ElCicco #CBR5 Review #25: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

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The Other Typist is a fascinating new novel that fans of The Great Gatsby, Gone Girl and The Dinner will want to read.  The action takes place in 1925 New York, in a Lower East Side precinct where Rose Baker works as a typist. She and several other women have this new kind of work, taking confessions in shorthand and then transcribing them for the records. Rose is the fastest typist and a straight-laced, no-nonsense kind of girl in her early 20s. Having grown up in an orphanage, Rose has no family or friends to speak of and spends a lot of time in her own head. She greatly admires the old-fashioned, paternalistic sergeant whom she works alongside and places him on a pedestal. She is not overly friendly or familiar with her fellow typists and is especially cold toward the young lieutenant detective, who frequently tries to engage Rose in light conversation. Her life changes dramatically once the new typist arrives. Odalie stands out for her new fashion and fine jewelry, and later for her fashionably bobbed hair. She is a self-possessed, modern woman who is also blessed with beauty and charisma. She seems to mesmerize everyone around her. Rose is initially wary (and judgmental) of her, but they become friends and eventually roommates. Odalie introduces Rose to the modern world but something seems amiss. How does Odalie afford her apartment, clothes and decadent lifestyle? What is the truth about her past?

Rose serves as narrator and the question you ask throughout the narrative is do you trust her? Rose reminds me of the narrator in The Dinner. They both are narcissistic, condescending to those around them (who never seem to measure up to their standards), proudly holding ideas that are no longer popular, not seeing how they appear to others, assigning selfish and hostile motives to others. I found myself constantly wondering whether to believe her assessments of people and situations, whether any feelings of sympathy were misplaced. Is she mentally unstable? Is she an innocent victim of others who take advantage of her naivety? As the story unfolds, we see that Rose is telling her story in retrospect, as part of a therapy for her doctor, but where she is and why she is there is a mystery until the end.

First time author Rindell does a wonderful job of setting her story in historical context. She provides details of crime in 1920s — bootlegging, murder, the growing need for professionals to handle it, and the possibilities for corruption in the system. And there are plenty of details showing a changing society — young women becoming more independent but still vulnerable in so many ways, new fashions and opportunities to spend wealth. The Other Typist is an engrossing tale with a terrific ending. A good choice for those who are drawn to psychological thrillers.

loulamac’s #CBR5 review #8: The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant

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I had high hopes for this book. I haven’t seen Lawless (despite being so in love with Tom Hardy it keeps me awake at night), but liked the thought of a true story about boot-legging brothers during the prohibition, and it was in the Kindle spring sale. Sadly, I was to be disappointed. I knew I was in trouble straight away when I saw that this was the kind of book that’s too edgy to use speech marks.

The boot-legging Bondurants are three brothers trying to earn a living running liquor in 1920s and 30s Virginia. The third person narrative shifts between their story from 1928 onwards, and the experience of (real-life) writer Sherwood Anderson as he tries to put meat to the bones of the Bondurant legend in 1934. This is a confusing and unnecessary device, which isn’t helped by the lack of dating of some chapters. I imagine it was supposed to build some kind of tension, putting the brothers on a collision course with corrupt law enforcement. It really doesn’t work.

The brothers are one-dimensional characters at best. Jack is a coward who shies away from bloody work on their father’s farm, while the intense Forrest plays with carvings his grandfather made of mutilated Confederate soldiers. They’re hard-drinking tough men, who of course have fantastically beautiful women in love with them. Forrest has his throat cut, is shot and crushed in a logging accident and still he refuses to die, like a hill billy Rasputin.

The writing is clumsy and awkward. At one point Bondurant Senior is described as ‘grinning through his beard’ twice in three pages, at another the tense shifts from present to past in the course of one sentence. The most frustrating thing is that when Bondurant writes in his own voice in the Author’s Note, his style is simple and direct. When he’s not trying (and failing) to be John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy’s bastard love child, his voice is alright. It’s a shame he tried so hard. At one point in the novel, a character’s attention starts to wander, I can only sympathise.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #3: Live By Night by Dennis Lehane

A new book by Lehane with a different flavor. It starts in Lehane’s Boston during the Roaring 20s, where prohibition is in full swing, and Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of a Boston police captain, has chosen the path of easy money, easy women and working for the mob to get where he wants to go. But the young romantic falls for the favorite girl of mobster Albert White, and he gets set up. A bank robbery “goes wrong,” a cop is killed, and 20-year-old Joe takes the fall, getting a multi-year sentence in one of the worst prisons around. As the son of a police captain, his days are numbered until he hooks up with old man Maso Pescatore, a vicious boss in the Italian mafia who recognizes Joe’s life as currency and offers mob protection for the son in exchange for the favors of the father. Maso plans to expand his turf into the rum-smuggling of the Florida coast, and recognizes that Joe’s smarts make him the perfect manager for his new enterprise, once he gets out of prison.

Joe heads down to Florida and the story at this point takes on a different coloration, with Joe having to learn fast how to survive the tropical political climes, the mob turf wars, the Ku Klux Klan, cross-cultural tensions, and organized corruption on a mass scale. He not only survives but rises to the top, dramatically expanding his influence and amassing huge fortunes, both for himself and for the mafia. But it’s too good to last, and Joe’s refusal to ultimately take a back seat in the empire he has helped create–and his resistance to the escalating violence that empire now demands of him–puts him back in the crosshairs of the mob.

Joe is a fascinating character, with a youthful exuberance coupled with tons of charm and occasional twinges of conscience to leaven the otherwise ruthless and amoral streak that runs a mile wide in the guy. His saving grace is Graciela, a lovely Cuban woman whom he eventually marries and fathers a child with. She helps him discover his better half, but the reader knows that sooner or later, Joe will have to pay for the life he has led.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find this book to have the subtly-drawn nuances of both plot and character that Lehane is so famous for. It was an exciting and fun read, to be sure, but I found myself often wondering why I was rooting so hard for a mobster just because he was less bloody-minded than the guys he worked for. Joe makes “soft” decisions in the management of his criminal empire, to be sure, but his redemption by Graciela never really rings true and the end, when it comes, is a sad but foregone conclusion.