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.

A Single Rose

In a rare interview, French author Muriel Barbery explained her love of Kyoto – a love beautifully revealed in her latest book – A Single Rose. Barbery noted:

“…we have long been lovers of Japanese culture and since we moved to Kyoto, a town that we are head over heels in love with, our feelings for this country have been confirmed. Our fascination began mostly as an aesthetic one, and has remained so: we are fascinated by the ability to create pure beauty, at the same time refined and pure; the kind of thing you see in the slow, sweet sumptuousness of Ozu’s films, in the splendor of the Japanese gardens, in the discreet sophistication of ikebana … It has had us under its spell for over ten years. And we are still at the dawn of our discoveries … But what we also love about Japan, without negating its somber and terrible face, is its repertoire of behaviors: the subtle politesse, the sense of security that results from social solidarity, a very special form of candor, as well. We don’t know how long these things can resist the infernal spirals of the contemporary world, but for now they make life here incredibly sweet and civil.”

A Single Rose tells the story of forty- year old Rose, who travels from France to Kyoto for the reading of her estranged Japanese father’s will. The story reads like a meditation with descriptions of gardens and temples, interspersed with notes on culture and folklore. The plot is simple snd predictable, but Barbery’s strength is transporting each reader to his or her own reflective inner world.

A short but worthwhile read, the book offers some quiet solace in these times of turmoil and uncertainty.

Review of the Year That Shall Not be Named – in Books

With the end of a year like no other, I am again looking back to list the twelve books, one for each month, I especially loved reading.  This year, however, is tinged with the evolution of 2020 from high expectations at January to slow disintegration as the months wore on.

One of my favorite authors, humorist Dave Barry, offered his observations in his Year in Review 2020 – giving a few laugh out loud moments in following his monthly reminder of a year gone awry.  He inspired me to think about how my reading morphed with my own view of the world as history marched through a challenging year.

Here is my list of twelve books read and reviewed (click on the title to read the review) throughout the year.  My favorite has a star.

January:  What better way to start than a book with January in the title and doors magically opening to new worlds- Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January

February: The world news was getting a little scary, so I kept escaping to fantasy land with A.J. Hackwith’s The Library of the Unwritten

March: The world was really looking grim by now, so I turned to Jose Saramago’s story of how it all could be worse in Blindness

April: Spring didn’t really look like a flowery bower, so I buried myself in Eric Larson’s epic observation of Winston Churchill in The Splendid and the Vile

May: As the pandemic raged on, many of us wondered what life would have been like if 2016 had brought a different president; Curtis Sittenfeld filled the void with Rodham

June: By now, I was looking for a fictional world I did not live in; thankfully, Anne Tyler, one of my favorite authors, came through with a delightful The Redhead by the Side of the Road  *

July:  We all knew the pandemic was real when we heard beloved actor Tom Hanks had it in March, but his recovery led to his role in the movie adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ News of the World in July.  In July, I enjoyed Jiles’ new book Simon the Fiddler 

August:  By now it was clear my European travels were going to be curtailed for a while, but my dreams of Paris were fed vicariously by Liam Callanan’s Paris By the Book

September: Although I couldn’t visit my Los Angeles family, I could revisit favorite landmarks in Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

October: Graphic novels with short but philosophical views of life are hard to find these days. Calvin and Hobbes is in retirement, but Allie Brosh has her own brand of art and humor, easy to read and fun to explore, in Solutions and Other Problems

November: By now I was watching more TV than reading, and Netflix lured me into a series called “The Undoing.”  When I discovered it was based on a book, I had to reread Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known

December: The year is finally coming to an end, and I have been drinking a lot of coffee to wash down all the cookies, but none taking me back into the past like the Japanese translation of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold

* Although I am still careful to drink up all my coffee before it gets cold, Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road was my year’s favorite.

What books do you remember from this year?  Any favorites to recommend?

Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2018

The six books making the cut for the Man Booker shortlist this year include two American authors – Rachel Kushner for “The Mars Story,” set in a California women’s prison, and Richard Powers for “The Overstory,” about nine strangers trying to save one of the world’s last virgin forests.

The rest of the list includes:

  • Washington Black” by Canadian Esi Edugyan, based on the true story of the relationship between an eleven year old enslaved boy and his master’s brother who flee a Barbados plantation.
  • Irish author Anna Burns’ “Milkman” – told in the voice of a young woman forced into a relationship with an older man during the Northern Ireland conflict.
  • Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take” – the first book selected for the Shortlist in verse, follows a World War II veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder as he travels across the United States.
  • British Daisy Johnson, the youngest author ever shortlisted for the Prize, updates Greek myth in the tragic story of a lexicographer looking for her mother in “Everything Under.”

The winner of 50,000 pounds will be announced October 16.

I’ve read SNAP from the longlist and have “Washington Black” and “The Overstory” on my to-read pile, but I may skip the others. Do you plan to read any before the winner is announced?

Related Review: SNAP

Something in the Water

Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick – Something in the Water – has me wondering when she will produce it for viewing. Catherine Steadman’s book has all the elements of a great series – exotic settings, unreliable characters, and plot twists favoring the female leads.

I listened to Steadman’s British tones reading the book for Audible and it was hard to not keep going into the night. The “something in the water” was not what I had expected and the hints of espionage and financial fraud added to the suspense.

Erin, a documentary producer, and Mark, an out of work hedge fund expert, go off on their honeymoon to Bora Bora. Mark, an expert diver, convinces Erin to overcome her fears to experience the beautiful underwater world. His cavalier comments about the sharks in the water had me suspicious, but what they find leads the adventure into murky waters as each plot twist combines danger and a new life for both.

Great fun to listen to.