What the Dead Leave Behind stars a plucky heiress whose stepmother is plotting against her and who literally fights for her life with the help of loyal servants and various family friends. The story is told with abundant, self-conscious period details (even though the very personality of the heroine is quite anachronistic).
The twists and turns go on just a tad too long, but overall an entertaining plot and set of characters.
Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City will please New York City fans with its drawings of hundreds of buildings and its stories of secret subway stations and various lesser-known New York heroes. My favorite part of the book are the many plates contrasting New York City blocks then and now, which show rags-to-riches changes, and vice-versa, and how movie theaters can be turned into all kinds of other uses. The author clearly yearns for the past (and bemoans the high rents, which forced her away), and it’s interesting to note how the very improvements that she depicts also bring the gentrification that she laments.
The Ninth Hour tells the life of a woman born in Brooklyn in the early 20th Century after her father committed suicide and her mother came to work at a convent, on charity and under the protection of a formidable nun.
I found that the story sometimes veered towards awkwardly anachronistic feminism, and sometimes the other way, extolling the never-failing sanctity of the nuns, but the ending is certainly unexpected (a murder!) and it’s useful to remember how nuns served as social workers and nurses at a time when other help just was not available.
Careers for Women starts well, in the typing pool of the PR department of the New York Port Authority, the heroine a young woman who dreams of a career and is inspired by her female boss. But the story is really about another coworker, a single mother with a secret and a grudge, and a dark end. The descriptions of the 50s work environment are so good I would have liked more of it, and less of the sadly familiar single-mom struggles. And the fictional setting did not have to focus on the beginnings of the World Trade Center either, I think. Surely New York has many more stories that those around this tragic icon.
New People goes on (and on) about the doubts and second thoughts of a young woman about to be married to her college boyfriend. She seems to have everything going for her — except that she just cannot be sure he is the right persona and pursues, crazily, a poet she barely knows, in secret of her boyfriend of course. There are some funny moment, especially when she is mistaken for the babysitter of the poet’s neighbor, but only a handful. If you like to read about the (puny) inner life of a confused young New Yorker, this is the book for you.
Not for me.
The dreamers in Behold The Dreamers are two undocumented immigrants from Cameroon trying to make it in New York City. They soon find themselves working for a rich trader’s family and they can see their American Dream within reach. But the 2008 recession is looming, which will deprive the trader of his lucrative job and expose his personal troubles while the immigration courts grind towards expulsion. The complicated relationship between the rich employers and their poor employees is captured perfectly, with the employers utterly unaware of the financial hardships of their chauffeur and housekeeper, and blithely assuming a relationship of equals while the employees carefully weigh each interaction to keep the jobs they desperately need. And there are no stock characters here: each can display kindness as well as hate, and has deep secrets.
The coincidences are just incredible, the characters entirely good or entirely evil, and the level of sentimentality extreme — and yet they come together for a very satisfying story, even if we know the outcome midway through. There is a trick to this mystery-writing craft!