Friday Book Whimsy: The Women in Black

After reading a series of books that were somewhat dark, it was a pleasure to stumble upon The Women in Black, a novel by Madeleine St John. This book, like the book I reviewed last week, takes place in the 1950s, but this time the location is one with which I am less familiar — Sydney, Australia.

This quirky, quick-reading novel features four characters, all of whom work at Goode’s Department store in Sydney. The women who work here are recognizable because of the black dresses they are required to wear.

Patty is married to Frank. Her biological clock is ticking, but unfortunately her husband pays little attention to her. As long as she puts his steak in front of him every night, he is content. He eats and then goes to bed.

Fay is single but would love to be married, but she hasn’t yet met the right man. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to her that she will ever find happiness.

Magda works is the fancy dancy dress department of Goode’s. She and her husband moved from Slovenia, and have worked hard at acclimating to the new culture, but maintaining their roots. She wants to own her own dress shop someday.

Along comes young Lisa, who is hired to work during the busy Christmas holidays. Lisa is eager to find her way into the world. She just graduated from high school, and is awaiting her final grades to see if she will get a scholarship to attend the university. Even if she does, her father will fight her all the way. In his opinion, women don’t need college; they need a husband and kids.

These four women come together under funny circumstances and are tied together in unexpected ways. They all find out that nothing in their lives is more important than knowing who they are and what’s is important, and friendship.

The author has a very unique writing style. The characters were all so very likeable. I read the book in a day-and-a-half, and it left me smiling and feeling like we can tackle anything in the world with patience and friendship.

I recommend this book!

Friday Book Whimsy: The Operator

Where I grew up in the midwest in the 1950s, we didn’t have to go through an operator to make a phone call. We did, however, have a party line when I was in early elementary school. Mom told us under no circumstances were we to listen in to a phone call if we picked up the receiver and someone else was on the line. Being the obedient sort, I would immediately hang up if I heard someone else on the line. But man-oh-man, did I ever want to listen in on the conversation. The Operator, by Gretchen Berg, made me glad I didn’t succumb to temptation.

It’s 1952, and Vivian Dalton is an operator for Bell Company in the small town of Wooster, OH. Just like the own in which I spent my formative years, it was big enough that not everyone knew every other person, but it was a small world, nonetheless. There were the rich folks, or what my mom referred to as the Little 400, and what Vivian referred to as the Four Flushers. And there were the Working Class people. And there were the Bible Thumpers. And so forth…

And unlike me, Vivian can’t help but listen in on the phone conversations which she manages. She justifies it by saying she knows the people of Wooster better than anyone. She has what she calls intuition, and what her teenage daughter calls nosiness.

And then one day Vivian listens in on a conversation that she really wishes she hadn’t heard. It changes her marriage, her relationship with her daugher, in fact, her entire life. And she can’t unhear it.

Though I enjoyed the book, I wanted to like it a lot more than I did. I loved the 1950s setting. The way people lived and thought in those post-war days was captured very well by the author. My biggest problem with the book was that I really never grew fond of the main character, Vivian. Or at least not until the very end of the book.

And most problematic of all — at least for this reader — was the repetitive use of nursery rhymes throughout the book. It begins with the first paragraphs of the story, and continues on through the entire book. And there is never an explanation why.

The book was a reasonably good look at a 50s woman taking charge of her own life. Not a stupendous book, but one that kept my interest.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: More Better Deals

I’ve always liked reading books authored by Joe R. Lansdale. They generally take place in east Texas, and there isn’t anyone who can make you feel like you’re standing in prickly weeds with sand in your boots better than Lansdale. While I have spent nearly no time at all in Texas, for some reason I’m drawn to books that take place in rural east and west Texas. I’m also drawn to books that take place in the 1960s, the era in which I spent my formative years.

More Better Deals is a dark, gritty novel that met those criteria. Lansdale tells the story of Ed Edwards, who lives in the same town he’s always lived in, and works as a used car salesman. It’s the 1960s, folks, so the car dealership is certainly Buyer Beware. Joe’s the top salesman. He’s the one that makes “more ‘better deals.’ ”

Edwards is sent to repossess a Cadillac sold to Frank Craig, a traveling salesman, who also owns the drive-in theater outside of town and a pet cemetery. When Edwards arrives at their home, Craig isn’t there, but his beautiful and ultra-sexy wife Nancy is. She makes her play for Ed, and he doesn’t resist. A torrid affair begins.

Before long, Nancy begins to work on Ed, trying to convince him to kill her husband and live with her and her life insurance money. Ed’s a good guy at heart, but the idea of having a business like the drive-in where he can earn a decent living appeals to him. He is looking for a way to get his sister out of town, away from their drunken mother. The money would allow her to go to college.

As you would imagine, things don’t go as he had hoped. It isn’t long before he has committed crimes he never thought he would commit.

The plot sounds sort of quirky, but the novel is anything but. It’s a dark look at life and poverty and substance abuse and murder. But while I will admit that it isn’t my favorite Lansdale novel, I love his writing and his ability to draw his readers into the story. Perhaps not the uplifting novel I was looking for during this time, but a good read nevertheless.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Lions of Fifth Avenue

I love to learn things while reading an enjoyable novel. I have learned more about some of the landmarks of New York City from author Fiona Davis than I would have if I had read a history book on the magnificent city. Did you know, for example, that there was once an art school in Grand Central Station? I learned that in The Masterpiece, by the same author. Did you know that cattle used to graze outside of the Dakota Apartments, home to many famous people? You would if you had read The Address.

I certainly had no idea that there was once an apartment inside the enormous New York City Public Library where the superintendent of the library could reside with the family. The apartment still exists, in fact, though it is apparently no longer used as an apartment.

NYC’s main library is located on Fifth Avenue and guarded by the famous sculpted lions. In 1913, Laura Lyons and her family move to New York City from their quiet home in the country where her husband is the superintendent. His job allows them to live in the apartment hidden deep within the library. It’s a big change for the family, but not as big as the one that Laura seeks. She dreams of attending the Columbia School of Journalism and becoming a journalist.

With the help of family and friends, she manages to come up with the money for the year-long program. She not only learns how to investigate and write a story, she learns that there are women who have so much more freedom than she ever has. Laura gets caught up in the excitement, and it changes her life — and the lives of her family — immensely.

At the same time, some priceless books and manuscripts go missing, and everything points to her husband being the culprit. Laura knows this can’t be true, but is too caught up in her new life to take it as seriously as she might.

In the back-and-forth style so popular these days, the author also introduces us to Laura’s granddaughter Sadie, who is also a librarian at the same library in 1993. Ironically, she must also deal with books and manuscripts that are going missing, and she is a prime suspect. While trying to figure out what’s going on, she learns that a similar thing happened to her grandfather. Could the two things be related?

I will admit that this was not my favorite of Fiona Davis’ novels. That prize goes to The Chelsea Girls, a novel about the McCarthy hearings. But as a lover of books, and a HUGE fan of libraries, I found the book references interesting, and the clear love of literature shown by the main characters heart-warming.

Part mystery, part romance, part women’s fiction, The Lions of Fifth Avenue makes for a decent read.

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 Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Earlier this year when we were really pretty confined to our homes and there was little else to do but read, I read a surprisingly good novel called Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I say surprisingly because the format was very unusual, written as an oral biography. Normally I like more traditional formats. But once I started reading it, I was drawn in completely. I reviewed that book here. 

To be completely honest, I didn’t realize that the author of that book was the same as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo until I was through a couple of chapters. I should have, however, because once again the format was somewhat unusual. While much traditional than Daisy Jones, it still took a bit of getting used to.

Evelyn Hugo was a poor Cuban-American girl who grew up in NYC with an abusive father. She was determined to get out of her situation. She knew it was possible because she was simply beautiful. Movie star beautiful. As soon as she could, she used her beauty to get out of NYC and into movies. This led to that, and she eventually became famous, in fact, a Hollywood institution.

And now she is ready to tell her story. But she will only tell her story to an unknown writer named Monique Grant. Nobody is more confused than Monique herself as to why the Hollywood legend insisted on her writing the biography. Evelyn insists on only one thing: Monique must tell Evelyn’s true story, every bit of it.

We learn about the actress via her interviews with Monique. And she breaks down her story by each husband.

“Who was the love of your life?” Monique asks the actress early on. The truth, in fact, many truths, came as a surprise to this reader. Through the interviews, we learn about the strength of one woman to change her very world. We learn the true meaning of love.

It was a wonderful book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Mr. Mercedes

I love mysteries and thrillers, and I thought I knew all of the established authors of books from this genre. So it was with great surprise that I discovered a three-book mystery series that began in 2014, written by Stephen King. I have not read King’s previous novels, because I’m not a fan of horror stories that involve snarling dogs or murderous cars. Give me a good ghost story any day. But I did read and review his memoir/writing textbook called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craftand liked it oh-so-much, despite my dislike in general of most memoirs. The book gave me a flavor of King’s writing, which is amazingly good.

Mr. Mercedes is the first in the trilogy starring retired police detective Bill Hodges. Hodges is bored to death with retirement, and sick of sitting in his chair in front of the television watching Judge Judy. He has, in fact, contemplated taking his own life.

And then he receives a letter from an anonymous person who claims it was he who drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd of people at a job fair, killing eight and injuring many more. Hodges had worked the case after it happened, but he and his partner were unable to get a handle on the murderer before the police detective retired. The letter contains enough information that was never told to the public to make Hodges believe the sender really is who he claims.

Meanwhile, Brady Hartsfield is jonesing to have another go at murdering a crowd of people, and is waiting for the right time and event. In the meantime, he continues to send letters to Hodges containing information that leads the detective to know he is being watched.

Hodges has renewed energy as he attempts to find the murderer before he kills again.

Friends, I couldn’t put the book down. It is clear that Stephen King could write a book in any genre. I can’t wait to read the second novel in the trilogy.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Distant Dead

Sometimes characters in books seem like paper dolls with painted on smiles and personalities that are ablaze with bright but unrealistic color. In The Distant Dead by Heather Young, the characters are complex and realistic, living with broken dreams and grit sprinkled with hope.

Young Sal Prentiss walks into the fire station of his small Nevada town one morning to report that he just discovered the body of Adam Merkel, his math teacher. Merkel had been burned alive. Sal was particularly shocked because he and Merkel had developed a close relationship.

Nora Wheaton is the social studies teacher, and about the only person with whom Merkel had connected. She grew up in the town but had hoped to use her archeology degree to get away from Nevada and see the world. Unfortunately, she is forced to care for her aging and ill father, who still mourns the death of a son.

Nora wants to find out the truth about Merkel’s death, not in small part because she feels sorry for Sal, who lost his mother to a drug overdose and lives with his strange and creepy uncles. As she continues to dig, she learns unexpected truths about Merkel, about Sal, about his mother, and about his uncles. She also learns that happiness can come from unexpected places.

I enjoyed the story about small town secrets, both good and bad. The characters were interesting and believable.  The ending was hopeful, though the book was fairly dark. I will definitely read the author’s debut novel, The Lost Girls.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: These is My Words

I love books that take place during the days of the pioneers. Oh, I know. We aren’t supposed to like pioneers any more. I can’t help it. I find that period fascinating. I had an unusual break between books that have been pouring in from the library as of late. I took the opportunity to reread a book that I read many moons ago, and really enjoyed: These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, by Nancy E. Turner.

One of the reasons I enjoyed the book the first time — and again this time — is because it takes place in the Arizona Territory in the late 1880s. Since I am a part-time resident of Arizona, I am particularly interested how that uniquely-western state was founded.

The book is unusual in that it is written entirely as a journal. The journal’s author is young Sarah Prine, who documents her family’s travels from their original home in the northwest United States to the Arizona Territory. Land was available at a cheap rate for those brave enough to face the obvious dangers and willing to work hard.

In addition, the diary continues after they have settled and become successful ranchers. Their imminent success didn’t come easy, and the tales she tells of Indian attacks and robbers and rattlesnakes and birthing children in the wilderness are as interesting as they are horrifying. I enjoyed every word of the book.

The author goes on to write two more novels, making the books a trilogy. Sarah’s Quilt and The Star Garden are equally good, at least as I remember.

The books make me glad I live in the 21st Century, even with a pandemic.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Silence

For some reason, despite living right now in one of the most difficult times in my life thanks to COVID-19, the book styles of my choice has been mysteries and thrillers. Susan Allott’s debut novel The Silence caught my eye, and then delivered big time.

It’s 1997, and Isla Green — newly sober and hanging on by a thread — receives a phone call from her father Joe. He tells her that their old neighbor (and Isla’s babysitter) Mandy, who has been missing for 30 years — has been discovered, unfortunately dead. She had been in a troubled marriage, and most people believed she had fled and started a new life somewhere. Unfortunately for Joe, he is believed to be the last one to see her prior to her going missing, and therefore has become the prime suspect.

Isla reluctantly returns to the former home in Australia that she had gladly fled years before to provide support for her father. She is surprised when she learns that her mother isn’t so sure that her father isn’t guilty.

Isla begins looking into things, and it isn’t long before she starts learning family secrets — both about her father and her mother, but also about her neighbor Mandy and Mandy’s husband Steve.

Allott’s novel delve into substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness, but in a way that is intelligent, and not preachy. One of the saddest facets of the story was learning that the colonial Australians — under the guises of good will — would remove without permission children of Aboriginal natives who they believed could live a better life in a white family. It was very sad.

The Silence provided me a meaty read with plenty of clever and surprising twists and taught me a few things to boot. I liked the book very much.