Friday Book Whimsy: Behind Her Eyes

In the past few years, I’ve become a fan of the so-called psychological thriller. Like the thousands and thousands of readers who, like me, got hooked on The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, I’ve read a number of books of this genre, trying desperately to find a worthy follow-up. Unfortunately, I’ve mostly been disappointed. For example, Girl on the Train’s author Paula Hawkins’ second novel, Into the Water, was a great disappointment.

Still, I forged on, and found myself reading Behind Her Eyes, by Sarah Pinborough. The book was described as an eerie thriller with an ending that would surprise and shock the reader. It seemed like a safe bet. I like a good ending. Gone Girl had a good ending. When I finished that novel, I literally through the book across the room in frustration. But it was a good frustration.

When I finished Behind Her Eyes, I didn’t throw the book across the room because these days I read on my iPad, but I wanted to. Unfortunately, not because of a good frustration, but because of my disappointment that I had spent so much time on the book and the ending was so incredibly STUPID.

Don’t get me wrong. I found much of the book to be a good yarn with thought-provoking characters. Sure, at times I had to suspend belief because of the unlikeliness of what was transpiring. But the characters, while not particularly likeable, were interesting.

Louise is a single mom, stuck in a boring office job. One night she goes out for a drink after work. She meets an good-looking man whom she finds interesting and easy to talk to. This leads to that, and they share a passionate kiss and he leaves. She expects to never see him again, but lo, and behold, it turns out that he is her new boss, something she learns the next day when she goes to work. Oh-oh.

Oh-oh, because he has photos of his gorgeous wife sitting on his desk. What’s more, he still can’t seem to keep his eyes off of Louise. Louise vows to herself to make certain nothing untoward happens, but accidentally befriends his wife. Belief-suspension kicked in, because this reader can’t even begin to understand how this happened, despite the author’s efforts to explain.

It isn’t long before Louise realizes that something is amiss in the marriage, but she can’t figure out who’s at fault. David (the boss) appears to be controlling and Adele (the wife) appears to be frightened of her husband. As for David, he continues to appear to be the kind of man who is sweet and loving. Louise spends most of the novel trying to figure out what’s happening.

It isn’t badly written. In fact, I enjoyed most of the novel. The conclusion, however, was so ridiculous (at least in this reader’s view) that I simply can’t recommend the book. It became clear as to why Behind Her Eyes got such mixed reviews from other readers.

So, read the book at your own risk!

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: The Girl From the Savoy

Having spent the past couple of years slogging my way through World War II historical novels, I have become somewhat addicted to stories that take place in a much more hopeful era – the Roaring Twenties. True, there were those poor souls returning from fighting in the horrific First World War, but in the 1920s, people were optimistic that things would be better and that they would be able to find alcohol even in the midst of temperance.

The Girl from The Savoy, a novel written by the prolific author Hazel Gaynor, tells the story of one young woman who was darkly impacted by World War I, but faces the future with great hope and spirit.

Dolly Lane, a talented dancer, has always dreamed of being in show business. Her dream conflicted with her love for hometown boyfriend Teddy, who is a victim of World War I. Through the help of a friend, Dolly gets a job as a housekeeper at London’s famed Savoy Hotel, where she hopes to become recognized by some of the famous show business people who live there.

She has a chance encounter with a young businessman as she rushes to work on the first day, and can’t begin to imagine how that encounter will impact her life. It isn’t long before Dolly answers an unusual ad to be a muse to a young songwriter. Through this position, she meets and becomes friends with well-known actress Loretta May, who will change Dolly’s life. But Loretta has her own sad secret. Wars have a way of affecting everyone in some way or the other.

Though Dolly is the star of the show, the novel is told in three separate voices. The author does a great job of keeping the voices unique but consistent, thereby eliminating confusion. It isn’t long before Dolly faces some difficult choices which will pave the way for the rest of her life.

The author is recognized as a romance writer, but the novel is not sappy-sweet and the characters are likeable. I love the descriptions of The Savoy Hotel, almost feeling its elegance. The ending is satisfying if somewhat predictable.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I’ll be perfectly honest. I mostly avoid reading books by Chinese authors if the stories are about life in China. I’m not anti-China; I just feel like the stories always move so slowly. So I wouldn’t have picked up Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, had it not been recommended by someone whose reading opinions I trust.

Though it wasn’t particularly a page-turner, I enjoyed the book and learned an incredible amount – much of it quite disturbing – about life in 19th and 20th Century China. Particularly life for women.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan takes place in a small village in 19th Century China, and tells the story of two friends – Lily and Snow Flower – and their incredibly difficult lives. They are more than just friends. They are laotong – or “old sames,” committed to each other for their entire lives.

The story is told from the perspective of Lily, now in her 80s. She tells not only the story of their friendship, but the story of the amazingly difficult lives led by the women in China during this time.  Girls were literally distained by their parents from birth on. The birth of a girl baby was a grave disappointment to both the mother and the father. The only purpose girls had was to work and take care of the family. Once a girl married, they moved to their husband’s house and took care of his family.

The most interesting – if disturbing – part of the book were the graphic details about foot binding, and the part it played in girls’ lives. It resulted in me looking into the practice in great detail with shear horror. Imagine having your foot broken over and over again, until it is a perfect four inches long. The women literally couldn’t walk.

But the story about the secret language and the writings that only women could understand were beautiful and quite interesting.

The writing is lovely, and it you don’t mind a rather slow read, this novel might be just for you.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Kiss Carlo

Novels by author Adriana Trigiani are always eagerly anticipated by this reader. I’ve been reading this prolific novelist’s works since the very beginning, with her Big Stone Gap novels. I loved the four Big Stone Gap novels because they had two things going for them  — they took place in Appalachia and they are about an Italian family.

I’m not Italian, but I think I was in a previous life.

Having said all of the above, I have been very disappointed in her last few novels. The Valentine series wore thin, with The Supreme Macaroni Company falling flat on its face. I found All of the Stars in Heaven to have an interesting premise, but was somewhat disappointed at the writing.

Still, as soon as Kiss Carlo was released, I read the book. With great gladness, I liked everything about it. Everything perhaps, except for the title, which never quite made sense to me. Nevertheless, I loved this book.

The story takes place following World War II, when south Philadelphia – along with the rest of the United States – was booming. The men were back from fighting, the GI bill and VA loans were making education and home ownership possible. Nicky Castone is sharing in the glory.

Nicky was left an orphan by the death of his mother and father when he was just a young boy. He was taken in and lovingly cared for by his aunt and uncle, who own a thriving cab/telegraph company in south Philly. Nicky drives one of the cabs, but secretly dreams of being an actor. He volunteers his time as a reader at a dying Shakespearean theater nearby. The theater is run by the beautiful and spirited Calla Borelli.

Nicky soon finds that these dreams are important enough that he moves away from the nest to New York City to become and actor in the early days of television. Will Nicky find his dream? Will the dream change him?

The novel is an amusing romp, and despite the fact that there are a lot of quotes from Shakespeare and some of the story lines parallel Shakespeare’s plays, the book is just plain fun. (Not that Shakespeare isn’t, mind you!) The dialogue is quick and clever and reminded of me of being around Italians during our visit to Europe in 2008. The conversations strike me as realistic and honest.

I recommend the novel.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Spider and the Fly

Before I review this book, I have to tell you a deep, dark secret. I sort of, kind of, like to read about real-life murder and real-life murderers. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t intend to embark upon a killing spree ala Natural Born Killer, a movie I’ve never even seen. And what’s more, though I may be unique in that I admit it, many people are interested in murder. (I wish I could say it like the British do: muuuurdah.)

Anyway, I know I’m not the only one because podcasts about murders and murderers are wildly popular these days. My Favorite Murder is one of the more popular podcasts out there nowadays. (I don’t recommend it for everyone. Language, people.)

Anyway, The Spider and the Fly, by journalist Claudia Rowe, showed up on Book Bub, recommended for those who like nonfiction books that read like novels. As I am not a huge fan of nonfiction, this caught my eye, and I looked at the list of books. This one appealed to me because in the publisher’s description, it highlights this letter from real-life serial murderer Kendall Francois to the author:

Well, well, Claudia. Can I call you Claudia? I’ll have to give it to you, when confronted at least you’re honest, as honest as any reporter….You want to go into the depths of my mind and into my past. I want a peek into yours. It is only fair, isn’t it?

Oh my heavens. Doesn’t that sound like Hannibal Lector of Silence of the Lambs fame? I was hooked, and got my hands on the book as soon as possible.

Kendall Francois was convicted of killing eight women in Poughkeepsie, New York, between 1996 and 1998. What’s more, he kept these eight women in the attic of the home he shared with his mother, father, and a sister, who took no offense at the putrid smell coming from the attic and the appearance of maggots on their ceiling. Seems odd, doesn’t it?

Francois eventually confessed to the inept police (who had also visited the home, and it hadn’t raised any concerns), pleaded guilty, and was sent to live out most of the rest of his life at Attica prison. He eventually died of cancer at another prison in his 40s.

It was shortly after his confession that Ms. Rowe became interested in the murder and Francois himself. What, she wondered, could make a person become a serial murderer.

The book, however, is as much about the author and her messed-up life as it is about Kendall Francois. So if you embark on this reading journey thinking you will gain an understanding of why a person murders, you will be disappointed. Rowe becomes obsessed with the murderer because she thinks it might give her some insight into her own weird life.

By the way, despite the fact that Francois was a real-life murderer, he wasn’t as scary as Hannibal Lector because who could be?

This book is certainly not for everyone. The details are disturbing, and the fact that it is real stuff makes you want to not go out at night. Still, I admit that I enjoyed reading this book, though I might stick to murder mysteries from here on.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: My Italian Bulldozer

When I stumbled upon this book from one of my daily book finds – I think it might have been Good Reads – the title was so odd that I nearly ignored it. And yet, the title was so odd that I couldn’t help but pay attention.

And I am very familiar with author Alexander McCall Smith, mostly from his Mme Ramotswe books featuring the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency located in Botswana, Africa. As far as I’m concerned, Smith’s books feature some of the most endearing characters in all of bookdom. Precious Ramotswe is the Father Tim (of Mitford fame) of Africa.

But seriously? An American man who drives around Italy in a bulldozer?

Paul Stuart is a world renown and respected cookbook writer who is in a slump because his girlfriend left him for her personal trainer. To help get him back on his feet, his long-time friend and agent sends him to Italy to research his next cookbook about Tuscan cooking.

Alas, when he arrives at the rental car agency near the Tuscan village of Montalcino, where he is to spend the next few months researching food and wine, he learns that all of the cars are rented out. He is frustrated and ready to go back home, when he learns of the availability of a bulldozer.

Yes, a bulldozer. A big yellow bulldozer.

Not wanting to return home, Paul makes the admittedly unlikely decision to go ahead and rent the bulldozer, and begins a set of adventures in which he learns to slow down, love more, enjoy great food and wine, and form unlikely friendships.

I found the book to be utterly charming. There are no great morals or lessons. It’s just a snapshot of Italian life and what you really need from your friends, as seen from the upper berth of a bulldozer. Bill and I have spent considerable time in Tuscany, and even visited Montalcino (where our GPS mistakenly had us drive to our next destination through a vineyard).

It is a quick read, just this side of a novella. And I smiled throughout.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Summer Before the War

Touted as a replacement for Downton Abbey, The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson, the story didn’t fill that niche at all for this reader. Nevertheless, I found it to be an interesting story.

Much like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, also by the same author, I found The Summer Before the War to be difficult to sink my teeth into. Once the story caught me, I mostly enjoyed the book despite some misgivings.

It is 1914, and there are rumblings of war. Nevertheless, encouraged by a strong-willed woman whose husband has political connections, the little town of Rye in East Sussex, England selects Beatrice Nash to be the Latin professor in the local school. A woman teaching Latin? And a young and attractive woman to boot? Unheard of!

Beatrice is mourning the death of her beloved father, himself a professor. He has left her without a penny to her name, but with lots of ambition and a strong head on her shoulders. She is ready to take on the naysayers who doubt her abilities. It is the summer before the war that no one actually believes will take place.

Agatha – her outspoken supporter – along with her two nephews, both as different as night is from day and devoted to their aunt, roll with the punches as they fight the battles against the townspeople and eventually the actual battles against Germany.

Simonson’s novel paints a clear portrait of the impact that war has on those fighting the battles on the field and those fighting to keep their homes and their families together. Her characters are well-drawn and interesting. The novel has unexpected twists, and an ending that I wouldn’t have predicted. It was a surprise, if somewhat confusing.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I found it a bit slow in parts and can’t quite explain the ending. Still, it’s worth a read, especially if you read and enjoyed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

Here is a link to the book.