Friday Book Whimsy: The Masterpiece

I love books that provide me with a historical perspective. I especially love when I can learn something new from a novel. I realize a reader has to take care to remember that it is a novel; still, I always hope that the author has done enough research to make a reasonable attempt to educate their audience accurately.

Author Fiona Davis has written two previous historical novesl: the first — The Dollhouse — provided the reader with a clear picture of the famous Barbizon Hotel in NYC, where young women trying to become models or actresses or secretaries could live and feel safe. Her second novel — The Address — used the famous (or infamous) Dakota Apartment on NYC’s upper west side as its location. I liked that book a bit less than the author’s first. Still, I loved what I learned about perhaps the most well-known apartments in New York.

Fiona Davis takes the reader on an artistic journey with her third novel, The Masterpiece. The star of this novel is a real-life art school that existed in the 20s and 30s in Grand Central Terminal — The Grand Central School of Art. In the late 20s, Clara Darden teaches at the school. She is the lone female teacher, and struggles to maintain respect simply because she is a woman. Fifty years later, divorced Virginia takes a job — her first following her divorce — at Grand Central Terminal in the information booth. This leads to that, and she discovers a hidden painting by Clara Darden.

The reader is taken on a journey of two women becoming independent in different ways. The Masterpiece is also the story of Grand Central Terminal, and the art school that lived within. It was the work of some committed people that prevented Grand Central from being torn down and made into condos. Sound familiar?

I liked The Masterpiece a lot better than The Address. I felt the characters were much more realistic and the back stories were more interesting. It provided a history lesson while reading a book with interesting characters.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Bone on Bone

I don’t normally review books that are part of a series because oftentimes, if you haven’t read the series, you won’t understand what’s going on in this particular book.

I’m afraid this is true of Bone on Bone, by Julia Keller, but it doesn’t matter. Here’s why: If I can get just a couple of people to pick up the first book in this series –A Killing in the Hillsyou will be hooked.

The series takes place in a small town in West Virginia, not too far from Washington, D.C. Bell Elkins grew up in Acker’s Gap, and wanted nothing more than to get away from her small hometown. She was the daughter of an abusive father, and her mother was dead. Her sister Shirley went to prison for killing her father as it was looking like he would begin sexually abusing her like he was already doing to Shirley.

Bell grows up in foster care, and eventually goes to college, and then law school. She marries and has a daughter. She has a good life as an attorney in a major D.C. law firm until she realizes she is called to go back home to Acker’s Gap. She does so, and then becomes district attorney, where she faces all of the problems in small towns everywhere, mostly drug abuse.

Bone on Bone is the seventh book in the series. I don’t want to give you a lot of background because so much happens in books 1-6. Suffice it to say that Bone on Bone finds Bell facing a new beginning in Acker’s Gap.

The town is still facing a drug abuse crises – primarily opioid abuse. It is up to Bell and the former deputy sheriff who was seriously injured in Book 6 to come face to face with this crisis that is threatening to ruin the town she loves so much.

The Bell Elkins series by Julia Keller is meaty and gritty. The stories ring true and the characters are flawed but interesting and full of heart.

I can’t recommend the series enough. It isn’t light-hearted reading, but it is story-telling with a heart.

Here is a link to the book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Be Frank With Me

I approached Be Frank With Me, by Julia Claiborne Johnson, with some trepidation. After all, it was a debut novel in which the title character is 9 years old. Still, it was being compared to Where’d You Go, Bernadette – a book by Maria Semple – that I also approached with trepidation, and that book turned out to be one of my favorite books ever.  So I dug in. I’m still patting myself on my back for my great decision.

Alice Whitley is given an unusual assignment by the publisher for whom she works. She is to become the personal assistant to writer M.M. Banning (called Mimi), who is world-famous for a classic book she wrote when she was a young adult, but she hasn’t written a book since. She lives as a recluse of sorts with her 9-year-old son, Frank.

But the unconventional writer lost her fortune in a Ponzi scheme, and now she is forced to write another novel to pay her bills. Alice will handle her affairs and keep her on target while she writes. One of her main assignments is to take care of Frank.

Frank is not your ordinary 9-year-old. He has a photographic memory, he dresses like he is a movie star straight out of the 30s and 40s, and he has no filter. He says what he thinks and he thinks what he says. He is clearly a genius. While the author never even suggests that he is autistic, it’s what obviously comes to the reader’s mind.

But eccentric though he might be, that same reader will be unable to not fall in love with this child. He is innocent and wise beyond his years. He loves his mother and Mimi loves him right back. It is a sweet – if odd – relationship.

Alice’s fondness for Frank grows throughout the book, and she sets out to learn the secrets in Mimi’s (and therefore, Frank’s) past. Who is Frank’s father? Is it Xander, the odd fellow who shows up on occasion and gives Frank piano lessons? And what has made Mimi not write for so many years?

Like Alice, everyone who reads this book will fall in love with Frank. He is a character I will never forget. I hope Julia Claiborne Johnson doesn’t wait decades to write her next book as did Mimi because I am eagerly awaiting her next book.

Here is a link to the book.

 

Friday Book Whimsy: Then She Was Gone

I can’t believe that there are books written by author Lisa Jewell that I haven’t read, because every time I pick one up to read, I can’t put it down. She’s that good.

Then She Was Gone is no exception.

Laurel Mack’s 15-year-old daughter Ellie disappeared 10 years ago on her way to school. Laurel has been unable to get her life back into order following her disappearance. She is mentally unavailable for her other children and she and her husband eventually split up.

One day at a coffee shop, Laurel meets Floyd, and the two hit it off. He is handsome, kind, and funny, and seems to be the perfect man with whom Laurel can get back into the saddle. Except, when she meets his 9-year-old terribly precocious daughter Poppy, Laurel is amazed to see that she looks exactly like Ellie.

Nevertheless, the two become close, and Poppy grows to love Laurel. But is Floyd too clingy? And why-oh-why does Poppy look so much like her long-missing daughter?

In typical fashion, Jewell doesn’t try to fool the reader. We know pretty early on who kidnapped Ellie. However, I dare the reader to figure out why,however. Jewell hands out the books’ secrets little by little, like candy on Halloween.

Then She Was Gone was creepy and suspenseful, with lots of curve balls. I found the ending to be satisfying, if not exactly what I’d hoped for.

Highly recommend.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Glass Forest

There are books in the popular thriller genre that capture the reader right from the get go and don’t let go. Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna, (which I recently reviewed) was such a book. There are others that sneak up on you, sort of like Freddy Krueger hiding in the basement. The Glass Forest, by Cynthia Swanson, started sloooooow, but once it grabbed me, I kept on reading to see what would happen next.

It’s 1960, and 21-year-old Angie Glass is happily married to her husband Paul. They have the perfect life in a small town in Wisconsin, and have recently been blessed by the birth of a baby boy.

One day, Angie answers the telephone. On the other line is Paul’s 17-year-old niece Ruby. She informs Angie that her father — Paul’s brother Henry — is dead, and that her mother Silja is missing. Angie and Paul rush to their home in upstate New York. Ruby has visions of helping a inconsolable teenager. Instead, upon their arrival, they find a mysterious and perfectly calm teenaged girl.

As the story unfolds, we learn that neither Henry nor Paul are exactly who they appear to be. Through flashbacks of Ruby’s mother Silja, it becomes clear that Ruby doesn’t know her husband at all.

The story unfolds slowly, and I found myself both intrigued and disturbed at the same time. But one thing was for certain; I was unable to stop reading in my desire to find out the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I found I had to keep reminding myself that the story took place in 1960, which was why Angie was so meek and submissive to her husband. Still, the end of the story surprises the reader with the strength of the three women — Angie, Silja, and Ruby.

The Glass Forest was suitably creepy and readable.

Here is a link to the book.


 

 

Friday Book Whimsy: The Summer Wives

It’s 1951, and young Miranda Schuyler joins her mother on Winthrop Island. She is still reeling from the death of her beloved father in World War II. Her mother is finally beginning a new life by marrying one of the wealthy summer inhabitants of the island, Hugh Fisher, and everyone should be happy.

Shortly after her arrival, Miranda witnesses a young lobsterman diving from his boat to save another fisherman who has been knocked into the water. She runs to help and is immediately attracted to the young lobsterman, Joseph.

It isn’t long, however, before Miranda realizes that though the island’s inhabitants appear to get along, there is an invisible dividing line between the full-time residents and the rich summer residents. Furthermore, there is hanky-panky afoot; hence, the novel’s title: The Summer Wives.

Miranda returns to the island in 1969, and readers learn that much has happened in the interim, including Joseph being put in prison for murdering Miranda’s stepfather Hugh. But now Joseph has escaped and Miranda is suspected of hiding him.

In author Beatriz Williams’ typical style, the story is told from different perspectives and  even from different years. The story flows, however, despite the different viewpoints.

The author has made a career out of books featuring different members of the Schuyler family. It is even possible to obtain a family tree of the Schuyler clan.

The Summer Wives is one of my favorite books from this author.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Death of Mrs. Westaway

When author Ruth Ware comes out with a new novel, I always get sucked in by the title. The Woman in Cabin 10; In a Dark, Dark Wood; The Lying Game. Her latest thriller caught my attention for the same reason: its title. The Death of Mrs. Westaway sounds like it could have been written by Agatha Christie.

I have always been somewhat disappointed by Ware’s stories, however. Her writing is respectable and the stories are always interesting enough that I keep on reading. It’s generally her characters that I find troubling. I have to find something in a protagonist to like or the book will leave me dissatisfied.

I found The Death of Mrs. Westaway to lean somewhat in that direction; yet, I found the main character — a young woman named Hal — to be a bit more likable and less one dimensional.

Hal’s life is at its lowest point. Her mother (she never knew her father) has died. Hal’s career as a tarot card reader like her mother barely covers her living expenses. In fact, she is in debt to a low-life lender who has threatened death if she doesn’t fork up the money in short order. Money she simply doesn’t have.

And then she receives a letter telling her that her grandmother has died and she has been left an inheritance. Voila! This could be the answer to all of her money problems. There is only one problem. Her grandmother died years ago. The letter must have come to her in error. Still, what harm could there be in playing dumb and going to the funeral and the subsequent meeting with the lawyer?

Well, it turns out things get more and more complicated when Hal finds out that she not only was mentioned in the will, but Grandmother left her the whole shooting match — most of her money and the estate in which she lives. The estate which is INCREDIBLY SPOOKY. Hal’s new aunts and uncles aren’t thrilled with this notion, though they try to be nice to her.

But not only is the estate spooky, there is a very creepy housekeeper who dotes uncomfortably on one of Hal’s new uncles. This could be Mrs. Danvers’ (of Rebecca fame) younger sister.

While Hal’s new family appears to be understanding, it quickly becomes apparent that someone doesn’t want her to be around. And why are there pictures of her mother — her real-life mother who by all accounts isn’t even related — around the house?

The story is tied up quite satisfactorily if somewhat predictably. Still, I found this to be my favorite of all Ruth Ware’s novels. Having said that, I must tell you that The Death of Mrs. Westaway is no Rebecca by a long shot.

Here is a link to the book.