Rebecca Serle’s One Italian Summer takes place in an idyllic Amalfi coastal town. Like Serle’s previous work, In Five Years, there’s a bit of time travel to make the plot work.
When her mother dies, Katy goes alone on the journey that they’d planned to take together. A side benefit of the trip overseas is that we get to enjoy the sensory-rich atmosphere – the sunshine, fragrant flowers and delicious food – not to mention the warm cadence of the Italian language. You can read it on the level of wish-fulfilling armchair travel or for the story of a mother-daughter relationship.
Katy and Carol were incredibly close – so close that others had a hard time breaking in. Katy’s husband, Eric, was excluded in many ways before Carol’s death, and, afterwards, Katy actually leaves him. In this book, the main focus is how Katy gets to know her mother, Carol, when Carol was a young woman
I enjoyed this book most for the setting – which Serle does a masterful job of evoking. The storyline about the somewhat strained loops in the space-time continuum were sometimes confusing. However, if you’re looking for a fun summer read that has a hint of literary weight, this would check a lot of the boxes.
Flynn Berry’s Under the Harrow twists and turns and twists back again – setting up expectations and then redirecting them. Nora discovers the brutal murder of her sister – which leads to a reexamination of their trauma-filled past. Both women have had issues with impulse control – and Nora, especially, becomes increasingly volatile. Readers begin to doubt the reliability of just about everyone – suspects, investigators, and people from the past.
There is something very compelling about the slow reveal of the very close bond the two women have. The many idyllic meals and trips are told in flashback and each one reveals a bit more about the sisters’ relationship and complicated history. As close as they were, Nora keeps uncovering secrets – making the trauma she’s experiencing even more complicated.
The notable thing about Berry is her skill in understatement. She’s the master of “show don’t tell.” Nora narrates events and her own actions, but never indulges in emotive drama. For example, during the early stages of the murder investigation, Nora destroys property in the hotel where she’s staying. From this, we can intuit the unbearable pain and loss she’s suffering but she doesn’t explicitly tell us.
London and the seaside settings in England are revealed the same way – through the peregrinations of Nora, not through descriptive words and adjectives. The one exception is a trip to Cornwall. The scene of a happy time in the past, this part of the book has a magical glow, which makes what follows even darker.
In some ways, this book is a classic who-done-it – readers are kept guessing until the last pages.
In These Precious Days, Ann Patchett has gathered reflections, meditations and biographical sketches written over the course of many years. The title essay is by far the longest and most most somber. Patchett’s friend Sooki Raphael (Tom Hank’s assistant) appears several times, and it is her complex story that ends the book and gives the collection a sense of weight and substance.
In between, there are many and delightful meditations – such as how Snoopy’s vocation as a writer was an early literary influence of Patchett’s. Perhaps my favorite is how she uses The Joy of Cooking as her guide when cooking Thanksgiving dinner as a college freshman. She cites this as the beginning of a reliance on books to face life’s challenges. Her “feral” experience at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop is fascinating. The glimpse we get into the 80’s grad school experience is fascinating.
Always, always – books and authors and writing are woven in and out of each selection. Here is a person who has found her true calling and has created a life that would seem improbable if you were to read about it in a novel. She runs a successful bookstore (Parnassus Books in Nashville), she’s married to a kind and smart man (a doctor and a pilot), her roster of friends and acquaintances have included John Updike, Renee Fleming, Tom Hanks, and Kate DiCamillo.
In essays like “There Are No Children Here,” just as she seems to approach a Martha Stewart-esque entitlement, she’ll turn the screw enough to bring the essay out of a faint whiff of perfectionism (she’d be the first to own this tendency). It is this unpredictability and skillful turn of phrase that lifts the writing into another level.
At 118 pages, Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, is a quick but powerful read. The book jacket and the beginning of the book lull the reader into the expectation that this will be a comforting Christmas story. The fact that it’s set in the eighties – with all the attendant nostalgic, pre-internet, village shops and village life – reinforces that feeling. However, those expectations are upended when Bill Furlong, during his coal deliveries, encounters girls who live at the local convent. These encounters are so unsettling that they cause him to doubt his previously unquestioned faith in the Church.
The second part of the book deals with Bill’s crisis of conscience. He struggles with his faith and with identifying the right course of action. He feels disconnected from his family and struggles with how his responsibilities to his wife and his family affect doing what he feels is right.
This is a brief but immersive look into a period of Irish life that had resonance for decades afterwards. Seen through Bill’s innocent eyes, one can begin to understand how hard it was for entrenched ideas to shift.
With Our Blessing by Jo Spain is one of those books that provide a bonus – an insight into a piece of history that may have been completely unknown to a reader. Such was the case with this book – for me. (I’d never before heard of the Magdalene laundries). For more than a hundred years, these laundries were operated for profit by the church with the help of the Irish government. Locals and families were often unaware that the girls, predominantly unmarried mothers, were in fact free labor, more or less imprisoned in sometimes very harsh conditions.
That’s the premise for this mystery. A team of Dublin police (or garda, as they’re known in Ireland) is sent to a Limerick convent and former laundry after a local murder is linked to the site. Detective Laura Brennan’s aunt was sent to the convent in the seventies, which personalizes for Brennan the abuse these girls endured. Brennan discovers that her aunt was victimized by the town’s most prominent family and then by the laundry operators. The secrecy that allowed this abuse to go on until the 1990’s stymies the current murder investigations, as well.
This is the first in the Inspector Tom Reynolds series, which features members of the Dublin Murder Squad. Reynolds is the unassuming cool head of the team; Brennan, and other detectives provide a mix of temperaments, skills and backstories that add yet another layer to the already multilayered novel.
Val McDermid makes a departure from her other long-running series in this novel – which is set in …1979!
Very likely the beginning of a new series – this book is set in Glasgow, and stars young reporter, Allie Burns. Like McDermid herself was in the late seventies, Burns is starting out her career as a reporter on a metro daily newspaper. Fighting against notions that female reporters should cover fluffy, lifestyle stories, Burns does her best to break into investigative journalism. Working with Danny Sullivan, the two collaborate on stories involving corruption, murder and the secretive security services.
What makes this a cut above other crime series is the specificity of the setting. In this era, this gritty Scottish city is rife with sexism and homophobia – both of which have a direct impact on Burns and Sullivan.
And like Ireland, Scotland had a nationalist movement that, in the seventies and eighties, was evolving into a more activist and popular movement.
McDermid writes with authenticity about this time and place – you can tell she hasn’t just done research and layered on details. She has written characters who speak and act based on assumed knowledge, beliefs and their behavior is predicated on the lack of digital technology. How fun is that?! People making calls on landlines and typing on typewriters – in a non-ironic way!
Wayward is one of the trickiest books I’ve run into in a long time. While I was reading it, I kept marking passages because they were so true and insightful. The thoughts and feelings of Sam, the main character, had such resonance and were so beautifully written. Proudly middle aged, she is not sad about losing her youth and beauty. She’s actually looking forward to what’s to come and becomes involved with a Facebook group called Hardcore Hags, Harridans and Harpies. I empathized with Sam’s rage at how she’s dismissed as irrelevant now that she’s middle aged.
Yet, it’s not always easy to like or even understand her. Her actions and interactions with her husband and daughter seem opaque and impulsive. She doesn’t ever explain to her family, in a satisfying way, why she leaves them. The allure of solitude is certainly understandable, as is buying and restoring a beautiful old house. But there’s never any payoff; her dreams and plans never come to fruition. In the beginning of the book, the signs are all there for a story about a woman of a certain age whose marriage comes apart and she restarts her life by moving into an house that is beautiful but needs a lot of work. But, neither her life nor the house are ever transformed. In fact, her life becomes messier and less resolved and her house remains ramshackle.
It soon becomes apparent that the outcome of the book was not going to be predictable; there isn’t a smooth, satisfying narrative in which wrongs are righted and growth and change follow hardship. But, as in real life, expected trajectories turned out to be unfulfilled. New friendships and relationships start out in a promising way but are aborted.
Go into this book with no preconceived ideas of the usual formula of: woman leaves husband, buys a cool, abandoned house, becomes self-aware, makes new friends, and transforms her life. If you don’t have such expectations, it’s a great read about a fascinating, complicated person.
I want to talk about The Plot, because it has so many interesting threads and tangents. However, it’s a somewhat difficult review to write. Any description of the characters (or plot) could, potentially, be a spoiler. The book was lauded for its creative storyline involving one writer appropriating the work of another. Periodically, a chapter from the stolen or borrowed book (depending on your point of view) is inserted into the narrative about Jake. This device is actually surprisingly effective in ratcheting up the tension.
So I’ll concentrate on the aspect I found most interesting. Since childhood, Jake Bonner’s only ambition has been to be a writer. He’s a graduate of an MFA program that sounds suspiciously like the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. One of the great pleasures of the book is the insider’s view of such programs, the literary lifestyle and the publishing world. The book is sprinkled with the nuts and bolts of book tours, and the role of agents and editors.
The end of the book is, to a librarian, fascinating, as well. Jake becomes a more interesting character, as he becomes less passive. He becomes quite a skilled researcher, investigator and interviewer. His life may have been less stressful had he developed these talents and become a librarian.
Katherine Heiny’s novel doesn’t fit into a neat box. It starts out as a rom com; it’s a fairly predictable pairing of two attractive, charming people, surrounded by their eccentric friends.
Jane and Duncan meet, have a relationship of sorts, and break up, which isn’t fatal to HEA (Happily Ever After). However, the book begins to take a darker, messier turn. This is when it really starts to get unpredictable and much more interesting. Jane, a grade school teacher in a small Michigan town, gets some of what she wanted but not necessarily in the way she wanted.
A highlight is Heiny’s skill in capturing kids and adults with delightfully brief character sketches or with telling anecdotes. I looked forward to the work life passages, and the insight into the second- grade mind. Boyne City is populated with quirky residents and Heiny has fun with the dynamics of rural life.
It turns out that, perhaps, the most pivotal relationship of Jane’s life is with Jimmy Jellico. He’s a sweet and naive man who nominally works for Duncan in his workshop. Jimmy has always had difficulty understanding how to navigate in the world, and hasn’t mastered even the most basic of adulting skills. Jane becomes more and more involved in Jimmy’s daily life, and despairs that he’ll ever find a love of his own. Jane’s friends, family and co-workers are very imperfect, as is Jane, but they evolve and create a fascinating community.
Rhys Bowen’s newest is another skillfully told, impeccably researched tale of World War II. A tale in which wartime secrets come to light 60 years later.
Bowen’s forte is creating a sense of place and time. The city of Venice really is the main character- the book comes to vivid life when Juliet and Caroline arrive in Venice. The reader, through the wanderings of these two women – separated by generations – comes to know its labyrinthian canals and bridges. Water (tides and rain and waterways) dictate when, how and where one goes in any given moment. More than once, boat and bridge accidents illustrate the danger of living on a watery lagoon.
Juliet travels to Italy as a teenager, then as a teacher and finally as an art student in 1938. When Juliet dies in 2001, her great-niece travels to Venice just after 9-11. Caroline’s aunt gives her a sketchbook and keys and points her in the direction of her beloved city.
Juliet’s maturity and self-discovery is defined by her growing knowledge of Italian and the Venetian dialect as well as her ability to traverse the lagoons and canals. Her encounters with other students, teachers, and patrons of the arts are a highlight and offer a glimpse into the art world of the time. Their camaraderie is shadowed by the news coming out of Poland and Germany. The sorrow and tragedy of the war is made made personal when we see how it affects one city – its people and those who’ve made their way to Venice and its priceless treasures.