Friday Book Whimsy: The Book of Polly

Having (thankfully) not had the angst so typical between teenage girls and their mothers, I generally have little interest in reading coming-of-age books. There have been a few exceptions. For example, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, was one of the best books I read in 2013. (That reminds me; I should reread.)

I made an exception also for The Book of Polly, by Kathy Hepinstall, quite simply (I’m somewhat embarrassed to say) because of its title. How can that title not intrigue a reader? The book was wonderful, even beyond its title.

When the book begins, Willow is 10 years old. Her mother, Polly, gave birth to her when she was in her late 50s – a miracle birth of sorts. Willow’s father died while Polly was pregnant, so she never knew him. But with an older mother and no father, Willow lives in fear that her mother will die and leave her all alone.

As for Polly, she is a feisty southern woman who lives for gardening, her margaritas, and her daughter. Despite her love for Willow, she is tough as nails, recognizing that she has to prepare her for a world without her in it for much of Willow’s life.

Willow’s fear of losing her mother leads to her beginning to search for clues about her mother’s past, a search that takes several years. Polly has no interest in sharing her secrets with her daughter, leaving Willow to wonder why her mother left her small town in Louisiana and why she refuses to talk about it. It isn’t until tragedy strikes that she agrees to take Willow back to her home town.

The Book of Polly is sad in parts, and laugh-out-loud in other parts. Its characters are likeable and mostly believable, if somewhat bigger than life. Polly quickly became one of my favorite book characters in recent memory.

The ending was satisfying, something that can make or break a book for this reader.

Treat yourself to this poignant story of love.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb: A Novel

I will be completely honest here. I didn’t even know that Tom Thumb was a real person. As far as I knew, Tom Thumb was no more than the character in a book of old fairy tales that was on the bottom shelf of our bookshelf when I was growing up. So I certainly didn’t know that there was a Mrs. Tom Thumb.

Author Melanie Benjamin has fictionalized the life stories of a number of famous people, including Anne Morrow Lindbergh (the wife of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, and herself an author and aviator) in The Aviator’s Wife;  and Hollywood legends Mary Pickford and Frances Marion in The Girls in the Picture. Benjamin seems to do a very good job of researching her characters, at least based on the information I gleaned from Wikipedia as a read The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb: A Novel.

Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump was born in Massachusetts in 1841. She was one of two daughters born to loving parents. She was exceptional in that she was 2.66 feet tall and weighed 29 lbs. as an adult. She was what is referred to as a proportionate dwarf, meaning that while extremely small, her extremities were proportionate to her size. Her sister Minnie was even tinier.

It being the mid-1800s, opportunities for all women were scarce, and for a woman the size of a large doll, the prospects would seem to be even direr. Nevertheless, she became a teacher, and was quite successful. And yet, she was bored with her life. Her desire to travel took her down an unfortunate road until she met the famed showman P.T. Barnum. Barnum had already made a very successful career for Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, and also a proportionate dwarf.

The two eventually fell in love and married, in what was the wedding of the year in New York City. The story of their fame, their career, their relationship to Barnum, and their life in the spotlight was ABSOLUTELY FASCINATING. I simply couldn’t put the book down. I was grateful to be reading the novel as an e-book because I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I stopped to look up some information about Lavinia Warren (which became her stage name), Gen. Tom Thumb, P.T. Barnum, and the other performers who they loved like family. The most amazing thing about their lives was how their fame allowed them to rub shoulders with high society in 1900 New York City.

I read the book just before seeing the The Greatest Showman – the movie about P.T. Barnum – and it was fun to be familiar with some of the characters in that movie.

I heartily recommend The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb: A Novel. While it is important to keep in mind that it is fiction, the book was wonderfully researched and incredibly readable.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Tuscan Child

I will admit to being a fan of the lighthearted Her Royal Spyness mystery series by author Rhys Bowen. The novels are easy reading and somewhat quirky. And I won’t hesitate to be intrigued by any novel that takes place in Italy, particularly Tuscany. So The Tuscan Child, by Rhys Bowen, caught my eye immediately.

Towards the end of World War II, British pilot Hugo Langley is shot down by the Germans, but survives the crash of his airplane by parachuting into the grounds of an abandoned monastery just outside of a German-occupied Italian village in the heart of Tuscany. He would have died except that he was discovered by a young Italian woman named Sofia Bartoli as she gathers food for her starving family. She secretly bandages his wounds and keeps him fed, risking her life and the lives of her family. Days pass, and in the easy manner of many novels, love ensues. When the village is liberated, the British army takes Langley back to Great Britain to heal from his accident. Rumor has it that Sofia is seen driving away with a German officer. So, with great sadness, he puts Sofia in the past, and eventually he marries and has a daughter.

Fast forward to contemporary times, and his daughter Joanna, who has never been close to her father, returns to bury him following his death. As she is going through his things, she stumbles upon a letter he wrote to a mysterious woman named Sofia. It is clear that he loved her very much. What’s more, he talks in his letter about “their golden child” being safe.

What? Joanna knows nothing about a love affair prior to her mother, or a sibling. So, in the way of many novels, she puts her life on hold and travels to the Tuscan village to try and discover her father’s secrets. Perhaps the mysterious Sofia is still alive.

The Tuscan Child is not the Great American Novel. The plot is familiar and the characters are somewhat one-dimensional. But what makes The Tuscan Child a book to be read is the imageries of the countryside of Tuscan Italy, and the mouthwatering discriptions of the food. It is simply a book that nearly DEMANDS a glass of wine and a plate of spaghetti while being read.

Lovers of All Things Italian: This is a novel for you.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Broken Girls

Simone St. James is the author of a series of books, all ghost stories. Ghost stories have never been my cup of tea, but The Broken Girls intrigued me. I decided to turn on the lights to keep the ghosts at bay and give the book a try.

It’s been 20 years since Fiona Sheridan’s sister Deb was found dead on the grounds of a boarding school called Idlewild in a small Vermont town.  Despite the fact that a man was arrested and has been imprisoned for the murder, Fiona hasn’t come to grips with her sister’s death. Something doesn’t seem right. Now, as part of her job as a journalist, she learns that the school—long closed and reportedly haunted—is about to be rehabilitated and reopened.

What Fiona doesn’t know is that 20 years before her sister was killed, another girl went missing from Idlewild, which at that time was a boarding school for throw-away girls: illegitimate, unloved, without parents. So when a body is dug up during the reconstruction, Fiona throws herself into learning the secrets of Idlewild and the truth about her sister’s death.

Part mystery, part thriller, part ghost story, I couldn’t stop reading this book. I’m generally not fond of ghost stories, generally finding them somewhat silly, but Mary Hand—the unsettled ghost who can’t find rest at Idlewild—seemed to enhance the story rather than distract. I found all of the female characters to be strong and interesting. I especially loved the four roommates who kept each other strong in the 1950 story line.

The ending was delivered with a twist, and was quite satisfying. All in all, I enjoyed The Broken Girls very much.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Other Daughter

Author Lauren Willig is perhaps best known for her Pink Carnation series, of which I’ve read exactly none. But given that I’ve liked her writing in other stand-alone books, I decided to give The Other Daughter a try.

Rachel Woodly has been tutored, loved, and taught genteel manners by her hard-working mother after her father doesn’t return from a trip. Rachel was told that he died, and because he died so far away (and it was the 1920s), he was buried where he passed away.

She takes a job as a governess for a wealthy society family. She is traveling with the family in France when her mother takes ill. Rachel doesn’t receive word of her mother’s illness until it’s too late. By time she gets home, her mother has passed away.

While cleaning up her mother’s house, she comes across a newspaper clipping that shows a recent photo of her father – not dead, but instead, quite alive, and an Earl with an entire separate family. Rachel is unable to come to grips with this shocking information, and decides to pass herself off as a society woman with the help of a wealthy acquaintance in order to confront her father.

Her plan works, but she unexpectedly grows to like the woman who is her half-sister. Drama ensues as Rachel learns the truth about what happened between her mother and father, and why he has a whole new life. The story is quite compelling.

Willig is a very good writer, and her story kept me turning pages. The Other Daughter is one of her few attempts at writing a novel with a single perspective instead of the back-and-forth-in-time perspectives that have become so popular. I think that was one of the things I liked best about this book.

I enthusiastically recommend The Other Daughter.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Girl Who Takes an Eye For An Eye

Lisbeth Salander is not for everyone, and The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, the fifth in the so-called Millennium Series that started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, won’t be a book that everyone would want to read.

The original author, Stieg Larsson, passed away a few years ago, and the series was taken over fairly seamlessly by an author named David Lagercrantz, who has managed to keep the flavor of the books. Both the original author and the new author are Swedish, and I find that the translations make the writing style very unique.

The main character, Lisbeth Salander, is also unique in that she is strong, brilliant, absolutely without emotion, and yet fights strongly for herself and anyone else she believes is being treated unfairly. In The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, Lisbeth manages to save a young Islamic woman who is in prison with her from the woman’s evil brothers, and fights off a prison gang leader who has Lisbeth in her sights. She, along with one of the very few people she trusts – journalist Mikael Blompkvist – work together to  uncover a secret plan from years ago in which parents of twins were unwillingly required to separate their children for scientific research.

The books are brutal in nature, and usually have quite vivid sex scenes, though this one didn’t. I will admit that they are not my favorite mysteries, but there is something very compelling about the main character and the paths she follows that make me continue to enjoy the series.

If you have read the rest of the series, you can’t stop now!

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Dry

The Dry, by Jane Harper, takes place in a small town in Australia, the kind of small town where everybody knows everyone else’s family and has their nose into who’s doing what. It’s from that small town that Australian Federal Agent Aaron Falk escapes after one of his friends is found dead decades before, and he was a suspect in her murder. Now, his childhood BFF Luke – who provided Aaron’s with an alibi that kept him from being arrested – has died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, after killing his wife and his young son.

So, after all this time, Falk returns home for the funeral, and to try and come to grips with how this friend could have possibly done something so uncharacteristic, so against his nature. Well, it turns out that Luke’s parents also don’t believe it, and they convince Falk – who isn’t a homicide investigator, but instead conducts financial investigations – to, well, investigate.

But here’s the thing: Falk knows that the alibi that Luke provided years ago was a lie; however, he also knows that he was innocent of the crime. Could the two murders be connected in some way? He reluctantly agrees to spend a few days looking into the deaths.

The author doles out the secrets of both crimes little by little, leaving the reader to suspect different people throughout the book. The plot is set against the worst drought in a century. The writing is so good that you can practically fill the heat and hear the crunch of the grass as the characters walk through the plot.

I found the solution unpredictable almost to the end of the book, though I will admit to figuring it out just a bit before the detective.

The Dry is the first in a series, and her second book – Force of Nature — was released this past February. I’m eager to see if it’s as good as The Dry.

Here is a link to the book.