Friday Book Whimsy: A Certain Age

I’ve gone through a period where it seems as though many books I’ve read take place during either World War I or World War II. I don’t need to tell you that, while they are often interesting, they are also invariably and understandably sad.

Perhaps the time period in which it takes place – the 1920s — is the thing I liked best about A Certain Age, a novel by one of my favorite authors, Beatriz Williams. That time of glamour and jazz in which people acted as though Prohibition didn’t exist, and women were freed from their corsets and gaining more and more independence. And what could be better than a novel set in the Roaring Twenties in New York City?

Wealthy Mrs. Theresa Marshall, a woman approaching middle age and bored with her marriage to a rich older man who is a serial philanderer, fights her boredom by becoming involved in an affair with a considerably younger man. She has no plans to divorce her husband, as they have a kind of understanding. But her young lover Octavian, has fallen for her and would like to get married. That is, until he meets Sophie, the daughter of a newly-wealthy man who has a mysterious past. If you are an opera fan, the plot might be familiar to you as the book is loosely based on an opera by Richard Strauss called Der Rosenkavalier.

One of my favorite things about Beatriz Williams is that many of her novels are based on different members of the wealthy Schuyler family. As such, many of the stories are loosely related. In A Certain Age, Sophie’s best friend is Julie Schuyler, who we learn is the great aunt of the main characters in three of my favorite Williams novels: Tiny Schuyler of Tiny Little Thing, Pepper Schuyler of Along the Infinite Sea, and Vivian Schuyler of The Secret Life of Violet Grant, all of whom are sisters. Not necessarily pertinent to the story, but fun nevertheless.

I will admit that it took me a bit of time to get into the novel. I felt it started slowly. Furthermore, I initially found Theresa to be offputting. She appeared to be shallow and every time she called Octavian Boyo, which she did all the time, my skin crawled. As the novel progressed, however, I began to understand the complicated Mrs. Marshall, and even grew somewhat fond of her. Sophie was a wonderful character, and I loved watching her come into herself, despite her sad past.

A Certain Age is a romantic novel wrapped in a mystery, and the ending was satisfying, if somewhat predictable. I love Beatriz Williams’ writing, and A Certain Age didn’t disappoint.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: 2016 Favorites

pile-of-booksMy reading goal every year is 100 books. I’m not sure I have ever hit my goal, but I have come close. For example, in 2015, I read a total of 93 books. I’m afraid in 2016, I was a bit of a slacker, having only read 88 books – a couple of which were, quite honestly, novellas. In my world, they counted! Especially since I’m not graded on quantity. And I’m thankful I’m not rated on quality, because I don’t use the New York Times Book Review for my book choosing. Actually, I’m not graded on anything being retired and all….

Anyway, I post a book review each week, so if you are a faithful Friday Book Whimsy reader, you will be familiar with all of the books I am going to feature as my favorite five books of the year. The books may or may not have been published in 2016; they have just been read by me in the past year.  Frankly, most are books published in earlier years.

My five favorite reads in 2016, in no particular order….

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrick Backman
Britt-Marie is a 60-something woman who leaves her controlling husband after she learns he is having an affair. She is compulsive and entirely set in her ways. She has been since she was a little girl and her much-adored sister is killed in a car accident. It should have been you, is the message that Britt-Marie got regularly from her mom, whether or not it was spoken out loud. So Britt-Marie begins the process of starting a new life. The only job she is able to find is the manager of a recreation center in a very small town. She has spent most of her life taking care of others and has no idea who Britt-Marie is and why anyone would care. But she learns that people do care, and begins to put together a new life where people accept her for who she is.

What I liked best about the book: Britt-Marie. I loved the main character so, so much. The book was entirely feel-good, and who didn’t need that this past year?

The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore
The novel examines the invention of the light bulb, and the eventual replacement of gas lighting with electric lights in this entirely readable, eminently fascinating account of the legal battle waged between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. There is no one less interested in science than I, and yet I found the book to be fascinating. Moore uses real characters such as Edison, Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, and Paul Kravath to give readers a snapshot of life in NYC in the late 1800s and how progress is REALLY made. It unexpectedly provided me with one of my favorite reads of the year.

What I liked best about the book: I love to learn about history and science via novels, as I find that so much easier to read. Moore was able to pique my interest in the notion of inventing and patents. It takes good writing to successfully accomplish that task.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
This novel is everything I would hate in a book. The entire story is told via emails, text messages, flashbacks, school documents, and so forth. There is no driving narrative and virtually no dialogue. It is really all about the characters, but Semple does it so well that this book was a total pleasure to read. I had it in my library for a long time before I finally picked it up and read it, almost straight through. Bernadette is the star of the show, despite her quirky, agoraphobic nature. She is likable and believable. I would like to have her as my best friend. I don’t regularly reread books, but I will read this book again and again.

What I liked best about the book: The author’s characters are the best thing about the novel. Despite the fact that there is no driving narrative, she was able to paint clear and distinct pictures of each character through her unusual writing style.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
There is a plethora of novels available about World War II, and lots of good ones. I found The Nightingale to be one of the best I’ve read (and I’ve read more than my share) simply because it offered a different perspective on the awful war. Two sisters from a small village in France experience the war from entirely different perspectives – one as the woman and wife left behind to care as best she can for everyone around her, and one who becomes part of the French resistance. The look at the war from the women’s perspective, as well as Hannah’s beautiful writing, made this one of my favorite reads of 2016.

What I liked best about the book: There are many books – novels and nonfiction alike – about the horrific treatment of the Jews, and about the miserable conditions of the fighting men and women, but I liked reading about what it was like to try and keep your world in order under wartime conditions as the woman back home.

Tiny Little Thing, by Beatriz Williams
Christina “Tiny” Schuyler was the so-called good sister of the three Schuyler girls. She did everything the right way. She was good in school, she married well, and she was the perfect political wife to her ambitious husband. But what is missing is love. It made for a wonderful book with a thoroughly satisfying ending. Tiny Little Thing was the first book I had ever read by author Beatriz Williams, and I have read several since. They almost always have some connection to the Schuyler family, and they are very good. But Tiny Little Thing is my favorite.

What I liked best about the book:  Blackmail, adultery, Vietnam, dirty politics – all wrapped in a 1960s package. It took me a bit to get into the novel, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down.


Friday Book Whimsy: Along the Infinite Sea

imgresWhen last I saw Pepper Schuyler in Tiny Little Thing, she was pregnant with her boss’ child (modeled clearly after one of the Kennedys) and had found and completely rehabbed a vintage Mercedes Benz that she discovered hidden in her aunt’s barn. At the end of that book, Pepper had taken off in the car to places unknown.

Pepper Schuyler is the youngest of the three Schuyler sisters about whom author Beatriz Williams writes many of her books. I met Tiny and Pepper in Tiny Little Thing, and Vivian in The Secret Life of Violet Grant. The fictitious Schuyler family is old East Coast money which probably wasn’t earned legally and which provides for a grand way of life in the 1960s, when the stories are told.

Early in Along the Infinite Sea, Pepper sells her car for a whopping (especially in 1966 dollars) $300,000 to Annabelle Dummerich, a beautiful and glamourous newly-widowed 50-something woman who has a mysterious past. Annabelle takes pregnant Pepper under her wing and brings her home to her beautiful house by the ocean in Palm Beach.

From then on, the author uses her favorite style – back and forth in time and place – from Pepper’s story in 1966 East Coast United States to 1935 Europe – Germany and France – as the world begins to prepare for war and where Annabelle begins her mysterious journey.

Annabelle’s story involves a love affair with a German Jew who she later learns is a resistance fighter. She falls in love, and he with her, but she learns a secret about her lover which leads to her marrying Johann von Kleist, a Nazi officer. She is pregnant with her Jewish lover’s baby, and he knows this and agrees to raise the child as his own.

The story touches on the persecution of Jews, before and during WWII, the role women played in history, and the power that wealth can bring. Williams’ story-telling is amazing. Her back-and-forth writing style, often ending chapters at a critical moment, thereby preventing the reader from putting the book down.

Williams’ novels definitely have a romance element, but while plentiful, the romance doesn’t drive the plot. The story was realistic and compelling.

I believe we have run out of sisters, so I am eager to see how Williams’ tackles other subjects. Along the Infinite Sea  is a book that I can recommend with confidence.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: The Secret Life of Violet Grant

9780698153479I’m pretty sure the more high-falutin (and also better) book reviewers out there in the internet universe would not say this, but I will: What draws me to a book is not necessarily just the plot. I’m a sucker for book titles and book covers. Back when I belonged to a particular book club that was made up of busy working women ( many of whom were also mothers), we would literally look at the size of the font of a book we were considering (back when everyone read paper books) as we made our book choice for the next meeting. Little font = too long to read a book. I’ll bet the New York Times book reviewers don’t do this.

But I will admit that I chose The Secret Life of Violet Grant, by Beatriz Williams, at least in part because of the title (which implied an element of mystery) and the cover, which featured a beautiful woman who could have been my mother back in 1914 (except that my mother was not even a gleam in her father’s eye in 1914, but still…..)

But more to the point, the book tells the story of another one of the Schuyler sisters, two of whom I met in Tiny Little Thing, and with whom I fell in love. Or at least like.

But the one I didn’t meet in Tiny Little Thing was Vivian, and this is her story, along with Violet’s.

It is 1964. Vivian, who is fresh out of college and works for Metropolitan Magazine, comes home from work one day to find a notice that she has a box awaiting her at the post office, coming from Switzerland. She goes down to pick it up and meets a young man – a doctor – also there to pick up a package. Her package turns out to be an old suitcase packed with random items that she eventually learns belonged to her Great-Aunt Violet, someone she hadn’t even known existed.

The story is told in two voices and from two periods of time, which seems to be a favorite style of the author. The suitcase – and Vivian’s mother’s family’s reaction to it – intrigues Vivian and she vows to figure out Violet’s history.

Violet’s story takes place in pre-WWI France and Germany. She had moved there several years earlier to follow her dream of being a research physicist, much to the Schuyler family’s horror. In their world, women’s roles were to be mothers and wives. There she meets and marries a fellow scientist who is old enough to be her father and turns out to be not so nice a fellow. Romance, mystery, and social trauma ensue.

Back to the doctor I mentioned who Vivian met in the post office. A lot of Vivian’s story is connected to the doctor, with whom she falls in love – and he with her. But things are not always smooth sailing in the literary world, and ending up with the doctor doesn’t come easily.

The romance part of the story rather got on my nerves I’m afraid. I’m not particularly opposed to romance as part of a story, but oh, for heaven’s sake! Having said that, the author is in my opinion a tremendous story teller and I am able to endure all of the sexual antics (and the sex is in no way graphic, just frequent) so that I can find out what happens. Just as in Tiny Little Thing, the entire mystery isn’t solved until the last page of the book. Really good story telling.

It was fun to read a book about both of these periods of time in which I find myself very interested. I recommend this book highly.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: The Forgotten Room

imgresIt’s certainly not the first time several authors collaborated to write one book, but I believe it might be the first time I have read a novel written by multiple authors.

The long-awaited The Forgotten Room was authored by three well-known and prolific fiction writers, Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig. The three “W’s”. Not too complicated to figure out how to alphabetize on the cover.

Willig is the author of a number of historical romance novels; White has written somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 novels, most taking place in the Low Country of South Carolina. Beatriz Williams has authored five or six period novels. I recently reviewed Tiny Little Thing, which may be one of my favorite reads of 2016 (though I recognize it’s only March).

I don’t know the back story of how these three authors came to write a novel. Nor do I know how they decided who wrote what. The details have been purposely kept secret.

The Forgotten Room is about three women in three different decades, all united in some way by a ruby necklace and a room in an upper New York City mansion. Olive lives in the late 18th Century, the daughter of the man who designed the house, but was mysteriously fired and subsequently committed suicide. She becomes a maid for the family living in the house to find out why her father was fired and never compensated for his work. A decade or so later, her daughter Lucy rents a room in the mansion, which in the Roaring Twenties has become a boarding room for women. Her goal is to find out who was really her father. And finally, Lucy’s daughter Kate, a physician, treats patients in the home which has become a hospital for returning war veterans.

All three women own the necklace at some point, and all three women have history in the forgotten room in the mansion.

I wanted to like this book. I expected to like this book. I liked the idea of this book. I just didn’t find myself drawn into the story.

As mentioned earlier, the authors have not revealed how the book was written. They purport that it was written in round robin style as opposed to each author taking charge of one of the characters. I will say that the writing styles were seamless. I couldn’t tell who wrote which chapter.

But I will also tell you that I just didn’t ever grow to care one bit about any of these three women. Their stories were illogical and implausible. I am fully willing to ignore the implausibility that takes place in most romantic stories. This time, I just couldn’t forgive it.

Each author has a novel coming out soon, and I can’t wait to put this one behind me.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: Tiny Little Thing

searchTiny Little Thing is the first book I’ve read by Beatriz Williams though she has written quite a few other novels. I will give you one simple fact: I couldn’t put this book down.

True story. The day I read the bulk of this book, I got something like 900 steps on my Fitbit. I sat in the chair and read the entire day.

Having said that, I will also tell you that it took me a bit to get into the story, and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was because I had just finished an exciting mystery story, and the tempo of this book is not exhilarating. However, once I got to know the characters and became familiar with what they were up to, it was all I could do to keep myself from reading the ending before I was halfway through the book. I was CRAZED to find out how Tiny’s story ended.

Christina “Tiny” Schuyler was the so-called good sister of the three Schuyler girls. Tiny did everything the way she should. She was pretty (though not as pretty as her sister Pepper), she excelled in school, she married well, and she was the perfect wife to an up-and-coming politician who was being groomed by the ambitious Hardcastle family to be president someday (ala, the Kennedys).

But things are not always as they seem, and secrets abound in the Hardcastle clan. Troubles for Tiny begin a couple of weeks before her wedding, when circumstances throw her into the hands of someone who could change her life just two weeks before she is to wed Frank Hardcastle. Nevertheless, the wedding takes place, but Tiny’s story has just begun.

Blackmail, adultery, Vietnam, dirty politics – all wrapped in a 1960s package.  It made for a wonderful book with an absolutely satisfying ending.

Apparently the characters in this book have been featured in several of the authors other novels, and now I have to read them all!

Here is a link to the book.