Some historical fiction, a really good mystery, a GREAT multiple biography, and the power and curse of wealth.
Rhapsody, by Mitchell James Kaplan (2021)
The novel tells the story of real-life songwriter/pianist Kay Swift, in the 1920’s and 30’s, from her marriage into the wealthy New York Walburg banking family, through the years of her musical and personal involvement with George Gershwin. The story does a great job of encapsulating the political/financial/artistic era in both the U.S. and Europe, but I found some of the dialogue around cultural appropriation (whether Jewish or Black) to reflect a 2021 lens that suspect was not true to the period. Nonetheless I really enjoyed it, and, despite never quite bonding with Kay, was completely engrossed in the story itself.
Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz (2016)
Anthony Horowitz is the screenwriter who adapted Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby books into the TV series Midsomer Murders, so it’s no wonder that the book-within-the-book is a fully fledged mystery set in a quiet little English country village that is the scene of way too many murders. There’s also no question that the inner book’s main character, the Greek/German private detective Atticus Pünd is a shameless intentional knock-off of Hercule Poirot (Horowitz also wrote the screenplays for several of the BBC’s Poirot episodes). The premise of Magpie Murders is that the “real” mystery concerns what happened to the author of the inner mystery’s manuscript, and how solving that puzzle affects the book’s editor. For lovers of English mysteries, it’s the perfect book – two for one, and both terrific.
From page 183: “You must know that feeling when it’s raining outside and the heating’s on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book. You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover.”
Gold Diggers, by Sanjena Sathian (2021)
Can gold bring happiness? Success? Love? Or is the love of gold somehow the root of the opposite of all those things? The first-generation (East)Indian-Americans at the heart of this novel are wonderfully complex characters, working their way deftly between old-world traditions and expectations and new-world opportunities. The female author convincingly writes in the male first-person of Neil Narayan, and through his eyes shows us a series of strong, conflicted (and sometimes damaged) young East Indian women. I loved the way history, mythology, alchemy, and the immigrant experience were blended. There were definitely times when the aspirations and struggles described – that are common to any newcomers to a country who are seeking a better life within “the American dream” – resonated.
The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett (2019)
I thoroughly enjoyed this story of a mansion bought as a romantic gift for a woman who hated it, by a husband who later married a woman who loved the mansion more than she did him or her family, and that husband’s two children whose lives are inextricably tied to a house from which they are all too soon exiled by their stepmother. It’s a touching character study and tribute to the lifelong ties that bind siblings, especially in the absence of their parents and….maybe…..it’s also a story about forgiveness.
(NON-FICTION) Daughters of the Winter Queen, by Nancy Goldstone (2018)
Mary Queen of Scots may have been beheaded by her half-sister Elizabeth I, but in the author’s words “through a series of astonishing twists and turns of fate, through danger, adventure, courage, heartbreak, and, ultimately, triumph, it was Mary’s legacy that prevailed through the fearless person of her granddaughter Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, and her four daughters … It is from the female line of this family that every English monarch beginning with George I … has sprung in an unbroken line.” (pg. 7). I found myself laughing at many points in the book – the male rulers were often hapless twits, squandering money, indulging in ridiculous hobbies, and going back on their words and treaties without much thought for the consequences.
The book is immensely readable, feeling sometimes more like a good novel than a biography. Drawing on the huge bibliography at the end, and including a centre section with full coloured plates of paintings of the major players, the Stuarts and other royal houses come to life along with the philosophers, artists, musicians, Catholic/Protestant intrigues, genealogy, and politics that shaped their world.
Find Me in Havana, by Serena Burdick (2021)
This historical novel about Estelita Rodrigues, a Cuban singer and film star, is based on true events and exclusive interviews with her daughter. When I signed out the book, I believed that I’d never heard of her; reading it, I discovered that I had seen her in many of the old Roy Rogers movies that my parents enjoyed watching (in black and white on our 14 inch console TV) in which she invariably portrayed the beautiful Mexican woman – either maiden or seductress. Her real life, if this fictionalized version is even close to the truth, was more dramatic and more tragic than any of her screen roles. (Aside: after reading this book, no woman should ever be comfortable wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. Revolutionaries are seldom worthy of uncritical reverence.)