Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell 305 pages

Hamnet is the only son of William and Agnes Shakespeare.  He died at the age of eleven for the plague.  Although his name is the title of O’Farrell’s novel, the central character is Agnes.  She was three months pregnant with her first child when she married Shakespeare and went to live at his parents’ home in Stratford.  Hamnet is the story of Agnes and her family.  It is a tale of love, marriage, family and grief.

Hamnet is a beautifully written, vividly described novel with empathetic, complex characters.  It is a masterfully done work of historical fiction.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell 305 pages

Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey 224 pages

Natasha Trethewey was the 19th poet laureate of The United States, and much of her memoir is poetic, although written in prose.  Trethewey’s mother was a Black women from Mississippi and her father was a White Canadian.  They met on a college campus, married, had one daughter and then divorced when the author was young.  Her mother then met and married an abusive, mentally ill man who threatened the whole family and eventually murdered Natasha’s mother.

For me, Memorial Drive was not so much a memoir but rather a means for the author to come to terms with her mother’s horrific death.  While very well-written, I felt Memorial Drive was a cathartic experience for Trethewey, and I was merely tagging along.

Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey 224 pages

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore 320 pages

Valentine is the story of the violent rape of fifteen year old Glory on Valentine’s Day in Odessa, Texas in the late 70’s and five other women who were affected by this brutal attack.  Mary Rose is the woman whose home Glory ran to after the rape.  Corinne is a liberal thinker, a recent widow and a heavy drinker.  Debra Ann  is a young girl whose mother has deserted her, and she is desperately searching for a mother figure and a friend.  Karla is seventeen years old, has a four month old child and dreams of leaving Odessa.

Valentine is an all-around terrific read.  It has wonderfully drawn characters and the writing is so good, I could almost feel the hot Texas sun and the red-brown dust.  Because there are only two somewhat admirable men in the novel, women might enjoy reading Valentine more than men.

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore 320 pages

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell 567 pages

Utopia Avenue is the name of an English band formed in 1967.  Elf Holloway, short for Elizabeth, is a folk singer and plays the organ, keyboard and piano.  Dean Moss plays bass and is the most uncontrollable member of the foursome.  Jasper de Zoet( a last name from another Mitchell novel), plays guitar, is Dutch and schizophrenic.  And Giff Gifford is their fabulous drummer.  Each member contributes ideas, music and lyrics.  While describing the formation of the band and their successes and disappointments, Mitchell also delves deeply into each individual character.

With the exception of a way out scene where Jasper’s schizophrenia is “cured,” I thoroughly enjoyed Utopia Avenue.  David Mitchell brought back the musical scene of the late 60’s while telling a fine story.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell 567 pages

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. 655 pages

Since there are few new books coming out this summer, and I have more time to read than usual, I made sure that my summer classic would be a long, slow read.  I chose Vanity Fair and am I glad I did.  It is historic, at times serious, at other times tongue-in-cheek with wonderfully drawn characters and an engrossing plot.  Vanity Fair is delightful.

Basically, it is the tale of two very different women who attend school together in the early 1800’s and the people they encounter after they graduate.  Amelia Sedley is kind to all, trusting and loyal.  Becky Sharp is a conniving liar who will do anything to get ahead.  Vanity Fair describes the plights of these two young women and the many men and women they meet.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. 655 pages

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan 303 pages

Elizabeth has moved to a small town for her husband’s dream job.  She is a first time mother who has left her beloved Brooklyn and her best friend, Nomi.  Elizabeth needs a babysitter for her infant son, so she can start writing her third book.  She hires Sam, a college senior who is somewhat naive, but a kind, caring girl.  Very quickly Elizabeth and Sam become friends, and Elizabeth makes confessions to Sam that the babysitter is unable to handle.

If you have enjoyed other novels by Courtney Sullivan, you will like Friends and Strangers.  Although at times predictable, it’s an easy read with well-described major and minor characters.

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan 303 pages

The Stone Girl by Dirk Wittenborn.459 pages

A secret organization known to insiders as The Lost Boys has ingeniously become fabulously wealthy by marrying rich, scarred women.  When one of these men drugs and rapes 17 year old Evie Quimby, she as well as her mother, Flo, and her good friend, Lulu, vow to find the rapist and get revenge.

Set in the Adirondacks, The Stone Girl is decently written with an interesting concept.  However, The Lost Boys’ attempt to thwart the three women and Evie’s brains and brawn were a bit unbelievable.

 

The Stone Girl by Dirk Wittenborn.459 pages

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett 352 pages

Stella and Desiree Vignes are identical twins who grew up in Mallard, Louisiana.  Mallard is a very small town where the population is 100% light skinned African Americans, and the twins are two of the whitest.  Both of the girls are eager to leave their hometown and live in New Orleans.  However, Desiree returns with her dark skinned daughter, Jude, after fleeing an abusive marriage while Stella never returns, marries a white man, has a blond daughter and spends her adult life passing as white.

The Vanishing Heart gripped me from the beginning and never let go.  Bennett’s second novel, artistically weaves in themes of truth vs lies, prejudice, family and several others.  The Vanishing Half would be a good selection for a book club to discuss.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett 352 pages

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride by Cary Elwes 245 pages

For me, The Princess Bride was the perfect movie to see after having been quarantined for two months.  I had read the book several times, and had just seen the movie for the second time, so then I wanted to know more about what happened behind the camera.   As You Wish is written by Cary Elwes who plays Westley, the handsome hero.  As You Wish is fun to read if you’re a fan and Elwes is so positive and upbeat, never negative about anybody.  The Princess Bride, the book and the movie as well as As You Wish,  are great ways to escape the horrors that have recently occurred.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride by Cary Elwes 245 pages

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles 352 pages

Simon Boudlin is an orphan from Kentucky who is forced to join the Confederate army just before their surrender.  After the war, the fiddler and three other men form a band.  They travel throughout Texas, playing in hotels, saloons at celebrations and any other venue they can find.  While traveling, Simon meets a gang of colorful characters and falls in love.

I almost gave up on Simon the Fiddler.  The writing is great, but Simon’s journey through a bleak, brown, hot Texas grew tedious for him as well as for me.  However, about 2/3’s through the novel becomes exciting.  If you were a fan of News of the World,  Jiles’ latest work is worth your time, and a bonus – Captain Kidd makes a very brief appearance in Simon the Fiddler.

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles 352 pages