Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett
Amy Gallup is a published writer, but has had writer’s block for twenty years. Living with her basset hound Alphonse in a small house in southern California, she teaches writing. Some unsettling events with her last group of aspiring writers led Amy to teaching exclusively online. After an accident knocks her unconscious, she gives an interview to a local reporter, but can’t remember what she said. The newspaper account of the interview is hilarious, and helps jump start her career. Carla and other members of the writing class want her back, longtime agent Maxine keeps calling, and Amy starts writing stories. Getting her fifteen minutes of fame, Amy is booked for interviews and talks around the country, and comes out of her hermit’s shell. I loved that she insisted on taking her dog with her on tour, and that she doesn’t buy into the hype of marketing and branding one’s writing. The people in her new writing group are memorable, as are some people she meets on her travels, as well as the handful of people in Amy’s past that she recalls for the reader, especially her former husband Max. A book about writers and writing doesn’t sound compelling, but I found it alternately touching and very funny.
The Residence by Kate Andersen Brower
This impressively researched book about the residence staff of the White House is quite a page-turner. The White House is a home, an office, a museum, and an event site. While the first families come and go, the residence staff may remain for decades, sometimes for generations. Brower interviewed three former first ladies, six grown children of former presidents, fifty former residence staff, and more. From chief usher down to doormen and maids, 96 full-time and 250 part-time workers staff the White House. The first family pays for their own meals, toiletries, and dry cleaning, but the staff try to anticipate their every need, often working long hours. The magic of moving day would be well worth seeing; one family moves out and another moves in on Inauguration Day, complete to having their clothes unpacked and their choice of White House furniture installed, in only six hours. Some transitions, as after President Kennedy’s assassination and President Nixon’s resignation, are very abrupt, but I liked that Caroline Kennedy’s small in-house kindergarten continued for months after the Kennedys moved out. The quirks and eccentricities of the families are described, especially President Johnson’s continued demands for a custom shower, and the Clintons’ great need for privacy. While there is some gossip, the first families are described with fondness, understanding, and often sympathy by the loyal former staff.
A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear
The award-winning Maisie Dobbs mystery series jumps ahead four years, summarizing Maisie’s recent past in only twenty pages. It’s been an eventful period, one that many readers would like to hear more about. After visiting India, Maisie is not quite ready to return home to England, and leaves her ship in Gibraltar. In 1937, the Spanish Civil War is just across the border. Maisie takes a room at Mrs. Bishop’s boarding house, and frequents a café nearby. Out for a walk, she stumbles across the body of Jewish photographer Sebastian Babayoff, and later finds one of his cameras. Since the police aren’t interested in investigating, Maisie, who thought she’d left detective work, takes up the case, mainly for the sake of his two sisters. She finds that she’s being followed, possibly by two men. Her family and friends plead with her to return home soon. Instead, Maisie visits Sebastian’s sister Miriam and asks for help in developing Sebastian’s last photographs. The photographs lead to a trip to war-torn Spain, which raises more questions, but also provides an idea for Maisie’s next project. I missed the presence of Maisie’s assistant, Billy Beale, but enjoyed being immersed in the atmosphere of 1930s Gibraltar. Maisie really shows her vulnerability in this book, which makes her seem more real. The first book in this excellent series is Maisie Dobbs.
You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
This first novel about coming of age during the Cold War was inspired by the true story of Samantha Smith, age 10, who wrote a letter to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov in 1982 and became the United States’ youngest goodwill ambassador. In Holt’s story, Sarah Zuckerman is the daughter of a peace activist and writes a letter to Andropov, as does her best friend and neighbor Jennifer Jones. Only Jenny’s letter is answered and she is invited to travel to the Soviet Union with her parents. Jenny becomes a celebrity and her friendship with Sarah deteriorates. In 1995, Sarah has finished college and decides to travel to Moscow to find out what really happened to Jenny. Sarah’s life is all about dealing with loss and searching for truth in an ambiguous world. The author’s experiences working in Moscow give authenticity to the scenes of expatriate life.
In December, 1943, five Army aviators left Alaska’s Ladd Field on a test flight in a B-24 Liberator. During the test, the plane spiraled out of control at 25,000 feet, and the crew bailed out. Co-pilot Lt. Leon Crane parachuted to safety away from the fiery crash, but without mittens or gloves. Crane, a city kid from Philadelphia, stayed near the wreck for several days, hoping to find another survivor and to be spotted by a search plane. Back at Ladd Field, many planes were sent in search, but in the wrong area. The crew was declared MIA, presumed dead. Enduring extreme conditions and intense loneliness, Crane covered his hands in the parachute and started walking, after over a week with no food in the Alaskan winter. His only supplies were a knife and some matches. Through phenomenal luck, he found a cabin with some supplies, but had to leave before the spring thaw by hiking over the frozen Charles River, with no idea where he was. Compelling and moving, this is a remarkable true story, very well told. Sure to be popular with readers of Unbroken and Frozen in Time.
Better Than Before: Mastering the Habit of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin
The author of The Happiness Project turns her attention to the way we shape our lives with habits, in both positive and negative ways. Rubin’s research shows that one method of creating good habits doesn’t work for everyone. There is a quiz to determine the reader’s tendency or personality type. I don’t seem to fit into her categories of Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, but many readers may find this helpful. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is a more thought-provoking book about habit formation, but Rubin’s book is more practical, full of personal anecdotes about how the author and her extended family found that successfully making new habits can greatly affect their lives. One insight I learned from Better Than Before is that restarting a habit, such as exercise, can be more difficult than starting it in the first place. For more information about habits and happiness, visit the author’s website.
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
I’ve read only a few steampunk novels, but I really enjoyed this fast-paced steampunk adventure. It’s set in an alternate 1878, in Rapid City, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, complete with airships and mechanical marvels. Karen Memory finds the best job available to her after her father’s death, and works as a “seamstress” at the Hotel Mon Cherie, run by Madame Damnable. Karen really is a seamstress on the side, but the hotel is a respectable bordello. The ladies gather in the parlor for a meal after their guests leave, and are surprised when Merry Lee shows up, badly wounded while rescuing Priya. Priya and her younger sister came from India for work, only to be trapped by powerful bully Peter Bantle, who wants to be the next mayor. Karen falls hard for the brilliant Priya, and wants to rescue her sister. Next Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves rides into town looking for a killer, and Madame Damnable’s girls volunteer to help along with Merry Lee, hoping the trail leads back to Peter Bantle. Lots of action and adventure in a very unusual setting, with an appealing narrator in Karen.