THE FIRST EMMA

A sweet memorialization of a real-life female business pioneer in San Antonio.

Di Maio’s (The Beautiful Strangers, 2019, etc.) take on a shocking American drama pleasantly blends romance and historical fiction inspired by the true story of a Texas brewing tycoon and his wife.

The year is 1942, and Americans are suffering from the effects of World War II. Nineteen-year-old Mabel Hartley has lost both of her brothers overseas, and her father—widowed, alcoholic, and deeply depressed—can’t support her, so she lives on her own and works as a secretary in Baltimore. Desperate for a new start, Mabel answers an alluring newspaper ad for “An aspiring female writer who is interested in recording the story that an old woman would like to tell.” From hundreds of applicants, she is chosen to travel to San Antonio to work for 83-year-old Emma Koehler, renowned businesswoman and wealthy widow of German-born Otto Koehler. The two of them become close as Mabel takes dictation from Emma, who shares the story of her tumultuous marriage, a disastrous automobile accident, and her fierce love for the Pearl Brewing company, which she led through Prohibition. Emma even shares the details of her husband’s scandalous death in the presence of his two mistresses, both nurses in the Koehler employ and both also named Emma. However, the defining attributes of her life are the drive and the acumen with which she’s steered her business, and Mabel takes an empowering message from her story. Meanwhile, living at the Koehler mansion brings her into the orbit of her employer’s extended family, and romance blossoms between Mabel and one of Emma’s young, male relatives. Mabel is a good-natured and resilient, if somewhat naïve, heroine. Her perspective offers interesting insights into the challenges of the period, such as wartime rationing and the prejudice against those of German descent. Despite the grim subject matter, the story is more lighthearted than many World War II accounts. Di Maio’s spirited writing carries the reader quickly through the narrative. The two storylines, alternating between Mabel’s perspective and Emma’s recollections, balance each other well.

A sweet memorialization of a real-life female business pioneer in San Antonio.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-948018-76-0

Page Count: 326

Publisher: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing

Review Posted Online: Jan. 28, 2020

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A LITTLE LIFE

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

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