Reading List by Jennie for July through September
Romola by George Eliot
This is one of the last George Eliot books I had unread. I’ll confess that early on I thought about dumping it, but I persevered. As a book written in the 19th century about the 15th century and centered quite a lot on philosophy and the character of Florence at the time, there was a lot of blah blah blah at first.
The central story is pretty simple – a young man, the victim of a shipwreck, arrives in Florence and begins making connections immediately. He is Tito Melema, and it takes a while to recognize him as a villain. Tito isn’t a “mwah ha ha” type of villain; rather he’s somebody who is very interested in his own comfort and less interested in the well-being of people who interfere with that comfort. To that end, he holds onto jewels that he is supposed to use to ransom his surrogate father, a man who raised him to be a scholar and who has fallen into slavery. Tito figures that his father is dead, or as good as dead, in that he’ll never show up in Florence. Tito is wrong.
Tito becomes student to a blind scholar named Bardo and eventually husband to Bardo’s beautiful daughter Romola. Things are sowewhat complicated by the fact that before marrying Romola, Tito participates in a “mock” marriage with a naive and child-like peasant girl, Tessa. Tessa never realizes that Tito is not her real husband, and indeed they have two children together; he keeps his second family hidden away on the edge of town.
From there it’s a typical 19th century British literature plot where you’re waiting for the chickens to come home to roost, set against a backdrop of a turbulent time in Florence (the Bonfire of the Vanities and Savanarola’s eventual downfall feature prominently). I did end up liking Romola, though it’s not my favorite by Eliot. I gave it a B.
The Last Guest House by Megan Miranda
I was in the mood for a mystery/thriller (when am I not these days?) and picked this up after some research – this author seems to have a reputation for being above-average in the genre. The narrator, Avery Greer, grows up a townie in the wealthy summer retreat of Littleport, Maine. The story is told on parallel tracks – present day (summer 2018, in this case), and going back a year earlier, to summer 2017, when a tragedy occurred that took the life of Avery’s closest friend, the wealthy, privileged Sadie Loman. Sadie supposedly jumped off a cliff during the traditional season-ending “plus one” party that the younger summer residents throw every year.
But as Avery prepares to attend a memorial dedication of a bell in Sadie’s honor, certain events cause doubts to coalesce in her mind. Avery herself was questioned about her whereabouts after Sadie died, until a discarded note believed to be a suicide note and a diary full of dire wishes for self-harm closed the case with a verdict of suicide. Now, Avery tries to retrace her steps at the party and review incidents (a window broken; a brief power outage) that in retrospect seem sinister. Her list of suspects is pretty much focused on Avery’s rotten brother Parker, and Avery’s own ex, Connor, who was rumored to be seeing Sadie before she died.
As usual in this type of story, nothing and no one is as they seem. The Last Guest House was good at delivering some quality twists; I only figured out the final one slightly before it was revealed. I liked the setting and the story; the writing was just okay (a bit too much melodramatic emphasis on the secrets and lies behind the façade in Littleport). What kept the story at a B level for me was fairly flat characterization – even poor doomed Sadie never really came to life (no pun intended!). I think I will try another of Miranda’s books at some point, though.
The Wreckage of My Presence by Casey Wilson
As a dedicated fan of all things Real Housewives related, I first started paying attention to Casey Wilson when listening to the RW-related podcast she does with Danielle Schneider, called Bitch Sesh. Casey and Danielle are very funny together, even if I’m not always on their “side” in housewives fandom (part of being a RH fan is engaging in the debate over heroes and villains – Candiace vs. Ashley – I’m Team Ashley! Sutton vs. Erika – duh, Sutton, obviously). When this collection of essays came out, I made a note to pick the book up, and I’m so glad I did.
Tremendously funny, but also touching and incisive, these essays cover Wilson’s childhood, being a young actress in New York, her parents, marriage and family, and other topics. A strong thread running through the book is Casey’s relationship with her mother, and her grief at her mother’s untimely death when Casey was in her early 20s. A revelation in one of the last essays about her mother is a catalyst for real change and growth (at least in the context of the book).
Wilson isn’t always relatable – she appears to have far more disposable income than I do for psychics and wellness retreats (I mean, she is a Hollywood actress), but she always feels real (and very funny!). My grade for The Wreckage of My Presence is a straight A.
The Guest List by Lucy Foley
When I read Foley’s The Hunting Party last year, I liked it enough that I considered picking this one up right away. I noted though that the plots seemed very similar, with just a different setting (remote, snowbound Scottish Highlands vs. remote, storm-tossed Irish island). But a formula is a formula because it works. In both the formula is a core group coming together, and someone gets murdered. Both stories are told in a non-linear fashion (which really kind of works for me, especially in suspense, but I get the sense a lot of other readers don’t care for it).
In The Guest List, a polished TV presenter and a faux-Bear-Grylls type with a “man vs. nature” show are about to get married in the wedding of the season. Guests include the bride’s neurotic, troubled younger sister, who has a secret (of course) and the groom’s crude, alcoholic, troubled best man, who has a…well, you probably already know. The wedding planner, who owns the island, also has a few hidden motives and a secret sorrow.
None of the characters were terribly likable, though I felt sorry for the younger sister. Still, the plot and writing kept things moving along nicely and the island was practically a character in itself.
This was very readable, but perhaps a bit less than the sum of its parts. I gave it a B-.
The First Mistake by Sandie Jones
I read this a while ago at this point and don’t have a lot to say about it. Alice struggles with anxiety after losing her first husband suddenly in an accident. She has an ostensibly happy home with her teenage daughter from her first husband and the young daughter she has with her second husband Nathan.
But strange stuff starts happening, things that make Alice wonder if she can trust her husband. Meanwhile, a new friend from her younger daughter’s school, Beth, has a secret that’s revealed in flashbacks.
I didn’t figure out all of the twists early on but some of them at least were obvious. I gave The First Mistake a B- when I read it, but maybe in retrospect I’ll drop that down to a C+.
Margarita and the Earl by Joan Wolf
I’ve been having some nostalgia about books I read earlier on in my romance reading career and this one stood out in my mind, so I picked it up again. Nicholas becomes the Earl of Winslow when an elderly relative dies; along with the title he inherits Margarita, the older man’s granddaughter. Margarita is young, sheltered and traumatized. She grew up in Venezuela and her whole family is now dead, victims to the civil war in that country in the 1820s. In his will, her grandfather has compelled Nicholas to marry Margarita in order to take care of her (and to make sure that Margarita, of whom the grandfather was fond, has some stake in the future of the title and the estate – he did not get along with Nicholas).
From there it’s a sweet and compelling romance as the reserved and grieving Margarita comes out of her shell slowly, and Nicholas comes to appreciate her as something more than an unasked for responsibility. Their growing love is cemented by the arrival of a son, but Nicholas royally screws things up, and has to find a way to make things up to his wife. This was a quick read that pulled my heartstrings. I gave it a B+.
Let Me Finish by Roger Angell
Roger Angell is, as of this writing, 101 years old. This 2006 collection of essays spans his extraordinary life, starting with his childhood in New York City, marked by his parents’ divorce after his mother, a New Yorker editor, left his father for author E.B. White of Charlotte’s Web fame.
Angell himself went on to have a long career at the New Yorker and elsewhere as a writer of non-fiction (notably, on baseball) and fiction, and an editor. These essays are beautifully written; they sometimes struck me as a bit too bittersweet, which is not surprising for a person looking back on a long life in which he has outlived almost everyone he loved. Much of the experiences he writes about early on – such as driving cross-country in the 1930s – are gone forever, and that made me sad. His descriptions of friends and family are incisive and compassionate. I gave this a B+.
Death and the Maiden by Samantha Norman, Ariana Franklin
Jayne reviewed this over a year ago, which brought it to my attention (thank you, Jayne!). I liked it but felt that I could see the difference in the writing (the book was written by Ariana Franklin’s daughter, Samantha Norman, to finish up the series). The prose didn’t feel quite up to par.
I did like the heroine, Allie; she is Adelia’s (heroine of the original books) daughter. I wish she’d been a little less given to haring off impetuously. I guessed the killer but there was a hole in the resolution that bugged me…
I still gave this a B+, though. I’m sad the series is over.
Nobody Said Not to Go by Ken Cuthbertson
This was a fascinating biography of a New Yorker writer who I first heard about in Roger Angell’s book Let Me Finish (mentioned above). Emily Hahn, known to most as Mickey during her life, was born around the turn of the 20th century in St. Louis. She grew up there and in Chicago, before striking out on a life that was extraordinary for her time and gender.
Hahn majored in mining engineering in college essentially to spite a professor who told her “The female mind is incapable of grasping mechanics or higher mathematics or any of the fundamentals of mining taught.” After graduating, she eventually traveled to Africa, living in parts that had rarely or never seen white people. Her desire for novelty then led her to Shanghai in 1935, where her experiences through the war made her career as a writer. They also brought brought several tumultuous love affairs, first with a married Chinese poet and then with Major Charles Boxer, head of local British intelligence (also married at the time). Boxer eventually divorced and he and Mickey ended up having a long marriage and two daughters, though they frequently lived separately (he in England and she in New York). Hahn was the quintessential woman ahead of her time, eccentric (she frequently had exotic pets such as a gibbon) and at times self-destructive (in Shanghai she drifted into an opium addiction seemingly on a whim).
The writing is a little dated, which is surprising considering the book was only written about 20 years ago. But the subject is just so interesting and mostly sympathetic, and the story was very readable. This was yet another B+ for me.
Sweet Everlasting by Patricia Gaffney
I was on my nostalgia kick when I picked this one up – actually, I’d been looking for a Penelope Williamson book, A Wild Yearning, that has some plot similarities despite being set in different eras. In both books the hero is an educated doctor and the heroine is both younger than him and from a lower social class. In both cases, this makes for a book that I’m sure I found delightfully angsty and emotionally satisfying when I first read them in my younger days.
Sweet Everlasting is still really moving, but now it feels almost painful to read a story with such a gulf in age, money, education, and life experience between the hero and heroine. Tyler Wilkes comes to the small Pennsylvania town where Carrie Wiggins lives with her abusive stepfather; Tyler has taken over the local doctor’s practice. He’s still recovering from injuries and illness after serving in the Spanish American War. He’s (figuratively) hiding out as he recovers and avoiding his Mainline Philadelphia mother’s plans for him to go into politics.
Carrie is poor, mute and shy, but she and Tyler bond after he tries to treat her old dog, who her stepfather has injured in a drunken rage. Tyler is intrigued by Carrie and wants to see if he can find the cause of her inability to speak. But Carrie is hiding some painful secrets, and once Tyler discovers them their relationship changes. Tyler’s restlessness – he really wants to work in epidemiology – and both his and Carrie’s belief that she’s not a fit partner for him are barriers to a HEA.
On the one hand, having a hero believe that the heroine is not good enough for him (Tyler’s logic puts it more nicely, but that’s what it amounts to) makes him…less than heroic. On the other hand, it felt like a realistic conflict – I prefer that to all the ultra-democratic and enlightened aristocrats running around historical landscapes. This book definitely pulled at my heartstrings, and so in spite of some complaints (one being a late-in-the-book murder mystery that felt unnecessary and tacked on), I gave it a high B+.