Friday Book Whimsy: The Guncle

I’ve read lots of books this year that I have really liked, but thus far, there’s not a single book that I would have described as delightful. The Guncle,, by Steven Rowley, changed all of that. The book was absolutely DELIGHTFUL.

Patrick loves his niece Maisie and his nephew Grant, and they love him. Once a year or so, he even has them fly to California and spend a week or so with him. But when this sister-in-law (who also happens to have been his very best friend) dies of cancer, and his brother has a health crisis of his own, he is unprepared to become the kids’ guardian for an entire summer. However, he accepts the challenge because that’s what family does.

Maisie and Grant love their uncle (who they know as Gay Uncle Patrick, GUP for short), but they are not prepared to live life with a single man who is already reeling from the loss of his own beloved partner from injuries incurred in a car crash. Patrick is not just gay and single, but is easily recognizable as a former television star who had played lead in a comedy sitcom. He does the very best that he can, and provides a safe, if unique, environment for the kids as they grieve the loss of their mother.,

I love the character of Gay Uncle Patrick, who, despite being unfamiliar with raising two children, especially two children who are lost without their mother and father, is committed to providing a loving environment while helping them recover.

If I wasn’t laughing at their shenanigans, I was crying at the poignant and loving relationship between GUP and his niece and nephew. Helped along by a cast of interesting and relatable characters, The Guncle, will be one of my favorite books or the year, and perhaps of all time. I rarely buy a book, but I will purchase this book and reread it again and again.

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: Later

Hard Case Crime is a collection of hardboiled detective stories, some old reprints, some newer novels, written by a large number of different authors. Most of the authors’ names are familiar: Donald Westlake, Earl Stanley Gardner, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, to name just a few.

One of the more familiar contributors to this collection is the oh-so-prolific author Stephen King. King is most well-known for his horror collection of books, many which have been made into spooky movies. But he has written a few detective/mystery books, and the ones I’ve read are as well-plotted as he scarier stories.

Later, by Stephen King, is one of the books in the Hard Case Crime collection, which is how it caught my eye. As usual, King did not disappoint.

Jamie Conklin is a young kid much like every other pre-teen. There is one distinct difference between Conklin and others: he is able to see an talk to dead people, primarily those who have died recently. He has admitted his “gift” to his mother, who has urged him to keep his secret to himself. Unfortunately, she doesn’t follow her own advice, and tells her girlfriend — a corrupt NYPD cop — about Jamie’s abilities. She immediately sees how this gift could help her advance her career and make good — if illegal — money out of the deal.

Jamie gets caught in the crossfire between his mother and his mother’s girlfriend, much to his dismay. And just when things are getting dangerous, help comes from an unexpected, if reluctant, ally. Parts of the book are plain scary!

King’s ability to combine pure mystery with just enough horror to keep it interesting makes for a really readable novel. Jamie is very likable, and the reader empathizes with the pull between his desire to keep his mother safe and helping a corrupt cop with her dastardly crime. I could almost feel Jamie’s preteen angst.

I really enjoyed Later.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Rose Code

I thought I had it up to HERE reading books that take place during World War II. I’ve read about this war from the perspectives of the British, the Americans, the French, and the Italians. What more could I possibly read?

The Rose Code, by historical novelist extraordinaire Kate Quinn, offered me a new perspective on a platter — a novel about the brilliant men and (mostly) women who worked at Bletchley Park, where the people who broke German military codes supposedly shortened the war by years.

The Rose Code features three very different female protagonists. There is Osla, a rich debutante who was presented to society in front of the king and queen. She yearns, however, to leave her social status behind and be something important in the world. She is dating the handsome Prince Phillip of Greece, before he becomes smitten with Princess Elizabeth.

Mab grew up poor on the the East End of London. Her childhood was difficult. She is determined to meet and marry someone who can bring her up in the world, and believes using her brains to decode military secrets can bring her towards that end.

Beth is quiet and mousy, kept ignorant of her own brilliance by an abusive mother and a father who refuses to stand up for her. She meets the other two women who are billeted at her home, and it is through them that she is brought into Bletchley Park to find and use her brilliant mind.

The three women go on to discover the presence of a traitor, and work together to expose him to the military. While doing so, they go through their individual joys and sorrows, all leading to the book’s climax.

The author gives such a wonderful picture of what went on at Bletchley Park, both the good and the bad. Being so intelligent — and doing important work on which the balance of the war could rest — created an experience of the war that is very different than others’. Insanity can lie just on the other side of brilliance.

The Rose Code will definitely be one of my favorite books — if not my favorite — of 2021.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Sanatorium

Picture this: You’re at a fancy hotel in an isolated town located in the Swiss Alps. It starts to snow, and soon turns into a blizzard. An avalanche prevents anyone from getting in or out of the hotel. All of this sounds bleak enough, but then people start being killed.

Sound like And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie?

Well, no one can compare to Ms. Christie, but author Sarah Pearse does a darn good job of tell a chilling tale in her debut novel, The Sanatorium.

Elin is taking a break from her job as a London police detective to meet her brother and his fiance at a brand new minimalist hotel outside of the ski village of Crans-Montana, Switzerland. Her brother Isaac and his fiance Laure are celebrating their engagement. The hotel was formally a sanatorium for people with TB, but has long been vacant.

Elin and her brother Isaac have been estranged for some time because Elin blames Isaac for the drowning death of their brother. She agrees to meet them in Crans-Montana to give him a chance to explain exactly what happened. Elin’s boyfriend Will joins her.

It isn’t long before one of their party is lost while skiing, and evidence points to her being pushed off the side of the mountain. A short time later, an avalanche surrounds the area with snow and prevents anyone from coming or going, including the police. Out of necessity, Elin — using her detective experience — begins to investigate.

But then more people are killed, one by one, and it has to be one of their party who is the murderer. Could it be Isaac?

There is just the right amount of creepiness in the hotel, with its retched history, its stark decor, and the blizzard separating them from the rest of the world. Pearse’s writing is as stark and creepy as the hotel itself. The author made the reader feel the cold as well as the fear that they might be the next victim. I felt like there were a few too many side stories, and that took away from what is a great mystery.

All in all, I recommend the book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Chicken Sisters

I will admit that the first thing that drew me to this book was the title. I then learned that the story was about two families who are fighting over fried chicken. Boom! I was hooked, and set out on a chicken adventure — The Chicken Sisters, by K.J. Dell’Antonia.

A small town in Kansas is the home of two fried chicken restaurants run by separate families. Both make fried chicken — one pan fries and the other deep fries. The sisters who now own the restaurants hail from the two families who have been feuding for over 100 years as to who makes the best fried chicken. is it Chicken Mimi’s or is it Chicken Frannie’s.

The feud reached the boiling point when one of the daughters — Amanda — married the son of the other family. It has reached the point where neither restaurant is making money. So Amanda reaches out to a food network that features a program — Food Wars — that pits rival restaurants against each other. The network selects the two restaurants for their program. That’s when the fun and fury begin.

At the same time that Amanda is appealing to Food Wars, her sister Mae loses her NYC television job. She doesn’t particularly care about her mother’s restaurant, but she sees Food Wars as being a stepping stone to a national career.

The competition starts out slowly, but quickly becomes, well, a war. What was once a simple rivalry becomes a mud-slinging and finger pointing disaster. Will this family be saved? Will the restaurants survive? Who will win the chicken war?

The story is mostly a light-hearted look at small town politics and the importance people place on their local restaurants. Underneath, however, there are some important messages about social media, mental illness, and the importance of families.

I enjoyed The Chicken Sisters very much.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Wife Upstairs

I first read Jane Eyre, By Charlotte Bronte, sometime in high school, and it has remained one of my favorite novels. It has everything a reader needs in a gothic thriller. There is a plain orphan who grows up and is hired by a handsome widower who lives in a mansion in the English countryside. You root for Jane — who runs into obstacles again and again — throughout the book. It has a happy, yet unexpected, ending.

Rachel Hawkins, author of The Wife Upstairs, gives away any surprises simply by comparing her novel to Jane Eyre, something she does in her foreward. She loved Jane Eyre just as I did. Hawkins took on the difficult task of writing a novel with a comparable storyline.

Hawkins’ Jane escapes her past by running away to Birmingham, Alabama. She barely makes a living by walking dogs in a neighborhood of made up of newly-rich 30-somethings. She subsidizes her salary by stealing their jewelry that she knows the bored housewives won’t ever miss. Jane looks at her employers with a mixture of loathing and envy.

That changes when she meets Eddie Rochester, a handsome widower whose wife died in a boating accident. The two of them hit it off, and before she can say McMansion, he has asked her to move in with him and make the house her home. But it’s hard to get past Eddie’s wife’s legacy. Bea was brilliant and beautiful and the owner and CEO of a popular line of home goods and jewelry. Still, his interest in her seems real, and, after all, he gave her free reign to use his credit card. And he has even proposed to her. She begins planning their wedding, when she discovers a big surprise.

Jane Eyre and The Wife Upstairs have similar stories. The difference, however, is that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane was a sympathetic — even loveable — character. The fiery Mr. Rochester was heartbreakingly sad and sexy. The best friends — Helen, in particular — were good women who endured tough lives.

On the other hand, Hawkins’ Jane is inherently unlikeable. Her so-called friends are shallow and back-stabbing. Even Hawkins’ Mr. Rochester is dull and uninteresting. Nevertheless, the author’s writing is very good, and the story — while predictable — still kept me interested.

I can’t enthusiastically proclaim it to be the best thriller I’ve read this year, but I would recommend it to those who like thrillers, even if it’s just to see how the Other Half lives.

Friday Book Whimsy: Better Luck Next Time

Julia Claiborne Johnson wrote one of my favorite books of all time: Be Frank With Me. My fondness for that book made it an easy decision to read Better Luck Next Time, the author’s latest novel.

It’s 1938, and it’s not as easy to get a divorce as it is nowadays. So rich women with cheating or abusive husbands came to a dude ranch in Reno, Nevada, where they spend the necessary six weeks to become a Nevada resident at which time they can easily divorce their husbands. The dude ranch — the Flying Leap — provideed women with a pleasurable experience while they waited out the six weeks. The ranch catered exclusively to these women.

Ward came to work at the ranch after his family lost all of their money in the stock market crash. He is handsome, fun, and knows how to keep a secret. And these women have lots of secrets to keep. He became particularly close to Nina — whose time at the dude ranch wasn’t her first. Nina not only befriends Ward, but also young Emily, who has left her abusive husband in San Francisco, and a teenage daughter who is taking her father’s side.

Nina teaches Emily about life, fun, and friendship. With Ward’s help, Emily experiences life in a way she never thought possible.

The author develops likeable characters with interesting lives. I was rooting for the band of women who are leaving their comfortable lives with their wealthy families and learning how to live on their own.

I enjoyed the novel very much.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

I’ve been a fan of Agatha Christie almost since I learned to read. Dame Christie helped define my taste in literature. I learned to love the mystery book genre by following the activities of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Tuppence and Tommy taught me how to work together as husband and wife to solve a murder, a skill that I shockingly haven’t had the opportunity to put to use.

And yet, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned about Agatha Christie’s personal mystery. In 1926, Mrs. Christie went missing for 10 days. She drove away from her house just after lunch, and her car was discovered not far from her home. Mrs. Christie was no where to be found, and her winter coat was in the back seat, despite the frigid weather. It became a worldwide news story. She was later found at a hotel not very far from her home, and claimed she had amnesia. Though many theories were put forth, the mystery was never satisfactorily solved.

Author Marie Benedict presents her own theory in the historical novel The Mystery of Mrs. Christie. Ms. Benedict’s theory is as good as — and perhaps better — than any I’ve heard. And it made for a clever story.

Agatha Christie was born into a upper class family in England. In 1914, she married handsome Archie Christie after dating only a few months. In 1916, she wrote her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Her career was off and running.

At first the marriage was a good one. She gave birth to a daughter, and the two were very happy. And then Archie became bored with marriage, jealous of her success, and began a relationship with another woman. Mrs. Christie suspected his daliance, and shortly after, she disappeared.

Just like in an Agatha Christie’s novel, Benedict’s story is carefully laid out, doling out hints and secrets like Hercule Poirot. While we all know how the story ends, it was fun to read about one person’s solution to the mystery.

I loved this novel, and recommend it to mystery readers, particularly any Agatha Christie fans. As you well know, her writing career went on for many more years.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Authenticity Project

One of my favorite books from 2020 was Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby. I reviewed it here. Based on my strong recommendation, my sister Bec read it. I asked her what she thought, and she told me, though she thought the writing was amazing, the story was too depressing for this period when life itself is difficult. Fair enough, I told her. But I went on, I have a book recommendation for you that will be perfect.

I had just finished reading The Authenticity Project, and the delightful story of friendship and, well authenticity, left me feeling good about the world. I knew it would strike the perfect cord for her and anyone else who needs cheering up during this difficult period. The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley, is story of unrelated people with secrets to share who find each other through a notebook,

SeptuagenarianĀ Julian Jessop is an artist who has been driven crazy from loneliness since his wife died. Even after five years, he mostly stays in his junky apartment and has pushed away all of his former friends. He is convinced that everyone is living a false life what with Instagram and Twitter and Tik Tok. So he decides to create the Authenticity Project. Using a plain lined spiral notebook, he explains that whoever finds the notebook should write the TRUE story of his or her life. He starts it off by writing about his own sadness at the loss of his wife. He drops it off in a nearby coffee shop.

Monica — the owner of the shop — finds the notebook, and decides to participate. She writes her truth, and leaves it out on a table. From there, the notebook begins its journey that ends up changing people’s lives.

The book’s premise is interesting, and the author’s characters are quirky and unforgettable. There is a drug and alcohol addict who is determined to change his life by sobering up. There is a new mother who is exhausted from caring for her baby, but paints a perfect life on Instagram. You get the picture. The notebook encourages honesty.

The Authenticity Project was a pleasant read, and left me thinking about characters in a way I normally don’t.

Here is a link to the book.