides to spend time with his much-loved Uncle Hugo, who is dying of cancer. The house has been in the family for a long time, and is the family’s Sunday gathering place. It is one of these Sundays that Toby’s young niece and nephew come across a human head in the trunk of the wych elm tree  in the home’s front yard.

How did the head get in the tree? Who’s head is it? Is one of the family members a murderer? Since Toby has lost long-term memory, he even wonders if HE’S a murderer.

The plot is interesting, no doubt. Unfortunately, at least for this reader, the characters were so inherently unlikable that I wanted them ALL to be guilty and put away forever. The only redeeming character was Toby’s girlfriend Melissa, and I wondered throughout the book how she could put up with his whining and unrelenting anger.

I honestly can’t recommend this book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Lost Man

While visiting the Australian outback is on many people’s bucket list, it has never been on mine. Even visiting the less remote areas of Australian doesn’t particularly appeal to me.

Having said that, one of the things I most enjoyed about The Lost Man, by Jane Harper, was its Australian outback setting. It gets to be a cliché, but nevertheless, the weather conditions and the wilderness (and all things that go along with that) definitely play a strong role in this amazing mystery.

I’m very familiar with Jane Harper and her excellent writing from her series that also takes place in Australia, perhaps because this British-born author now resides in that country. Her two-book (so far) series (The Dry and Force of Nature) features federal agent Aaron Falk, who runs into all sorts of trouble in a much more populated area of Australia.

In this unrelated novel, Nathan and his brother Bubs Bright, who own adjoining cattle property, are dealing with the apparent suicide of their middle brother Cameron. By appearances, Cameron headed out into the outback, abandoning his car that has all of the necessary supplies to keep him alive. The police are calling it a suicide. Nathan and Bubs disagree, and they think it was murder, and begin to investigate.

The more they look into the matter, the more secrets they uncover. Family secrets that many would like to see buried.

Harper’s writing is amazing, and I found myself with this book, like the Aaron Falk series, finishing a chapter and being unable to refrain from starting the next.

I found the book’s ending satisfactory, though not a complete surprise, at least for me. As for traveling to Australia, after reading the book, I believe the reader will either want to book the next flight or never want to visit Australia, EVER.

It’s a great read.

Here is a link to the book.