Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub – Book Review

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin

Born and raised in idyllic Door County, Wisconsin, Elsa Emerson has a unique childhood surrounded by the thespians who flock in every summer to perform plays in her father’s playhouse, the family’s converted barn. Elsa loves her father’s theater and the glamorous actors who populate it, indeed, she cannot imagine ever wanting to leave. Things change when Elsa was nine, after her sister Hildy’s affair with a philandering actor forever changes their family dynamic. By the time Elsa is seventeen, she is starring in her father’s plays and planning to flee Door County for Hollywood where, before long, she would go from blonde to brunette and from Elsa Emerson to Laura Lamont.

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is a fascinating romp through old Hollywood. Straub beautifully captures the tension between the glamor and the uncertainty and loneliness. Laura’s first husband, the man who brings her to California from Wisconsin, goes from having a contract at a big studio to an addict in less time than one might expect, and Laura’s life also has setbacks that she never expected.

If Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures was only a look at old Hollywood, it would still be worth reading, but Straub’s novel is deeper and more psychological than that, as much about family as it is about film. Of particular importance to Elsa/Laura is the bond of sisterhood and the ramifications  of what happened with Hildy in Elsa’s youth:

Sometimes Laura thought of herself as having had three sisters: Josephine, Hildy, and Elsa, with Josephine the only survivor of their shared childhood. -p. 217

Straub also explores identity, the difference between who we have been in the past and the way we reinvent ourselves for our present and future, as is evidenced in Laura’s thoughts about her second marriage, the first she entered into as Laura Lamont instead of Elsa Emerson:

When she looked at the photos later, Laura decided it was reasonable to think of it as her first wedding, because the previous one had been someone else. -p. 87

Both Straub’s characters and her writing are charming, nearly irresistible. Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is a fabulous read, one you won’t want to put down. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian – Book Review

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
Published by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House

Laura Petrosian is an author of light-hearted women’s fiction who also happens to be 1/4 Armenian, although for most of her life she gave her heritage little thought. When an old friend calls, claiming she has seen a picture of Laura’s grandmother from the time of the Armenian genocide in the newspaper, she decides to delve more deeply into her family’s past and write a book completely different than anything she has written before.

In 1915, Elizabeth Endicott of Boston arrives in Syria with some minimal nursing training and the blessing of the Friends of Armenia in order to help the refugees and witness and report on the genocide occurring in the Ottoman Empire. While there, she meets and falls in love with a young Armenian engineer named Armen Petrosian who lost his wife and infant daughter to the marches across the desert.

Chris Bohjalian has called The Sandcastle Girls the most important book he will ever write, but it is not strictly didactic. Instead, The Sandcastle Girls is beautiful and sad; Bohjalian walks a fine line, sharing the realities of the tragedies of the Armenian genocide without being too clinical or engaging in emotional manipulation. His characters are realistic, flawed but likable. Particularly impressive is how he keeps even the most minor characters – the American consul, a pair of German engineers, an Armenian woman and the orphaned girl she has taken into her heart – engaging. Their stories are interspesed with Laura, Elizabeth, and Armen’s and Bohjalian manages to do this without slowing down the story. If anything, these additional stories add richness and layers toThe Sandcastle Girls, layers that help make it such a wonderfully epic and meaningful novel.

I’ve never read another work of fiction that has more completely and almost effortlessly captured the Armenian genocide of the early 2oth century. Bohjalian manages to capture both the emotional impact of the events in question as well as the facts and background, all smoothly within his narrative and without resorting to any info dumps. The Sandcastle Girlsis a truly wonderful and important novel. Very highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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City of Scoundrels by Gary Krist- Book Review

City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist
Published by Crown Books, an imprint of Random House

At the beginning of 1919, Chicago seemed like a city poised for a wonderful future. It was a time before the Great Depression and Prohibition, and after the end of the Great War, and the mayor had great plans to revolutionize and beautify the city, a feeling of optimism was only to be expected. For the first half of the year, it appeared that this optimism might not be misplaced, but over the summer everything changed.

It started on July 21, 1919. Along the lake shore, the Goodyear company was showing off their new blimp, The Wingfoot Express. The blimp made several runs throughout the day, the more influential people who saw it, the better the publicity for the company. Shortly before 5 pm, the blimp began its last run of the day, flying out over the Loop, the better to be seen. While they were over the city, however, the blimp caught fire, and the passengers and crew were forced to jump, hoping their parachutes would be enough to save them. It was not only those in the blimp who were injured or killed; the blimp also hit part of the Illinois Trust bank, causing an explosion and killing many who were there at work.

Devastating as this disaster was, there was worse to come for Chicago over the next two weeks, including a sensational child murder, a transit strike, and a deadly and divisive race riot, all exacerbated by politicians who failed to act as quickly or decisively as was needed.

In City of Scoundrels, Krist describes the genesis of these disasters, the ways they fed into one another, and the ways the influenced Chicago throughout the remainder of the 20th century. He writes with a style that is reminiscent of Erik Larson’s modern classic of Chicago history, The Devil in the White City. If anything, in fact, Krist’s book is more accessibly written and easier to read, despite the lack of a serial killer in his narrative. The events of that summer are laid out in a clear and engaging manner, given proper context without going into extraneous and distracting details.

City of Scoundrels offers an instructive and fascinating look into the history of Chicago. Chicagoans in particular should read this book, but anyone who enjoys a good narrative history is likely to be intrigued. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Edelweiss.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly – Book Review

The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly
Published by Hyperion Books, an imprint of Disney Book Group

This is the second book in the Rose series. I have previously reviewed The Tea Rose. This review may contain spoilers for The Tea Rose.

When I settled in with The Winter Rose, I was expecting to settle back in with Fiona and Joe and the family they were finally able to create. Although that does happen, they – and in particular, Fiona – are almost secondary characters in The Winter Rose.

Instead, Donnelly features Fiona’s older brother Charlie, best known to the citizens of London as Sid Malone, infamous crime boss, and India Selwyn-Jones, a woman of a good family who has defied her mother in order to follow her passion and become a doctor. Worse still than simply becoming a woman doctor, India will not even deign to be part of a fashionable practice in a good neighborhood, but instead is determined to practice in Whitechapel, and eventually set up a clinic there. India’s work in Whitechapel brings her into direct contact – and conflict – with Sid very quickly. As much as they grate on one another, though, Sid is impressed with India’s occasionally misguided but strongly-held desire to help the people of the East End. India, in response, cannot help but see that Sid, too, cares for these people she assumed he was only exploiting. It might seem logical for love to bloom here, but between India and Sid stands India’s fiance and childhood friend, Frankie Lytton. Frank is also an ambitious Member of Parliament who sees the capture of Sid Malone the one thing that could best guarantee his political future.

In some ways, the Rose series is getting formulaic. Donnelly focuses on a new couple here, so she can again wrench them apart, divided by a different partner, in a way that seems utterly insurmountable. That somehow true love will prevail is obvious from the very beginning – as is the fact that India and Frankie for all their bickering will fall in love in the first place. Frankie Lytton is a much more insidious dividing partner than Millie Peterson was, but they serve much the same function.

Here’s the thing, though. In the middle of the book, the reader is likely to recognize the pattern that Donnelly is falling into, but is equally unlikely to care. She is such a strong writer, creating such vivid characters and settings that she allows the reader to simply get lost in her romantic historical epics. Perhaps this is best evidenced by the fact that she is successfully able to supplant her beloved main characters with characters who were minor or completely missing from The Tea Rose. Fiona and Joe are, of course, still around to give the story continuity, and we do stay within the Finnegan family, but having Fiona take a minor (and eternally pregnant) role could have easily been disastrous in the hands of a less able author.

With The Winter Rose, Donnelly gives us a strong second book in the Rose series. I can’t wait to read the third book, The Wild Rose. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: .

* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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BOOK CLUB – The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, which I run with co-conspirator Nicole from Linus’s Blanket. Today we will be chatting about The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp, which is being released in paperback by Picador on October 25th (website | twitter | facebook). For those of you reading this post, please remember that this discussion is likely to contain spoilers.

Here is the synopsis of the book I wrote for my review:

Little K was a prima ballerina, the lover of the last Russian tsar. A woman whose determination brought her into the beds of many members of the imperial family, but whose brilliant future was derailed when Russia as she knew it began to disappear, along with her beloved Tsar Nicholas II, and something where the concubine of the Romanovs was a dangerous thing to be. But perhaps it would be best to let Little K introduce herself in her own words, as this is a story she has been endlessly remembering for the past 50 years:

My name is Mathilde Kschessinska, and I was the greatest Russian ballerina on the imperial stages. But the world I was born to, the world I was bred for, is gone, and all the players in it are also gone – dead, murdered, exiled, walking ghosts. -p. 3

Before we get started, here are some of the reviews of readers who will be participating today:

Devourer of Books

Reviews by Lola

If you plan on participating in today’s BOOK CLUB, please consider subscribing to comments at the bottom of the page (please use the TOP subscription option, the second option will subscribe you only to replies of your own comments). I will be updating this post with new questions and ideas over the course of the day.

Here we go…

  • First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • Near the beginning of the book, Little K makes this somewhat provocative statement  about Nicki’s marriage to Alix. Do you think, based on the events of the book, that she was correct about this?
    And what kind of wife would I have made him? Could I have stood his future – imprisonment and

    a martyr’s death? I can assure you this: if I had been his wife, that would not have been his future. -p. 23
  • What do you think was the root of Little K’s determination to be part of the tsar’s life? How did you feel about the way she positioned her son?
  • Do you think that Little K fully understood the causes of the revolution? What helped or hindered her in this?
  • Do you think that Sharp made the causes of the revolution clear to the reader?

12 review copies of The True Memoirs of Little K were provided by Picador in order to facilitate this discussion. Thank you!

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