Okay, so my foray into the never ending Murder, She Wrote series of novels co-authored by “Jessica Fletcher” and Donald Bain can be attributed to a steady diet of the hit 1980s television show starring Angela Lansbury. It continues to be my mother’s favorite show. Not just because Jessica was such a snappy dresser, and smart as a whip, of course. But also because Lansbury bears uncanny resemblance to my grandmother.
Our mutual television obsession turned into a budding literary obsession on my part. Because I nearly always feel obligated to get myself into as many book series as possible, I immediately picked up Gin & Daggersfrom the library when I found out there was a such a series based on the show.
It was so worth it. Gin & Daggers is a delight and the perfect way to pass time if you’re a fan of the show. Donald Bain does an admirable job transferring Jessica Fletcher into a character in a novel. For the most part, her dialogue, especially her responses to people. I can here the distinct moral rightness of the Lansbury brogue.
The first novel in the series concerns the murder of Jessica’s good friend and world famous mystery writer, Marjorie Ainsworth. When the suspicion falls on Jessica, she must explore the motives of the cast of characters present at Marjorie’s estate that night to clear her name.
Her quest for the real killer takes her all over London, with plenty of cozy stops at pubs to eat fine meals and drink port. It’s delightful. And it made me homesick to that beautiful city and its prickly people.
The bottom line here is, if you’re a fan of Murder, She Wrote, you’ll love these books. Seen all twelve seasons more than once? Try reading one of twenty-ish (?) novels written by Bain. Time well spent, my friends.
You know that famous first line of Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina? He wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” First time novelist, Caite Dolan-Leach must have kept this is mind when she forged the Antipova family into being in Dead Letters; I can’t remember the last time I encountered such a twisted group of people.
The novel begins with Ava Antipova returning from Paris after she’s learned that her estranged twin sister, Zelda, died in a fire. We learn that Ava has refused to speak to Zelda for two years because she found her and Ava’s “boyfriend” Wyatt together, but she knows that deep down she was looking for any way to get away from her family’s failing vineyard and their mother’s increasingly erratic behavior.
But Ava was always the good girl, earning straight A’s and going to Cornell to study viticulture and oenology. After her father, Marlon, abandoned the family, she knew it would be her duty to run the family’s vineyard. Finding Zelda and Wyatt together was just her excused to high-tail it across the Atlantic where she could entirely switch gears.
Not for a second does Ava believe Zelda is really dead. After two years of silence on Ava’s end, Zelda has done something drastic and dramatic. Pretending to die in a fire? That’s exactly something Zelda would do. Or so Ava thinks.
When she returns to her family’s vineyard in the Seven Lakes region of New York, she begins receiving emails and text messages from Zelda, taking her on a treasure hunt of sorts, from A-Z. Ava and Zelda were meant to be the end all, be all. The Alpha and the Omega. Until Ava left everything behind. Now Zelda is showing her exactly what she let happen when she left. Ava has to figure out each clue before she can reach Zelda, and who knows what she’ll find when she reaches her.
Dolan-Leach does a fantastic job of using this hunt for Zelda as a way to introduce information slowly throughout the novel about the Antipova family and their extremely fucked up history. At some point in the novel after Ava is forced to interact with her (and Zelda’s) old flame, Wyatt, she admits straight-up that she and her twin have been functioning alcoholics since they were teenagers, and her parents are far worse.
The Antipova matriarch, Nadine, is a nasty piece of work that the reader will spend just about the entire novel hating. Granted, there are moments where you feel genuinely bad for her because she is, after all, and alcohol with increasingly severe dementia, but those moments are few and in-between. For this most part, she confuses Ava with Zelda and won’t cooperate unless she’s given alcohol as a pacifier. But in her lucid moments, she reveals little small pieces of information that change the tide of the story and Ava’s search.
The author made each member of the Antipova family equally reprehensible. All of them do things will make the reader clench his or her teeth or cringe in horror. I mean—drugs, sex, alcohol, debt, dark family secrets—it’s all present and accounted for, though this novel really can’t be pegged as a mystery or suspense novel in the traditional sense. It’s more of a family saga that involved putting the pieces of past and present together to make a clear picture.
What I loved most about Dead Letters was Dolan-Leach’s obvious love of language. She makes letters (A-Z) an integral part of the narrative. For example, Ava goes to Paris to study Oulipo writers and the work of Edgar Allan Poe. These writers have utilized constraints in their writing, believing the hindrance would produce more creative work. Ava’s fascination with this becomes a springboard for Zelda’s clues; places, people, and things are hidden within Zelda’s verbose emails.
Dead Letters is a dark exploration of family malfunction, alcoholism, mental illness, and the ties that bind siblings together in their most painful moments. Though it might not be the mystery it touts itself to be, Caite Dolan-Leach’s masterful work is worth the read. Who doesn’t love an unhappy family?
Deb Caletti’s 2004 novel, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart was selected as a National Book Award finalist, which was, I must admit, my primary motivation for reading it. I’m compelled to read any book that has a certain amount of gravitas or esteem surrounding it; I’m always fascinated by what others consider “good” or even “great” literature. And if I don’t see the good in it, does it mean I have better taste than most people, or does it mean I’m a bad reader.
I was forced to ask myself that question in the middle of Caletti’s novel, which expected to finish in a day or two, but which took me nearly a week. It started of promising enough, but I found that the buildup to Ruby’s relationship with Travis Becker was so abrupt, it nearly gave me whiplash. That being said, Caletti does an admirable job at delving into the reasons why women remain committed to relationships that are bad for them. Because it can’t always be as simple as walking away.
Personally, I had a difficult time with that concept, though I think Caletti’s exploration is what made the novel such a critical success. Growing up, I was always encouraged to rage fiercely against any type of entrapment or persuasion by a significant other. When I was old enough to date, I found myself in a situation where I felt like I was being pushed into situations and interactions that went against who I was as I person, and eventually I raged against that person. I’ve lost all the people I’ve dated to that particular rage, and I’m not the least bit sorry. And because of that, it was strange to see Ruby and her mother give themselves away to it when they knew, and felt, that it went against who they were.
Caletti has moments of brilliant writing where the insights she showcases are genuinely intriguing, but for the most part, her writing was a little heavy-handed. I can imagine that many readers are attracted to that style of writing, but I’m drawn to sparse prose in which writers say a lot through a little. In fairness, I probably would have loved this book when I was a teenager, but my tastes have changed.
I did appreciate the humor of the “Casserole Ladies” who let loose some seriously funny jokes and pranks, but their antics weren’t enough to raise the above the standing I gave it.
For young people out there, or parents who are looking for a book for their child, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart is a worthy choice. It’s an important book for you women to read even though the execution might be a little off-kilter. It’s wholly enjoyable and full of well-developed characters. In terms of summer reading, it’s perfect.
I am so late to the party when it comes to Anna Godbersen‘s The Luxe. Where was it when I was going through severe Gossip Girl withdrawals? All that time when I was pining for more Blair Waldorf/Chuck Bass drama, I could have found even juicier stuff in the world of the Holland sisters, Penelope Hayes, and Henry Schoonmaker. Those nouveau riche have nothing on those old New York families; the prestige of family money cannot be bought. Or so those old New Yorkers would have you think.
While Godbersen’s story is essentially a turn-of-the-century Gossip Girl tale of scandal, betrayal, and the filthy rich, it is also an exploration of that crucial time in history where the poorest of poor could make a fortune for themselves and, in an instant, change the very core of society. Men and women are defecting to the wild west where the skies are as wide as people’s dreams. This drive for a better life in which people do not have to serve the wealthy becomes the silent undercurrent of Godbersen’s book.
But make no mistake, the novel is by and large about how the debutantes and eligible bachelors of New York City’s disgustingly wealthy elite juggle their romantic prospects. Juicy scandals and catty attitudes abound in Godbersen’s depiction of New York in 1899. The world is changing, but a few things remain the same for people in Elizabeth and Diana Holland’s set. Diana, the free spirit, could care less about the severity hidden beneath the glittering wealth of her family and friends. She wants to live an adventurous life like one of her novel’s heroines, but unfortunately, she has a rich person’s understanding of poverty. It’s not exactly the romantic walk in the park she seems to think it is.
Alas, she’s not like her level-headed, practical sister, Elizabeth, who is perfect. She has learned every rule and is always kind. When their mother reveals that the death of their father has left the family in dire straits financially, Elizabeth will undoubtedly do everything to please her mother, including marrying for wealth over love. No one knows, though, that saving her family means ruining her own life. Since she was a child, she’s been in love with the family’s coachman, Will Keller, and he insists that she flee west with him. But a good person like Elizabeth can’t just abandon her family. Little does she know, she has to contend with her maid, and former childhood friend, Lina Broud, who is also deeply in love with Will.
Enter Henry Schoonmaker—the most eligible bachelor and the unapologetic bad boy of elite New York. Women fall all over themselves for him, and he basks in the adoration. That is, until, his permanently angry father decides to run for office and forces Henry to become propose to Elizabeth Holland—society’s darling. He’s forced to end his affair with Penelope Hayes, Elizabeth’s best frenemy, who is dead set on having Henry for herself. Chaos ensues.
To be honest, Elizabeth is the only character I rooted for in this book. You might think, “Of course, she’s the nice girl. That’s boring,” but I legitimately felt bad for her. The situation she’s in is unfathomable. Then again, all the other characters are terrible people, so she doesn’t have a whole lot of competition. Though there are moments where the reader can sympathize with them, one cannot forget their true natures: conniving, self-serving, and, in Penelope’s case, cruel.
Then I thought, that’s exactly what makes them so appealing. Like Gossip Girl, which I hate-watched.
We dislike these characters for their snobbery and their condescension and the overall wastefulness of their lifestyles. But we also love it for those very reasons. Watching the rich flounder and fall from grace is frighteningly satisfying…
But on a less “eat the rich” note, it’s also humanizing. Usually, we see people in positions of extreme privilege and forget that they are often forced to live a certain way, trading happiness for a life of comfort. Maybe not so much anymore, but definitely so at the turn of the century.
Godbersen ultimately does a fantastic job of developing the ambiance of late 1800’s New York. She integrates lush historical details seamlessly into the landscape of her characters’ lives, and it was nearly impossible not to imagine it becoming a film or television show similar to the 2012 Great Gatsby remake where everything on set is larger than life and constantly moving. Someone pass the message along.
All that being said, it’s a great poolside read for the upcoming summer months. You could finish it in one sitting if you’re ambitious enough, but the chapters really fly by.
Rest assured, I will continue to hate-read the rest of this series.
Jami Attenberg‘sAll Grown Up was not one of my Book of the Month Club selections. Something about the cover made it seem silly and frivolous, like a new Sex and the City installment. I think maybe, the cover is one of the worst things about books; it either deters people from reading it or puts the reader in the position of being extremely confused once they actually read the book.
This story is not, in fact, a re-hashed narrative from the likes of Carrie Bradshaw; rather it’s a 40-year-old woman’s reflection of her life in a series of vignettes that focus on different points of her life. Andrea Bern, an art school dropout, has spent her years filling the space that art left behind. She’s a more than occasional drug user and steady drinker—a free lover who doesn’t have much luck. And she will not apologize for her choice to be single and childless.
Each chapter concerns a person or moment in Andrea’s life that is crucial to her development as a character. For example, the birth of her niece, Sigrid, brings much more sorrow than joy; the child has a degenerative heart defect, which she will die from by the age of five. Self-immolating for years, Andrea can’t quite reach out to the child the way an aunt should, and, when her brother and his wife move to New Hampshire to care for Sigrid, Andrea rarely ever visits. She can’t handle the strain of the baby’s imminent death.
In another instance, one of Andrea’s closest friends gives birth to a son, and she truly believes that they will no longer be friends. Her analysis of the situation—at once comical and anxiety-laden—reveals her fundamental belief that those who have children and those who do not lose their ability to communicate with each other. Andrea does a lot of this throughout the book—she examines, analyzes.
Attenberg does an efficient job of introducing the reader to Andrea’s quirks and insecurities, but the novel’s best moments come after the book’s halfway point. As Andrea reveals more about her past and gives the reader a better sense of how her life comes to be what it is, she furnishes sharp, heartbreaking insights into the darkest parts of her past.
Andrea presents the facts of her life without sentiment. Attenberg wisely gives her a healthy dose of reliable narration, which allows the reader to see her as she is: no filter. The novel’s most stunning and hard hitting moments come in the final two chapters when Andrea’s drug-addicted father imbues her with the wisdom of artists, the heart of which, the reader will realize, she has internalized her entire life; the artist’s endless search for happiness and fulfillment will never come. Only through the art itself will the artist find something like contentment. And the novel’s final moments concern the death of young Sigrid—the real darkness underlying the entire novel.
In that moment, Andrea is left only with her hopes for what will happen. To herself and her family. The uncertainty with which Attenberg leaves the reader is the greatest farewell.
I’ve officially entered the cult fandom that surrounds Sarah J. Maas‘ A Court of Thorns and Roses series. Somehow I missed the hype about her books until this year when the series’ second installment, A Court of Mist and Fury won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fantasy. When I started reading ACOTAR, I didn’t even bother to read the book jacket, so I had no idea it was meant to be a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I kept thinking, “Hmm…this story seems vaguely familiar,” and, sure enough, that is what Maas intended.
That, perhaps, is one of the only elements of the novel that I had an issue with. Labeling ACOTAR as a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale is a stretch. To say that it was freely adapted is a bit of an understatement, guv’nah! (Kudos if you get the Easy A reference). It was, nevertheless, a gorgeously written contribution to fairy tale literature.
Feyre (Fay-ruh) lives in a destitute village on the south side of a wall that divides her country into two sections: the faerie inhabited Prythian, and the small mortal section in the country’s southernmost region. After a brutal war, hundreds of years earlier, humans and faeries hate each other with a contempt that has been bubbling under the surface for years.
After Feyre’s mother’s death and the loss of her father’s fortune, the family must scrape by however it can. For years, though, Feyre has shouldered the brunt of the effort. She is the only one who hunts and cooks and trades for what her father and two sisters need. Feyre made a promise to her mother before she died, vowing to take care of them until the end. And in Feyre’s world, a promise is kept until death.
In one moment, Feyre changes everything when she kills a wolf in the woods—a faerie in his transfigured state. She is taken from her home by a beast who tells her she must live in Prythian or submit to execution. When she reaches Prythian, Feyre finds herself wrapped up in the world of two High Fae named Tamlin and Lucien; it is their friend that she murdered. As much as she tries to resist getting used to their world, the magic—and Tamlin’s allure—keep her ensnared.
Feyre soon learns, though, that the magic surrounding Tamlin’s court is constantly under threat of dangerous faeries that only he can kill. But soon enough, even his power won’t be able to keep away whatever darkness is plaguing Prythian. Something—or someone—is trying to force Tamlin’s upper hand. Trying, perhaps, to harness all of Prythian’s magic.
After five Throne of Glassnovels, Maas is a master of world-building. Clearly she has a penchant for fairy tale retellings, but it is her inclusion of ancient fairy lore that captivates the reader in ACOTAR. Pucas and bogges lurk in the shadows surrounding Tamlin’s court, along with other creatures whose stories have been passed down through folklore for ages. Maas weaves these creatures’ stories seamlessly into the story’s plot line and develops a sinister backstory in which humans were once slaves to faeries. Humans, in turn, hate faeries for their power and ruthlessness.
Maas is also a master of character development and deft plotting. It was nearly impossible to put the book down, and never possible in the middle of a chapter. She devotes the perfect amount of time to developing each piece of the story, EXCEPT when it came to explaining the real reason for Prythian’s “blight.” When Alis—Feyre’s maid during her stay at Tamlin’s Spring Court—reveals all that happened in the past, I felt like I had to read the page at least five times to catch all the details. The reader goes from knowing bits and pieces about the whole damn thing in, like, five seconds. It was a little too much to process all at once.
In terms of character development and interaction, Feyre had me hook, line, and sinker in the first chapter. I thought she was the most bad ass chick, especially since her family was such a ball and chain. These feelings started to flicker about halfway through the book, however. I started to get annoyed at her endless thoughts about escaping the Spring Court and consistently not believing that Tamlin had her family taken care of. It’s understandable to a point, but my sympathy started fading quickly.
On top of that—she made some STUPID decisions. Like, say, the night of the spring solstice when both Tamlin and Lucien tell her repeatedly to STAY IN HER ROOM. But no. No one can tell Feyre what to do, which nearly gets her in a heap of trouble. Which leads me to the…shall we say…steaminess of Tamlin and Feyre’s affair.
I did not expect things to be so hot and heavy. Usually, YA books suggest things—use innuendo—then cut out before the actual sex acts. Maas sure didn’t beat around the bush. (Mind out of the gutter!) Feyre and Tamlin—one they realize they do, in fact, harbor a burning desire for each other—go at it. Besides the fact that it was unexpected, I approved of the fact that Maas doesn’t make a conundrum out of it. Feyre wants to be with Tamlin. She initiates what happens between them, as she did with her childhood lover across the wall. I like the idea that Feyre can want something and have it without going through a moral dilemma about it as many young people in novels do.
That being said, I’d go for Lucien over Tamlin any day of the week. So much sass.
As the novel comes to a close, several threads are left open for the next installment. Several messed up threads, if I’m going to be honest. Maas’ ending leaves a lot to be desired because it really just fades out the way things do before shit hits the fan. I’m mentally preparing myself now for the second book, and I can’t even fathom what the third book will bring us upon its release. Spare us from pain, Sarah J. Maas. Spare us.
So many words come to mind when I think of Jennifer Ryan‘s debut novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir: cozy, delightful, warm, heartbreaking, empowering—a refreshing addition to the canon of World War II literature. Those destructive years are parsed out in countless novels, biographies, memoirs, and non-fiction accounts of the war, but very rarely does a book approach it quite the way Ryan’s novel does.
Through journal entries and letters from nearly a dozen residents of Chilbury, Ryan pieces together a beautiful mosaic of a small, English village coping with the start of a war they do not yet know the scope of. Each perspective gives a glimpse of the town’s changing culture as most of the men are called to combat and the entitlement of the area’s landed gentry becomes less and less powerful in the wake of the war’s increasing carnage.
The novel’s major players include Mrs. Tilling, a middle-aged nurse whose son has just been sent to the front, Venetia Winthrop, a coquettish eighteen-year-old intent on wooing a handsome artist, Kitty Winthrop, Venetia’s thirteen-year-old sister who aspires to become a famous singer, and Edwina Paltry, a midwife of dubious moral character. Their stories weave together to build the fabric of a story that encapsulates the rapidly changing landscape of rural England.
In the novel’s beginning, no one believed the war is going to last more than a few months–no one believes this war will reach the hellish proportions of the “Great War” just a couple decades earlier. They soon see, however, that the Germans are determined to swallow up as much of Europe as they can, and the coast near Chilbury becomes a particularly dangerous area, susceptible to an air raid at any moment.
Ryan chooses to keep The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir on the lighter side of World War II fiction. Chilbury’s women must take over the jobs and tasks that the men in their town have left behind, but their parish vicar still wants to bring an end to the church choir, believing that it couldn’t possibly go on without male vocalists. But a newcomer by the name of Prim–a professor of music at Litchfield University–won’t have any of it. She rallies the town’s women together, and they form The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.
As the choir grows in confidence, so do each of its performers, especially Mrs. Tilling, who, up until then, has been trapped by her own fear and the need to help others more than herself. Though her caring nature continues to grow throughout the novel, she also becomes assertive; she refuses to let people take advantage of her and does what she can to protect the innocent people around her who are trapped by the whims of men who hate women.
Ultimately, that is Ryan’s overarching theme–the strength of women in the face of certain destruction. She weaves issues of class, wealth, reproductive rights, and homosexuality into the fabric of this theme, but it is first and foremost a novel meant to celebrate the contributions of women who do everything they can to help the people around them during times of great crisis.
I highly recommend that anyone interested in the early years of the war read this book because it has the advantage of bringing together some of the time period’s most compelling developments. It is also hopeful, which cannot be said for many things these days. I was saddened when I finished the book because I wanted badly to hold onto the book’s narrative of personal growth, which is told with a warmth that is hard to create without veering into the maudlin.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is lovely, witty, and moving, but most importantly, it’s absolutely unputdownable.