The Villa by Rachel Hawkins

A villa in Umbria with breathtaking views and the history of a murder could be the ideal setting for Hawkins to create a mind-numbing formula, but she cleverly transfers the jealousy, greed, and invincibility of youth from the group of spoiled yet talented artists from the seventies to a current day group of the temporary inhabitants in her Gothic tale of The Villa. Taking inspiration from the twenty something group of nineteenth century artists Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and their friends’ who famously spent a summer in Switzerland, writing and cavorting, Hawkins twists the themes of distrust, frenemies, and squandered talent as she flips her story back and forth between the times, carrying the angst, misery, and murder with them.

The plot centers on Emily Sheridan, author of the moderately successful “Petal Bloom” cozy mysteries, who has run out of ideas for her series. Her villainous ex-husband, Matt, is suing for a cut of her royalties, including any future books she may write. Emily’s best friend since childhood, Chess Chandler, a best-selling author of self-help books has rented the Villa Aestas in Umbria for six weeks, and invites Emily to spend the summer with her there. The Villa is the site of a nineteen seventies murder, involving rock musicians and writers. Cue Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, and all those wonderful Gothic mystery components – missing manuscripts, suspicious locals, rakes, and women who succumb.

Rivalry more than collaboration prevails among the musicians and the writers. The two friends find themselves mired in old family squabbles and present day expectations. As a writer, I could understand Emily’s fear of having her ideas stolen. Recently, two books with the same plot and characters were published; one by a well known author, the other by a good writer but without the backing of publishers and without a list of former books. Perhaps you read one or both – JoJo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars and The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michelle Richardson, both told the story of the Appalachian librarian on horseback. Both books were published around the same time; both authors claimed original research and inspiration. Accusations and lawsuits ensued but only the writers knows what really happened.

And would a writer really give up an original idea to collaborate and share credit with a friend? Unlikely – unless you are James Patterson, whose name alone might propel book sales. Hawkins concedes it is fear more than friendship ruling the decisions in her story.

Beware of quitting before the very end. Hawkins seems to wrap up the story, Agatha Christie style, explaining and connecting the various plot lines, but finally, Hawkins changes everything, flipping villain to victim in a surprise twist at the end..

A quick fun read.

If you need more murder, try The House in the Pines by Ana Reyes. My phone said I read this book in 5 hours – a definite page turner. If you are worried about memory loss and manipulation, this psychological thriller will scare you.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Lately, it seems it’s a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, week, month, and more, but as Judith Viorst would agree, sometimes it is just that way. Reading Peter Baker’s essay in the New Yorker (January 23, 2023) reminded me to look for the humor in those days, even if only looking back at them. The humor always escapes me, as it does Alexander, while in the middle of the muddle.

Judith Viorst’s “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is celebrating its fiftieth year in print, and it might be time to reread it, maybe before you go to bed tonight. The book is short; the plot is spare; Alexander starts his day with no prize in his cereal, no dessert in his lunchbox, falls in the mud, and is forced to eat lima beans at dinner. More horrors ensue, and in the end, the day ends and he goes to sleep, after the Mickey Mouse night light burns out. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Perhaps you’ve had a few of these lately. I have. You know; those days when you wish you had stayed in bed. But rereading Alexander’s trials made me smile. Not that there is hope that future days will be better; Viorst does not promise that. And, like Alexander, there is not much you can do about it.

Baker notes in his article that after writing about Alexander, “Viorst started a six year study of psychoanalysis, a discipline fundamentally concerned with stories we tell ourselves, and the possibility that revising them might make our terrible days a little less so.” Viorst offers no easy way to deal with such days, saying in the end: “Some days are like that…”

In the meantime, muddling through these days, it might be wise to avoid going to bed with gum in your mouth, a sure sign you will wake up with gum in your hair.

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.