Quick Reads and Lists of Books

Although my tastes these days tend toward feel good stories, and I’ve forgotten about checking on all the award winners this year or grabbing new publications as soon as available,  I am still always looking for a good book to take me away from reality.

Fiona Davis took me to the New York City Library and favorite neighborhoods I wonder if I will ever see again in The Lions of Fifth Avenue.  An historical novel framed around a series of book thefts spans two generations of women as they navigate family and careers.  With a smattering of women’s rights and a big dose of family drama, the story is easy to follow and with a read-it-in-a-setting vibe.  It was a Valentine’s present to me through Libby, the library’s email guru, after a friend recommended it.  If you are a lover of New York City, a lover of libraries, or just want to escape into the stacks again, The Lions of Fifth Avenue will satisfy.

William Kent Krueger’s Thunder Bay also has an historical bent, with a suspenseful plot and a taste of the Old West in the seventh book in Krueger’s Cork O’Connell mystery/detective series.  Search for a long-lost son mingles with gold in Canada and the Ojibwe tribe in Northern Minnesota.  In his style of rich character development and slow moving plot, Krueger gave me a different perspective and a reason to turn the pages.  This paperback has been sitting on my shelf, and now Krueger has his eighteenth to be published in August, 2021.  I need to catch up.

I’ve preordered a stack of books:

  1. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro    The story of Klara, an Artificial Intelligence Friend, who observes behaviors from her shelf in the store, hoping someone will choose her.
  2. Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams    The misadventures of a lovelorn Victorian lexicographer and a young woman investigating his adventures a century later.
  3. The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan     During World War II, a BBC radio program hold a cooking contest with the grand prize as the program’s first-ever female cohost.  Four women vie for the chance to change their lives.

and, in case you are wondering, some of the award winners for 2020 are:

  • Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown for the National Book Award
  • Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain for the Man Booker Award
  • Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet for the Women’s Prize for Fiction
  • Raven Leilani’s Luster for Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

Have you read any of them?

 

 

 

Comparing The Undoing and You Should Have Known

Caught up in the new HBO series The Undoing with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, I could not remember much about it, despite  having read the book it was based on, You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz when it was first published.   Remembering the plot of a book I’d read five years ago was improbable for me;  I had the haunting feeling the young son had done it, but that could have been the plot of a number of books I’ve read since then.

Then I saw an interview with one of the lead actors on the Stephen Colbert Late Show. An older Hugh Grant was still handsome with the well modulated voice of British wealth and privilege; I knew him from romantic leads like Notting Hill but I also remembered his villainous role in Paddington 2. When Grant spoke of what Colbert referred to uncomfortably as “Barbie porn,” Hugh Grant’s suave demeanor suddenly morphed into a smarmy character. He was good at pretending; maybe he was the killer.

Since I couldn’t wait for the episodes teasing me each week with cliff-hangers, I decided to buy the ebook (now only $7.99) and find out for myself.  As is usually the case, the book was so much better.  I recognized the major constructs in the film, finding many conveniently changed, but curiously, Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace, the psychotherapist, was the focus.  Her husband, played by Hugh Grant, was never on stage.  The reader discovers him through Grace, through his fellow doctors, and by innuendo.

In the HBO series, the plot becomes a mystery thriller, chasing down red herrings, looking for the killer.  Most of the books’s tension is changed from introspection, betrayal, and self discovery to the thrill of discovering whodunit.

I won’t spoil the ending of the book for you, but if you are not an HBO fan or have not begun to watch the series, renamed The Undoing, do yourself a favor and read the book first.

I’ll keep watching The Undoing; it has the same delicious thrill as Big Little Lies with the same writer, David E. Kelley, adapting the book for the screen.  Maybe he changed the ending.

Addendum

The series finale on HBO delivered a thrilling ending, and kept the author’s final nod to the killer with a Hollywood movie flare.

Rebecca is Haunting the Airwaves

A good movie at the end of the day seems to have become a routine. The remake of  Roald Dahl’s The Witches is coming to HBO in time for Halloween, and other scary movies I’ve watched lately include The Trial of the Chicago Seven and David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet on Netflix, but last night I watched Lily James and Armie Hammer in the Netflix remake of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a classic scary movie.

James is a little too beautiful for the frumpy second wife Du Maurier wrote about, despite her clunky shoes and baggy sweaters, and Armie Hammer is too young and debonair for the cold, older, reticent aristocrat of the novel, but, oh, they are so good to watch together on the screen,  The steamy scene on the beach reminiscent of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s famous scene in From Here to Eternity would never have happened in the novel, but I’m glad it was in the movie.

I wondered at the Netflix ending and spent an hour trying to find a free version of the novel on Gutenberg to compare.  When I read Rebecca, I remembered the Gothic overtones and the feeling of ghostly despair haunting the ending; noone was living happily ever after.  Netflix cures this authorial intent with another steamy bedroom scene, but offers a nod to the possibilities with Lily James crazy stare into the camera at the end.  If you didn’t know the novel, you might think all was well and Rebecca’s ghost was still swimming in the deep.  The movie was good, but, as always, the novel was better – give it a try – you can listen to it, complete with eerie music  – here.

Although true to the novel in most scenes, the romantic ending might be better for viewers in this virus ridden world.  After all, we already have a specter to fear and resist; who needs another one.

Paris By The Book – A Virtual Escape

I desperately needed to get away and quietly sitting on my shelf for over a year, Liam Callanan’s Paris By The Book‘s red cover finally caught my attention and gave me a first class ticket to my favorite city.  Callanan’s descriptions of Paris were as real as being there, as I relived walking the cobblestones streets, climbing up to Montmartre, and eating the buttery croissants.

Of course, the virus is everywhere these days, even in Paris, but escaping to a time and place before the pandemic spoiled everything in the city of Madeline and The Red Balloon offered a respite from reality.

Callahan creates a story around a Wisconsin woman with her two daughters who travel to Paris to find the husband/father who disappeared one morning, never returning from a jog.  He was a writer who would sometimes go away for days to nurture his muse and overcome his creative burnout from tending to the boring essentials of daily life.  He had not written a book in a long time, while his wife supported the family as a speech writer for a university.  At first, his family thinks he just went away on one of his writeaways.

Months later, after finding an itinerary code in a box of cereal, Leah and her daughters follow Richard’s clue to Paris, where they think he might have gone.  On the last day of their Paris vacation, they find a bookstore for sale and reinvent their lives.  Always on the alert for Richard, the girls and Leah sometimes think they see him but he eludes them, as they carry on with their new lives in Paris.

The book teases with clues, keeping the reader off balance, wondering whether or not Richard is alive or in Paris.  The suspense of the search lends impetus to the plot, yet it’s Callanan’s descriptions of the family’s new life in Paris keeping the mood sublime.  Paris is practically perfect, and its problems can be easily overcome in the interest of living out the fantasy of owning a bookstore there. Callanan does solve the mystery of Richard in the end, but not as I had expected.

Books, of course, are central to the surroundings, as Callanan offers classic titles as well as children’s books stacked in Leah’s English language bookshop in Paris called The Late Edition.  The famous Shakespeare and Company has a cameo in the book, and later the author explains in his afterward its significance as well as the real bookstore in Paris he almost bought.

Two famous children’s stories and their authors weave through the story – Ludwig Bemelmans with his famous Madeline stories and Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon, both the book and the movie.  I had to stop to revisit both.  The Red Balloon movie is on Amazon, with short clips on YouTube. Watch it and raise your spirits instantly.

Leah and Richard first meet and form a relationship over these children’s books; later they read the books and biographies of the authors to their daughters, and through the stories they pass on their love of Paris to their children.  The dream is to visit Paris someday.

I read this book slowly.  These days I have no place to hurry to, and finding a story with familiar scenes  I can relish was a balm I was reluctant to end. Paris By The Book transported me to another place, another time, another life. It was nice to dream of being there for a while.  

 

Gothic Thrillers: The Guest List and The Sea of Lost Girls

For now, I am content with easy mysteries and psychological thrillers; I just finished reading The Guest List by Lucy Foley and The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman.  Both reminded me of Lianne Moriarty’s Big Little Lies with a cast of women betrayed by a male villain, who satisfyingly  gets his at the end – with a surprise twist.

The Sea of Lost Girls

Goodman’s tales are old friends; I’ve read The Lake of Dead Languages (2001) through to The Widow’s House (2017).  The Sea of Lost Girls has her usual Gothic flavor, set in an academic setting, this time in an old boarding school in Maine, with a haunting past of dead girls and ghosts.  Tess, the heroine and former student, returns as a teacher with a past.  A young girl is murdered near the beach with suspects ranging from the heroine’s son to her former lover and her husband.  Goodman weaves the psychological thriller around the lives of past abuses and present day secrets.  A fun and quick read.

The Guest List

Foley’s The Guest List has a wedding fueling its thrills and a remote Irish island provides the chills. The horror on the night of the wedding jolts the opening, and the rest of the story backtracks to lead the reader to the big reveal.

The groom is a handsome TV star, but slowly his chiseled looks take on the aura of a Dorian Gray.  His college buddies confirm his background and lurid past, as they party as the guests from hell.  Five narrators, each marking separate chapters, slowly weave the story to its surprise ending: the wedding planner and owner of the island, the bride, her young half sister and bridesmaid, the best man and old college buddy of the groom, and Hannah, the wife of Charlie, former lover of the bride.  The story evolves slowly, giving the reader time to assimilate the characters and try to guess the victim as well as the murderer, but it was a surprise to me.  Fun and satisfying.