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"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel


Mar 29, 2021

2021 Book Reviews

 


London’s Number One Dogwalking Agency: A Memoir

When Kate Macdougall’s latest and last costly mistake as a London auction house employee results in termination, she decides that a lifelong affection for canines is sufficient justification for setting up as an urban dog-walker—despite the fact that she hasn’t had a pet dog since childhood. So begins this delightfully witty and utterly immersive memoir of the travails and the joys in her quest for personal fulfillment and monetary sustenance.

In 2006, when she starts her business, dog-walking wasn’t actually a profession, a fact her divorcee mother will constantly point out. Alternating from certitude, ignorance, bravado, and doubt, Kate cobbles together a collection of clients even more idiosyncratic, demanding, and eccentric than their pampered pets. Her most sterling and useful characteristic is the ability understand of dogs as a species and as individuals with unique needs for exercise, companionship, discipline, and diet. Her fond acceptance of their habits, quirks, phobias, and preferences enables her to match them with appropriate members of her own staff, each of whom also presents certain eccentricities that must be coped with or dealt with.

An added complication is the dog owners, who in the main prove more difficult to handle than their precious but often neglected pets. Here, too, Kate eventually excels, through trial and error, resignation and resolve, keeping in mind the needs of the animal each time she confronts the difficult, demanding, and judgmental humans connected to them. Alert to class indicators, within her own broken family and those of her clients—the comfortable, the classy, the creepy—she not only matures, but earns insight into her own neediness and hopes for the future. She and her employees gamely navigate the city’s challenging geography and the intricacies of transportation logistics as her clientele expands. But just as her reputation seems assured, the financial collapse of 2009 and ensuing recession threaten her small measure of success with corporate ex-pat Americans and Londoners who abruptly decide that a dog walker is a luxury too far in hard times. It is then, amidst all the stress and panic, that her canine-averse fiancé suggests getting a dog of their own, an adventure in itself, and a first true test of their solidity as a couple and their readiness for marriage, parenthood, and an inevitable search for the ideal location in which to live.

This is a memoir about dogs—endearing and memorable and challenging ones—but it’s also very much about humans. How they relate to their pets and other people, their ease or difficulty in doing the right thing for themselves and their animals, how their good traits and bad ones are revealed through their interactions with the dogs and the dog-walkers. Not only is it beautifully, cleverly written, ultimately it is deeply moving memoir of overcoming struggles and finding identity and purpose in the life of a flawed but admirable young woman. (William Morrow, hardcover/ebook/audiobook, 6 July, 2021) 




You Belong Here Now, Dianna Rostad’s debut historical novel, offers a complex and nuanced portrait of home life, community values, and persistent struggles facing a Montana ranching family in the 1920s. Their challenges multiply with the arrival of three fugitives from an orphan train traveling from New York City: teenager Charles, Irish immigrant Patrick, and scrawny Opal, all of whom have been rejected as adoptees in the course of their cross-country journey. Nara Stewart, the fiercely independent female protagonist, is dubious about keeping--much less adopting--the orphans, but the need of farm labor overcomes her reluctance. Charles, burdened by a violent and possibly criminal past, grows into a determined protector, not only of his fellow orphans, but the family who can't fully trust him but strive to redeem him. The characters' varied internal and external conflicts are realistically portrayed, the period detail is skillfully blended, and the harsh land itself—its wild creatures and pervasive threats--are depicted with flair and faithfulness. Very highly recommended. (April 6, 2021, William Morrow Books, paperback, 368 pp.)



Gardening Hacks: 300+ Time and Money Saving Hacks by Jon VanZile

             In a well-organized collection of tips and hacks, Master Gardener Jon VanZile offers hundreds of time- and cost-saving suggestions for the indoor and outdoor garden. Workable and effective non-toxic and natural shortcuts are a valuable commodity, and this knowledge is creatively and systematically shared, numerically and through a searchable index. VanZile covers germination of seeds and propagation by cuttings, container plants, containers, care of tools, pest control, and collecting the harvest. Among the more interesting tips: using honey as a rooting hormone, seed starting in an ice cream cone (not the sugary kind), cinnamon as an anti-fungal treatment to protect seedlings from wilt, powdered milk as a calcium booster for tomatoes, and the myriad uses of coffee grounds.

            For some, the proposed outdoor decorations might go against personal aesthetics and allowable degree of whimsy in the garden—re-purposing broken and discarded objects into “funky displays” might not suit everyone’s style. But the wealth of advice presented is sound and safe, and the presentation style is readable and sincere. (Adams Media, paperback/ebook/audiobook, 256 pp., 6 April, 2021)






Rhapsody, Mitchell James Kaplan's third work of historical fiction, presents the long and challenging affair between pianist-composer Katharine Swift (Kay) Warburg and George Gershwin, her extramarital lover, soulmate, and collaborator. Their compelling story is revealed through evocative prose and lyrical imagery, peopled with literary and theatrical notables of the 1920s and 30s and replete with references to stage productions and compositions both obscure and renowned. Situations, settings, and dialogue bring to life the vibrant period between the world wars, one of innovation and exploration in music and popular entertainment, experienced atop a lofty pinnacle of wealth, talent, and emerging fame.

 Kay's permissive yet tortured marriage to financier and sometime lyricist James Warburg, and her detached mothering of three daughters is overshadowed by focused commitment to Gershwin and her determination to promote her own musical gifts. And while creativity—solitary and mutual—lies at the core of the emotional and relational arc, embedded within the novel is an examination of ethnic and cultural identity in America as totalitarianism begins its inexorable march across Europe.

Elegantly-attired characters emerge from exquisite New York apartments to attend elite social gatherings and explore Harlem jazz joints. They endure rehearsal agonies and celebrate opening nights. Throughout, Kaplan's skill and the lovers' looming fate propel the reader towards a poignant but inevitable conclusion. (March 2, Gallery Books, hardcover, 352 pp.)





Comedic and elegiac, farcical and tragic, complex and engrossing, Leslie Epstein’s Hill of Beans is an energetic and entertaining depiction of the symbiotic relationship between moviemaking and warmongering. This detailed and imaginative representation of Hollywood dynamics and military events, before and during World War II, is revealed through the minds and motives of multiple characters. The disparate witnesses are Abdul Maljan, ex-pugilist and masseuse to film mogul Jack Warner and President Roosevelt, Warner himself, the fictional half-Jewish German starlet he lures to Hollywood, the Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. With the later addition, at the height of World War II, of Joseph Stalin and General George S. Patton. 

The connections between the film industry, politics, and war, are wittily and movingly drawn. The author’s uncles, twin screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein—Academy Award winners for Casablanca—would have loved this fictional version of their boss, the priapic punster Warner, their own antics, and the haphazard creation of their iconic film. (March 1, 2021, High Road Books, hardcover, 352 pp.)





London and the Seventeenth Century: The Making of the World's Greatest City

by Margarette Lincoln

     Relying on descriptive skill, contemporaneous accounts, and engaging insights, Margarette Lincoln presents the people, economies, concerns, and contradictions of seventeenth century London. In an era when church towers dominated the skyline, matters of faith and pursuits of the flesh drove the citizenry to foment rebellions and indulge in the innumerable pleasures available to them. James I, the first Stuart monarch, was succeeded by his second son Charles, whose death upon the scaffold brought the dynasty to a temporary conclusion. A detailed presentation of the volatile Interregnum, which its many contradictions of puritanical politics and economic thrust, is followed by the Restoration.

Like his father, the second Charles understood the imagery of kingship—as well as the high costs of rigidity and raising the displeasure of the populace. Coronation swag, one learns, is no new thing, neither is the royal interest in fostering positive and powerful imagery of kingship. Tested by years of exile, Charles confronted plague, fire, and wars, while many of his subjects sought entertainment in playhouses and coffee houses, and others pursued scientific investigations. The author devotes significant attention to the crucial shipping trade and the expansion of commerce to the Indies, East and West. His busy reign was succeeded by his Roman Catholic brother’s very brief one, and on the accession of his nephew and niece, William and Mary, Parliament’s power was reinforced, and the nation’s purse was directed to the Continental war, a preoccupation of the Dutch-born king. This monumental achievement in research and presentation brings to life a fascinating and extremely turbulent era in the life of this great and influential city. (February 23, 2021, Yale University Press, hardcover/ebook, 384 pp.)