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.

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/

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/

Recommendations for Independent Bookstore Day

Although it’s been a while since I’ve walked into a bookstore, or any store, I still like to buy my ebooks from independent book stores. And, yes, I still read – not as much as before – but here are a few books I’ve bought and recommend:

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

For supporters of women in math and sciences, the obstacles the main character faces will ring true. Elizabeth Zott, after overcoming her miserable childhood, can’t seem to get a break as she tries to forge a career in chemistry. Sidelined by male colleagues at work and cheated out of a doctorate, she finds love with a rower and fellow scientist, only to lose him before their child is born. Her ongoing frustrations will be familiar to a generation of career women with children, but the character is also funny, ambitious, and determined. As she morphs into a modern day Julia Child, the laughs get better. A fun book with a message – as Elizabeth Egan noted in her review: ” She’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.”

One Italian Summer by Rebecca Searle

Ah, to be back climbing the steps of Portofino! Searle’s story will transport you to the beautiful Italian town, and you will instantly feel its charm. Having been there (for a cooking class), the descriptions of the food, the sea, the steps, the old women, brought me back and makes me want to go again. Katy Silver takes the trip to Italy she has planned with her mother. Her mother dies but with a heavy touch of suspending belief, you will meet her anyway as Katy discovers not only the beauty of Italy but also the unexpected joy of hanging out with her younger mother.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

I didn’t become a fan of St. John Mandel until I watched Station Eleven on Netflix. The Sea of Tranquility is another catastrophe story taking the reader through three worlds in three distinct time periods, The novel opens in 1912 when the son of an aristocratic British family is banished to Canada for some rash dinner-table remarks about colonial policy, and then vaults into the 23rd century for ‘the last book tour on Earth,” with an author named Olive Llewellyn, whose home is a colony on the moon, and whose novel about a worldwide pandemic has become a surprise blockbuster, and finally to Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a loner detective living on the moon in the 25th century in a colony called the Night City. Mandel connects the plots across time to examine what really matters. A good book for fans of science fiction but also If you just need to take yourself out of the present for a while.

French Braid by Anne Tyler

One of my favorite authors, Tyler uses an area I know well as her backdrop – Baltimore. With her quiet style, Tyler slowly weaves a story of family. Jennifer Haigh in her review for the New York Times, notes ““French Braid” is a novel about what is remembered, what we’re left with when all the choices have been made, the children raised, the dreams realized or abandoned. It is a moving meditation on the passage of time.” Read her review for more: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/20/books/review/french-braid-anne-tyler.html

The Club by Ellery Lloyd

Thrillers are always a great distraction to the world at hand, and if you are a fan of Ruth Ware, you will enjoy Lloyd’s ride. From Publisher’s Weekly: “The Home Group is a glamorous collection of celebrity members’ clubs dotted across the globe, where the rich and famous can party hard and then crash out in its five-star suites, far from the prying eyes of fans and the media. The most spectacular of all is Island Home–a closely-guarded, ultraluxurious resort, just off the English coast–and its three-day launch party is easily the most coveted A-list invite of the decade… as things get more sinister by the hour and the body count piles up, some of Island Home’s members will begin to wish they’d never made the guest list. Because at this club, if your name’s on the list, you’re not getting out.” A page turner.

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

If you know Lucy Foley from “The Guest List,” you will enjoy her latest. Like a game of Clue,  this story keeps readers guessing whodunit until the book’s final pages.

And here are a few books I have preordered and looking forward to:

Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

The Lioness by Chris Bohjaloan

Love Marriage by Monica Ali

The Sentence and A List of Short Perfect Novels

Louise Erdrich is not one of my favorite authors but at the recommendation of a good friend, I have been trying to read her latest book The Sentence. Libby, my online librarian, first gave it to me as a hot pick – 7 days to read, but it came and went back without my looking at it and I ordered it again. Next, Libby offered it to me as a “skip the line” book – again seven days to read it. This time I made it to the second chapter before it whooshed back to the library, despite my effort to renew. Suddenly, it was there again – seven days to read – and I have been making an effort. The library may be sending me a message – I need to read this book. Slow and steady but only half way through with three days left before it will automatically return. Will I make it this time?

The story of an independent bookstore owner haunted by the ghost of a woman who died reading a book should be more than I need to keep me reading, but Erdrich, as she often does in her books, cannot resist incorporating endless pages of Native American history, culture, folklore, and more. I just want the story.

The pandemic suddenly came into the pages, and the craziness of the first few months of contagion and the ever changing survival advice was familiar, but before Tookie decides to close the store in March, 2020, her last customer comes in to hoard books instead of milk and toilet paper. Tookie creates a list of “Short Perfect Novels” I thought worth saving – some I have read. Added to the list is Jane Gardam’s Old Filth books, among my favorites.

Since I started writing this post, I did finish the book, and was satisfied with its happy ending. The author includes many lists of books mentioned in the narrative, including Lincoln in the Bardo in her list of “Ghost Managing Books,” Euphoria in her “Books for Banned Love” list, and titles for Indigenous Lives, Indigenous Poetry, Indigenous History and Nonfiction. My favorite list is this:

Tookie’s Short Perfect Novels

  • Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabel
  • Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad
  • The All of It by Jeannette Halen
  • Winter in the Blood by James Welch
  • Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle
  • The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
  • First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
  • Fire on the Mountain by Anita Desai

Tookie says “these are books that knock you sideways in around 200 pages. Between the covers there exists a complete world. The story is unforgettably peopled and nothing is extraneous. Reading one of these books takes only an hour or two but leaves a lifetime imprint…”

The Sentence took longer to read, but I’m glad I finally did.