Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

I've read all three of Fiona Davis' novels, and every time I've followed the same pattern: start eagerly reading, get restless by page 50; put the book down, start something else, then return and devour the rest of the book. 

I'm not sure why I do this, but I do know one thing for certain: I absolutely love her novels. Her unique driver: taking a historical, quintessentially New York landmark, and crafting a novel around it. This time around, The Masterpiece centers on the Grand Central Terminal in the late 1920's and 1974, when the Grand Central Terminal was in very real danger of being destroyed to make room for a new, modern building. It was considered a crumbling old mess, full of homeless people, drug deals, and criminal activity. No one cared about it. Except one group of people, including Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who insisted that it be saved, deemed a historical landmark, and brought back to its original, stunning beauty. 

We follow two women: Clara Darden and Virginia Clay. Clara is an illustrator trying to break into the New York world of art and fashion, working at the famed Grand Central School of Art. She's a young woman in 1928 New York, determined to succeed, but struggling against the prevailing attitude that illustrators aren't really artists--and even more disdain because she's a woman. She's very talented, and with some help, slowly starts to make her way towards recognition. But she disappears from the New York art scene in 1931, and now, in 1974, no one knows who she was, or really cares. 

Virginia Clay is newly divorced; a breast cancer survivor and a single mother. She ends up working at the information station at the Grand Central Terminal in 1974 with a rag-tag group of people who have seen it all happen from the windows of their information booth. Virginia's struggling to create a new life vastly different from her previous life as a lawyer's pampered wife with no money worries. Her daughter Ruby has dropped out of her first year of college, and wants to be a photographer. 

Virginia gets lost on her first disastrous day at her new job, and instead of finding a restroom, she unlocks a door that completely changes her life. Inside that door is the long shuttered Grand Central School of Art. It looks like time stood still, and Virginia wanders around, stunned at the rooms full of art, left behind when the school closed during the Depression. 

The novel moves back and forth between Clara and Virginia; we see the Grand Central Terminal is all its amazing beauty, and we see it decades later, faded, filthy, and in danger of destruction. But underneath those layers of dirt the elegance and craftsmanship is just waiting to come back to life. Will Virginia have a hand in the salvation of the terminal, and maybe perhaps solve the mystery of Clara Darden?

I liked both women; maybe Virginia even more so than Clara. Virginia doesn't give up, keeps going and persevering. She sees her mistakes and works to correct them. Clara is one tough lady, who has more talent than those around her, but isn't appreciated as she should be. She works hard to become independent and successful, until it all falls apart tragically. 

I so enjoyed this novel. Now I want to find more information about the Grand Central Terminal. I'm hoping there's a documentary somewhere; I've got some research to do!  

The plot of The Masterpiece moved along fairly quickly; all of the characters were well developed; the art scene of the 1930's was fascinating and undergoing tremendous change. And who would have thought an art school would be in the Grand Central Terminal?! 

Rating:  5/6 for a solid, well-crafted novel about the rebirth of Grand Central Terminal. It's also about the rebirth of two women who, fifty years apart, are drawn together by the history, art, and people who made the Grand Central Terminal a vibrant, unforgettable New York landmark. And the cover art is stunning!

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Notes from a Public Typewriter by Michael Gustafson & Oliver Uberti

This delightful little book found its way to me through a book group friend. She graciously let me borrow it, and I read it in today's early morning hours. It's a quick read, but you will want to linger.

Michael Gustafson and his wife Hilary own the Literati bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In a town that loves bookstores, and especially independent bookstores, the Literati bookstore has a particular hook: an old fashioned typewriter that sits in the store, ready with paper, for anyone to sit down and type whatever comes to mind. Michael collects the papers, and after many pushes and prods from friends, he decided to share some of those simple, profound, sad, graceful, and uplifting messages.  

One man used the typewriter to type "Will you marry me?" to his girlfriend; another began a pen-pal relationship with a man who dresses up as a werewolf and plays the violin around town. Some message speak of heartbreak and loneliness; others whimsical and fun. There's something very satisfying about typing on an old manual typewriter. The strike of the keys resonates in the deepest part of yourself, and the effort it takes to type puts your whole body and mind into what you're trying to say. 

I learned to type in high school, in a typing class in the early 1980's.  We had electric typewriters, which were a huge improvement over manual typewriters, but they were still a bugaboo. I was impressed with myself that I could actually type fast. That one little typing class has provided a foundation for typing that has seen me through many years of work and college degrees. Oh, I remember having a meltdown when my typewriter ran out of ink and I was halfway through a paper, unable to finish--and it was due the next afternoon. I look back at those papers, and I see the correcting fluid, the messed up margins; nothing compares to the effort it took to use a typewriter! I did get my paper finished in time, by the way. 

I loved this little reminder of a past that wasn't so long ago. Michael's connection to typewriters, and one in particular, strengthens his connection to his grandfather, and he keeps his grandfather's typewriter on display at the Literati. People bring old typewriters to him and he displays them in the window of the bookstore. Ah, books and typewriters. 

This would make a sweet little gift for aspiring writers, bookaholics, or anyone who loves how whimsy can sometimes  bring out our deepest feelings. 

Rating:  5/6 for a delightful little find on a lovely bookstore, the people who call it home, and the people who find a sense of themselves sitting at the typewriter. 

Available in hardcover. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an amazing poet. That's about the extent of what I knew about her; that and Oprah Winfrey pretty much worshipped this woman. I can see why. 

An upcoming book group theme:reading a memoir, spurred me to finally read the first of Maya Angelou's many memoirs. Long considered a classic, I was ready to dive in and discover just what shaped such an extraordinary woman. 

Marguerite Johnson started life in California, but at a very young age was sent, with her brother Bailey, on a train to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their Grandmother, whom they called Momma. This was in the early 1930's, as the nation struggled with the Great Depression. Marguerite and Bailey settled in with their Momma and Uncle Willy. Momma ran a general store for their community and the children were expected to work there, go to school, do chores, and attend church. Momma ran a tight ship and was a respected member of the community. She kept her store open and thriving during the Depression through sheer grit and smarts. Marguerite's life with Momma was stable, but the times were troubling. The arrival of their father from California brought change. He took them to St. Louis to live with their beautiful, glamorous mother, and there Marguerite was raped by a man at the age of eight. She told her brother, and he told her mother. The resulting arrest and trial, and shortly thereafter murder of her rapist was more than she could bear. She decided that by speaking, she had murdered that man, so she stopped talking. Once again, Bailey and Marguerite were sent back to live in Stamps with Momma. 

There's much more to Marguerite's early life, but I couldn't get over how much had happened to her in such a short life. She identifies Mrs. Flowers as the first person who really saves her and starts her on a path towards the rest of her life, simply by reading classics to Marguerite and encouraging her to keep reading. Books and libraries were safety nets for Marguerite and Bailey and they spent a lot of time in libraries or at home reading. The power of storytelling and the written word are evident throughout this memoir. This memoir also speaks to the mood of America, the treatment of African Americans, and probably the most poignant and heartbreaking moment is when Bailey realizes what it means to be a young black boy in America. Maya's observations of the poor folk around her, and their belief that living this hardscrabble life will be rewarded in heaven are pretty profound for a young girl. 

Maya Angelou's writing is a gift. Her observations of life around her show a depth of maturity and wisdom rarely seen in one so young. Knowing where life will take her, and the people, places, and experiences she will have added to my interest in her early life-what made her and why? 

So glad I finally read this amazing memoir. I'm curious to read more, and to understand her relationship with her brother Bailey and her mother, the beautiful yet troubled woman who was in and out of her early life. To think this little girl would one day be reading her poetry at a presidential inauguration is pretty astonishing, and shows just how courageous a woman that little girl became and how far she traveled from Stamps, Arkansas. 

Rating:  5/6 for the language, writing, and simply amazing young life of Maya Angelou. She writes in a way that is more storytelling than in a cut and dried "these are the facts", which makes her young life experiences more impactful and from the heart. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Friday, August 10, 2018

The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet

The House Swap is another entry into the psychological relationship thriller. It does, however, have quite a different twist on it; one where you just don't see it coming for quite some time. 

Told in two storylines: 2013 and 2015, you would think not much could happen in a few years. You'd be wrong, especially when it comes to the relationship between Caroline and Francis, a couple who's marriage has been slowly disintegrating due to Francis' addiction to pills, and the resulting affair Caroline has with a coworker. A mess, right? It's a bit sad to see what was once a solid relationship erode over time, and neither participant seems to know how to fix it. 

Move to 2015, and Caroline and Francis are house swapping for a week to get away and continue to repair their relationship. The house is oddly bare of any personal touches; it's neat as a pin and pretty much empty of anything-more like a hotel. Making arrangements only through email, the owner of this home is staying at Caroline and Francis' home for a week. Heck, people do this all the time!

Except this one is weird. Caroline's affair may be long over, but she's still haunted by it, and odd little things around the house jolt her into remembering key scenes from two years before. Of course she can't tell Francis, since their relationship is still fragile and this whole getaway was meant for them to spend time together. Is she just projecting, or are these little things: certain flowers in the bathroom; a photo of a park that Caroline visited during her affair--are these things a deliberate poke at Caroline? Amber, a woman across the street--seems oddly determined to get to know Caroline. Is her ex-lover the one she's swapped houses with?! Is he trying to drive her mad?

There's not a huge amount of action here; it's definitely one where a lot is spent on feeling, reflecting, and remembering. Caroline is a bit of a tortured soul, and you have no idea the depths until much farther along in the plot. The big reveal is something you won't see coming at all, because there's just not any way you could--a deliberate twist out of nowhere. Let's just say Caroline's instincts that something's not right, and someone is deliberately tormenting her, are spot on. But who you think it might be--well, that's the big surprise. Francis' thoughts are also a big part of the novel, as we see addiction from his point of view; the hopelessness, the aching, the need to just take the pill and make everything okay. We see how easy it is to slip down that slide, and how it can wreck a family. 

The cover of this novel has a quote from Lee Child, saying this is a "domestic noir".  Yes it is. It's a bit dark, and all you can do is hang on and hope Caroline and Francis come out the other side still together and with a better understanding of their relationship. It's a pretty good thriller! Wow, the depth and work the person bent on revenge goes to is pretty thorough.  

Rating:  4/6 for a very different thriller that slowly unravels and gives you tidbits along the way, keeping you guessing and biting your nails. 

Thank you to Pamela Dorman Books/Viking for an advanced copy of this novel!

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Dry by Jane Harper

Wow. Just wow. This was a really great read--I zoomed through it in a few days when I realized I had to return it to a friend at our book club tonight. I finished it a mere 30 minutes before we were meeting, and I couldn't wait to talk about it to my friends. Seriously--this was the book I stayed up late to read, woke up early to get more pages in; read during my lunch hour at work. 

A quick plot recap: Aaron Falk, a federal agent in Australia, returns to his hometown of Kiewarra for the funeral of his childhood friend  Luke, his wife Karen, and their little boy Billy. Everyone believes it was a murder-suicide caused by the unrelenting 2 year drought, money problems, and the slow madness of the heat. Why would Luke kill his family so savagely, then turn the gun on himself?  The only survivor: Charlotte, Luke's baby girl. 

Aaron means to leave quickly, since he and his father were run out of town 20 years before after Aaron's friend Ellie was found drowned in a nearby creek, rocks weighing her body down. All eyes turned to Aaron, who was innocent of any wrongdoing, but Ellie's abusive, drunken father made sure someone was to blame. But Luke's father tells Aaron "I know you lied."  Whaaaat???!! Well geez, now Aaron has to stay and figure out just what that means. 

Aaron is joined by local police office Raco in doing some off-duty investigating of the Hadler family's murders, and little by little, they find things that just don't add up. Meanwhile, Aaron's lingering in Kiewarra is stirring up some anger, old feelings, and a lot of trouble. Can he stay long enough to find out what happened to Luke and his family that horrible afternoon?

Well. Jane Harper can write a hell of a story. The dust, grit, heat, parched throats; clothes sticking to skin--she's got that nailed down. It's guaranteed to give you a short fuse just reading about it. The atmosphere of simmering rage in Kiewarra is evident everywhere, and all it takes is one small flame to send it out of control. The repeated small mentions of the fire hazard signs pointing to high danger; the crunch of dirt; the continual desire for a glass of water or a cold beer; it's all part of a background that settles you deep into the story, and makes you feel acutely aware of the edge there is to the cast of characters. I kept thinking, "Tread lightly Aaron!" I felt like he was going to get jumped at any time.  I won't tell you what people do to try to drive him out of town, but geez, these people can really take it up a notch. 

There's so much more to this thriller, but I'm mentally wiped out from the tale. Trust me. Pick it up and read it. I immediately checked out the second in the series, Force of Nature. I need to take a day or two or five to get over The Dry before I start on it. Jane Harper is working on her third novel-yay!

I won't tell you anymore. Discover the brilliance of The Dry for yourself. 

Rating:  6/6 for an excellent thriller that didn't let me down. Such good writing, and a story that pulled me along until I was left reeling at the end. An excellent book club choice, with a reader's guide at the end to help facilitate discussion. Yes, it deserves a solid 6/6!

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio book. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Patchwork Bride by Sandra Dallas

It's a lucky year for me when Sandra Dallas has two novels come out within months of each other. I reviewed Hardscrabble in May, and now it's time to review The Patchwork Bride.

What I love so much about Sandra's novels are the female characters. They are all strong, capable women who face hardships and tragedy straight on. They work hard, love well, and see the joy in the quiet moments of life. They always have stories to tell. 

This novel was no different. Ellen is an elderly  woman living and working on the ranch she shares with her husband, Ben. He's a cowboy through and through, but he's becoming more forgetful, and Ellen's heart isn't as strong as it used to be. They may have to sell the ranch and move into town, and that would be the death of both of them. Ellen's making a wedding quilt for her granddaughter's upcoming wedding, and her granddaughter has come to the ranch because she's having second thoughts about marriage. This all takes place in the early 1950's, but most of the story told by Ellen takes place in the late 1890's. Seeking to counsel her granddaughter, Ellen tells June about a woman named Nell, who ran away from marriage three times.  

Nell, a young woman in the late 1890's moves to New Mexico Territory to work on a ranch with her Aunt. She's seeking a husband, but unlike other women at that time, isn't broadcasting it loudly. She's not at the ranch for long before one of the cowboys catches her eye. Buddy is not like the other cowboys; he's quiet, educated, and doesn't flirt with Nell. Love slowly develops, but anger and misunderstanding break Nell and Buddy apart, and Nell moves back to her grandparent's farm in Kansas to heal her heart. And that begins Nell's search for love with a good man. 

I like the way the novel is a story wrapped in a story. Nell is a young woman at a time when women were beginning to step out of traditional roles and become more independent, yet there were still societal expectations that could work against them. Nell is independent, smart, and has already worked as a teacher. She's so much more, but finds herself limited by being a single woman in a world where a woman's reputation could be ruined by one minor incident. She wants to get married and have a family, but it's proving much more difficult than she imagined. Buddy still lingers in her mind...is there any way they will find each other again?

I have to say Ellen and Ben's relationship, after fifty years of marriage, was so endearing. Simply holding hands, reminiscing, and riding out to special spots on the ranch were, at the end of the day, the heart of their love for each other. Heartbreaking to think about leaving the ranch, and Ben's memory fading away. As Ellen thinks in the beginning of the novel, she will die, and all her memories will go with her, because there's no one to tell, and no one to remember.

You'll guess the obvious in this novel, and that's okay. I don't believe the author meant it to be hard to figure out. Finding your true love, that one person who fits perfectly into your puzzle, is what this sweet tale is all about. Make the memories. Enjoy the ride. Love fiercely. Tell those stories. 

Rating:  4/6 for a sweetly told tale of searching for love, making mistakes, and passing on those stories to the next generation. 

Available in hardcover and ebook.