A colleague listed this as a book she has read every year for longer than she can remember, and that made me sit up and take notice. The kind of books that drive anyone to return for an annual visit are the right kind of books to read. This novel proved that to be true.
Mark Mills began as a screenwriter and the cinematic descriptions of his scenes reflect that training. A lazy Cambridge art history student in post-war Europe is given a plum summer project by his mentor–to live at a country estate in Italy and study its fifteenth-century (Renaissance) memorial garden. Its mistress has been bed-ridden and only leaves her room upon young Adam’s arrival. Adam is drawn into the mystery of the garden, which was created for a young noblewoman by her husband long after her death at a young age and shortly before his own death. The garden, filled with statues and fountains of mythological creatures that do not quite fit the usual combinations, and a distinctive layout soon lead Adam to Dante’s Inferno and Dante, Virgil, and the classical myths soon provide a vivid backdrop to the contemporary drama of post-war Italy. Add an upper floor of the estate home that was sealed off just before the end of the war, the death of the estate’s heir at the hands of fleeing Germans, Communists, Nazis, and a sexy widow renting rooms in the village and the plot definitely thickens. Puzzles, lots of them, make this novel a fun read. The garden, with Mills’ cinematic eye, becomes a place I can understand my colleague revisiting each summer.
I cannot remember which reviewer recommended this book, but I want to thank him or her. I am not a war novel person. I would not normally pick up a novel set during the siege of Leningrad, especially one that centered on two male characters. What hooked me was the crazy plot driver–the main character, a very young man caught looting a downed Nazi pilot and a deserter from the Russian army are sent to find a dozen eggs for the spoiled daughter of a military commander to make a cake for her wedding. This task when most of the city is eating library candy, gluey balls of deconstructed library books, and the worst have become cannibals.
Benioff’s portrait of a city under siege, or an occupied country, is so intimate that it was hard to believe he did not live through it. Even better, for me, is how he began the novel–with a young man interviewing his grandfather who, until that point, had refused to speak of the war. War novels that focus on the mechanics of war leave me dry, but war novels that focus on how people find out who they are in the circumstance of war can be something amazing. This is one of those novels.
For one of the first times this political season, I was pleased to read about guns, crime, and rich white guys in Texas. Tommie McCloud, a former bull-rider turned child psychologist using horses for therapy, finds out on the death of her father that her childhood was built on a lie. Her parents may not have been the people who raised her and she may not have been born in Texas (gasp!).
Tommie and her ex-beau (soon becomes re-beau) Hudson, as well as nearly everyone around her, carry pistols on their hips, in their socks and their boots, and they are not afraid to use them. This is fortunate when crime bosses send goons after Tommie, who repeatedly has to defend herself even with the manly protection of Hudson on offer.
From small-town Texas to Chicago (with requisite mentions of the Bean and American Girl), the story draws out the tale with solid pacing and just enough side story in the relationship with Hudson, health issues with Tommie’s niece and dilemmas over her mother’s Alzheimer’s and care, that this was a very pleasant read. Strangely enough, while I was reading Playing Dead my family watched the Taylor Lautner movie, Abduction, which has a similar premise, but none of the joy of this novel. (How did they talk Signourney Weaver into joining the cast?)