Violeta, by Isabel Allende*****

Violeta is an epic tale that spans, along with its protagonist, a century-long period that begins during the Spanish Flu and ends with our modern day pandemic. Technically, then, it is part of the growing body of pandemic literature, but as is always true for Allende’s novels, it is so much more.

I received a review copy, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Ballantine, but had I not, I’d have found a way to read this glorious story anyway. It’s available to the public now.

Violeta is born to wealth and privilege, the only daughter in a large family. Schooled at home by a nanny, sequestered in a mansion with servants to do her bidding, she is unaware that her luxurious standard of living comes at a tremendous cost to others. Then the market drops, and her father, who has overextended himself with unwise investments, is ruined. Most of her brothers are already grown and gone, but one brother, Jose Antonio, had remained at home, groomed by their father to take over the business one day. “He was the model son, and he was sick of it.” After their father’s abrupt departure, Jose Antonio finds himself responsible for the family; with the local populace in a state of near insurrection, the only thing left to do is to take his family—including Violeta—and leave town. They remove themselves to a distant farm owned by poor but generous friends, and they learn to make do as they’ve never done before.

We follow Violeta through her early marriage to a German immigrant who was “so bland and boring that he inspired instant trust,” and then through a long, tempestuous relationship with a handsome thug named Julian, who makes his fortune in dark, horrible ways involving illegal substances, the CIA, and the Mafia. And here, Allende’s startling sense of humor is in full brilliant flower, as she describes his retrieval of ill gotten funds from the septic tank of their Florida home:

He pulled a filthy bag from the hole, dragged it to the kitchen and poured the contents out on the floor; rolls of wet bills covered in poop. Gagging, I saw that Julian planned to clean the money in our washing machine. “No! Don’t even think about it!” I shouted hysterically. He must’ve understood that I was willing to draw blood to stop him, because I’d instinctively grabbed the largest knife in the kitchen. “Okay, Violeta, calm down,” he begged, frightened for the first time in his life. He made a call, and a short while later we had two mafia goons at our disposal. We went to a laundromat and the gangsters paid everyone to leave. Then the men stood guard as Julian washed the poop-covered bills. After that he had to dry them and pack them in a bag. He brought me along because he had no idea how to operate the machines. “Now I understand what money laundering is…”

As with all or most of Allende’s protagonists, Violeta becomes a strong woman that can stand on her own, and who picks and chooses the men she wants to be with. She is beautiful, intelligent, and ends up with piles of her own money that she has earned in an ethical manner. And here is my one, very small issue with this book; just once I would like to see an Allende main character that doesn’t get rich, but is fine anyway.

I am late in reviewing this book, but it’s important not to try to rush through a story such as this one, because the literary alchemy Allende creates is the sort that must be appreciated at one’s leisure. Her novels are not page turners; they don’t try to be. Instead, Violeta is the sort of book you take with you on a spa date, or to your very own bathtub with bubbles, candles, and your favorite beverage.

Highly recommended to feminist readers that enjoy top quality literary fiction.

The Eternal Audience of One, by Remy Ngamije*****

“Life is not hard in Windhoek, but it is not easy, either. The poor are either falling behind or falling pregnant. The rich refuse to send the elevator back down when they reach the top. And since cities require a sturdy foundation of tolerated inequalities, Windhoek is like many other big places in the world. It is a haven for more, but a place of less. If you are not politically connected or from old white money, then the best thing to be is a tourist. The city and the country fawn over tourists. The country’s economy does, too. That is when it is not digging itself poor.

That is Windhoek. The best thing to do in the city is arrive and leave.”

And now, raise your hand if you find yourself wondering where Windhoek is. Don’t be shy. You’ll have plenty of company…ah. Yes. I applaud your bravery, being the first. And you, and you…and you in the back. Anyone else? That’s what I thought. Look around. Almost all of you. So now, I’ll relieve your discomfort and tell you, it’s in Namibia. Our protagonist, Seraphim, and his family must relocate there during the upheaval in their native Rwanda. This is his story, told in the first person.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy. This book is available to the public now.

Seraphim’s parents are strivers, working industriously to ensure that he and his siblings will have excellent educations and better lives. As a young man, he works hard and is fiercely competitive in school, but once he is at university in Cape Town, he becomes a party animal, using Cliffs Notes to dodge the assigned reading and embarking on booze fueled, all night romps. Ultimately, this is a coming of age story in a different time and place than that which most Western readers are accustomed to. And oh, my friend, if you are going to spread your wings and stretch your global literacy just a teensy bit, then this is one painless way to do it.

Once he’s inside South Africa, Sera deals with Apartheid, and during the course of his education, is advised by a wise friend, who tells him that if you want decent notes, you must befriend BWGs. These are Benevolent White Girls, and they seem to know some sort of educational code that young Black men have somehow been shut out of. There’s a funny passage about how to tell if a Caucasian is the sort one can hang out with, and to explain the difference in his own social class growing up, in contrast to others in his social group, he describes a problem with desks. There are fifty children in the class, he says, and not everyone can have a desk. Little Sera gets busy, and eventually is able to rise from chair number 50, to chair number three. Then, after a struggle with Gina and Hasham, the first and second place students, he rises to the first chair, first desk. When a friend asks what became of Gina and Hasham, Sera shrugs with his characteristic cocky arrogance, and he tells him, “I like to think they married and had second and third place children.”

Part of what I love is the way the voice here sounds like young men in their late teens and early twenties, here, there, or probably just about anywhere. In my experience, his demographic is the most hilarious of any in real life, and it comes shining through here, full of irreverent wit.

The narrative isn’t linear, and there’s some creative jumping around that, when combined with the internal discussions the narrator calls “The Council of the Seraphims,” can be difficult to keep up with. Don’t try to read the second half of this novel after you’ve taken your sleeping pill.

All told, this is a brainy, hilarious work, which is perhaps why Ngamije is being compared to Chabon and Zadie Smith.  He resembles neither, apart from being very literate and extremely funny. In fact, this book is worth reading just for the snarky texts sent by Sera and his friends; their handles crack me up even before I see what they have to say. Highly recommended, even at full price.

The Maid, by Nita Prose*****

Snow asked when I showed up for the work the day after Gran died. “I’m so sorry for your loss. Mr. Preston told me that your grandmother passed away yesterday. I already called in a replacement for your shift. I assumed you’d take today off.”

“Mr. Snow, why did you assume?” I asked. “When you assume, you make an A-S-S out of U and ME.”

Mr. Snow looked like he was going to regurgitate a mouse. “Please accept my condolences. And are you sure you don’t want the day off?”

“It was Gran who died, not me,” I replied.

Nita Snow’s debut novel, The Maid, has become the most talked-about release of January, 2022, garnering attention months in advance. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, January 4, 2022.

Molly Gray is twenty-five years old, and has been raised by her grandmother, who worked as a maid for a wealthy family. She taught Molly to be a meticulous cleaner, and so in her professional duties at the Regency Hotel, she takes pride in her work. She loves her clean, starched uniform. She loves returning every hotel room she cleans “to a state of perfection.” And best of all, she knows exactly what to say to people, what to do with her hands, with her eyes…there are clear expectations for every maid on staff, and Molly, who is clueless socially and knows it, loves fitting in, becoming virtually invisible.

When Gran dies, Molly loses not only the sole member of her family, but she also lost her only companion and friend. For months now, she’s gone home to a quiet house, and she’s so lonely that she calls out that she’s home, even though there isn’t so much as a goldfish to hear her.

The poor dear.

But Molly’s carefully ordered world changes when she finds Mr. Black dead in his bed. The Blacks are regular guests at the hotel, and Giselle Black has become a friend of sorts for Molly. Mr. Black is a nasty customer; Molly has seen bruises on Giselle. Nevertheless, his lifeless form face-up in his bed is a shock. More shocking still is the discovery that she herself is a person of interest in this crime.

It’s about this point where I become distracted. Where the heck are we? At first, I believed we were somewhere in England, because everybody drinks tea all the time, and the restroom or bathroom is always the “washroom.” But then I notice that the cops operate similarly to those in the U.S., and everyone pays for things with dollars, not pounds. The book’s synopsis doesn’t say where we are, and no other reviewers say anything, either. Finally, I take a closer look at the author’s profile, and it says she lives in Toronto. Aha! So, I’m guessing we are in Toronto also, or at least someplace in Canada.

Molly is a compelling character, and her aloneness makes her all the easier to bond with. I’m a gran myself, and I want to sit down with her (coffee, not tea, please,) and explain a few things to her. It’s not so much the locked room mystery that keeps the pages turning for me–I don’t care what happened to Mr. Black, but I’m in this thing for Molly. She cherishes this job, has given her brief adult life to it, and now somebody is trying to throw her under the bus. It makes me boil. How will she get out of this mess?

Ultimately, however, this is a feel-good story, and with the world in the state it’s in, every single one of us needs one of those. Highly recommended to everyone that enjoys excellent fiction.

Another Kind of Eden, by James Lee Burke****

James Lee Burke is a living legend, a novelist who’s won just about every prize there is, and whose published work has spanned more than fifty years.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Another Kind of Eden is a prequel to Burke’s Holland family trilogy. The time is the 1960s, and protagonist Aaron Holland Broussard is in Colorado working a summer job. He falls in love with a waitress named JoAnne, but there are obstacles to their happiness everywhere he looks. There’s a charismatic professor that won’t leave her alone, a bus full of drugged-out young people that have fallen under his influence, and of course, there’s corruption among the local wealthy residents, which is a signature feature in Burke’s work. Aaron is a Vietnam veteran, and he has residual guilt and grief that get in his way as well. He’s got some sort of an associative disorder, though I am not sure that’s the term used; at any rate, he blacks out parts of his life and cannot remember them. He also has anger issues, and he melts down from time to time; there’s an incident involving a gun that he forces a man to point at him that I will never get entirely out of my head, and kind of wish I hadn’t read.

I had a hard time rating this novel. If I stack it up against the author’s other titles, it is a disappointment; a lot of the plot elements and other devices feel recycled from his other work, dressed up a bit differently. But if I pretend that this is written by some unknown author, then I have to admit it’s not badly written at all. By the standards of Burke’s other work, it’s a three star book; compared to most other writers, it’s somewhere on the continuum between four and five. Since I have to come up with something, I decided to call it four stars.

All that being said, if you have never read anything by this luminary, I advise you to start with one of his earlier books–almost any of them, actually.

Lightning Strike, by William Kent Krueger*****

Lightning Strike is the prequel to William Kent Krueger’s successful, long-running mystery series based on a Minnesota sheriff, Cork O’Connor. This is my introduction to the series; my introduction to this author came in 2019, when I read and reviewed This Tender Land.  I read this free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books. It will be available to the public Tuesday, August 24, 2021.

In the prequel, Cork is twelve, and he’s on a camping expedition with his friend Jorge when they come across a body hanging off the maple tree at Lightning Strike. What’s worse, it’s someone they know; the corpse is that of Big John Manydeeds, the uncle of a close friend. Cork’s father, Liam, is the sheriff, and although he’s been told to let the adults investigate this horrific event, Cork keeps coming up with useful bits of information.

Seems he has a knack.

One of the most admirable aspects of Krueger’s writing is the way he folds his setting, characters, and plot seamlessly to create an atmospheric stew that’s impossible to look away from. The story takes place in the far northern reaches of Minnesota in (fictitious) Tamarack County, near Iron Lake and the iron range, as well as the Ojibwe (Chippewa) Indian Reservation, and the tension and conflict between tribal members, which include Cork’s mother and grandmother, toward Caucasians, which include Liam, are a central feature of this mystery. Tribal members insist that Big John would never have taken his own life, and even had he done so, he would never done it at this sacred location. At first they aren’t taken seriously, but as events unfold, it becomes increasingly clear that they are right. This was no suicide.

The key suspect in Big John’s murder proves to be the town’s wealthiest citizen, a tightfisted, overtly racist, elderly Scotsman that owns practically everything. He’s a suspect too soon to be the actual killer, I figure, and I think I can see where the story is headed, but without giving anything away, I have to tell you, Krueger introduces all sorts of twists and turns I don’t see coming, and they aren’t far-fetched ones, either.

There is dark foreshadowing all over the place, and the tension and outrage that exists between the tribe and law enforcement—well, the sheriff, really—grow to ominous proportions. Liam insists on examining facts and hard evidence; the Ojibwe are eager to include portents and messages from the great beyond. They want that nasty rich guy arrested now, if not sooner, and when Liam tells them that it doesn’t work that way because circumstantial evidence isn’t enough, that hearsay can’t win a conviction, they scoff and point out that when the suspect is Ojibwe, those things are always more than adequate. And again, they have a point. A local business owner who is Ojibwe tells him, “Sheriff, you better believe every Shinnob on the rez is watching you right now. Every step you take.”

While Liam is busy with his work, nobody is paying much attention to the boys; Cork, Jorge, and their friend Billy Downwind, who is related to Big John, poke around some more, and what they unearth is both shocking and dangerous.

Lightning Strike owned me until it was done, and though I rarely do this, I’m headed to the Seattle Bibliocommons to find the next book, which is technically the first in the series, because for this series and this writer, once cannot possibly be enough. Highly recommended!

All the Little Hopes, by Leah Weiss*****

Recently, I read and reviewed Weiss’s debut novel, If the Creek Don’t Rise, which was delightful. This year’s novel, All the Little Hopes, is better still. My thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the review copy.

Weiss’s story is of two girls born in different parts of North Carolina, both geographically and culturally, and of how they come together and ultimately, become each other’s family. The novels I love best provide a resonant setting, an original plot, and compelling character development; these three elements don’t compete for the reader’s attention, but rather, each of them serves to develop and reinforce the others. That’s what I find here.

Our story takes place in the 1940s, during World War II. The narrative comes to us in the first person, with the point of view alternating between the girls; we begin with Lucy. Her father is a farmer, and by far his biggest crop is honey. As the story opens, government men come to visit, and they want to buy all of his honey for the war effort. Lucy’s eldest sibling and brother-in-law have both gone to serve in the military, and there’s an emotional scene after the government men leave, because they’ve given permission for both sons to return home to help with the honey. Lucy’s mother pleads with her father to write to them and order them home at once; he stands firm, saying that the choice must be their own. Now we begin seeing how conflict plays out in this family, and how the various relationships work. But all of it is done through the plot, so that we aren’t slowed down by a bunch of emo for its own sake.

Bert, whose given name is Allie Bert, lives in the mountains, and her family has far fewer resources than Lucy’s. Her story unfolds with the death of her mother in childbirth, along with the baby. Her father sends her to live with his sister, Violet, who is expecting a baby of her own. He suggests that Violet will need household help, and Bert can provide it; he doesn’t know that Violet has gone stark, raving mad. When Bert arrives, Violet is behaving irrationally and at times, violently. She locks Bert out of the house in a storm, and the nearest house is that of the Brown family. And so it begins.

One of the most critical aspects of this book’s success is Weiss’s facility in drawing the girls, who are just beginning adolescence. At the outset, we learn that Lucy takes pride in her advanced vocabulary. I groan, because this is often a device that amateurs use to try to gloss over their lack of knowledge relating to adolescents’ development. Make the girl smart, they figure, and then they will have license to write her as if she were an adult. Not so here! These girls are girls. Though it’s not an essential part of the plot, one of my favorite moments is when the girls are locked in a bitter, long-lasting quarrel over whether Nancy Drew is a real person. Bert says she is not; Lucy is sure she is. This isn’t silly to them. It’s a bitter thing. Further into the book, Lucy realizes that it’s more important to be understood, than to use the most advanced word she can come up with. And so my estimation of Weiss rises even higher.

When someone comes from truly devastating poverty, the few things that they own take on great importance. Bert arrives with a treasure box, and in it, she keeps things that may seem inconsequential, but that mean the world to her. And Bert is also light-fingered. After meeting Lucy’s mother, who is one of the nicest people she’s met in her life, she pockets a loose button that Mama means to sew back onto a garment. Bert wants this button fiercely, because Mama has touched it. Later—much later—she confesses this to Lucy, and then to Mama, and is flabbergasted when there is no harsh punishment. She explains to a neighbor,

“Mama says sometimes stealing is necessary, but that don’t make a lick of sense. Stealing’s a crime. Back home, there ain’t two ways bout stealing. You get a whipping. You get sent to your room with no supper. No breakfast the next day neither. Stealing is a sin against the Lord Jesus, so salt gets put on the floor, and you get on your knees on that salt and stay there till you cry out and your knees bleed, till you fall over and Pa says that’s enough.”  

One feature of the story is when Nazi prisoners of war are housed nearby, and they become available as labor. At first locals fear them, but then they get to know some of them, and they discover that like themselves, the prisoners play marbles. Gradually, the rules about avoiding the prisoners relaxes to where the girls are allowed to play marbles with them sometimes. “We tread close to the sin of pride when it comes to marbles. I don’t think we can help ourselves.” And now I am veering toward an eyeroll, because (yes, I’ll say it again,) writers are awfully quick to find humanity in Caucasian enemies, whereas we know the story would have been very different had these prisoners been Japanese. BUT, as my eyes narrow and my frown lines deepen, another development occurs that reminds us that these men aren’t really our friends. Again, my admiration increases.

Weiss’s last book was a delight for the first eighty-percent, but it faltered at the end, and so I was eager to see whether this novel stands up all the way through. I love the ending!

You can get this book now, and if you love excellent historical fiction, excellent Southern fiction, or excellent literature in general, you should get it sooner rather than later. If you’re stone cold broke, get on the list at your local library. This is one of the year’s best, hands down.

The Kitchen Front, by Jennifer Ryan****

I enjoyed Ryan’s historical novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane, and so I was thrilled when Ballantine Books and Net Galley offered me a review copy for this one. It’s for sale now.

The story is set in rural England during World War II. We have four protagonists, all of them women. Audrey Landon is a widow; her husband died in the war, leaving her with two boys to raise on her own. The old family home, which she inherited from her parents, is falling apart, and she has no means to repair it. In some places, the roof has caved in.

The second is Audrey’s sister, “Lady” Gwendoline. Gwen puts herself first at all times, since nobody else ever has. She married for wealth and convenience, and she lords her affluence over her sister and everyone else. But her husband is a cruel man, and her existence is a lonely one despite its material comfort.

Zelda was a top chef in London, but once her pregnancy became visible, she had to get gone. Her landlord calls her a “trollop,” and she knows she can’t stay there now, so she applies for wartime housing. The volunteer in charge of placing her is Lady Gwendoline, who snickers with amusement as she assigns her to live in Audrey’s house.

Nell is a chef’s assistant at Fenley Hall, the prestigious old pile where Lady Gwendoline and Sir Strickland hold court. The chef, Mrs. Quince, has taught her nearly everything she knows, and it’s a good thing, too; the old lady isn’t getting any younger.

All four women enter a cooking contest held by the Ministry of Food, a “wartime cooking challenge” to showcase recipes that use ordinary ingredients and work around rationing.  The winner will be the new announcer for The Kitchen Front, a wartime radio program—and this program existed in real life.

As in the last story, Ryan develops her four characters in a way I believe; the most benevolent have flaws, and the most unsympathetic, Lady Gwendoline, is complex and capable of change. It is Gwendoline that is most developed at the end, but all four are dynamic characters.

For a brief while, I use the audio version of this book, which I obtain from my local library. Jasmine Blackborow does a fine job as reader in most regards, but there is a side character that turns up in a couple of emotionally charged scenes, an Italian prisoner of war, and when she voices him, he sounds like Dracula, which ruins the magic. For this reason, I recommend sticking to the printed version.

The first half of this story is almost unputdownable, and for a time I nearly forget my other books. But as the climax approaches, things become predictable, almost formulaic, and the ending is a bit too tidy for my tastes. The scenes toward the end with Mrs. Quince are overwrought.  It’s not terrible, but because I am so far in love with the first half, I am disappointed by the denouement. Also, if recipes must be included, as apparently they must, the author should give them character by using the substituted ingredients in the instructions; the more desirable ingredients can be footnoted.

Ultimately I rate The Kitchen Front four stars; five for the first half, three for the second.

The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah****-*****

“‘My grandfather was a Texas Ranger. He used to tell me that courage was a lie. It was just fear that you ignored.’ She looked at him. ‘Well, I’m scared.’

‘We’re all scared,’ he said.”

Kristin Hannah’s electrifying new novel, The Four Winds, is set during the Great Depression in the American Dust Bowl and California. It’s a story about courage, and about the ways that love can transform us. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to review. It’s for sale now.

Elsa is born into a wealthy family, but this doesn’t do her much good. She is tall, ungainly, and considered homely by her parents, a contrast to her two younger, more adorable sisters. She was very ill when younger, and the family liked having her tucked away in her room so much that they would like her to remain there. When company comes over, it is suggested that she go “rest.” Affection and kindness are denied her entirely.

One day, in a fit of unheard-of rebellion, she buys herself a silk dress and sneaks out to a speakeasy. There she meets Rafe, and before long she is rolling in the hay. When the morning sickness comes upon her, her furious father drives her to the Martinelli farm, (“Italians, no less!”) and she is unceremoniously dumped there. The baby is a Martinelli, he tells them, and it—and its mother—are your problem now.

Rose and Tony Martinelli are not affluent like Elsa’s parents; she learns to haul water and do farm chores, and she learns how to make delicious, cheap food the Italian way. But her father’s abandonment is a blessing in disguise, because the Martinellis are good people. She is happy there with them. She marries Rafe, and she bears two children. But the land has been over-farmed, and soon the dust storms come and destroy nearly everything they have built:

Past the outhouse, a murky, urine-yellow haze burnished the sky. Wind picked up, barreled across the farm from the south. A board flew off the chicken coop and cracked into the side of the house. Rafe and Tony came running out of the barn. The cows mooed angrily and pushed into each other, pointing their bony butts into the dust storm.

The door opened. Rose yanked her to her feet, pulled her into the rattling, howling house.

Elsa and Rose ran from window to window, securing the newspaper and rag coverings over the glass and sills. Dust rained down from the ceilings, wafted from infinitesimal cracks in the window frames and walls. The candles on the makeshift altar blew out. Centipedes crawled out from the walls, hundreds of them, slithered across the floor, looking for somewhere to hide.

A blast of wind hit the house, so hard it seemed the roof would be torn off. And the noise. It was like a locomotive bearing down on them, engines grinding. The house shuddered as if breathing too hard; a banshee wind howled, mad as hell.

Friends, this isn’t even the climax. This is sixteen percent of the way into the story. And misery and tribulation continue to rain down on this poor little family and thousands more like them. The crops die, and the livestock that doesn’t starve is killed by breathing dust. Children, including Elsa’s little boy, fall ill with dust pneumonia; no matter how hard they try to prevent it, so much dust is in the atmosphere that it makes its way into the lungs, and so the youngest and oldest are soon in trouble.

The first half of this novel is a rough read. There’s sorrow, and suffering, and loss, and grief, and I find myself eyeing the page numbers and thinking to myself that if this were written by anybody else, and if I didn’t owe a review, I probably wouldn’t finish it, because who wants an entire story of this? But at about the halfway mark, things begin to change.

By now, Rafe has hit the bricks. Never a man of character or great resolve, he sneaks off into the night, leaving the three remaining adults to care for the children and the farm. And it is now that change takes place. Without Rafe to anchor the family as is traditional during this period, Elsa is left to make the decisions about her children’s futures, and in doing so, she changes.

Hannah portrays the Depression era American West vividly and accurately, and this is when the story grows legs. The plight of agricultural workers is likewise dealt with in clear, immediate detail. My one quibble, and it is the source of the missing half star in my rating, is her inexpert portrayal of Communism, which plays more than a passing role in the last thirty percent of the story. The first time I saw farmworkers’ struggles as “shutting down the means of production,” I cleared my throat, but I told myself it was possibly a typo that might be edited out in the finished version. The next two times I saw it, I started making notes. This is not a technical error; this is a dumb-butt error (trying to elude the censors here) that should have been caught on the first pass, and because it appears when the climax ramps up, it is a distraction that interferes with the flow of the narrative.

Nevertheless, this is a well-written novel, set during an interesting time period. Particularly arresting is the development of the relationship between Elsa and her adolescent daughter, Lareda, whose point of view is shared alternately with Elsa’s.  Setting, character, and plot work together seamlessly to enforce one another and move the story forward, yet if I had to hang my hat on one laudable aspect of this book, it would be character development.

I strongly recommend this novel to you.  

Band of Sisters, by Lauren Willig*****

Lauren Willig is an established author, but she is new to me. Band of Sisters, her newest release, has made me a fan. I read it free and early, and my thanks go to Net Galley, William Morrow, and Harper Audio for the review copies. It will be available to the public March 2, 2021.

A group of Smith College alumni sail to France on a mission to help civilians suffering extreme deprivation during World War I.  “They carry money, supplies, and good intentions—all of which immediately go astray,” says the promotional blurb, and that’s what happens. It’s hard to make plans when you don’t know which way the battle may turn or where bombs may fall, but these are plucky women, two doctors among them, and several of them are members of wealthy, influential American families as well. The story is based on actual women and events, and the teacher in me wishes I were still in the classroom and able to order sets of this excellent novel to share with honors students, girls especially, who need to see more of themselves in the study of American history.

Our two protagonists are Kate and Emmie, best friends and roommates a decade ago, united in this adventure. Kate is the only woman among the “Smithies” that doesn’t come from money and that doesn’t pay her own way; she is led to believe no one else paid their own way, either, but it isn’t true. And this is a chewy, inviting historical truth that we don’t see often in fiction. Though social class divisions are every bit as present and sharp today, assumptions made by most Americans have become more generous. During the early years of the twentieth century, there was a widely held belief that rich people were better in other ways as well, whether they had earned their fortunes or inherited them. They considered themselves to be God’s own chosen ones, and their wealth was one more sign that the Almighty loved them a bit more than others. Poverty was considered shameful, a thing to be concealed; there were no government funds of any kind to help the poor, and if there had been, women like Kate would have just about died before accepting them. Taking charitable contributions was a sign of personal failure and possibly dishonesty to most people back then. And the truth is, Kate isn’t impoverished, and she surely hasn’t failed at anything, but she has to work to earn her living, a thing most Caucasian women in the U.S. didn’t do in 1917. She is horrified when, midway through our narrative, she learns the truth about her travel expenses, and this creates one of the crises within the story.

Willig is a fine novelist. The pace never flags, and there’s never a moment of revisionism that makes me blink. She is true to the time period and the characters. Emmie’s character is a harder sell, to my way of thinking, because she comes from tremendous wealth, but her family has made her feel unworthy because of her physical appearance, and by the end of the book, I love Emmie as much as I do Kate.

I’ve plucked a sample for you, a scene in which Kate and Emmie are evacuating an area which is being overrun by the Germans:

[Kate] wanted Mrs. Barrett; she wanted Dr. Stringfellow; she wanted anyone who could tell them what to do and where to go. Grecourt looked different already, the anemones churned up by the tread of two hundred soldiers, tents dotted around the lawn, Maybe, if she closed her eyes and wished hard enough, she could make it a week ago; the ground bright with flowers; slipping into story time and holding Zelie on her lap while Nell read to the basse-cour children in French about little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, joking with the unit around the supper table about their amazing ability differentiate between types of guns.

But it wasn’t a week ago. The Big Bad Wolf was here, he was on the march, with his big, big teeth and big, big guns, and maybe she wasn’t the best the Unit could have, but she was what they had right now.

By the time we reach this part of the story, I could not stop reading if I wanted to. It would have been impossible.  

The hardest characters for many writers are the children, and although we have no child protagonists, there are numerous scenes in which children play a part. How does a child act when he is traumatized by war? Willig is in perfect form here as well.

I received both the digital review copy and the audio, and I used them both. At the beginning there are so many women introduced to us at once that I felt lost with just the audio, and so I listened and read along to keep track. The narrator, Julia Whelan, does a superb job with a challenging manuscript, changing her tone and point of view to let us know which woman’s point of view we are hearing. My only concern regarding the audio version—which is much easier to follow once you have learned the most important characters—is that the story begins with a lengthy list of the women that participated, and it’s not great to listen to. I recommend you fast forward the audio to somewhere between five and seven percent, and then dive in.

I requested this galley because a number of Goodreads friends whose opinions I respect recommended it to me, and all of them were absolutely right. This book is a gem, and I highly recommend it.

All We Are Saying, by David Sheff*****

This is a digital reprint of the last interview of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, two days before John was murdered on December 8, 1980. David Sheff is a journalist and also a die-hard fan of the Lennon’s. Lucky me, I read it free. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. It’s for sale now.

This interview is a treasure trove for anyone interested in John Lennon, Yoko Ono, or the Beatles. 192 pages makes for a short book, but as interviews go, it’s a whopper. Lennon and Ono were about to release an album together, and so when Playboy requested an interview, they consented. The most wonderful thing about it is that because of the format, nearly everything is a direct quotation of either John’s or Yoko’s. Nobody knew during the course of the interview, which took multiple days, that John would be shot to death by a stranger two days later.

It makes for interesting reading. There are passages I love and others that make me see red, but I am not irritated with the author, who’s done a bang-up job, but rather, in places, at things said by his subjects. Most of it is tremendously entertaining. And in some places, it is almost unbearably poignant. At the outset, John makes a comment, almost off the cuff, about how the way to be really famous as an artist is to die in public, which he surely isn’t planning to do. Later, he quotes someone that says it’s better to burn out than to rust, and he says he disagrees, that “It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out.” And he notes that he has another forty years or so of productivity ahead of him.

Lennon was a happy man when this interview took place. He’d been a “house husband,” staying home and taking care of Sean, their son, although they acknowledge that it’s easier to do that when there’s a nanny available anytime he needs to go out for some reason, and someone else that will clean the house and so forth. Ono, on the other hand, is the one who’s handling their finances, and it’s a princely fortune at that.

And to me, the most interesting aspect of this interview isn’t him, it’s her. I was a child in elementary school when John left his first wife and married Yoko, but I remember the virulent, nasty things that appeared in the media. Those that don’t think any progress has been registered regarding race and gender should look through some archives. And John comments that the press treated their relationship as if he were “some wondrous mystic prince from the rock world dabbling with this strange Oriental woman.”

Ono said, “I handled the business…my own accountant and my own lawyer could not deal with the fact that I was telling them what to do…”

 John continued that there was “…an attitude that this is John’s wife, but surely she can’t really be representing him…they’re all male, you know, just big and fat, vodka lunch, shouting males…Recently she made them about five million dollars and they fought and fought not to let her do it because it was her idea and she’s not a professional. But she did it, and then one of the guys said to her, ‘Well, Lennon does it again.’ But Lennon didn’t have anything to do with it.”

There’s a lot that gets said about the women’s movement and all of it is wonderful. Once in awhile John holds forth about something he knows nothing about (anthropology and the early role of women) and he makes an ass of himself. He may have been more enlightened than most men, but he still hadn’t learned to acknowledge that there were some things he just didn’t know.

There are passages that make me grind my teeth, and all of them have to do with wealth in one way or another. Ono is from a ruling class Japanese banking family, and the airy things she and John say about being rich make me want to hit a wall. People shouldn’t pick on them for being wealthy. And oh my goodness, when Sheff mildly suggests that John and the other former Beatles surrender and do a single reunion concert for charity, his response is horrifying. He points out that the concert for Bangladesh that George Harrison roped them into doing turned out to raise no money at all for the cause because all of it went to red tape and lawsuits; ouch! But the truly obnoxious bit is when he whines about how the world just expects too much of him. He wants to know, “Do we have to divide the fish and the loaves for the multitudes again? Do we have to get crucified again? We are not there to save the fucking world.”

The part that makes me laugh is when Ono describes how The Beatles broke up at about the same time she and John got together: “What happened with John is that I sort of went to bed with this guy that I liked and suddenly the next morning I see these three guys standing there with resentful eyes.”

Those that are curious about Lennon and Ono, or that are interested in rock and roll history, should get this interview and read it. There’s a good deal of discussion about the roots of the music, and about the music he made that the radio never played. There’s a good deal here that I surely never knew. For these readers, I highly recommend this book.