Shrines of Gaity

With high expectations I started reading Kate Atkinson’s new novel. After all, I had enjoyed so many of her books: Life After Life, Transcription, and had others on my to read list. But, Shrines of Gaity was different; I had to restart it twice to get all the characters straight in my head. Yes, it was worth it. Once I became ensconced in the underground world of post Edwardian London, there was no turning back.

Nellie Coker, the inimitable fulcrum of action, is modeled on the 1920s maven Kate Meyrick, a feisty Queen Victoria of the nightclubs with enough adult children to manage her empire of five clubs. But being a romantic, I was drawn to her son, Niven, the smooth handsome gangster and his love interest, Gwendolyn, the librarian and former combat nurse from York who has come to the big city in search of her friend’s two erstwhile teenagers, Freda and Florence, who left home to become famous on the London stage, and have not been heard from since.

Adding to a love triangle is Chief Inspector Frobisher, new to his job and determined to clean up the omnipresent crime and corruption, including the shady policemen on his staff. One, Maddox, has been Nellie Coker’s “protection” for years, and proves his perfidy early in the story. When Atkinson gives him his due, it’s hard not to cheer. Frobisher is attracted to Gwen and hires her as an undercover agent to watch Nellie, while he promises to look for the young girls. Alas, he is married – but not happily, of course. Nellie, knowing all, also hires Gwen to manage one of her clubs.

The complex plot cleverly entwines the disappeared girls, Nellie’s scheming, and Gwen’s adventurous pursuit, with the hedonism and underworld crime of the era. Atkinson neatly ties up all the lives in the end, leaving some dangling for the reader to decide. A fun read – worth trying to keep all the characters straight – maybe read it with a notebook nearby to jot them down.

For more Kate Atkinson: https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2013/05/01/life-after-live-a-novel/

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

When asked about the meaning of his famous poem The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost claimed readers were making too much of his simple teasing of his friend Edward Thomas over his deciding where to go on their many walks. But readers have disagreed and made Frost’s lines an anthem for the role of choice in life. Poems, after all, are to be interpreted, and that interpretation has a range of possibilities. In Celeste Ng’s “Our Missing Hearts,” Margaret Miu’s poem about a pomegranate becomes the battlecry for a revolution.

An uncomon and reluctant heroine, Margaret becomes a rebel and a catalyst for finding children taken from their parents because of the new law to preserve American Culture and Traditions. How rewarding to find it is librarians who facilitate her underground network.

Ng has a clear message, cleverly incorporating anti- Asian hate crimes as the scapegoat for the future country’s economic and social decline (the Crisis) with incidents that could have been ripped from current headlines. And the recent proclivity for banning books becomes a focal point of Ng’s alert about where it could lead. She is clearly warning; pay attention, or “the dusk will become dark” without anyone noticing.

Ng’s story is also one of grief and nostalgia – for better days, for loved ones gone. My favorite line:

“Who ever thinks, recalling the face of the one they loved who is gone: yes, I looked at you enough, I loved you enough, we had enough time, any of this was enough?”

And a call to action:

“Listen. Somewhere, out there, saying to others at last: Listen, this isn’t right.”

In her Author’s Note Ng notes her inspiration in both books and incidents, historical as well as recent. She ends citing:

“Timothy Snyder’s “ On Tyranny” was a powerful reminder about how quickly authoritarianism can rise (as well as what can be done about it), and Václav Havel’s classic 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless” changed my thinking about the impact a single individual could have in dismantling a long-established system. I hope he’s right.”

You could read the book two ways, just like a Robert Frost poem. Take it literally as a “dystopian story about a 12 year year boy and his quest to find his mother.” Or consider Stephen King’s review in the New York Times claiming it is a “dystopia uncomfortably close to reality.” Either way, “Our Missing Hearts” has Ng’s riveting storytelling talent, and a tale well told that you will remember.

The Marriage Portrait

Strong willed teenage girls have been in literature since Shakespeare’s thirteen year old Juliet. Maggie O’Farrell uses Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” and the Macchiavellian intrigue of the sixteenth century to create a fascinating tale of the young Duchess of Ferrara.

Lucrezia may be an outcast in her family, not quite fitting in with her dark haired subserviant sisters and her entitled brothers, but she has had the courage to face down a tiger in her father’s wild menagerie. Her feisty demeanor serves her well as she is promised at age twelve to an older duke needing an heir.

O’Farrell imagines the real Italian Duchess’s life within all the confines of male domination in that century, and bestows the gift of art to the young girl, who creates animal miniatures as an alternative to the embroidery usually required of young women of the time. I could relate to Lucretia’s appreciation of the back side of the embroidery hoop, with all the knots and stitches needed to create the perfect picture on the other side. Her life is full of those knots, but O’Farrell gives her an escape with the help of an unlikely hero when all seems lost.

The story bounced back and forth in time to keep the suspense. The fictional duchess in the story seems destined to meet the same fate as her real forebearer as O’Farrell once again creates a compelling and totally enjoyable story.

I looked for the text of Browning’s poem and found it with a short explanation. O’Farrell cleverly includes the white donkey as well as other details from the poem in her story. Here is the poem and a short analysis.

https://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/browning/section3/

Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favorite authors. Here are my reviews of other books by Maggie O’Farell:

Hamnet –

https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2021/06/16/hamnet-by-maggie-ofarrell/

The Hand That First Held Mine –

https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2010/04/28/the-hand-that-first-held-mine-maggie-ofarrell/

Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting

Being a commuter on a local train into the city was not one of the highlights of my career, but after reading Claire Pooley’s Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting, I wonder if I may have missed something as I read my book or just dozed all those years, usually in a cramped seat, if I was lucky enough to get one.

Pooley’s character Iona reminds me of Calvin Trillin’s Tepper, available and willing to listen and offer advice when needed. Tepper was sitting in his car, saving his parking spot as he followed the elusive parking rules of New York City streets; Iona rode the commuter train into London. Tepper was usually reading the newspaper, while Iona judiciously observed her fellow passengers, offering her commentary when needed, or solicited.

While Tepper was relatively bland, Iona’s personality screamed out to be noticed, from her loud voice to her colorful clothing, to her companion dog sitting beside her. A cast of characters revolve around Iona’s commute, and like Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip, Iona figuratively hangs out her shingle to them all, changing their lives, and, at the end, changing her own.

From schoolgirl Martha, who overcomes an unfortunate decision promising to ruin her life, to Piers, the business man who has it all, to Sanjay, the nurse quietly comforting his patients, to Emmie, the naive beauty who seems to have found true love, the cast of characters each has a problem only Iona can solve. Pooley cleverly connects her characters’ lives, and adds a few who have practical skills for life improvement – Jake, the owner of a gym, and David, the lawyer.

Pooley’s witty observances carry the reader through familiar trials, and always finds a happy ending. I need happy endings these days, don’t you?

Related Review: Tepper Isn’t going Outhttps://thenochargebookbunch.com/tag/tepper-isnt-going-out/

Another book by Claire Pooley: The Authenticity Projecthttps://thenochargebookbunch.com/2020/10/03/the-authenticity-project/