Saturday, June 27, 2020

Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

One of the benefits and challenges of belonging to a book club is the expectation to read someone else's book choice. I feel fortunate that in my book clubs (yes, I'm in more than one), the members are good sports about reading and coming prepared to discuss such a variety of books, even when these might not have been our personal first choices. We learn as much about each other as about the books themselves.

This month for one book club, I read The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki, a well-researched work of historical fiction that I might not have considered reading otherwise. I will admit that I had a little bit of trouble with the first pages. A debut novel, the introduction felt a bit clunky. I also caught myself looking up words the characters used (such as surreal) to confirm my suspicion that they were a bit anachronistic.

Nevertheless, this novel about a Bavarian girl Elisabeth (called Sisi) who married Emperor Franz Joseph of the Habsburg dynasty, when his empire, in addition to Austria, included Hungary, Italy, and France, introduced me a part of European history that was totally unfamiliar. Sisi was raised without the strict upbringing of a royal court. She loved riding horses and spending time out of doors. Originally, she wasn't intended to be the wife of her first cousin Franz. (Yes, there's that cousin issue.) Her older sister had been selected by Sophie, her aunt that became her mother-in-law.

Marrying Sisi was one of the rare occasions when Franz bucked his mother's plans. After the marriage, though, she took charge. And when the couple's children came alone, Sophie took over them too. Surrounded by ladies in waiting who reported her every move, Sisi fell into a depression and focused on her appearance, spending hours on her hair and skin.

While the discomfiting details Pataki shares about Sisi's life are supported by research, to the people in her husband's kingdom, she was beloved. She is credited with some of her husband's political successes.  Her diaries also provide much insight into her life. Partake also goes into detail about an alleged romance between her and Andrassy, one of the powerful figures in Hungary.

As I read this novel, I found myself searching the and Youtube videos--to learn more about the most interesting powerful woman. I found that yes, she was known for her elaborate hairstyles and her corseted 18-inch waist. I also found that there is so much more to her story, which explains why Pataki has written a sequel.

When our book club met to discuss the book, one of the members, originally from Germany, told us that when she grew up, Sisi was their Cinderella. They knew all of the wonderful things about her. I couldn't help making my own connections to Princess Di and to Jackie Kennedy--and most recently, Meghan Markle. All these women's stories are a reminder that a royal lifestyle leaves much to be desired--especially for strong women with minds of their own.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson: A Novel I Never Expected Her to Write

I've been reading Southern author Joshilyn Jackson's novels since I discovered Gods in Alabama with my book club. The Florida native, educated in Georgia, knows the South. Her writing is pitch perfect whether she is discussing football, scandal, or church dinners.

I recently read (and wrote about) Almost Sisters, but didn't even know Never Have I Ever had been published until I got a recommendation from a friend who pointed out that it was not like anything Jackson had written. Still firmly set in the South, this book is more of a suspense novel that a Southern family story.

Amy Whey, the protagonist of the novel, is hosting the monthly neighborhood book club, organized and run by her best friend Charlotte, when a new nearby renter Roux floats in and takes over, generously raiding Amy's liquor cabinet to serve the book club members while introducing her game: What's the worst thing you've done today...this week...this year...ever.

Readers then travel by flashback to Amy's past when, as an overweight, unhappy outsider in high school, she is involved in a fatal accident. She eventually transforms her life, has a new husband, baby, and a stepdaughter she loves, but she keeps her secrets.

Roux's handsome son pays more attention to Amy's stepdaughter than she finds comfortable. Then when Roux turns her game into a blackmail scheme, Amy has to decide how to extricate herself while protecting herself, her friends, and especially her family.

Amy's own transformation came when she learned to dive, a hobby she has turned into a teaching career. While I know almost nothing about scuba diving, Jackson's details are convincing as she takes readers along on a dive into a shipwreck off the Florida coast. Just as realistic is her psychological exploration of a woman who has much to lose and must rely on her wits to win against a diabolical woman.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Crusoe's Daughter by Jane Gardam

Books don't fit into a true diagnosis of hoarding; that's my firm conviction. While I admit to waves of guilt when I rearrange my shelves and see books I haven't quite managed to read yet, I still give them a place to wait. Too many times to mention, when I've finished one book without another pestering me to read it, I've scanned my shelves and landed on just the right book at just the right time.

During this period of quarantine, I've had access to the library's electronic collections, both audio and print. Sometimes, I have found my time limit up before I've finished reading, and the book is whisked away to the next reader on the waiting list.

I'm also thankful that Parnassus Books still continued to deliver book orders, after having to abandon curbside pick-up.

My own book collection, though, has been a treasure trove through spring and into summer. Early this week, I was drawn to Jane Gardam's novel Crusoe's Daughter, which has been waiting for several years. The book, originally published in 1985, arrived by post a few years ago with a few others from the Europa Editions, including Old Filth, another novel by Gardam. It too had to wait its turn, richly rewarding my efforts when I finally decided to read it.  Likewise, Crusoe's Daughter hadn't come up in a single book discussion, so I'm not sure why I decided to read it now.

Set in a remote, marshy area of England in the first half of the twentieth century, the novel follows Polly Flint, a motherless child left with her two old aunts when her father leaves for sea, where he dies. Along with Mrs. Woods, their boarder, Polly meets a parade of people, housemaids, delivery boys, the local nuns, and the Ziets, a wealthy German family with children near her age, building a second home nearby.

Despite the title's suggestion, this is not a reimagining of Robinson Crusoe's abandoned offspring. Instead, Polly, who never attends school formally, is taught languages and music by her aunts and Mrs. Woods but spends much of her time reading and rereading Dafoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, eventually translating it into German and French and writing volumes of critical response.

While distanced from both world wars, Polly and the other residents of the Yellow House feel its effects in increasing but subtle measures. Not only does the novel unveil the evolution of Polly's character, but it also examines the structure of the English novel as well.

Crusoe's Daughter exhibits the subtlety one expects from a decidedly English novel, springing clever surprises, playing with language, and sending me searching for a pencil so I can make note of passages I want to recall or to discuss with the next person with whom I share this delightful book.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Follow-up Novels: Reading the Next Book

 All my reading life, I've enjoyed finding an author whose work I enjoyed and then plowing my way through their complete works. There's very little pattern to my "author reading" either. In junior high, I read everything by Daphne du Maurier after loving Rebecca.  I was surprised to learn she lived until 1989, since she quit publishing around 1972, right when I was reading her novels. I also read Lloyd C. Douglas' novel The Robe and then read all of his books, first the sequel The Big Fisherman and then the series set in more modern day.

If I like a first novel I read by an author, I'll willing to get another one a shot. What I love best is an author who can follow up with something just as good
but original. While I've had a little more reading time lately, I picked up two books from my "to read" list from that category. I had loved Euphoria, a novel that draws from the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, a story of love and intrigue set in remote villages in New Guinea. When her novel Writers & Lovers came out with rave reviews and a
recommendation from Ann Patchett on the Parnassus website, I was sold.

Casey, the protagonist, has finished a writing program and has been working on her first novel for about six years. She is overwhelmed with college loans, living in a garden shed, and doing restaurant work to keep her head above water. Her friend Muriel takes her along to a reading by Oscar, a relatively famous writer. Casey can't afford to buy his book, but she recognizes him when he comes to her restaurant with his sons he is raising after losing his wife to cancer. His is moved by her kindness to the boys, who plan to pay for their father's meal as a birthday surprise--for which they are for woefully underfunded--and the two end up developing a relationship.

By coincidence, she is also seeing another aspiring writer, a young man in Oscar's critique circle who also teaches high school. On the surface, the story--something of a love triangle--seems ordinary, but the development of the characters, the clever details (that would certainly ring true to anyone who's worked in a fast-paced restaurant setting), and the satisfaction of the way loose ends are tied up make it something more.

Here's my confession: I started reading the novel on my iPad while working at a blood drive. I was surprised when I saw how many pages I had read. Only as I neared the end did I have the nerve to check to confirm what I suspected: I had somehow skipped a good chunk. I read to the end then skimmed the beginning until I got to the part I had missed. It explained a lot, but honestly, I think I enjoyed the novel as much as I would have if I'd read it correctly. I do think anyone who's ever wanted to write and publish will be struck by her experiences and the reactions of those who try to feed her on doubt. (Her landlord, learning that she's an aspiring writer, says he is surprised she thinks she has something to say.)

Another second read by a novelist I enjoyed the first time was Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. I had loved her novel A Good Hard Look set in Milledgeville, Georgia, during the Kennedy era. In that book, Flannery O'Connor (with her peacocks) is a secondary character.

Her latest novel is a complete departure from that one. Edward, a 12-year-old boy, is the only survivor of a plane crash as his family is flying to their new home in California. He is taken in by his mother's sister and her husband, an infertile couple facing their own grief. The story alternates between the flight leading up to the crash and the boy's attempt to return to some kind of normalcy.

Both of these books were so unlike the predecessors, but I enjoyed reading both. Now I have a newly arrived copy of Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (who wrote News of the Day.) I am eager to get started.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

What to Do During the Long Days of Long Months? READ

If we aren't reading anything else during this l-o-o-o-n-n-g pandemic, we are reading memes. Nothing makes tedium intolerable like humor. I've seen several variations of the idea that we can no longer say, "If I ever had time, I'd. . . ." because we have it and we aren't. Since I'm not in the car as often as I usually am, I don't get through all the audiobooks checked out from the library before they disappear from my devices. During this long stretch of time with my calendar virtually cleared, though, I am finding time to read.

One of the most uplifting books had been on my list for awhile: The Day the World Came to Town by Jim Defede. I had heard the story, even from personal accounts, of the passengers on international flights headed to the U.S. on 9/11 that were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. The passengers on more than sixty planes almost outnumbered the residents of the town, yet the "Newfies" put out the welcome mat and did everything they could to make their stay not only tolerable but pleasant.

Defede follows the stories of passengers, pilots, air traffic controllers, and local citizens as their lives came together. Two families were on their way home after international adoptions; they were weary and just wanted to go home. One family knew their son, a firefighter near Ground Zero, hadn't been accounted for. A major executive for Hugo Boss was on his way to Fashion Week and, at first, was discomfited by lack of access to comfortable underwear. When people within his corporation planned to have him picked up on a private jet, he declined, choosing instead to wait it out with fellow passengers.

While the book jogs memories of those days we all spent in from the our television screens that fall, it also reminds us how difficult times often bring out the best in people. When people nearby notice a rabbi and his companions not eating, they realize the lack of kosher food and arrange to provide food and an appropriate kitchen. Local citizens offered the stranded passengers rides, meals, and even places to sleep. A couple of women, on a break from their own families, bought camping gear and set up outside the community building where many of the others slept.

The story reminds me that once the pandemic ends and our "shelter in place" orders are safely lifted, we too will have stories emerging that give us hope in human nature.


Monday, March 30, 2020

Lethal White: Discovering Another Series

After living in the world of Harry Potter for so long, I was curious to see what kind of writing J. K. Rowling would produce once she left that hugely successful run. I read A Casual Vacancy and found it rather dark (which doesn't necessarily scare me away.)

I began the first in her Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo's Calling, not knowing it was a going to be a series, and I found her two protagonists, Strike and his protege Robin Ellacot, completely engaging. Strike is a private detective who lost a leg in Afghanistan. The first novel opens when Robin responds to an ad for a temp receptionists. She's young, attractive, and engaged to be married. She has also harbored an interest in police work for years. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith, develops the camaraderie and even the spark between the two, as their partnership and friendship grows.

The fact that Robin's fiance Matthew isn't keen on her working with Strike adds some delicious tension to the stories, as Robin uses her wits to help Strike solve the crimes that land on his desk. This month, I finished the fourth in the series Lethal White, in which Strike is drawn to investigate the veracity of a story brought to his office by an unbalanced young man about having witnessed the burial of a small child.

As the story opens Robin, who has been let go by Strike after an assignment led to injury and near death, has just married Matthew, after prior delays in their wedding. She makes discoveries about her husband's deception that cast a shadow not only on the wedding but the marriage, particularly when Strike asks her to return as his partner in the business. Robin goes undercover working with a member of parliament being blackmailed. This story is set in London as the city prepares to host the Summer Olympics. Meanwhile, a socialist organization that opposes the Olympics seems to have more that just disruption in their plans.

This story brings Cormoran and Robin to government offices and to the shabby country homes of the horsey set, landing them in the midst of at least one murder investigation.

While the audience for these novels is quite different from the Harry Potter fans, the author balances her expertise at character development with her suspenseful plot structure, delivering another satisfying reading experience. Best of all, she has the next installment in the series ready for a 2020 publication.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Reading While Sheltering in Place: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I usually wait until January 1 to write down the titles of the books I've read and recorded on my wall calendar. However, I wanted to take stock of the first quarter of this most unusual year.  Since time "sheltering in place" has placed me within easy reach of the unread books and bookstore and library links allow me to download ebooks and audiobooks, I've had the delightful dilemma of what to read next and what to recommend from those I have been able to read.

I finally picked up Kiley Reid's novel Such a Fun Age, after hearing her read at Parnassus shortly after the book debuted. The story follows Emira Tucker,  a 25-year-old young African American who hasn't made the transition to adulthood as successfully as her some of her friends have. She works part time as a sister for 3-year-old Briar, whose father is a newscaster in Philadephia and mother Alix has made a career on social media out of the art of letter-writing, just as she has re-invented her own life.

The book, which shifts between Emira and Alix's points of view, opens as Emira is asked to leave a party and take Briar out of the house following a disturbing incident of vandalism resulting. While Emira is with Briar in Whole Foods, a security guard accuses her of kidnapping the young girl, creating an incident another shopper records on his phone.

Reid narrates the aftermath, as Alix tries to make a start on the book she has a contract to write, as she begins to live vicariously through Emira, regularly sneaking peeks at her sitter's phone screen to catch snatches of texts with her friends and new boyfriend.  Reid maintains reader suspense with some unexpected turns, particularly in the world's most awkward Thanksgiving dinner, when Emira's fight home is delayed and Alix invites her to bring her new boyfriend to join them.

While the book obviously deals with racial issues, Reid does so without cliches or easy answers. Her characters are also fully fleshed out--not stereotypes or easy targets. Her protagonists have flaws, and even those that could be considered villains have redeeming qualities. What results is a page turner that will keep readers thinking (and locking their phones) for a long time.