Recommended Reading List: May, 2021
I had a lot of unfinished, unsuccessful reads this month. I moved some of my books around and found a romance novel I’d bought by a favorite writer. I’d picked the book up more than a decade ago, when I was getting everything she wrote. This one was her first novel, I think, and ooooh, it showed. The things that make her wonderful were there, but so much was cringeworthy, particularly the relationship. The hero was just plain mean. All the time. I finally had to quit.
Read a mystery with great voice. The book went well until about 60 pages from the end. The story ended up being noir, even though it was set up as hard-boiled. Our hero should have been a white knight. Instead, he was a loser. Everyone lost and for no real reason. And, to make matters worse, there was no emotion in those last few pages, probably because the author didn’t want to face the bleakness. True noir dives into the bleakness and wallows there. Not this book.
Which got me to thinking about how important endings are. Until those last 60 pages, I was planning to buy more of this author’s work. But I won’t now. Sadly. He couldn’t write great characters and scenes, with great voice, but storytelling ain’t his strong suit.
Those two are just two of the books that I either abandoned or felt really disappointed by.
So even though I read a lot, I don’t have a lot to recommend. Here’s what I found of interest in May.
Brenner, Marie, “To War In Silk Stockings,” Vanity Fair’s Women on Women, edited by Radhika Jones, Penguin Books, 2019. This article is about Kathleen Harriman Mortimer, daughter of W. Averell Harriman who was U.S. special envoy to Great Britain in 1941. Fascinating article about wealth and privilege and a woman who might’ve been great on her own, had the world allowed it. Or not, since apparently she was U.S. upper-class bigoted in that old school way. No matter what, this one made me think.
Cleeton, Chanel, The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, Berkeley, 2021. I debated about recommending this book because it has a lot of flaws that you find in historical novels. Too much research in the book, and the actual setting is missing most of the way through, which is a big disappointment, since Cleeton is good at setting.
But the history is so interesting as are the characters that I remained riveted even as the flaws grated. The book is set in the Gilded Age, going back and forth between Havana and New York. The book follows three women, all of whom end up in Havana at one point or another, and the fictional characters work the best. (One of the characters is historical.) The events in the book lead up to the Spanish-American war, which isn’t something I know a lot about, so that helped me enjoy this. (I wasn’t anticipating; I was learning.) I think this is good read, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the history of this era.
Collins, Amy Fine, “When Hubert Met Audrey,” Vanity Fair’s Women on Women, edited by Radhika Jones, Penguin Books, 2019. Fascinating piece about the importance of fashion, particularly when the world was a bit narrower. How Audrey Hepburn’s signature style was her signature personal style. Also, worth reading to see how Hollywood screwed everyone even back then, from Hepburn to Givenchy.
Jones, Radhika (with David Friend), editor, Vanity Fair’s Women on Women, Penguin Books, 2019. I wasn’t sure if this concept would work—articles by women about women pulled from the last 30 years of Vanity Fair. I was afraid the articles would be dated, and some of them are in a very informative way. Only one failed miserable and since it made me mad, I’ll share. It’s Tina Brown’s hit job on Princess Di. I’m sure Jones included it because it was former editor Tina Brown, and I’m also sure it read fresh and different to Jones, if she hadn’t been following the media at the time the article was published. But that piece was exactly what the media published about Princess Diana, and it was mean-spirited and nasty.
The remaining pieces varied in length and quality. It was amazing to me how many of them I had read before. Some I had high hopes for and they didn’t work and some illuminated things I hadn’t known at all. Some of the older pieces felt very fresh. So if you’re looking for a fascinating non-fiction anthology, pick this one up.
Singh, Nalini, Quiet in Her Bones, Berkley 2021. Fascinating book. It had a Rebecca air, but didn’t go that way. The novel is its own thing. The unreliable narrator is a writer and lies to himself as writers do, but he has other issues that get revealed slowly. I love how writerly he is, though. When he finds a novella he wrote that actually could incriminate him in a crime, he keeps the novella anyway because he believes it’s one of the best things he’s ever written.
If I say too much about this novel, I will ruin it for you. Read it, though. It’s twisty, the narrator is amazing, and the writing is measured. A great way to lose an afternoon.
Tursten, Helene, An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, translated by Marlaine Delargy, Soho Crime, 2018. I picked up this beautiful collection of short stories because I read one of the stories in The Usual Santas, and loved it. That’s probably the best story in the book, even though I didn’t reread. The other amazing story is “An Elderly Lady Has Accommodation Problems,” in which our anti-heroine needs to get rid of an annoying neighbor before said neighbor takes over her apartment. Clever and fun.
In fact the entire collection is clever and fun, even if some stories are less successful than others. Pick it up. You’ll enjoy it.