The Tuscan Child

Rhys Bowen’s newest mystery, The Tuscan Child, is one of those books that starts out a bit slowly. But when there is a change of locale, the book really hits its stride. Alternating chapters are set in either the 1970’s  or in the 1940’s.  The 1970’s chapters begin when Hugo Langley’s daughter, Joanna, first learns of her father’s death. She then travels to Tuscany to find out more about his experiences  during the war, and this is when the book really takes off.

The novel goes back and forth between Joanna’s visit to Italy and  the period when her father was  shot down  in the remote hills of Tuscany.  Not only must he brave the elements, hiding in a ruined monastery, but he is nearly immobilized by a broken leg.

The suspense really builds as the reader is excruciatingly aware of the danger faced by those who helped Allied servicemen. The Germans threaten to kill everyone in the village if they find proof that one of them has been aiding the pilot they suspect is still in the area. Bowen supplies lots of detail about life in these towns overrun by the Germans, as well as about the groups of men who resisted.  Even though these groups were anti-Fascist, they could also pose a threat to civilians caught in everchanging alliances that made any kind of trust dangerous.

There is  suspense even in the 1970’s as there are long-held secrets about the war and how the villagers had to deal with the German occupation. Another mystery is the relationship between Hugo and Sofia. Joanna’s impetus to visit Italy is a letter from Hugo to Sofia, the young woman who fed and helped to hide Hugo. Sofia’s son, Renzo, still lives in the village and Joanna wonders if he is, in fact, her brother.  (This would be awkward as there is some romantic tension between the two).

There are many appeals to the substance and the style of the novel.  There is the enjoyment of learning lesser-known facets of history, such as how war impacts civilians, both during the actual conflict and how it resonates decades afterwards. The novel’s structure highlights the contrast between Hugo in his final years and Hugo as a young man. It’s a compelling illustration of how death and loss can change a courageous and generous hero into an embittered man.

Another thread of the plot deals with artistic masterpieces and how, tragically, many were destroyed or went missing. This is given extra relevance because Hugo is a gifted artist, himself.

I love the way information is slowly discovered by Joanna. You get a sense of the terror of the wartime, and why families would not want everything to be known, even 30 years later. It did bother me a bit that one final mystery was never revealed – the fate of one of those villagers who was key to the story. Perhaps Bowen will revisit San Salvatore, and the intriguing cast of characters who live there.

 

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

It turns out there’s a cult following of Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals series.  Now, I’m one of them.  The audio version of  A Brief History of Montmaray took me across several states (and back).  Sometimes I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice how low the gas gauge was – a lack of attention that can be dangerous on some stretches of South Dakota highway.

It’s written as the secret diary of (Princess) Sophie FitzOsborne,  one of the ruling family of the  island kingdom of Montmaray.

Sophie’s view of herself, and  her  family  evolves as she learns more of the tragedies surrounding her family’s history, including her aunt’s disappearance. The cast of characters include her very eccentric Uncle John (the king), her siblings and cousin – all  with their own obsessions and quirks. There’s a secret language that the cousins have developed – she encodes parts of her diary in this language, in case the book falls in the wrong hands. There are also secret tunnels, the possibility that the crumbling castle may have connections to the Holy Grail, a jeweled egg gifted by the Romanovs, and perilous rescues and invasions by sea and air.

It is 1936, and world events are overtaking the seclusion of the tiny country in the waters off the coasts of France and Spain,  in the Bay of Biscay. The remaining FitzOsbornes are very aware of the political turmoil in Europe, especially the Spanish Civil War and rising fascism in Germany.  German soldiers land on the shores of Montmaray one day, as part of the historical/archaeological research wing of the Nazis, and life is never the same again.

At the end of the first volume, there are still many mysteries to be solved.  I can’t wait to hear more from this charmingly eccentric family.

My Lisbon by Nuno Mendes

My Lisbon: A Cookbook from Portugal’s City of Light by Nuno Mendes is an example of cookbook as travelogue.  It’s a joy to peruse.  Mendes is an engaging writer; his prose captures the mood and spirit of Lisbon. Interspersed with recipes are his vignettes of life in Portugal – Lisbon in particular.  Not only is the text authentic and breezy, but the photos are so spontaneous – you feel as if you’ve glimpsed private moments in the public spaces of this urban, yet warm and relaxed  city.  The oldest part of Lisbon, Alfama, is particularly intimate – the streets are so narrow and there is often virtually no space between the public street and a family’s private living area beyond a thin wall or window. Laundry is literally aired  in public; just look above you!

Whenever I visit a new city or country, I have so many questions. Why do  they do this? What’s the history of that?  This book is ideal for solving these mysteries. After a recent visit to Lisbon, I wanted to know more about why lisboetas decorate the facades of their houses and restaurants with Christmas decorations  – in April. It has to do with the festival of Santo Antonio in which sardinhas (sardines) are enthusiastically celebrated – cooked, eaten and enjoyed in the streets and restaurants.

I wanted to know the story behind the elegantly shabby azulejo (tile) on its buildings. As a native, Mendes speaks with authority and experience about the smells, tastes and sounds of a city that has been dependent on the sea for hundreds of years. Mendes is also a restaurateur so he provides fascinating detail about  the stories behind local ingredients and specialties  (salt, sardines, ham, and custard and more). Many times these stories relate to Portugal’s glory days in the 15th and 16th centuries when its navigators ruled the oceans and claimed vast portions of the globe for their country.

I’ve devoured many guidebooks, dvds, and travelogues about Portugal, but, to me, this book truly captures what’s special about this magical city.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter is the story of the Kurc family and their experiences  during World War II. This novel is actually the story of her family, and she uses the real names of her grandparents, mother, aunts, uncles and cousins.

I was struck by the similarity of phrase, when reading an account in the April 24th issue of The Dispatch  and The Rock Island Argus  of a speech by Doris Fogel.  During Holocaust Remembrance week,  Ms. Fogel, a Chicago resident who spent years in a Shanghai ghetto during World War II, said: “No one could have foretold the horror and hardship the coming years would bring to millions of Jews and others,” … “Every day, I realized I was one of the lucky ones.”

The Kurcs are from a small town in Poland, and as the war goes on they see their lives and homes disintegrate. Some are forced to live in ghettos and  concentration camps, some are sent to a Siberian gulag. The “luckiest”  is Addy who is living in Paris when the war starts, and he cannot get back home to Poland, and he can’t let them know where he is. Finally, he gets a visa to Brazil. After the war, the Red Cross is able to connect those who survive and the extended family emigrates to Brazil, where Addy can help them rebuild. They’ve lost their homes, identities, friends, belongings, savings, and occupations, but in the end they still have their family and faith.

Survivors were left in limbo after the war. Hunter describes in realistic detail the rules, regulations and laws involved in getting visas, and the rigors and dangers of travel – both during and after the war. I was unfamiliar with the level of atrocity in Poland and how, even after the war, Jews were still  persecuted in Germany.

Hunter personalizes the horror of what so many suffered. It’s hard to comprehend the scope of what happened and how many millions of stories there are that have been lost. The reader gets a small sense of this by following the members of the Kurc family as they, incrementally, have everything taken from them. Another tragedy is losing so many stories – as the last several generations pass away, along with their first-person accounts.

 

 

 

 

They Left Us Everything

They Left Us Everything, Plum Johnson’s account of her parent’s illnesses and deaths, is refreshing in its candor and will resonate with anyone who has gone through something similar. She’s candid, too, about her family.

Plum grew up in Singapore, Virginia, and finally Canada – which was a compromise for her British father and American mother. Her parents spent the ends of their lives in the family home on Lake Ontario. Her mother was from Virginia – her ancestors and cousins were attorney generals and ambassadors. While her mother was exuberant, eccentric, and a writer of letters and a copywriter in her youth, her father was British, reserved, and quite eccentric, as well. Their relationship endured but was volatile and complicated.

Plum and her three brothers all have skills, roles and competencies related to caregiving. Some are hands-on and some help at a distance with financial, legal and real estate matters. Sibling Suppers are mostly supportive and cooperative, but, as she is the oldest, divorced, single, and the daughter, Plum is most directly involved in her parents’ care and the settling of the estate.

Plum sometimes compares her life at 63 with her mother’s relative freedom at the same age.  She details the steps and the incredible energy and patience it takes to do routine tasks – like going to the mall. Just reading the description is exhausting.  “It feels as though the last twenty years have leached out my patience, my empathy, my compassion – the best parts of me- until I feel unrecognizable, a person I don’t like very much.” “Nineteen years, one month, and twenty-six days of eldercare have brought me to my knees.”

The house is as much a character in this book, as her various family members. Plum loves the house and it’s setting by the water, and it’s through the house that she comes to terms with the contradictory feelings she had toward her parents. She is overwhelmed by her parent’s house and it’s contents, but she doesn’t succumb to the temptation to discard and give away their belongings immediately and without thought. She ultimately decides that those items are a curse, but they are also a blessing. “This house I am now slicing apart is theirs – the place that we’d taken for granted would always be here as a backdrop to our lives.” Later, she says, “Now I believe this clearing out is a valuable process – best left to our children. It’s the only way they’ll ever truly come to know us…”

In the end, she acknowledges the truth of what funeral guests tell her: “When your mother dies, you’ll wish you’d asked her some questions.” When it’s too late, she realizes, “Now there are questions I didn’t even know I had.”

 

 

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan is a fascinating glimpse into the homefront of World War II England. Set in a village in Kent, this focuses on the women who maintain their communities, families, and the war effort after their sons and husbands have joined the military services. I didn’t realize how real the fear was that the Nazis were going to arrive on English soil – people near the coast really began to feel that an invasion was imminent. I also didn’t comprehend the extent of the damage  outside of London  during the Battle of Britain. We’re so used to seeing the rubble of London, that we forget the impact on the countryside.

Several women of Chilbury describe their fears and the strength they gather from each other and from singing together; we read their first-hand accounts through letters and diary entries. At first, they seem to be stock English characters, but they begin to show their complexity as the war and tragedy change them.  Venetia Winthrop was particularly interesting, I thought. At the start of the novel and the war, she’s vain, selfish, and revels in her power over men. As she suffers pain and loss, she becomes more a more generous sister and friend. Not only are the accounts from the point of view of women, but we see them become stronger and more independent. They find their voices both musically (the power of music is movingly conveyed by Ryan), and in their ability to stand up for themselves and for other women.

Not everyone is admirable; there are men and women behaving badly, sometimes criminally, but, overall, there is a sense of hope, and satisfaction is watching a community and country support each other.

One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis

Opinion is truly divided on One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis.  People who don’t like it, really HATE it. They feel manipulated and ticked off at the author and the main character – Emily/Cat. I have to admit, I began to fall into the second camp midway into the book, but still had to finish it. Seskis subverts expectations over and over again, and I think this is part of why people get upset. It seems to be one sort of book and then it goes in a completely different direction

The author tantalizes the reader by withholding critical information. Why has Emily left her life? What exactly was the tragedy that set her flight from her family and home into motion? Some of the most interesting parts of the book are the methods Emily/Cat uses to disappear. Because her passport is in her maiden name, which is a common one (Brown) and because she alters her first name, she is able to get lost in London.

As Emily transitions to Cat, it’s gratifying to see her gradually re-build her life – she gets a job she is good at, a place to live, and a new friend. However, it doesn’t take long for Cat to spiral out of control – she alienates co-workers as her drug use and drinking escalates. The actions of her truly awful sister and the series of events that lead to her becoming a national pariah, make you wonder if these things are really happening or if they are part of Cat’s hallucinations. 

If you like intricate plots, and don’t necessarily need a cuddly heroine, you may enjoy this domestic suspense novel.

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis alternates between the present day New York City and 1952 via the lives of the women who live at the Barbizon Hotel. In 1952 it was known as the Barbizon Hotel for Women, catering to young, single women who aspired to be secretaries or models. Darby comes from Ohio to enroll in the Katharine Gibbs College, which taught young ladies business skills and etiquette. Very soon, she becomes friends with Esme, a maid, singer and aspiring actress. When Esme encourages Darby to perform with her at a jazz club downtown, Darby’s world view changes radically; she discovers passion – creatively and romantically. These chapters are tinged with nostalgia and a sense of impending tragedy. Davis does a marvelous job of immersing the reader in a very different era, with different assumptions for women – and she does it with a subtle, realistic way.

The chapters set in contemporary New York feature Rose, a journalist for an online magazine, and a current condo dweller at the Barbizon. As her own life falls apart, she becomes fascinated by the earlier inhabitants – some of which still live at the Barbizon (in rent-controlled apartments).  Rose wants to tell the forgotten story of these women, but needs the hook of a fatal accident more than 50 years ago, to get the interest of her editor.  She doesn’t want to exploit Darby, who just wants to be left alone,  but, in the end, that is what she does.

Rose herself undergoes a transformation – from a woman who had a successful career, and a rising politician for a boyfriend to someone who is in the process of losing her job, her home and her father. Ultimately, she comes through it all a wiser and more independent person.

Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger

From the start, Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger is suspenseful, engaging and full of twists and turns. The main appeal, though, is Ridley Jones, whose tidy, enjoyable life is turned upside down one morning when she rescues a small child from getting hit by a car. This act of heroism and the attendant publicity brings out people from her past, causing her to doubt her parents, long-time family friends, and everything she’s believed about her life up until that point.

A freelance journalist living in a cozy East Village apartment, she goes on the run, investigating a man claiming to be her father, and  a shadowy group dedicated to finding homes for abandoned children. She’s not sure who she can trust. She’s not even sure of her new neighbor and love interest, who helps her with her investigation but seems too professional in his skills for someone who claims to be an artist.

While you’re reading this, you’re quite aware that this is very firmly rooted in the thriller genre, and is pure escapism. But it’s artfully done, and Ridley’s re-examination of lifelong assumptions and philosophical musings make it a cut above those churned out by authors turned corporations.

Bibliophilia

Bibliophilia, by N. John Hall, is an epistolary novel and, even though the correspondence is via email, it could just as well be letters that arrive by mail . Larry Dickerson develops relationships with Christie’s auction house staff, academics and other book experts as he educates himself about the art of book collecting. His enthusiasm is contagious; he isn’t afraid of appearing naïve or uneducated. He asks the questions that the reader would ask, and the answers he receives are a mixture of the personal and the professional.

Some of their respect and interest may be due to the fact that Larry is newly rich, having sold his great-great grandfather’s correspondence with some noted Victorian authors for  $400,000 – a portion of which he  plans to invest in collecting rare books. Larry always tries to tie his collecting to something he has an interest in, so he begins with Victorians such as Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope. Along the way, he learns about  printing and publishing history – in both the U.S. and England, condition, inscriptions and book jackets – all of which affect the value of  books, whether they are first editions or not.

Soon, his correspondence leads him to New Yorker writers and cartoonists; he begins to collect J.D. Salinger, Roth, Updike, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, and others. It’s fun to get a quick overview of these authors, as well as famed New Yorker editors Harold Ross and William Shawn.

There is a subplot about fraud in the world of rare books – an entertaining way to learn about the underbelly of unscrupulous book dealers. Bibliophilia is an interesting mix of a sort of superficial, middlebrow learning and literary enthusiasm.