Books We Loved, Jan. 2018
You can see how we members of Five Directions Press spent our holidays: reading! Lots of heavy-hitters on this month’s list, and yes, it’s a complete coincidence that two Five Directions Press authors picked books by Jennifer Egan. It happens sometimes. But don’t ignore the last entry, which is also lovely and by an independent author. And take a look at our own recent release, C. P. Lesley’s The Vermilion Bird. You can hear or read an excerpt of the last book here.
Bernard Cornwell, Fools and Mortals (HarperCollins, 2018)
Every novel Bernard Cornwell publishes becomes a New York Times bestseller, and I’m sure this one will be no exception. Still, it’s encouraging to see so accomplished a writer move beyond the military historical novels that have become his stock in trade and try something different. Fools and Mortals chronicles the attempts by Richard Shakespeare, younger brother to William, to establish himself as an actor in a company dominated by his so much more famous sibling. Most of all, Richard wants to get out of playing female roles, especially once he runs into the pretty and impressionable Sylvia. How can a young man court the girl of his dreams in long false hair, white powder, and skirts down to his ankles?
Set against the backdrop of the rehearsals for the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the writing of Romeo and Juliet, this sometimes funny, often thrilling, tightly plotted novel draws on the author’s years playing Shakespeare in repertory theater to pull the reader into an Elizabethan England where those who can’t write plays themselves steal from those who can. And yes, it includes some of the same characters and settings as Charlene Ball’s Dark Lady, a previous BWL pick of mine, but from a perspective entirely its own. You can find a written interview with the author on my blog.—CPL
Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach (Scribner, 2017)
Manhattan Beach is a windfall for history buffs, especially those who love gritty New York stories that take place in the 1930s and 1940s. The main characters are both likable and unlikable gangsters, and a family that includes two sisters—one disabled and the other a feminist in the making—a loving wife/mother, and a husband/dad who will be forced to leave town without any notice. But this is only the start. Most of the main characters have spouses, children, friends, uncles, cousins … and if it sounds like too many people and subplots to keep track of, don’t worry; it’s not. Egan eases each of the minor characters in just at the point where the reader is salivating to know more about the primary character he or she is associated with. And then there is the Second World War, a character in its own right, and one that will change the lives of everyone. It is an opportunity for bad guys to clean up, good guys to become heroes, and young women to assert themselves in ways they never thought possible. This is a great book to lose oneself in, a lively, generous novel filled with great details and, as anyone who has read Egan before already knows, fabulous writing.—JS
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (Knopf, 2010)
I was eager to share this book with all you readers, but I've discovered how hard it is to describe it in a way that does justice to its fascinating, complex story. Goon Squad is certainly an unusual book. A group of “cool kids” in the late 1970s in San Francisco end up, for the most part, in New York City and rise or fall over the next forty years as they follow their own paths. Intertwined with their stories are other lives they touch, which become part of their narrative. The story is told in a nonlinear, chapter-by-chapter way that in other hands would have fallen flat, if it even got published.
How to give you a flavor of the delights of this book? Well, without giving too much away, Sasha is a kleptomaniac who lived some very rough and unsavory years tramping around Naples, Italy, and who ends up as the administrative assistant to Bennie, a divorced, hairy, rock-’n’-roll impresario who rediscovers his old friend and rival, Scotty, now fallen on hard times, and orchestrates his comeback, aiming to make him popular among the “pointers,” children with cellphone equivalents whose purchasing power runs the world. Hooked yet?—CHL
Mimi Matthews, The Lost Letter (Perfectly Proper Press, 2017)
I don’t read as many pure romances as I did in my college days, or even my twenties, but once in a while I come across one that is beautifully written and fun to devour. The Lost Letter is such a book. Matthews, a specialist in Victoriana and author of the adorably titled nonfiction collection The Pug That Bit Napoleon, puts her knowledge to good use in this charming tale.
Sylvia Stafford has fallen on hard times since her dissolute gamester of a father took his own life. Although she misses the luxury she once took for granted, she’s adjusted to life as a governess in a middle-class London household. So she hesitates when Julia, Lady Harker, proposes a visit to Julia’s brother, the earl of Radcliffe, who according to Julia is sinking into a despair from which only Sylvia, his former love, can save him.
Radcliffe is not, to put it mildly, happy to have his life rearranged at his sister’s whim. He believes Sylvia’s return means she wants to marry an earl; a mere cavalry colonel was not good enough for her. But when he learns she once sent him a whole series of letters that he never received, he sets out to discover what happened. Because despite his attempts to push her away, Sylvia’s sweet, impulsive honesty appeals to him as much as it ever did, and his one chance at happiness may depend on what those letters contained.—CPL