The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

A true Melanie Benjamin book – this one follows he intertwined lives of Frances Marion and Mary Pickford from the birth of the movie industry through the late sixties.  Told with a feminist slant, we are privy to the challenges and successes of two determined, intelligent, women rising to the top of their fields while dealing with fanny pinching, disdain, and outright hostility.

As always, Benjamin imagines the dialog, internal landscape, and behind closed doors events of the story beyond what is documented in historical sources.  I’m always a little uncomfortable with this as we of course don’t really know what was going through their minds (as Benjamin readily admits) but it makes for a very compelling story.

For history buffs, the readily documented portions of the story are fascinating all on their own – Mary Pickford started the first artist run studio along with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and DW Griffith known as United Artists.  Frances Marion was the highest paid scenarist (the name for script writers before the talkies) in Hollywood.  There are lots of tidbits about what Southern California was like before the movie business really took off, and how it evolved into what we know today. Part biography, part history, part drama, this is another fascinating and highly accessible look into an intriguing piece of history.

La Rose by Louise Erdrich

This was a spectacular book!  I was reluctant to read it because I have found many of Erdrich’s books to be depressing and I don’t like to read books that are all about the down, however I had to read it for a book club and am so grateful that I did.  Erdrich has written many stories about the Ojibwa Indians and they often focus on oppression, poverty, and social ills. This book, however, is a new story, not a retelling of an old story.  While the problems are not ignored, the focus is on how people are moving forward and trying to make the best of what they have and are.

This is literary fiction at its best. While other authors describe the thoughts and actions of their characters, Erdrich manages to capture their very essence with her breathtakingly beautiful prose.  I found myself reading very slowly just so as not to miss anything (and frankly, I am usually a skimmer when it comes to descriptive passages!).    Not a single character is a stereotype – each is fully drawn in all their complexity Each of her characters has a depth, and a background, and we are given insight into how they became what they are and how they are continuing to transform through their life.

This book will stick with me for a long time.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

I loved this book! A heartbreakingly beautiful story of love, loyalty, and survival told against the backdrop of two World’s Fairs in Seattle:  the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exposition of 1909 and the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.  Ernest, Fahn, and Maisie are three children who find their way to the Tenderloin – a high class brothel in Seattle’s red light district – in the early 1900s.  Each has their own haunting back story but they are united by a strong drive to survive and a deep caring for each other.  This is a coming of age story, told in alternating segments with Ernest’s story in 1962. The mood painted is wistful, a little sad, and replete with innocence slowly seeping away and being replaced by kindness, defiance, and determination.

Fans of historical fiction will enjoy the attention to detail Ford gives to the mood and surroundings of the two time periods.  Events such as Halley’s Comet, the Panama Canal, the rights of women to vote, and the details of Seattle mayoral races and their impact on the moral structure of the city are sprinkled throughout the tale.  Fans of literary fiction will enjoy the delicious writing which infuses mood and sentiment throughout a plot that describes historically accurate events and the impact on a diverse set of characters.  Each character – from the primaries to the secondaries – are interesting, well drawn, and bring a unique perspective to the story. All and all a great read.

The Song of Hartgrove Hall by Natasha Solomons

What a wonderful book! Beautiful, lyrical, writing. I found myself actually reading the descriptions of the countryside with care (I usually skim long descriptions as I find them boring) because they were so beautiful and so evocative of mood and place. The book tells Harry’s story as anchored in two time periods: just after WWII when he and his brothers try to save the family hall from ruin and towards the end of his life. There is a compelling story of Harry’s great love – which happens to be his brother’s wife – and the many relationships between family and friends across Harry’s lifetime. Characters are both appealing and painted in depth. However, what I loved most about this book were the ubiquitous musical themes. Harry is a song collector – from childhood he has collected old songs from locals and captures them in writing to keep them from disappearing forever. He becomes a composer and winds both these songs and feelings for the land into his compositions. His grandson turns out to be a musical prodigy on the piano and there are many compelling sections in the story that address this. All in all, a book that grabbed my attention, didn’t let go, and kept me thinking for days after I finished. Highly recommended! (less)

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Anders

This is a very difficult book to describe – it takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area and is billed as a kind of war between nature loving witches and tech savvy hipsters – both 25372801trying to save the world from falling apart but with very different views of what the end state should look like and how to get there. A great extrapolation from the current bay area residents! The stars of both camps happened to be miserable together as complete outcasts during middle school and may be falling in love even as it all comes to a head. Full of surprises, interesting characters, and tugs of familiarity. I didn’t really enjoy the first few chapters which focussed on the middle school start but loved it once they grew up and had lives and the real (to me) story started. Definitely worth a read.

In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear

51RAvhRKVIL._AC_US436_QL65_The latest Maisie Dobbs book (the 12th in the series) is every bit as captivating as the earlier books, after a couple of somewhat disappointing titles.  Maisie is back on her home turf, tackling a set of disturbing murders that are rooted in events from the first world war even as England declares itself at war with Germany on the eve of the second world war.  Winspear perfectly captures the mood of the time – children being evacuated, schools converted to hospitals and barracks, gas masks always at the ready, and the younger generation excited about enlisting while the older generation, still recovering from the losses of the first war, despair.  I love the way the series has progressed through history, drawing from historical events to provide the motivations for crimes and I love her characters who feel like old friends.

The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer

ChildrensCrusadeA perfect book. The story of a family – a real family – and the gentle unfolding of all of their lives. There are no major traumatic plot devices, just the very real and sometimes  intentional events in anyone’s life. Their characters are drawn out in great detail with particular care to elaborate on their relationships with each other.   I appreciated the lack of heavy handed messages – I could extract my own learning and make my own judgement based on my own values and perceptions.  Each character had their own, presented in their own sections.  We get to see, hear, and feel them all. Takes place in Portola Valley which was an extra bit of fun for me!