The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
A highly imaginative, page-turning first novel, set mostly in Victorian London and partly in imperial Japan. Former pianist Thaniel Steepleton helps support his widowed sister by working as a telegraph operator for the Home Office. A bomb threat is received, and Thaniel finds that his flat was broken into. Nothing was taken, but a pocket watch was left. After an alarm on the watch saves his life during an explosion, Thaniel seeks out the watchmaker, the mysterious Keita Mori. Mori is a Japanese nobleman who is a genius with clockwork, and who can sometimes “remember” the future. He even has a clockwork pet, an octopus. Scotland Yard suspects Mori of making a bomb, and Grace Carrow thinks he is probably guilty. Grace is a physics student who needs to marry in order to inherit her aunt’s house, where she can set up a lab. Victorian London is vividly described, including a diplomatic party, a Gilbert and Sullivan performance, and a Japanese exhibition village in Knightsbridge. With plenty of suspense and intrigue along with an unpredictable plot, this is an impressive, original debut.
Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave
Georgia Ford comes home to her family’s Sonoma Valley vineyard the week before her wedding, needing time to think but finding secrets and chaos. Two marriages are in trouble, and her parents are selling the vineyard. Georgia, a real estate lawyer, has just found out that her British fiance Ben has a daughter. It’s not clear when Ben meant to share that news with Georgia, even though they are moving to London right after their wedding. The Fords’ last harvest festival is just around the corner, and Georgia and her brothers struggle to reconnect while the reader learns through flashbacks the history of the family vineyard. I think the number of problems and secrets affecting the Ford family is much too high, but the characters feel real and the vineyard setting is well drawn. More of a family drama than a romantic comedy, this novel may become a movie. I think readers of books by Robyn Carr about the Lacoumette family, The Promise and New Hope, would enjoy this book.
Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen
Imagine spending the whole month of August in a rambling cottage on an island off the coast of Maine. No cars allowed, cell phones rarely work, there are amazing views and trails, and cold water for swimming. There are blueberries to pick and sea glass to collect. Add in a hat party, a lobster bake, a tiny library, friendly islanders, a children’s musical that needs a director and you get a charming beach book, inspired by The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim. Two preschool moms, Lottie and Rose, leave their families behind in Brooklyn for a real escape, and are joined by actress Carolyn and Beverly, an older gay man in mourning who enjoys cooking. Lottie and Rose eventually welcome their families for a visit, and cottage owner Robert even comes to stay. The cottage and the island setting are lovingly detailed, and are a large part of this novel’s appeal. This is a pleasant summer read.
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
Addie Baum, born in 1900, is looking back at her life as her granddaughter interviews her. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Addie is happiest at school. Her mother talks about how life would be better if the family had never left Russia, while Addie’s older sisters Betty and Celia strongly disagree, even though they live in a one-room apartment. Celia is timid and delicate, but steps in so that Addie can attend high school for a year and participate in the Saturday Club at a Boston settlement house. A trip to the seaside Rockport Lodge introduces her to girls who will stay her friends for many years. Celia marries a widower, modern Betty works at a department store, and Addie’s father spends most of his time at the synagogue. Addie becomes a secretary at her brother-in-law’s shirt factory, while attending the occasional night class and keeping up with her Saturday Club. The influenza epidemic causes more suffering and Addie struggles to find happiness, moving to a boarding house, trying to become a newspaper reporter and not having luck with men. Life becomes much better after sister Betty marries, and then Addie finally meets a nice man. Addie’s resilience, rebellious streak, and sense of humor make her an appealing narrator in this novel about working-class Boston girls and immigrant life.
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig
Imagine being an eleven-year-old boy in 1951, setting off halfway across the country on a Greyhound bus, alone. Donal Cameron has an amazing summer of adventure, both good and very bad. It was bittersweet to read Ivan Doig’s last novel; I’m glad it was so enjoyable. Life on the bus, a quarrelsome great aunt who insists on teaching him canasta, close calls with the police, excitement at a rodeo, meeting hobos, and life on a ranch at haying time enliven a memorable story. Other memorable books by Doig include The Whistling Season and The Bartender’s Tale.
Euphoria by Lily King
Inspired by Margaret Mead’s time in New Guinea, this novel is not strictly biographical. Three young anthropologists in the early 1930s are studying isolated tribes in New Guinea. Nell has published a controversial bestseller about her work in Samoa, and Fen is clearly jealous. Nell is recovering from a broken ankle, probably has malaria, and is missing her glasses when she first meets depressed British anthropologist Bankson, who is working along the Sepik River. Nell and Fen have just left the violent Mumbanyo tribe at Nell’s insistence, and Bankson helps them find a more welcoming settlement further down the Sepik River. Nell studies the women and children, making copious notes, while Fen seems to want to be one of the guys and observe daily life and rituals without making any notes or sharing his observations. Bankson is clearly attracted to and protective of Nell, but is dependent on Fen when he falls ill. This is a fast read, but a confusing one. I may need to read this book again to reach a conclusion about what I think happened before the trio meets, and what happens after they leave New Guinea. Most biographical novels I’ve read stay pretty true to the real life of the main character; this book was intriguing because the author didn’t and had more freedom to develop the plot and change the relationships.
Early Warning by Jane Smiley
At 476 pages, Early Warning is not a quick read. It is the sequel to Some Luck, a family saga about an Iowa farm family. Early Warning covers the years 1953 to 1986, as the Langdon family expands into the next generation. I think the first book is better, but the many characters in Early Warning are interesting company and the author is an excellent storyteller. Dialogue is very well done, and the complex interactions of the extended family are believable. Plot is not the strong point here, as there is some predictability. Topics covered include the Cold War, the baby boom, psychoanalysis, stay at home mothers, Vietnam War, breast cancer, social change in the sixties, working for the CIA, pursuit of wealth, coming out, a drawn-out divorce, sibling rivalry, and changes on the family farm. As the Langdon children become middle-aged they become more introspective about their lives and their family. I definite recommend starting with Some Luck, and I’m looking forward to the last book in the trilogy, not yet written.