Friday Book Whimsy: The Lions of Fifth Avenue

I love to learn things while reading an enjoyable novel. I have learned more about some of the landmarks of New York City from author Fiona Davis than I would have if I had read a history book on the magnificent city. Did you know, for example, that there was once an art school in Grand Central Station? I learned that in The Masterpiece, by the same author. Did you know that cattle used to graze outside of the Dakota Apartments, home to many famous people? You would if you had read The Address.

I certainly had no idea that there was once an apartment inside the enormous New York City Public Library where the superintendent of the library could reside with the family. The apartment still exists, in fact, though it is apparently no longer used as an apartment.

NYC’s main library is located on Fifth Avenue and guarded by the famous sculpted lions. In 1913, Laura Lyons and her family move to New York City from their quiet home in the country where her husband is the superintendent. His job allows them to live in the apartment hidden deep within the library. It’s a big change for the family, but not as big as the one that Laura seeks. She dreams of attending the Columbia School of Journalism and becoming a journalist.

With the help of family and friends, she manages to come up with the money for the year-long program. She not only learns how to investigate and write a story, she learns that there are women who have so much more freedom than she ever has. Laura gets caught up in the excitement, and it changes her life — and the lives of her family — immensely.

At the same time, some priceless books and manuscripts go missing, and everything points to her husband being the culprit. Laura knows this can’t be true, but is too caught up in her new life to take it as seriously as she might.

In the back-and-forth style so popular these days, the author also introduces us to Laura’s granddaughter Sadie, who is also a librarian at the same library in 1993. Ironically, she must also deal with books and manuscripts that are going missing, and she is a prime suspect. While trying to figure out what’s going on, she learns that a similar thing happened to her grandfather. Could the two things be related?

I will admit that this was not my favorite of Fiona Davis’ novels. That prize goes to The Chelsea Girls, a novel about the McCarthy hearings. But as a lover of books, and a HUGE fan of libraries, I found the book references interesting, and the clear love of literature shown by the main characters heart-warming.

Part mystery, part romance, part women’s fiction, The Lions of Fifth Avenue makes for a decent read.

Here is a link to the book.

 

Friday Book Whimsey: Top Five for 2019

In 2019, I read 84 books out of my 100-book yearly goal. I feel like I read a LOT, so perhaps my goal is too high. Nevertheless, I’m going to keep challenging myself.

Out of the 84 books I read, I would like to present my five favorite books. They weren’t all necessarily published in 2019, but I read them all this past year.

So, in no particular order….

1. Watching You, by Lisa Jewell
Tom Fitzwilliams is hired by schools in trouble. He is handsome and charismatic. There is a murder, and there are many folks who could be the killer, including Fitzwilliams. The author provides readers clues a little at a time, keeping us all guessing. Jewell is one of my favorite authors.

2. November Road, by Lou Berney
Maybe I liked this book so much because I am so familiar with the time period that this took place, right around the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Mobster Frank Guidry realizes that he inadvertently played a part in the assassination, and knows the mob will be coming to get him to keep him quiet. At the same time, housewife Charlotte leaves her husband taking her children, heading for L.A. The two meet, and despite the fact that Guidry initially only is interested in them as a cover, he finds real happiness, at least for a time.

3. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
Kya is abandoned by her family when she is 6 years old, and is left to take care for herself in the marshes of the southern Carolinas. As she faces the obstacles of life, she learns what is important and what isn’t. The story involves a delicious mystery as well.

4. The Chelsea Girls, by Fiona Davis
All of the author’s books to date have involved well-known places in New York City that add to her stories. The Chelsea girls takes place in the 1950s during the McCarthy period. The characters, who live in the historic Chelsea Hoel, represent several sides of the issue, and I not only found the book highly entertaining, but I learned a lot from reading it. Win-win.

5. Evvie Drake Starts Over, by Linda Holmes
I loved this book. It might have been my favorite of 2019. Evvie is literally packing up her car to leave her abusive husband when she learns that he has had a massive heart attack which eventually kills him. Evvie feels so guilty and distraught that she can scarcely get on with her life. She meets a professional baseball pitcher who has suddenly and inexplicably tanked. The two fall in love, and save one another.

Happy reading in 2020.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Chelsea Girls

Author Fiona Davis writes novels about historic locations and addresses in New York City.  The Dollhouse is about the famous Barbizon Hotel, a safe place to live for young women in the 1920s and 1930s who were alone in NYC and trying to make it on their own.  The Address is a fictional account of a group of folks living at the Dakota Apartments, which was THE place to live in the late 1800s. The Masterpiece told the fictional story of an art institute that at one time was located in Grand Central Station.

In her most recent novel, The Chelsea Girls is located in — no surprise — Hotel Chelsea in NYC. The hotel at one time was the address for artists of all types, from actors to writers to visual artists. It is also the home of our two protagonists — Maxine Mead and Hazel Riley. Both aspiring actresses, they meet working as part of a USO group entertaining troops in Naples at the very end of World War II. Maxine is strong-headed and confident while Hazel lacks confidence. Nevertheless, they become fast friends.

At the end of the war, Hazel returns to New York City and finds a residence at The Chelsea. Maxine goes to L.A. to become an actress. In 1950, she returns to New York, and is integral in getting a play that Hazel has written into the hands of an interested producer. Not only that, but Maxine convinces him that Hazel should be the director. He agrees, provided that Maxine be the leading lady.

Trouble begins when Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare turns to the entertainment industry to seek out communist sympathizers. Both Hazel and Maxine get caught up in the trials, leading to a fascinating and educating story that shows both sides of the issue.

I have read all of Davis’ books, and The Chelsea Girls is far and away my favorite of the four. I love books set in the 1950s. I love books set in NYC. And I love books from which I can learn some history. The Chelsea Girls meets all of those criteria.

The characters were complex and interesting. Surprises abounded. A touch of romance and a touch of mystery.

It will probably be one of my favorite books in 2019.

Here is a link to the book.

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: 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.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Dollhouse

searchThe Barbizon Hotel for Women is/was a real thing. The hotel was a residence for women only from its inception in the late 1920s until it began allowing men as guests in 1981. The Barbizon was a safe place for young women new to the big city to live. Located on the upper east side of Manhattan, it was the home for many women trying to make their place in the world – women such as Lauren Bacall, Sylvia Plath, Grace Kelly, Eudora Welty.

The Barbizon Hotel may as well be one of the characters in author Fiona Davis’ captivating debut novel The Dollhouse. The Barbizon is the star of the show.

The novel is a back-and-forth story of two women, both who live in the Barbizon. One of the women, Darby McLaughlin, comes from a small town in Ohio, and is sent to New York City in 1952 by her bossy and obnoxious mother, who pays for her to attend a secretarial college in NYC. The second story is contemporary. Rose Lewis is a journalist who lives with her boyfriend in what used to be the Barbizon, but is now condominiums. However, a few of the units are still inhabited by former residents of the old historic hotel.

Rose is dumped by her boyfriend, and through a series of somewhat admittedly unlikely events, she becomes acquainted with a couple of the women who still live in their original apartments. Originally interested in these women primarily to write a story for the magazine for which she works, Rose eventually gets caught up in these two women’s compelling and interrelated stories about life in the 1950s, love, jazz music, and murder.

It is all quite delicious.

I think part of me liked the story so much because I found the whole notion that there was a hotel for women in NYC so interesting, and when I did some research and learned about some of the real-life residents who lived there, I was hooked.

Sometimes novels with back-and-forth storylines can become confusing and jumbled, but I found Davis’ handling of the style to be smooth and flowed well. Despite the fact that I was horrified at some of the choices Rose made in her search for the story, I liked the characters and found them to be realistic and interesting.

I think The Dollhouse would be a great read for a book club.

Here is link to the book.

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