Stars Over Sunset Boulevard by Susan Meissner

Stars Over Sunset Boulevard

Susan Meissner (Adult Historical Fiction)

Unlike most women, Violet Mayfield didn’t move to Hollywood in hopes of being a star. At twenty-two, she made the trip from her home in Alabama because of the promise of a steady job in a studio secretarial pool. She also came to escape the expectations of her mother and father, as well as the sad memories of a life that would never be. Conversely, thirty-year old Audrey Duvall was looking for stardom. It was 1938 and the biggest news around Hollywood was the filming of Selznick International Studios’ blockbuster production of Gone with the Wind. Audrey, who was once on the cusp of stardom, is looking for her breakout chance. At the moment, all she’s looking for is a suitable roommate and this young woman from Alabama seems to be the right fit. Violet and Audrey’s friendship is set against the backdrop of the Golden Age of Hollywood—where dreams are made, stars are born, and all the world’s a stage. But as each of these two very different women search for their own sense of fulfillment and happiness, their friendship is constantly put at odds. Can their relationship endure their individual pursuits of happily ever after?

Historical fiction is my favorite genre and so I really enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look into the making of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era epic Gone with the Wind. Meissner goes into detail about the film’s myriad obstacles and noteworthy events: the firing of the production’s first director, George Cukor; the clever solution of acquiring additional “extras” for the Confederate Wounded scene; the preparation for the burning of Atlanta sequence; and the excitement when the identity of the film’s leading lady was finally revealed. It’s a wonderful look into cinematic history and I thoroughly reveled in these references.

One of the major plot lines of the book was the tie-in between the past and the present through a prop from the Gone with the Wind movie: Scarlett’s over-the-top green velvet hat that went with her infamous drapery dress. Although an interesting premise, I felt that this connection didn’t really add anything to the storyline. For all the build-up behind this famed costume piece, I eventually viewed the emerald chapeau as more of a red herring. Admittedly, Meissner did use this device to directly draw a comparison between Scarlett O’Hara and Violet Mayfield who both are Southern women willing to do anything to anyone as long as it benefits their own self-interests. However, this correlation did not translate to an immediate “check” in the win box for me. The very reasons I didn’t like Gone with the Wind are the exact same reasons that I wasn’t able to fully connect with Stars Over Sunset Boulevard: a story based around a female protagonist that’s selfish, petty, ungrateful, and petulant and constantly plays the woe-is-me-card in order to rationalize her self-serving choices. By doing so, she manages to hurt those closest to her while depriving them the dignity and decency of making their own informed decisions. While Scarlett seems to pay the ultimate price for her arrogance, Violet seems to have gotten off pretty much scot free. To that, all I have to say is, “Fiddle-dee-dee”.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Bed & Breakfast by Lois Battle

Bed & Breakfast

Lois Battle

Josie Tatternall, military widow turned Bed & Breakfast proprietor, is about to reunite her thrown grown daughters for the holidays.  Following a sudden medical emergency of one of her closest friends, Josie realizes the fragility and uncertainty of life and decides that there is no time like the present to bring her estranged family together after ten long years apart.  But will her three headstrong daughters agree?  Can the beauty and majesty of Christmas yield hope and forgiveness and unite this broken family?  Josie is about to find out.

I began this book with very high expectations.  After all, the cover is brimming with glowing reviews: “Full of warmth, humor, and characters I completely adore,” touted author Dorothea Benton Frank and “An irreverent holiday treat,” exclaimed the Chicago Tribune.  Author Cassandra King said the characters in Battle’s book were “wonderfully eccentric” and “heartwarming” who have “become her friends”.  But alas, you truly can’t judge a book by its cover and my experience with this story and its characters left me feeling more bah humbug than holly and jolly.  Before delving further, let me explain how I rate books—50% of my review is about the book itself (story, characters, pace, themes, etc.) and the other 50% is how the book left me feeling (enlightened, hopeful, disturbed, retrospective, etc.).  With a rating of 2/5 stars, the latter far outweighed the former as I am still reeling with contempt at such an aggravating cast of characters. Allow me to elaborate without spoiling the story too much…

First, let me go down the list of main characters that ran the gamut of predictable and overused stereotypes: Josie, the dutiful military wife who puts her own wants and needs last; Josie’s domineering and womanizing military husband, Bear; Cam, Josie’s eldest who fled small town South Carolina for the bright lights of New York only to be rudely awakened by the fact that she is a very small fish in a huge pond; Lila, middle child, doting daughter, and perfect Southern wife who seemingly leads an idyllic, charmed life; and Evie, Josie’s youngest who was a one-time runner-up in the Miss South Carolina pageant and who uses her legs and lashes to their full advantage.

Second, it was actually surprising to read a book, written by a woman, with so many unlikeable female characters.  The daughters were all self-centered, selfish, whiny, immature, and just plain insufferable. Josie was a little more tolerable, but it’s one thing to be loyal to a husband who is a known philanderer (at least she respects and honors her vows) and quite another to pledge allegiance to a friend who—more likely than not—had abused her trust and taken advantage of their friendship.  This makes Josie more of a chump than a champion.  Overall, I’ve never met a more contemptible set of women that I disliked a lot, respected less, and fell victim to their own self-destructive behaviors and personalities.  Oddly, it was the men (Josie’s brother-in-law, Cam’s love interest, and Lila’s husband) who came across as decent, sympathetic, reliable, honorable, and morally grounded. 

This was the first book by Lois Battle that I’ve read.  The Florabama Ladies’ Auxiliary & Sewing Circle is still on my bookshelf and, rather than potentially throw the baby out with the bathwater, I will be giving Battle another try to see if her female leads fare any better in this book. 

I’ll end this review by mentioning a sentiment of Josie’s that she recalls several times throughout the book as she looks at the lives of her grown daughters: she did the best she could.  Unfortunately, I believe Battle could have done a little better for all of the women in the Tatternall family.

Rating: 2/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina Harrison

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor 

Rosina Harrison (Autobiography)

Rosina (Rose) Harrison was born in 1899 in a little village near Ripon in Yorkshire.  The daughter of a stonesman and a laundrymaid and the eldest of four children, Rose had but one desire in life: to travel.  In her 35 years of service to Lady Astor—Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, Viscountess Astor—Rose would not only travel the world, but she would become an integral part of the prestigious Astor family (“the landlords of New York”).  This is Rose’s life—told in her own words—that spans several wars, a coronation, 1,000-person receptions, misplaced jewelry, a missing sable tie, and a loving friendship that would endure all of these and more.

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor is a lady maid’s personal account of a life filled with dignitaries, disagreements, devotion, and discovery.  Fans of the British television series Upstairs, Downstairs or Amazon Prime’s Downton Abbey will appreciate this behind-the-scenes perspective into the lives of both the aristocracy and their attendants.  Through Rose, we gain an appreciation of what it is to work for someone whose heart is charitable, but whose tongue is often sharp and cruel; we experience dinners with Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and George Bernard Shaw; we see how entertaining is not just an event, but an industry; we understand that the key to a beautiful floral arrangement is to consult with Nature herself; and we learn the correct way to “pop” a champagne cork (gently unscrew the cork, cover it with a napkin, and then by tilting the bottle to one side, the cork will come out easily and quietly).  

Rose is an entertaining look into the innerworkings of the wealthy and those who keep the gears of this expensive and vast machine greased and operating flawlessly.  While no employer/employee relationship is without its ups and downs, the respect, dependency, and devotion between Rose and Lady Astor spanned over three decades and showed us the meaning of perseverance and the value of loyalty. 

Rose Harrison died at the age of 90 in 1989.  Although she never married nor had any children, hers was a life fulfilled and a dream attained.  When Rose was asked by Bobbie Shaw (Lady Astor’s son by her first marriage) what she would like most in this world, Rose replied, after a moment’s hesitation, “To live my life over again”.  In her autobiography, published in 1975, she wrote that her answer would be the same. 

Lady Astor enjoyed a close twenty-year friendship with playwright George Bernard Shaw and so it seems fitting that I end this review with a quote of his that I think adequately sums up the life of Rosina Harrison: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”  Rose created a full and satisfying life through her employment and friendship with Lady Astor.  She gave as good as she got and quickly became a respected and trusted confidante to a woman who was the second elected female Member of Parliament, but the first to take her seat.  Not bad for a spunky Yorkshire girl who thought that life couldn’t get any better than luxuriating in the family’s hip bath.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. by Bette Greene (J)

Philip Hall Likes Me I Reckon Maybe

Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe.

Bette Greene (Juvenile Fiction)

 There are a few things that Elizabeth “Beth” Lorraine Lambert cannot stand: being cheated, allergies, being told she can’t do something because she’s a girl, and giving that low-down dumb bum of a polecat Philip Hall the satisfaction of beating her at anything.  Truth be told, Beth is smart—really, really smart—but when it comes to Philip Hall, she can be kind of a dumb bum, too.  But Philip is the cutest boy at J. T. Williams School and with that dimpled smile…does it really hurt if Beth lets him win at a few things every now and then?

Haven’t most of us, at one time or another, happily played the part of “chump” when it comes to being noticed or liked by someone that we felt was a bit out of our league?  Whether that someone was too good looking, too popular, too smart, too athletic, or just too…well…too.  For one reason or another, we sacrifice self-respect for the opportunity to just be around that person.  Well, our young Beth Lambert is no different, but the good news is, she knows it and better still, she realizes that the long-term rewards that come with being yourself greatly outweigh the temporary benefits of being around someone who’s not even seeing the real you, but rather a lesser, compromised version of you.

I’m always drawn to books that feature plucky female protagonists: Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), Dovey Coe (Dovey Coe), Fern Arable (Charlotte’s Web) and Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) are just a few of my favorites.  Girls and young ladies who have a mind of their own and will not yield to societal norms or expectations.  They prove to be intelligent, loyal, resilient, principled, and brave.  Beth Lambert is one such girl who not only stands up to turkey thieves and an unscrupulous store owner, but also to her own insecurities that tell her that she has to be inferior in order to gain and keep a friendship.  Lucky for us, she realizes the error of her ways and evolves into the kind of young lady that she was meant to be.

Bette Greene shows us the power of believing in ourselves and the gift that comes when someone we respect and admire has faith in us.  Beth received such support from her doctor and the few words of encouragement that he offered her allowed Beth to see the possibilities that awaited her and to explore the opportunities that she thought were well out of her reach.  I enjoyed Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. and cheered as our Beth evolved from being a pleaser to an assertive and confident girl that anyone would fall in love with.  Even a low-down dumb bum of a polecat like Philip Hall.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.scholastic.com

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In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

In a Dark Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark Wood  

Ruth Ware (Adult Fiction)

Twenty-six-year-old crime writer Leonora “Nora” Shaw lives alone…and she loves it.  When you’re alone, you’re in control and she likes it that way.  So when she gets an e-mail from a stranger inviting her to a bachelorette party for Clare Cavendish, Nora’s world unexpectedly is turned upside down.  She hasn’t spoken to Clare in ten years so the invitation is obviously unsettling.  Why her?  Why now?  But it’s only for the weekend and perhaps it would be nice to see Clare again.  After all, they had been best friends.  But since she’s arrived at the “glass house” in the middle of the woods, Nora only seems to be accumulating more questions than answers, and when you’re in a dark, dark wood, it’s so very hard to see any light of what is real or true.

I admit that I am sometimes influenced by the marketing blurbs that appear on the front and back covers of a book.  Some excerpts for In a Dark, Dark Wood include “Prepared to be scared” or “Read it…with all the lights on” or “An unsettling thriller”.  I have found, much to my disappointment, that all of these are a far cry from what you are actually given.  It’s certainly not the fault of Ware that expectations are set so incredibly high, but when you have Reese Witherspoon on the cover of your book promising a frightfest of epic proportions (she’s the one who warns readers to prepare for a scare), I have to wonder if my fear-o-meter is just insanely high or if Ms. Witherspoon is just a little scaredy-cat.

Without pitting Ruth Ware against Ruth Ware, I did find her second novel, The Woman in Cabin 10, to be a more satisfying and suspenseful read with the twist ending that I thought In a Dark, Dark, Wood would have.  To be fair, this book did have a lot of energy and some unexpected moments, but the end really did just fall apart.  I found it to be a bit predictable largely due to the generous amounts of clues that the author provides throughout the book.  Also, our heroine and narrator, Nora (who goes by several names), makes some really dim decisions and –for her being such an accomplished crime author—doesn’t seem able to think logically or rationally when it would benefit her the most.  Lastly, there are several gaping plot holes (we’re left questioning several characters’ intentions and motivations) and we really have to suspend any sense of logic in order to digest the series of events that happen at the end of the book.

For a quick read that you can read at night, by yourself, during a storm, in a spooky house, feel free to pick up In a Dark, Dark, Wood.  For a suspenseful and thrilling book that will leave you guessing until the end, I invite you to leave the wood and go toward the water with Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10—unless you’re Reese Witherspoon and then you should definitely stay away…or at least turn on the lights.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Astrid & Veronika by Linda Olsson

Astrid and Veronika

Astrid & Veronika

Linda Olsson (Adult Fiction)

“’And who will you dream of, Veronika?’ Astrid said, without taking her eyes off the water.  ‘With the flowers under your pillow.  Who?’  Veronika didn’t answer.  She sat with her legs pulled up and her arms clasped around them, her chin resting on her knees.  ‘I came here to escape my dreams,’ she said eventually.”

Author Veronika Bergman arrived in Stockholm, Sweden with just a few bags and her personal belongings.  Her rental home was next door to Astrid Mattson, the village witch—at least that’s what the people in town call her.  Astrid is nearly eighty years old and keeps to herself.  She doesn’t like people and has left the village only once in her life.  She likes her secrets and her solitude, but when she meets Veronika, something remarkable happens.  Something quite unexpected.  Astrid begins to care and slowly these two women discover that although loss and heartbreak connect them, friendship would forever bind them.

Astrid & Veronika is Linda Olsson’s first novel and was originally published in New Zealand under the title Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs.  Her writing is fluid and the storytelling is effortless and captivating.  Olsson gives readers Veronika and Astrid—two women tormented by their past, haunted by their memories, and brought together by fate.  These two restless souls form a committed bond that becomes instinctive—each aptly anticipating the other’s needs and providing comfort, support, and understanding.

I truly enjoyed this book, but found that there were too many unanswered questions that kept me from wholly appreciating Olsson’s extraordinary debut work.  In particular, Astrid’s story had one pivotal plot point that left me confused and frankly horrified at the choice she made.  Her backstory lacked sufficient detail that might have allowed me to be more sympathetic to her and the action she took.  Instead, Olsson put the burden on me to draw my own conclusions, which is seldom a sufficient or satisfying solution.

Olsson’s original book title came from a poem by Karin Boye called “Min stackars unge, My poor little child”, which she includes in her book.  It accurately describes our heroines and reads in part,

“My poor child, so afraid of the dark,

who have met ghosts and another kind,

who always among those clad in white

glimpses those with evil faces,

now let me sing you gentle songs,

from fright they free, from force and cramp.”

Astrid and Veronika are two women separated by age and circumstance but connected through the ghosts of their pasts.  Both lost mothers and loves, but through patience and understanding, they formed their own gentle song and found the strength and courage to live and to love again.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Lunch at the Piccadilly by Clyde Edgerton

lunch at the piccadilly

Lunch at the Piccadilly

Clyde Edgerton (Adult Fiction)

Carl Turnage is watching his beloved Aunt Lil—the last leaf of his family tree—slowly slip through his fingers.  Seeing that she is no longer safe living alone in her apartment and quite unreliable behind the wheel of her car, Carl sends her to a convalescent home to recuperate after suffering from a fall.  There she joins several other residents including Flora Talbert (who owns four colored housecoats and has an obsession with footwear), Clara Cochran (has a glass eye and a penchant for spewing obscenities), Maudie Lowe (the little woman), Beatrice Satterwhite (owns the “Cadillac” of walkers), and L. Ray Flowers (who is quick with a sermon and always looking for a song).  Despite the laidback atmosphere that Rosehaven Convalescence Center offers, Aunt Lil isn’t ready to take it easy just yet.  She wants adventure and she is bound and determined to find it…one way or another.

Lunch at the Piccadilly clocks in at 238 pages (not counting the Epilogue).  After reading ninety-three percent of the book, it inexplicably fell apart.  It was absolutely agonizing to see this witty and charming book careen so horribly and fatally off course.  The last few pages lacked what the entire book simply overflowed with:  heart and soul.  Edgerton’s novel was a poignant, funny (with a few laugh-out-loud moments), and compassionate book with characters dealing with loss of mobility, loss of independence, and loss of memory.  He gives us several women with an insatiable zest for life, but know that the mortality clock is ticking louder and louder with each passing day.  Why this same passion and fervor failed to carry through until the last page is both confusing and disappointing.  However, the ending wasn’t the only problem.  There was also a salacious backstory that kept resurfacing throughout various points of the story.  This past event between two of Rosehaven’s residents really had no purpose, lent no value to the story, and only managed to introduce some unneeded drama and friction.  Also, L. Ray’s need to break out into lengthy religions sermons broke the momentum of the story and was irritating at best.

It truly was heartbreaking and frustrating to see a book with this much promise and value self-destruct so quickly.  I felt a little duped in the emotional commitment I invested in caring about these sassy, snarky, and spirited seniors who are making the best of what little life they have left.  In the end, I felt as if this book was like one of Rosehaven’s residents who stands steadfastly by the front door, waiting for visiting family or friends that will never come.  No matter how many times I might flip back in the book, looking tirelessly for my sense of closure, I realize that that too will never come.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com