When a novel promises to tell the story of a famous actress from Hollywood's golden age, potential readers might fear they are in Jackie Collins/Judith Krantz territory. Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures isn't a gossipy, trashy romp. It's a smart journey alongside a strong woman. One who on occasion is weak but who is never, ever less than real.

If you're a fan of big studio era Hollywood films, it's easy to start playing the who's who game. Is Irving Green a combination of David R. Selznick and Irving Thalberg? Is Laura Lamont really Jennifer Jones? Ginger must be Lucille Ball. Susie and Johnny? Hello Judy and Mickey. If none of the previous names mean anything to you, don't worry. You don't need to know anything about Hollywood to enjoy this book.

That's because the core of this book isn't about stardom, it's about happiness. Do we know what makes us happy? Or unhappy? It's also about what it means to be yourself. Early in the book the main character is rechristened in true Hollywood-style. Laura, formerly Elsa, remains the same person but understands that she now has two distinct histories and futures. There are simply things that Elsa could do that Laura can't or won't do. It's not a psychological split, it's acknowledgement of the bargain she's tacitly made.

This book deserves a wide audience. It is enjoyable and thoughtful without being maudlin or manipulative. Laura's life isn't perfect but her choices are believable and her strength a welcome change from the old "high price of fame" routine. Highly recommended for fans of Old Hollywood, movies and intelligent fiction.

(The perfect companion book to Laura Lamont is Jeanine Basinger's insightful The Star Machine which explains in entertaining detail how the great studios manufactured stars.)

Sundays with Louis

AuchinclossA Voice from Old New York is not an autobiography.It’s not exactly a memoir either, being generally low on gossip about the author or others.The chapters don’t quite flow into each other, instead each stands on its own. The book feels more like the reader is meeting Louis Auchincloss for coffee or drinks at a quiet hotel bar (upper East Side, please) and listening to him reminisce over over times.
Occasionally he repeats himself or lets drop tantalizing details without filling in the lines. At times you wish he’d dish the dirt a bit more or wonder at his rather set opinions but you can’t help admiring the clarity of his insight into the closed world he knew so intimately. There are not big revelations here. Auchincloss knew both the Bundy brothers (McGeorge and William) and the Dulles brothers (John Foster and Allen) but you’ll find nothing here you won’t find in their biographies. I did find yet another proof point for my personal theory that Nancy Mitford was born a bitter hag and got worse as she aged, not that I needed another.
If you want big statements on society (with and without a capital S), look to his novels and short stories. If you want to spend a few hours – this is a very short book at less then 210 pages – hearing the memories of the master chronicler of 20th Century New York Society.

Sixth Senseless: I Was Told There Would be Ghosts

The Ice Cradle is not the book I was expecting. It's my own fault, too. If I had read all three paragraphs on the Amazon Vine newsletter I would have seen the phrase "bookbinder and ghost whisperer extraordinaire"which would have activated my bullshit detector. Instead, I read the first paragraph about  Block Island and a New York-bound steamer and I clicked away with shameless abandon, fully expecting a Daniel Hecht/Cree Black style ghost story to arrive in my mailbox.

What I got was Touched By the Ghost Whisperer Medium. It's the old story: single mom struggles to make a living by binding books at home while raising adorable tot and helping the dead sort of their issues.

On the plus side, I had many experiences in common with the heroine. Anza (the Ghost Whispering, Bookbinding Medium) lives in Cambridge - I lived there, too, once upon a time! Anza goes on a visit to Block Island, RI and I've been there, too! Anza gets to go there basically for free, all expenses pay and I had to pay! Anza runs into ghosts everywhere and I nearly got run into by someone on a bike while I was there. It's like we've lived parallel lives.

I could get all snarky about this book but the fact is that this was not written with a reader like me in mind. It's not a ghost story and more than it's a call to action about the horrors of wind farming (don't ask.) It's a paranormal romance, basically, and deserves to be evaluated as such.

The writing is workman like and general unoffensive. I'm not sure why it took two people to write this but maybe one of them was in charge of getting coffee or keeping the printer filled with toner. The characters are standard-issue, light-duty cardboard. Anza is a devoted mom who agonizes over being a good mom (for minutes at a time) and tries to balance motherhood, the hectic world of bookbinding and all those ghosts who will go on just as soon as they twig that one can actually see them. It's a full life. Henry, her son, is an adorable tot who (cue foreboding music) has inherited mom's gift. No, he's not a whiz with glue and spine stitching; he can also see dead people. There's a local who provides the romantic interest. And, of course, a literal boatload of ghosts.

There's nothing surprising or unique here. Bad people want to do bad things. The environment must be protected. Ghosts need to move on. Which is what I suggest that you do. Move on to another title. Unless you're a fan of The Ghost Whisperer in which case this book might just be for you.

Edgar Project - Beast in View

For anyone who loves to read, finding a great new author with a nice fat backlist is nirvana. My first find of the year was the amazing Louise Penny and her Inspector Gamache series. Thanks to Lists of Bests I've found another gem: Margaret Millar.

Margaret Millar's Beast in View won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1956 and it took only 5 pages for me to understand why. This is a smart, suspenseful, psychological thriller/mystery. Helen Clarvoe is an unhappy heiress - trapped in the luxury suite she's occupied at a Los Angeles hotel for nearly a year. Helen has been barring her door in more ways than one for years  so when she receives a threatening phone call from an unknown woman she finds she is so isolated that she has no one she can turn to for help. No one except her money manager, Paul Blackshear.

The rest of this short novel speeds along as Blackshear, at first reluctantly, tries to find out who is threatening Helen and why. Millar paints several impressive character portraits of Helen, her self-absorbed Mother, Blackshear and others. The ending is a shocking, twist that never feels false or forced.

How has Margaret Millar has escaped my attention until now? Why isn't she as well-known as Patricia Highsmith? I can't wait to dive in to more of her work. She is an undeservedly little-known genius.

Lists of Challenges

Challenges bring out the best of me. I sign up for LibraryThing's 75 book challenge (read 75 books in one year) every year. Now that I've found Lists of Bests I have another source of great recommendations and something to feed my competitive spirit. As befits my over the top nature, I've signed on for 45 challenges.

I'm concentrating on the Agatha (#4) and Edgar Best Novel Award (#26) winners, and thank God some of the winners cross over.

Books I've Finally Managed to Finish

Some books just don't start well for me and it requires an effort to stick with them. Sometimes that effort is rewarded with a great story. Mansfield Park took 100 pages for me to really get into it. Even something as light and fluffy as Spying in High Heels didn't get going for 40 pages or so. I'll take slow start/great ending over great start/bad ending any day.

It doesn't always end well. Sometimes slow start ends in worse ending. Over the past months I've experienced the highs and lows of slow starts.

1. Caribou Island by David Vann   It took 3 false starts to finally finish this one. It never actually sailed along and it is as depressing as a 20 hour Alaskan mid-winter night but I respect it. Great writer. Maybe in need of Prozac or Lexapro; or just a few hours of Chappelle's Show.

2. Deadly Little Secret by Kathryn Casey   Spending over 50 pages with someone who is scared they are going to be murdered and who you know will be murdered is a little ghoulish. That made the first part of this book tougher going than is usual for Kathryn Casey. It definitely improves. This isn't her best but it's still worthy of any true crime fan's time.

3. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen  I've been on a classics kick lately and this is one of the books that's been sitting on my shelf, mocking me, for years. I finally tackled it last month and although it didn't grab me until the end of Volume 1, after that I couldn't put it down. According to the introduction in the edition I read this is Austen's "most complex and least likable novel." I can see why but it is definitely worth reading.

4. Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man's Smile by Gyles Brandreth  How do you make Oscar Wilde boring? If you're looking for lessons on that, and I can't imagine why anyone would, then seek out the first 50 or so pages of this book. Recounting famous incidents from Oscar's life isn't the best idea if you're going to make them dull. The mystery, once it gets going, isn't bad though perhaps needlessly complex and the evocations are 1890s decadence are a hoot.

I'm currently reading (listening to) Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers and it suffers from another complaint: draggy middle section syndrome. The dialogue is snappy, although I don't see how Lord Peter Wimsey makes it through all those books without someone telling him to shut up and the narrator is making the most of it. But page after page about fingerprints - the lifting of them, leaving of them, photographing of them, measuring them, etc - is over the top, and not in a campy way.  Well, it's on the list so I'm going to finish it.

Cardboard Cliches

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw has been on my to-read list since it came out last spring. The central idea was intriguing: tracking the emotional of a hit-and-run death, focusing on the people in the car. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed reading a book so thoroughly flawed as this one. In short, the dialogue is unbelievable, the characters are cliches, the narrative is so chopped up that it feels more like a short story collection than a novel but the descriptions and simple human observations are very good, often beautiful.

For every "Olivia's family was an epicenter of credit card frivolity" and cats whose "purring made them seem motorized" you have to wade through dialogue such as: "I hate when you talk that voodoo science crap." You could plan an evening's entertainment around having your friends over to read some of the dialogue aloud, competing to see who can actually make it sound like something a human being would say.

The characters saddled with this dialogue aren't exactly fleshed out in believable ways beyond their giggle-worthy dialogue. It's a weird combination of characters with mostly believable emotional responses utterly unbelievable actions and words. The main characters, the Kinney siblings are fleshed-out cliches: Nick is the drugged out astrophysicist, Alice is the wildly success artist with women falling out of the sky to sleep with her, and Carmen is the earth-mother left-winger. Half the time their dialogue consists of "stuff lefties say" instead of anything that sounds remotely like what real people say. This is livened up by the occasional snatches of "stuff conservatives say" and that's even worse.

When Anshaw is on, usually in her descriptions, she's great. When she's not on, it's painful and stunningly off-key. Her unsympathetic characters are so unrealistic it stops the show - like when Carmen's in-laws bring a statue of the Virgin Mary to her wedding. That's how Anshaw conveys that these are spiritually certain folks, with shtick. The nadir is the chapter devoted to 9/11. For a writer who understands the subtler nuances of guilt this is one ham-handed scene. Carmen is spouting conspiracy theories as the towers fall, Alice yammers on about being numbed by special effects and Nick awakens from a drug-induced stupor to announce, "We just took delivery on a big message." It doesn't sound anything like people experiencing the horror of 9/11, it sounds like exactly what it is, someone thinking back to that day.

I don't know whether to recommend this book or not. Even it's exploration of the effect of the accident on the Kinney siblings isn't entirely successful - only one character truly deals with it and the end is just beyond words goofy. But there are phrases and lines that stick. If you're truly interested in this book, the Audible version may be your best bet. Renee Raudman's reading gives dialogue a humanity that is missing on the page.

True Crime Buying Binge

Lately I've been reading everything but True Crime. Then I found Lists of Bests and my competitive spirit took over. Soon to be arriving at my abode:

Exit the Rainmaker by Jonathan Coleman
The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industrial Complex by Maureen Orth

Murder in Mayberry: Greed, Death and Mayhem in a Small Town by Mary Kinney Branson and Jack Branson

By Persons Unknown; The Strange Death of Christine Demeter. by Barbara Amiel

Cold Kill and Salt of the Earth: A Mother, A Daughter, A Murder by Jack Olsen

The Yale Murder by Peter Meyer