Gold Star Because You Tried

Pull up a chair, maybe grab a notebook. I’ve found a book worth dissecting. I need to do this more often – think about books from their bones and sinews, rather than just how much I enjoy them. But alas, I am a devourer of books first (and one on a tight reading deadline), so I don’t always take the time to think about how a book worked.

Or in this case, how it didn’t.

It’s not that this book was particularly bad or unenjoyable. I suspect that, if you’re someone who can throw themselves into a story without thinking about any of the mechanics, you would like this book a lot more than I did. But I know a little too much about writing, and I read a little too much not to feel like I saw behind the curtain the whole time. With that said, let’s dive in.

Italian Moon is about a family in Italy primarily in the space between the world wars, but touching on a little of both at the bookends of the story. There are a couple of things to note from the tag line on the cover: one, that it’s inspired by a true story, and two, it covers the rise of fascism. The author, as it turns out, is the direct descendant of the family, which makes me both a little more sympathetic and also helps me understand why this book doesn’t work for me.
Let me be up front about this – I completely understand why the author would want to write this story. The bones of it are fascinating, and if it were my family, I would want to write it too. But I believe she’s a little too close to the story to do it well, and it should have been more heavily edited or left to a ghost writer.

I’ve read quite a bit of historical fiction inspired by true events, and it can be done very well. In particular, I’d recommend Lauren Willig’s Band of Sisters – while I’m partial to Willig, she does a phenomenal job of taking a mostly true story and making it sparkle. But Italian Moon suffers from leaning too heavily on what I believe to be the facts of the story. When writing about her great grandparents falling in love, the story feels very stiff, as though the author either felt awkward writing about her family, or didn’t feel like she could take liberties. If I were writing about my family, I would tension in trying to embellish – afraid that an aunt would chase me down to scold me about how my grandmother never would have said or did such a thing. The result is that early on in the book, when we should be connecting with our characters and preparing to ride out their plight with them, we’re left at arm’s length.

That brings me to the cardinal sin of this book: it does a lot of telling, and not nearly enough showing. If you’ve ever written a novel, or taken writing classes, you know exactly what I mean. There’s a huge difference between “Vizzi walked to the top of the stairs, afraid that he would be caught.” and “Vizzi tip toed up the wooden stairs, the pounding of his heart threatening to give him away.” Your language doesn’t have to be overly flowery, and certainly there is a time to get to the point, but you need to have enough description to make your reader feel connected to your plot and characters. If they might as well be reading a history textbook, you’ve done it wrong.

In comparison to the above, my other quibbles with the book feel minor, but I’m still going to note some of them. For a book that is labeled as being about the rise of fascism, something that would set it apart from most other WWII books, it feels like a minor footnote to the story. I would have liked to see a lot more of it woven into the plot, more so than “so and so had a bad feeling about that Mussolini guy”. While there is some tension in the family as some of the members support Mussolini and others do not, there’s no real consequences for it, and doesn’t do much for the overall story.
Meanwhile, in one particularly dramatic section, our heroine’s husband is gravely injured, and since he is an ocean away, we’re left wondering if he will survive. A letter arrives in the hometown, but is intercepted by our heroine’s sister, who is not a very nice person. She tosses the letter aside, and our main character is left to wonder about her husband’s fate for the next ten years. However, there is no real closure on this issue. The treachery is never dealt with – I’m not entirely sure the sister is even really mentioned again in the story. Even if this is historically accurate, in a fictional story, loose threads like this don’t make for a satisfying story.

So all that to say, while I understand why the author would want to write this story, I wish she’d sacrificed more of the accuracy in order to make a satisfying novel. While it’s a quick read, I can’t really recommend this book, sadly, though as of this posting, it is still free with Kindle Unlimited if you want to check it out. Despite my criticism, I hope the author continues to write and evolve. I think she is capable of telling some interesting stories – they just need a little more finesse in order to really shine.

Top 10 Books of 2020: Number 7

The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig & Karen White

As you know, I’m a big fan of Lauren Willig. I read a book by Beatriz Williams last year and enjoyed that quite a bit too – Karen White is still a mystery to me.

The Glass Ocean is set in the early 1900’s, and the story mainly revolves around the sinking of the Lusitania, to be exact. Caroline Hochsetter is crossing the ocean with her husband Gilbert. He is making the crossing to do a business transaction, while she is hoping to rekindle their marriage. However, her friend Robert Langford is on the voyage too, and she finds herself spending a lot more time with him than her cold husband.

Meanwhile, in the early aughts, author Sarah Blake is looking for an idea for her next novel. She is in financial difficulties while taking care of her ailing mother. She is looking into her family’s history, which intertwines with the sinking of the Lusitania, and she reaches out to the descendant of the Langford family to find answers.

The Glass Ocean is a novel with multiple layers of intrigue and romance. It certainly wasn’t clear to me how things were all going to shake out, other than the ship sinking. That I knew.
I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that three authors worked on this book. While different characters have distinct voices, it’s no different than any other novel with multiple narrators. I found myself trying to guess what chapters were written by Willig – and I still don’t really know.

I will admit, there was a certain amount of bias coming into this novel. As a fan of two of the authors writing in one of my favorite genres, the odds were stacked in its favor. But still, I had a very good time with it. Because I couldn’t help but want to get other things done in order to find out what happens next, The Glass Ocean sails onto my top 10 list at number 7.

Top 10 Books of 2020: Number 8

Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

Surprisingly, it’s not a spoiler to say that Florence Adler dies. The real story in this book is how the family copes with her loss, as well as keeping her death a secret from her sister, who is confined to bedrest during pregnancy.
The story is set in the summer of 1934, before good pre-natal care, before cell phones, and before social media. It was hard enough to keep such a tragic story under wraps back then – this is one of those stories that could not occur today.

Despite the story being centered around Florence’s death, she is little more than a catalyst for the growth of the other characters. Because she dies so early, everything we find out about her comes posthumously, through the memories of the other characters.

One reason I loved this book was that every character had a clear arc. I feel like by the time I finished the book, I could have plotted out what happened to each character easily. There were no lampshades here. Each character had choices to make that not only affected their own lives, but their interactions with the other characters. The characters in this book were very well written, in my opinion.

Mind you, this book isn’t what you’d call light hearted, but there is a good amount of levity throughout, so it’s not as depressing as you might think, given the premise. If you like historical fiction, this book is well worth your time.

For the fantastic characters and the “couldn’t put it down” aspect of this book, Florence Adler Swims Forever earns a spot in my top 10 for 2020.