A Month of Eclectic Reads
It's been a good month for reading for me. I spent the past four weeks at an artist colony residency where I wrote the first "shitty draft" (ala Anne Lamott) of a contemporary women's novel. I wrote mostly in the mornings, visited winery bistros for lunch, and read in the afternoons. I read eight books and decided to review six of them - three historical fiction (from the Gold Rush through WWII), a non-fiction history of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, a romance, and a murder mystery. (The books I didn't review were two contemporary literary fictions. I don't review books I wouldn't recommend.)
Here are my recommendations for the month:
Right Back Where We Started From
Blackstone Publishing (2021)
Hardcover: $27.99, Kindle: $8.69
Right Back Where We Started From is a book I really wanted to like. The story is of three women—grandmother, mother, granddaughter. Grandmother’s husband forces her to travel across the country in a covered wagon to pursue his dream of striking it rich in the Gold Rush. He ends up making his money in a more mundane but sure-fire way, in banking. Mother grows up in their mansion and feels she has a right to always live that way. She marries poorly at first, but later meets a prune farmer from whom she siphons money. That doesn’t go well. Daughter, for some reason, think she’s entitled to the good life of a rich woman like her mother once was, but has no intention of doing anything remotely respectable to get there.
The book is well-written and well-edited, but I found myself struggling to get through it. There is not a sympathetic, likeable or respectable person between the two covers. The women all think the world owes them wealth, health and happiness, whether they’ve earned it or not. They’re greedy and shifty, and mostly mendacious, and they’re angry when they don’t get what they want. The men are liars, scoundrels and thieves, or pitiable pushovers. I would have liked someone to cheer for, put some faith in, or at least to care a little bit about.
There’s another thing about this book that stymied me (although I did finish it, so there was something pulling me along.) The prologue opens with the mother declaring that “Everyone wants to move to California,” and it proceeds as if to argue that no one should. I started to think that the author was suggesting that only despicable people live in California or end up here. (Yes, I live in California.) This is odd, if true, because the author was at least at one time (and perhaps still is) a journalist in Petaluma, CA, which is not a bad place to live. Perhaps there’s motive but not judgment in her plot: Perhaps she bemoans the state’s growth over the past century and wants to discourage others from coming. If I had thought California was populated with the characters who populate this novel seventeen years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have moved here.
I thank the publisher for providing a free copy of this book for review.
New American Library (Penguin Random House) 2016
New York, NY 10014
Paperback: $16; Kindle $11.99
Set in London in the 1920s and 1930s, this fast-paced story of the rise of broadcast journalism, specifically the BBC, and the rise of fascist sympathies in the UK, portrays the transformation of a shy, , uneducated and mousy woman into a broadcaster and journalist with responsibility, poise, and confidence. Maisie Musgrave (a fictional character) comes to the BBC as a self-deprecating, insecure Canadian ex-pat with a Broadway actress for a mother and a father who disappeared before she ever met him. Her ambition is to find a husband and return home to have babies and set up a household. Through her exposure to the ambitious and politically motivated intellectuals at the BBC, she discovers her own talents and that changes the course of her life.
Although the novel often feels rushed, the pace does reflect the hectic nature of the news business, even though the BBC wasn’t allowed to broadcast actual “news” at first, relegated to analysis, features and interviews, thanks to the jealous territoriality of the newspaper industry. The cast of players that the author gives major roles—some fictional, some based on real people—is large enough to give a sense of the chaos of the early BBC, but it involves more (out or closeted) gay men and women than you might expect within a single company or—for that matter—building. It is hard to know if, other than Hilda Matheson, a real pioneer at the BBC and lesbian, the early BBC was such a magnet for LGBTQ journalists and engineers, or if it was the author’s intent to make the book more popular with the LGBTQ community.
This book has been around for five years, but I happened to see it on BookBub, and decided to check it out. It was engaging read that introduced me to the fascinating history of the BBC and broadcasting in the UK.
G.P. Putnam (Random House) 2021
New York, NY
Hardcover, $28; Kindle, $14.99; Large Print Paper, $30
Although prolific Scottoline is known for writing mysteries, she here turns to historical fiction to tell the story of the Nazi invasion of Italy, and interment and extermination of hundreds of Rome’s Jews in World War II.
Scottoline’s three main characters are fictional young people caught up in the fascist movement, resistance, and persecution of the Nazi takeover of Rome, but much of the setting, the timeline, and the events represent real history. The story is devastating on both an individual level—the way fascism tore families and friends apart—and on a national level, as the country eventually—too late for many Jews—came to terms with its own culpability in abetting fascism and Hitler, mainly because the trains were running on time.
Best friends from the beginning of time, Elisabetta, Marco, and Sandro experience the approach of war, the growing restrictions on Jews, the deprivations brought by Mussolini, and the eventual murder of Roman Jews, each from their own family’s perspective. A uniquely civil love triangle develops as the teenagers mature, and for Elisabetta, much of the narrative arc involves choosing between Marco and Sandro and supporting herself as a young, orphaned woman. For the boys, the war and the nationalist movement are far more important drivers of their actions and choices. For Marco, the pull of the legitimacy and power he gets from his job with the fascists, and for Sandro, the growing threats to his Jewish family, provide the tension as they navigate Rome’s deterioration and as the fascists force families apart and pit friends against friends.
I heard Scottoline give an interview with her editor from Putnam in which she described the extensive on-the-ground research she was able to do before the pandemic. It shows. Rome becomes a character of the novel, and the reader can feel the cobblestones rattle a body’s joints as bikes traverse the city, cross bridges and pass through old Roman gates.
I have two minor complaints about this book: First, I thought it was a bit longer than it should have been to hold readers’ interests all the way to the end. (Caveat: I feel a bit like Emperor Joseph II when I say that. “Too many notes.”) And second, I was surprised to read the repetitive physical descriptions, particularly of people, from such a gifted writer with such excellent editors.
Those caveats aside, I highly recommend Eternal as a unique look at WWII among the current, homogenous deluge of books about Europe’s northern war theatres and the spy networks of the first half of the twentieth century.
Patrick Radden Keefe
Doubleday (Penguin Random House) 2019
New York, NY
Hardcover, $28.95; Large Print paper, $31; Kindle, $13.99
Named one of the ten best books of 2019 by the New York Times, this excellent history of The Troubles in Northern Ireland took me a while to commit to because I’m a lazy reader and I resist anything over 300 pages. However, I am glad I waded into Say Nothing at the recommendation of a friend who has a non-familial, distant relationship with the author.
Keefe’s history of the bloody, violent conflict in Northern Ireland, which spilled over into England, Ireland, and continental Europe, starts with the disappearance of a mother of ten who was taken by masked men in Belfast in 1972. From there, he details the rise of the violence, and profiles and follows the leaders who masterminded the bombings and murders and some of the minor actors who participated in the violence and political movements. Even with Keefe’s extensive research and detailed history, unanswered questions remain about the responsibility for certain deaths, and the intent of some of the terrorist leaders, which is testimony to the complexity of the issue and the shifting political aims of the players and factions involved.
The author brings the story full circle, closing the mystery around the mother-of-ten’s disappearance. In the final quarter of the book, he details attempts to document the movement and the relative culpability of various leaders, understand their intent and their later frustrations, and evaluates the disappointing, desultory results. The book loses momentum in this section, but that doesn’t take away from its value or the tremendous understanding it imparts.
These Tangled Vines
By Julianne MacLean
Lake Union Publishing
Paperback, $14.99; Kindle, $4.99
These days when people talk about “fantasy” as a genre, they usually mean stories of made-up worlds, dragons, vampires, underworlds—places and creatures and rules different from those of our everyday world, products of someone’s imagination.
But These Tangled Vines from the prolific romance and women’s lit world author, Julianne MacLean, is a fantasy in a different sense. It’s the kind of fantasy you might dream up as you’re watching the clock over your desk at work crawl past 3:30, knowing it will NEVER get to 5:00 and happy hour. It’s the fantasy you have as you stare at a pile of bills on your dining room table, facing once again the fact that two plus two in your bank account is never going to equal five, which is what you owe the utility companies. Or the fantasy you sink into when the kids are screaming in the back seat, your mother is on the phone asking you to tell your father where he can shove you-know-what, and your husband is in on the other line, waiting for you to titillate him with what’s for dinner tonight.
I can’t think of three women I’ve ever known who wouldn’t think it a fantasy to find out they might have inherited a billion-dollar vineyard and estate winery in Italy from a biological father they didn’t even know existed, just when they’ve lost their boyfriend and are on the verge of bankruptcy. (Note: I said “might have.”) That is what MacLean’s heroine discovers (again “might have”), and as a reader of this kind of prose, you know whatever happens from the first page to the last, in the end, she’s going to have exactly the kind of life you’ve always dreamed of.
There’s only a bit of a mystery here to delay the arrival of this happy ending: did the man who owned the vineyard really love the protagonist’s mother? But otherwise, this romance presents itself exactly as you expect it to at the beginning and it won’t surprise you all the way through. Many of the characters are straight out of the romance playbook, especially the greedy, lazy half-brother who is all about what’s in it for him (moneywise, that is), the mother who wanted so much more from life than she got from her invalid husband, and the man who builds a viticultural empire, but loses the love of his life.
All that said, it qualifies as an escapist summer beach read, and is exactly what I expected from Lake Union Publishing.
A Good Marriage
By Kimberly McCreight
New York, NY
Hardcover, $27.99; Paper, $16.99; Kindle, $11.99
If this book had come out right at the beginning of the summer, rather than in the crowded launch month of March, I believe this would have been a sure-fire bestseller of the summer beach-reading season. It has all the right stuff: a sassy and snooty upper-middle class social set full of colorful characters, a murder mystery that presents more eligible perpetrators than the crowded train car in Murder on the Orient Express, and enough potential motives to keep a defense attorney busy for a decade, tracking down leads. The twists of the plot keep you guessing right up to the end, and then everything falls into place like it was inevitable, but still unexpected. Just as we expect good mysteries to do.
Lizzie, a recently hired, reluctant corporate lawyer, whose former dream job was as a public defender, gets a call from an old college acquaintance—a “flame” if he tells it, a nuisance if she does. Through a serious of devious, despicable, and manipulative tricks, he gets her to represent him in his trial for the Park Slope murder of his wife, and his defense ends up being anything but easy. From his prison cell, he keeps adding to the risks she’ll face if she fails to get him acquitted, while outside of prison, none of the couples who were friends of the victim prove to be quite what they initially appear. There’s a lot of dirty laundry here, all of which is in danger of being exposed when the computer system at the private school that connects them all is hacked. The mystery of how anyone connected to the school or the murdered woman has managed to stay married reveals itself to be as unresolvable as the murder itself. Lizzie’s own already troubled marriage is increasingly threatened when it appears her husband might join the cast of possible murderers. As she tries to solve the murder and save her job, Lizzie wonders what makes a good marriage and how does one know if it’s worth saving.
This is a fast-paced, fascinating mystery set in a tony Brooklyn neighborhood that looks a lot glossier from the outside than it does once McCreight explores its (perhaps fictional), seedy underbelly. Highly recommended.