Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures 1

Hardcover (2012)

(This is the first novel whose prose I’ve fallen in love with since my last posting 11 books ago!   I’ve been treated to some fine storytelling, even page-turners, but my reading heart and enthusiasm for blogging is not plot-driven.  Always, I’m searching for beautiful prose that lifts you up – words and sentences crafted with warmth and precision and inventiveness and simplicity that touch you in ways others just don’t.  At 306 pages, “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures” is not a particularly lengthy hardback, but it took me longer than usual to read, as I found myself re-reading sentences, savoring the sweet-flowing writing style, even when the story turns not-so-sweet.  This may be deemed Emma Straub’s debut novel, but it was preceded by three other manuscripts of varying genres, apparently all widely rejected. She was not dejected in the least, though, as she went on to earn an MFA (in Wisconsin, where Laura Lamont’s story begins) and then dreamed up this beautifully told story. [See more in the Sept/Oct 2012 “Poets & Writers” article, “Emma Straub’s Life in Letters.”]  Those earlier writings and honing of her literary talent have served her extraordinarily well, for I felt as though each and every word in “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures” was composed with painstaking care.)

Paperback (2013)

FIFTY YEARS IN THE LIFE OF A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE STAR (1929 to 1980): How can you not relish a fantasized story of a Hollywood movie star, inspired by a real starlet who graced the screen in the ’40s and ’50s (Jennifer Jones)?  Of course, this being Hollywood, there are heartaches and downfalls. Yet, the story is written with a light touch, a charm, a politeness – “there is no kindness that went unnoticed” – from the lovely female voice of Elsa Emerson, who becomes Laura Lamont, Hollywood movie star.  We first meet Elsa at age nine when she is living in rural Door County, Wisconsin, “the most beautiful place on earth.”  She’s a delightful blond presence at the Cherry County Playhouse, a theatre company her beloved father, John, founded, housed at a barn on the family’s property complete with a cabin for summertime actors.  This is where Elsa learns there is “power in pretend,” that applause is “the most beautiful song she had ever heard,” and that even if you are not “happy on the inside, the outside could be something else entirely.”  Elsa has two sisters, Hildy and Josephine, who never leave this happy place, but Elsa does, for a reason I won’t spoil for you.  She boards a bus to Los Angeles, and there meets good fortune in the form of a very powerful studio producer, Irving Green of The Gardner Brothers Studios, who dreams up Elsa’s new identity and devotes himself to helping her achieve stardom, appreciating that “Miss Wisconsin is all sweetness and light.”  The reader feels this too through the author’s embracing of sweet and light prose.

Laura Lamont’s/Elsa Emerson’s life is told over five decades. Throughout the years, she wonders who is real: Elsa, the “good Wisconsin girl,” or Laura, the movie star?  Hardly ever do the two feel to her as though they mesh as one.  The times of Hollywood happiness and richness span an adoring marriage and doting motherhood to three children, great loves in her life. Old Hollywood was rollicking in its heyday, when a few big, powerhouse movie studios ruled the motion picture industry as well as the lives of those it made famous.

There’s a glamorous period of diamonds and sequins and Rolls Royces and white stoles, but we’re also looking into a full life, with its share of sadness and heavy-hearted regrets. The chronological chapters are nicely structured, so the fifty years move along at a good pace.

Laura Lamont may have rarely returned to her Wisconsin roots, something she doesn’t quite understand or forgive herself for, yet it’s Elsa Emerson’s Midwestern determination that ends up showing the world she really is someone special.

Happy Reading, Lorraine

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Teatime For The Firefly 2

(After a month of six disappointing reads – none I could endorse as “enchanted prose” – it’s a real pleasure to share with you this soon-to-be-published debut author’s novel.)

ASSAM, INDIA – BRITISH COLONIALISM, 1940s: On a “delicate and ephemeral” spring day of “golden rain” in 1943 Colonial Assam (a northeastern State in India), we are introduced to a delicate beauty and enduring female voice:  17-year-old Layla Roy from Silchar. She has been lovingly and non-traditionally raised to have choices and a fine education by her esteemed, scholarly, independent, and endearing grandfather, Dadamoshai; and she has fallen in love with Manik Deb, a civil servant and Rhodes Scholar from Oxford. This is a book with a soul.

Part of the developing love story is told through graceful letters – letters Layla devours, hides under her mattress “where they formed guilty bumps that disturbed my sleep,” when her “mind floated like a brilliant scarf.”  She describes those times as “strangely melded days where I floated in limbo, an outsider to the world around me, a firefly baffled by the daylight.”

The story is packed with lush descriptions of exquisitely fertile scenery – banyan trees and tamarind trees and mango trees and Gulmohor trees – and some of the richest, most diverse wildlife in the world – Asian elephants and languor monkeys and Hullock apes, a part of the world few of us have probably ever seen, until now.

This is also historical fiction about the remote, grueling, eccentric, and, at times, wildly dangerous Assam tea plantation life that few of us may have even heard of (I surely hadn’t until now), set during a complex, volatile, patriotic time in India’s history after being ruled by Britain for 200 years.

India in the 1940s was a complex mix of cultures, social classes, languages, and customs, making this an impressive undertaking even for an author raised on an Assam tea estate. The only thing richer than the sumptuous, lifting prose would be to join Layla, Manik, and Dadamoshai, who we come to know and immensely like, on their verandah reading while sipping a cup of Assam’s world famous tea, or meeting the colorful characters who inhabit the Mariani’s Planters Club at the Aynakhal Tea Estate (“Aynakhal” means “Mirror Lake”).

At 427 pages, I wished Layla and Manik’s story continued.  Perhaps it will, because I read on Shona Patel’s lovely Tea Buddy blog, complete with real photos of Assam tea bungalows, that she has garnered a 3-book contract (congratulations!), so maybe Layla’s story will continue through the years, after India achieves its independence (Book 2?) and into today’s times (Book 3?).  We can only hope so!

I luckily stumbled on this book at NYC’s BookExpo America (BEA).  I was waiting on an autograph line for an acclaimed author I had identified, having done much research ahead of time to make the most out of the hectic yet exhilarating Javits Center experience I annually look forward to, when I noticed a much longer line to the left of me for an author whose name I had not recognized or seen advertised.  I quickly found a place in Shona Patel’s enthusiastic line, which is how I obtained an advanced signed copy of Teatime For The Firefly.  If you are curious about the precise meaning of the title, you can hear this gifted author share her thinking in a short video on her blog.

Just as Layla wonders: “How can I ever forget my first sight of a tea plantation?” you may wonder how you can ever forget her coming-of-age story.

Happy Reading, Lorraine 

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The Painted Girls 2

LA BELLE EPOQUE – PARIS’ BEAUTIFUL ERA:  It’s an education to read Canadian author Cathy Marie Buchanan’s remarkable 2nd novel, set in Paris during its “golden years” (before WWI), this story spanning 1878-1895.   Feast on unfamiliar language that draws you into the graceful, ambitious, and grueling world of the ballet arts at the famed Opera House where classical ballet started – where dancers were called “petit rats” because their training was so demanding – a world of glissades and entrechats and quadrilles and coryphées, of sujets, étoiles, fouettés en tournant.  “Our style is refined.  You are French,” they are instructed.  The atmospheric prose is also filled with 19th century references to looking glasses and gas lamps, velvet divans, corsairs, pomades, coquettes.  This is historical fiction during France’s Third Republic, when the country enjoyed peace and prosperity, when the arts exploded, supported by the wealthy.  But there was also a darker “demi-monde,” an underclass of poverty, brothels, and criminals, when New Caledonia, an island in the South Pacific, was a thriving penal colony.  The Painted Girls is about wanting to be a “real ballet girl on the Opera stage” alongside a hidden underworld – an intriguing story about ambition and its dangers, about hope and hopelessness.

It’s a masterfully invented “story of a heart and body” – mostly Marie van Goethem’s story.  The author has imagined, using a long list of historical resources, the life of the true subject of Edward Degas’ famous statuette, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen; about whom little is apparently known.  Buchanan’s creation is a scrawny, avid reader of French newspapers, 14-year old Marie, whose father dies when the book opens, her Maman is a laundress addicted to absinthe, and she lives with her two sisters in dire poverty in a lodging room in Montmartre.  Marie feels she is ugly but she’s talented and a hard worker.  She sees dancing as “grace” and a way out of poverty.  She is protected by her 18-year old sister, Antoinette, who we’re introduced to when she’s been kicked out of the ballet and soon meets the dubious Emile Amadie, an actor in Emile Zola’s controversial play, L’Assommoir. 

We empathize with Antoinette’s descent into darkness, as all she really wants is to be “adored.”  We admire her devotion to Marie, care about their struggles.  The novel alternates between these two sister’s voices.  Charlotte, the third and youngest sister, remains angelic, destined, and sweetly innocent.   As Marie and Antoinette’s choices and differences play out through the alternating chapters and years, Antoinette wonders in her distinguishable poor grammar:  “What was it made that girl want so much?  She craved the stage?  But why?  And was there something lacking in me that I was over it in a week …?”

When you finish this memorable novel, you may conclude it’s an uplifting “tale of working hard and getting what you want most” or a sad tale of “being downtrodden and staying that way.”  Perhaps both?

After reading The Painted Girls, I viewed 16 of Degas’ drawings, paintings, and sculpture on Buchanan’s website, as she encourages: www.cathymariebuchanan.com/art.  When you scroll over each of the images, you’ll find the prose that corresponds in the book to those works. Fascinating.  This is a novel you may want to read slowly, an ambitious exploration of social class, longing, and exploitation when groundbreaking arts flourished in Paris in the late nineteenth-century.  You might also want to click to see these stunning photos of the Paris Opera House.

Since this novel was thoughtful and thought-provoking, I’d like to read Cathy Marie Buchanan’s debut novel, The Day The Falls Stood Still. She’s from Niagara Falls, Ontario, so I’m interested in how she crafts a story based on what she already knows, given her impressive imagination with historical French fiction.

Happy Reading, Lorraine

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Letters From Skye 1

Letters From Skye

EPISTOLARY ART:  A novel told (completely) through letters.  Not unique, but definitely special when 20 countries have already bought the rights to it, and it’s by a debut author, with US publication not until July 9, 2013.  That may be enough of an intrigue for you to want to read it.  It was for me.

The Isle of Skye, off the western coast of Scotland, is not the typical UK setting we find in novels.  Thanks to Jessica Brockmole, who lived in Scotland for several years and has peppered her charming, lyrical and sometimes comedic writing style with Gaelic words, you will get a sense of the language and culture of this sparse Scottish Highlands area – words like filvver and croft and plait and neeps and swedes; phrases such as “tang of the bog myrtle” and “warm smell of hay in the byre.”

Add to that multiple letter writers hailing from two historic timeframes, WWI and WWII, who reveal to us a mystery of an evolving love story that took place during WWI and is being solved during WWII – details that are slowly revealed in this fast paced story – I think you may have the reason for the interest and excitement in this finely-crafted novel.

The story innocently begins in 1912, with the exchange of letters between two “friendly correspondents” – David Graham of Illinois, a college student, and Elspeth Dunn of Skye, a twenty-something poet.  The American student has discovered the Scottish poet.  The beauty of this novel lies in how their relationship develops through the honesty and intimacy of letters, and the way in which the lightness of their early writings becomes lonelier and more serious as the war develops. One by one, the 1940 correspondents are introduced – Margaret, primarily, along with Paul and Finlay MacDonald and much later Harry Vance and “Riggles.”  As they search for clues about Sue, and what happened to Davey, the reader is treated to an uplifting story of a long-lasting love.

Today there is a bridge that connects the Isle of Skye to the mainland (apparently on such a drive the author imagined this novel), but Elspeth’s only means to get off the island was by ferry.  Creating her character as fearful of water is an important detail that enriches the story.   I’m so glad to have won a copy of Letters from Skye!

Happy Reading, Lorraine

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Perfect Red

Perfect RedWHY A PERFECT READ:  If you harbor a pre-conceived notion that a self-published book is a 2nd class citizen, then you should check out this movie-like, very entertaining novel.  Perfect Red manages to be both light-hearted charming and seriously smart, a romance filled with drama, simple and complex, sweet idealism and harsh realities – an endearing  story about passion and the consequences of pursuing one’s dreams.

The time is 1952.  The place is Manhattan’s powerful and thriving publishing world, when the country is dreamily experiencing a wave of consumerism. Yet the political backdrop is the McCarthy era, when Hollywood celebrities and ordinary citizens are being accused of being communists, having to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Refreshing told in the young and bold female voice of Lucy Lawrence, who deftly manages to act innocently and maturely.  She’s delightful, willing to endure great personal risks to pursue her passion of becoming a writer.  She does not fit the stereotype of a 90 wpm typist, but that’s how we meet her, working in the typing pool of a major publishing company.  She’s awfully bright, a marvelous reader and frequenter of the Inkwell bookshop.  She’s got literary talent and an idea for a perfect novel about a chemist whose magic and passion has created the most perfect color red lipstick.  The novel haunts her.  She undertakes a number of steps to bring it to life, feel-good steps and dangerous ones.

Her novel’s inspiration comes from her father, who is a DuPont chemist at an historic time for chemical discoveries (penicillin, polio vaccine, nylon).  It’s also a time when women really are clamoring for Isadora Stella’s “Perfect Red” lipstick “with the same breathlessness that people on the subway spoke about General Eisenhower’s campaign for President or the Yankees race for the pennant.”  But:  “Nothing is dyed red by chance.  You use red for a specific reason whether it’s for love, for fertility, for happiness – you make it red on purpose.”

Jennie Nash’s prose is clever and evocative.  My image of Lucy is a blonde version of Audrey Hepburn elegantly clad in white kid gloves, bright-eyed and naïve, yet possessed with an obsession to understand the real meaning of real passion.  The language is so clean and good you can picture Lucy climbing the stairs to her room at the Barbizon hotel, sipping Coca Cola at the Horn & Hardart with her bookstore confidant Jeffrey, typing away on her turquoise Royal typewriter, infatuated with a famous writer.  Don’t be fooled into thinking this is only a romantic comedy or that it is a shallow tale about wearing the right shade of lipstick.  There’s much more, cleverly here.

Perfect RedIf you visit Jennie Nash’s website, you’ll see she’s no stranger to the publishing world.  She worked at Random House and her first three novels (she’s also written two memoirs) were published by mainstream publishers.  I kept wondering why she chose the self-publishing route for her fourth novel.  You’ll find the answer on her website.  Interestingly, Perfect Red is being self-published in the US, and also being published in 2013 in Italy by Rizzoli.  There’s an experimental spirit and freshness about this novel, including the fact that Nash provides the reader with several deleted scenes, something you see on DVDs and hear authors explain they’ve done but aren’t privy to see.  Nash invites you to come along on the ride with this novel.

The advanced copy of Perfect Red I received was wrapped with a bright-red ribbon, accompanied by sharp marketing materials that matched the prose.  I explained I would have to “love” the novel to blog about it.  You can tell that happened, so much so I ordered two of Nash’s earlier novels, The Only True Genius in the Family (2009, Penguin/Berkeley Publishing and The Threadbare Heart (2010, Penguin/Berkeley Publishing). 

Happy Reading, Lorraine

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The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

WHY MEMORABLE:  This books stays with you.  Why?  That’s what I asked myself en route to Nichole Bernier’s book talk at Politics & Prose in Washington, DC, to celebrate the paperback release of her compelling debut novel (it’s where she crafted some of it, in the bookstore’s atmospheric café).  I had read the novel six months ago when the hardback was published, but wanted to re-read it so it would be fresh in my mind, but it wasn’t until I met someone on line for the signing, who told me it could be “the best book I’ve ever read,” that my lens would be why it was so powerful and not forgettable, like so many others.

I was drawn to the novel because it was inspired by a true story:  the author lost a friend on the first plane that hit the Twin Towers on 9/11.  This is not a spoiler, since the reader learns from the opening pages that Kate’s friend Elizabeth has died – although the cause is not due to terrorism – yet Kate’s character is still grappling with, and concealing, rather intense feelings of anxiety long after 9/11, as the novel takes place during the summer of 2002.

I was also attracted to this book because Nichole Bernier is the mother of 5 children.  When did she have time to write?  After learning it took her 7 years and plenty of drafts, including first creating hundreds of pages of Elizabeth’s journals so she could really get to know her character, and then deleting some 80%, you can’t help but be impressed by the author’s persistence and passion, which translated into Elizabeth’s authentic, haunting, and memorable voice.  If you like a good mystery, you’ll want to know why Elizabeth left her intimate journals to a playgroup friend and not to her husband Dave.

The pacing of the story appropriately intensifies once you learn of Elizabeth’s early years (she kept journals for decades).  The reader, like Kate, becomes fascinated by how the real Elizabeth concealed herself in her relationships. Concealment is a powerful theme that runs throughout the book, with provocative, thoughtful reflections about hiding truths and feelings in our friendships, relationships, marriages:

It occurred to her that there could be in most relationships two distinct tracks of conversation taking place at any given time:  what people actually discussed about their lives, and what people did not discuss but was very much on their minds.

Told against the healing backdrop of a lovely summer island reminiscent of Martha’s Vineyard, other compelling themes include the sacrifices of motherhood; suburban loneliness; solitude; and loss, grief, and the fragility of life.  The island’s spirit, contrasted by elusive feelings of danger, is lovingly expressed in images of wild roses, wild spaces, and sweet trees, but it is the search for understanding “invisible wishing” that may linger most for you.

Happy Reading, Lorraine

Nichole Bernier at Politics & Prose

Nichole Bernier, Politics & Prose, March 16, 2013

 

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The Last Summer 2

The Last SummerWHY READ:  If you want to be transported back to a time and place much like Downton Abbey – gorgeous English countryside, a magnificent estate, the end of the Edwardian era just before Britain enters WWI, along with the British mores and social class tensions of upstairs-downstairs relationships – then you should love this book.  If you seek  simple, beautiful prose and a compelling female voice, you will also find this a most satisfying reading experience.

Deyning Park, a Georgian classical-style country house that evokes grace and elegance amidst a bucolic landscape, is where The Last Summer takes place.  It’s central to the conflict in the story, much beloved and fought for.  Told in the evocative female voice of Clarissa, who lives at Deyning Park along with her three brothers, Mama and Papa, and the servants and one of their sons, it’s Clarissa’s heart and enduring romance with Tom and Deyning Park that touches us.

The elegant prose deserves attention, especially since this is Kinghorn’s debut novel.  It seems to take so much longer for US readers to learn about wonderful UK books and authors.  I only stumbled on this book because Barnes & Noble’s smartly marketed it as part of their “Downton Abbey Collection.”   I found this such a pleasurable read, wanting to share it, that I came up with the idea of developing this blog.  I’m tired of always seeing the same authors on the bestseller lists when so many others are crafting novels that deserve knowing.   It’s my hope that this little blog will help spread the word.

See if you like the way the prose envelops you from the opening sentences:

“I was almost seventeen when the spell of my childhood was broken.  There was no sudden jolt, no immediate awakening and no alteration, as far as I’m aware, in the earth’s axis that day.  But the vibration of change was upon us, and I sensed a shift:  a realignment of my trajectory.  It was the beginning of summer and unbeknown to any of us then, the end of a belle époque.

If I close my eyes I can still smell the day:  the roses beyond the open casement doors; the lavender in the parterre as I ran through; and grass, lambert green, newly mown.  I can feel the rain on my face; hear my voice as it once was…”

There are 433 pages of lovely prose, cozy storytelling but this is by no means a cozy story.  It’s a heartbreaking story of love and loss spanning nearly two decades.  Kinghorn’s interview at the end of the book confirms that a great deal of research went into writing about the impact of WWI, but it is her personal style of writing that makes the story feel so real and intimate, as if you have lived this story with two close friends named Clarissa and Tom.

You will have to wait until January 2014 for Kinghorn’s 2nd novel to make its way to the US, The Memory of Lost Senses.  In the meantime, if you treat yourself to The Last  Summer and enjoy it, please share it with your friends and post a comment to me too.  I promise to share your supportive comments with Judith Kinghorn.

Happy Reading, Lorraine

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