Friday Book Whimsy: House at the Edge of Night

My husband and I were lucky enough to spend three months in Europe a few years back. Nearly two of those three months were in Italy. While I don’t have a drop of Italian blood in me, I’m convinced I lived in Italy in a former life! From the time I first stepped foot into the country, I fell in love with the people, the climate, the food, the art, and the culture.

Reading The House at the Edge of Night, by Catherine Banner, was a bit like sitting at a table all day on a piazza in an Italian hill town watching the villagers live their lives. The author managed to successfully capture the flavor of the people of this wonderful country nearly perfectly.

The House at the Edge of Night is a multigenerational saga of a family who lives on the fictional island of Castellamare in southern Italy near Sicily. Amedeo Esposito is an orphan who is taken under the wing of a doctor in Florence. He takes his last name and follows his lead in the medical field. He winds up on Castellamare, where the native people eye him suspiciously – as Italians are wont to do. Eventually he marries his beautiful wife named Pina who is strong-willed and smart as can be. Though it takes a bit, the locals eventually accept him as one of their own.

Unfortunately, Amedeo makes a big mistake that results in two babies being born on the same night – one to his wife and one to the wife of the nasty Count who lives on the island. The Countess claims Amedeo is the baby’s father, and unfortunately, it could be true.

The story goes on from here, as Pino agrees to continue to live with him and raise their family. This leads to that, and Amedeo finally gives up his medical practice to open a café in his home, which is referred to as the house at the edge of night. This café takes on a life of its own, and as the years go by, the café itself is as much a character as the people who walk and talk.

Readers watch the wonderful characters that inhabit the island as they live through world wars, attempts to steal relics, an economic downturn that nearly cripples the population, love affairs, births and deaths. At the end of the day, however, it always comes back to the house at the edge of night.

I loved the story. I found its casual pace to be much like the casual pace of life in Italy. As the author described the food, and particularly the homemade limoncello and limettacello and arangcello that they drank morning, noon, and night, I could taste it. I could feel the hot sun on me as she described the town. I think she really captured the flavor of Italy.

It made me want to make sure my passport was updated!

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Our Year at War: Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided

I graduated from high school in May 1972. By that time, the Vietnam conflict was winding down. In fact, the draft ended in January 1973. The timing was such that I wasn’t directly impacted by the war. I remember seeing images every night on television – both images of the war and images of the protests. But I was not personally acquainted with anyone who was drafted into the military or went to Vietnam as a soldier.

The impact of the Vietnam War was much different for my sister who is five years older than I. She knew people who were drafted. She knew people who went to Vietnam. My only experience was hearing my friends talk about the draft lottery number of their brothers or cousins or acquaintances. Nevertheless, I remember it was a scary time.

Our Year at War: Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided, by Daniel Bolger, is the true story of two brothers from a small town in Nebraska who fought the war side-by-side, surviving, but leaving Vietnam with two different opinions. I’m not normally a reader of nonfiction, and a book about war would certainly not be of any interest to me. However, the two brothers featured in Bolger’s book – Chuck and Tom Hagel — happened to be from the town where I spent the first 18 years of my life. In fact, both of the boys attended the same small Catholic high school as I, though several years before me. Tom Hagel went to school with my sister.

This six degrees of separation caused me to read the fascinating – if horrifying – account of one of the most difficult times in U.S. history. Not only are the stories about the two young men from my home town interesting, but the details about the war itself are riveting. Since the war was still going on, I didn’t study it in school. Film depictions of the war are mostly one-sided and extremely troubling. Bolger provides mostly nonopinionated background as well as very detailed accounts of what brought about the war – which actually started much earlier than I had ever imagined — as well as the battles themselves.

The two brothers received extensive military recognition, including purple hearts and the bronze star. They literally served side-by-side, despite the laws which are supposed to prohibit brothers fighting in the same units. They were both injured, and narrowly escaped death on several occasions. They were courageous and dedicated. They, like all of the military men and women who fought in Vietnam, came home to a divided nation. And they were, themselves, divided.

One of the brothers went on to become a judge; the other went on to become a United States Senator from Nebraska and eventually the Secretary of Defense in the Obama Administration.

I will admit to a fair amount of skimming when it came to some of the details of the war planning. Still, I enjoyed the book very much and strongly recommend it, particularly for anyone interested in this period in US history.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Ashford Affair

I’m honestly beginning to think that the more prolific female fiction writers are starting to use plot templates that they got from a secret club to which they all belong, and they simply change the names, locales, and the precise situations to fit the template. What else could account for the oh-so-predictable story line of a busy contemporary professional woman running smack dab into the glass ceiling despite working harder than any man, and then finding out about a family secret that changes their life, while meeting the love of her life in the meantime? What follows is the inevitable back and forth between a character from the late 19th or early 20th century to a more contemporary heroine. It is starting to get so tiresome, and authors are starting to seem so lazy.

I’m afraid that my boredom with this plot technique colored my opinion of The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig. Willig is actually a good writer, so it is a disappointment to see her fall into this same trap. The Ashford Affair’s only saving grace – at least as far as this reader is concerned – is that some of the story takes place in Kenya which made the plot more interesting. The earlier time period is the early 1920s, and I happen to find this period in world history quite interesting.

Clementine Evans has worked her tail off pursuing her dream of making partner in the law firm in which she works in 1999. Unfortunately, her elderly grandmother Addie – who loved Clemmie very much and helped her deal with a disapproving mother – takes a turn for the worse, and is dying. Before she dies, Clemmie becomes aware of a secret that could change everything she knew about her family.

Flashback: Addie’s mother and father are killed when she is 5, and Addie is sent to live with a cold and uncaring aunt and uncle in England. Addie’s only friend is her cousin Bea, who, though only 7, is beautiful and already being groomed to marry well. The two become dear friends until they are grown up and Bea betrays Addie by stealing her boyfriend and marrying him.

Flash forward: When Clemmie’s grandmother dies, she goes to the funeral instead of a meeting she was expected to attend, and is turned down for partnership. Shock. So she and a distant cousin with whom she once had a fling decide to try and solve the mystery of their family’s background.

What follows is a predictable, if well-written, story that was a good enough read to keep me marginally engaged but predictable enough to make me work to try and keep from getting confused with other novels I’ve read.

I can’t unequivocally recommend the book unless you are in the mood for something that won’t require a lot of thinking.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Third Wife

Adrian Wolfe has been married three times. Twice divorced with children from each marriage, he has maintained friendships with all of his wives, and they with each other. The third try, however, doesn’t end on quite as positive a note. His third wife is hit by a bus one night after spending the evening drinking. Did she commit suicide? Was she pushed? And why was she out drinking anyway?

The author of The Third Wife is one of my favorite writers – Lisa Jewell. Her puzzlers are always truly puzzling and her characters are all realistic and flawed, but mostly likeable. This book was no exception. It was interesting to look at Adrian and his big, supposedly happy extended family and imagine that anyone could be so clueless as to think that all of this was as it appeared. It isn’t hard for the reader to put his or herself in Maya’s Third-Wife shoes and realize that it wasn’t all fun and games to be part of this whole scenario.

The author kept me wondering throughout the book. Who was sending Maya such mean emails? Do they all like each other as much as it seems? Did Maya jump or get pushed? I kept thinking that the answer was obvious, and yet again and again it became apparent that things weren’t always what they seemed.

I loved the ending of the book. It felt realistic to me and boded well for the future of the entire Wolfe clan.

Thumbs up on this book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The English Wife

Everything seemed a bit more scandalous in the 19th century, and The English Wife, by Laura Willig, tells a great story that takes place in the 19th century, rich in interesting characters and a lot of unexpected twists and turns served alongside the scandal.

The novel opens as the rich New York City aristocrat Bayard Van Duyvil and his English wife Annabelle are found murdered in the garden outside their home the night of their Twelfth Night party. They are discovered by his sister and his cousin, who hear his last word: George. The crime is initially considered a murder/suicide. However, Annabelle’s body was nowhere to be found. Still, the rumors of her having an affair with the architect who is building their fancy new home continue to feed the flames of speculation.

Bay’s sister Janie is certain her brother would not have killed his wife, and she also doesn’t believe that Annabelle would have had an affair, and sets out to solve the mystery. Assisting her is a journalist who is interested in solving the murder to have the scoop of the century.

Via flashbacks, we learn that Annabelle met Bayard in London where she was working as a burlesque dancer. After a brief courtship, she and Bayard move back to New York City where they live a perfect life.

Or is it? As Janie begins to investigate, she learns more than she ever imagined about her brother, his wife, and she and Bayard’s mother, a woman who thinks so much of herself that she looks down her nose at the Vanderbilts!

Willig dishes out the twists and turns with subtlety and imagination. There were times when I would read something and have to stop to think, “Did I know that?” Little by little, the mystery is solved and I found the ending to be quite unpredictable and satisfying.

I enjoyed this story very much.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: A Drop in the Ocean

A Drop in the Ocean’s protagonist Anna Fergusson is a Boston research scientist who studies Huntington’s Disease. Or at least she did until she lost her grant money. She is 49 years old and needs to make big changes in her life. She learns about an opportunity to manage a campground on a small island off of Australia for a year. Despite the fact that it is completely out of her comfort zone, Anna accepts the challenge and moves to the island.

There she lives a life that most of us dream about. The temperature is almost always warm, there are beautiful ocean views and breezes and smells. The people are friendly and the job is easy.

Anna becomes involved almost immediately with a man who studies the turtles that make their home on the island. She helps him with his work and is almost blissfully happy.

There isn’t really a whole lot more plot about which to speak, but somehow it works out fine. Author Jenni Ogden has written a story that just moves pleasantly from one place to another without a driving story to tell. There is some drama when Anna learns a dark secret about Tom that changes their relationship.  For the most part, however, the stories are about the life on a beautiful tropical island. There is a bit of a backstory regarding Anna’s father, but it really is sort of random and completely unconnected to the main plot.

A Drop in the Ocean is truly a light read when you are looking for a pleasant distraction that involves romance, a desert island, and maybe a pina colada in your hand.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Address

Back in 2016 I read (and reviewed) The Dollhouse, the debut novel by Fiona Davis, and LOVED IT. In that novel, Davis told the story of the Barbizon Hotel in New York City, a hotel for single women in New York City that opened in the 1920s.

In The Address, the star of the show is the famous Dakota Apartments located on the upper west side of NYC, just a stone’s throw from Central Park. Unfortunately, one of its more recent claims to fame was that it was where John Lennon – a Dakota resident — was shot and killed in 1980.

In 1884, working class Sara Smythe manages to make it to head housekeeper at a famous London hotel. She so impresses one of their residents – wealthy Theodore Camden —  that he coaxes her into leaving London and moving to New York City to become the manager of an apartment building for which he is the architect. Theodore offers opportunities to Sara that were virtually unthinkable in that day and age.

This leads to that, and they become romantically involved despite the fact that he is unhappily married.

Fast forward a hundred years and meet Bailey Campden, who is a kissing relative to the Campden family because her grandfather was the ward of Mr. Campden. Bailey is fresh out of rehab and looking to get her life back together. She moves into the apartment of her cousin, who is a direct descendent of Theodore Campden and who is – along with her brother – in line to inherit his fortune. Bailey’s job is to oversee the modifications of the apartment which has fallen into disrepair.

It is an interesting story line, and I loved learning about the Dakota. I was unaware, for example, that at the time it was built, it was flat out in the country. Residents looked out upon cows. It was a huge risk to build a luxury apartment in the mid- to late 1880s.

Having said that, I am quite frankly really tired of the back and forth between characters and time periods that authors seem to rely on these days. Not only that, but some of the story seemed quite a stretch, i.e. a period of time Sara spent in an insane asylum, where she is rescued by famous journalist Nellie Bly.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book enough to recommend it, especially for those interested in New York City as a story location. The history was interesting and I like the author’s writing style.

Oh, and the cover art is beautiful!

Here is a link to the book.