Book 1: Small Mercies
By: Dennis Lehane
Recently, Maureen asked if I would be interested in reading Lehane’s latest Small Mercies and she received back an enthusiastic YES from me. Luckily, I’d thought to put in my Libby / Boston Public Library request months ago and it was only a few weeks away. As of today, 6/13, if you sign up now – you’ll only have 632 people in front of you! Note: the line moves quickly as there are multiple electronic copies, but you might want to just go to More than Words in the South End or Porter Square Books in the Seaport ASAP for a hard copy.
Lehane is well known for writing other crime novels such as Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Given Day and more – so if that’s your vibe, you won’t be disappointed! Small Mercies takes place against the backdrop of busing in 1974 with a female main character named Mary Pat living in a Southie housing development. Lehane spends the beginning of the book to set the scene of what life was like for the average person living in the area at the time. Even though, myself (and many Caught in Southie readers) might have an understanding of this neighborhood’s history – we have to remember that his worldwide reading audience does not. Lehane digs deep into South Boston’s relationships – how everyone depends on each other, leans on each other, knows one another’s successes – challenges – losses, but also how the hierarchy itself keeps neighbors in line with unspoken loyalties. Lehane’s writing is strong as usual – descriptions of the neighborhood and its own culture, the language of its residents and strongly highlights the tensions boiling over due to class and race. I will note that the language is difficult to get through. Some Southie lifelong residents who read this shared with me that it was realistic to the time. Others said Lehane went overboard with the racial slurs and seemed type-happy. Either way, it stresses the unrest that led to many of the incidents within the novel.
Mary Pat is a strong character, a single mother, dealing with a vibrant daughter, Jules, heading to Roxbury High in a few weeks as well as the loss of her son who returned after the war only to fall victim to addiction. In the middle of rally preparations to protest busing at City Hall, Mary Pat receives notice that her daughter is missing on the same night that her nursing home colleague’s son, Auggie, is found murdered at the MBTA tracks. Anxiety and a mother’s instinct lead her to question everyone who knows her daughter and to tell her what they know of the night – and that questioning is in the middle of dive bars, pulling up at people’s homes and sometimes on the end of her fist. Some tell Mary Pat that Jules has run away to Florida, others that they saw her leave the scene. I think many readers will identify with Mary Pat and this dedication for her daughter – admiring everything she does, slamming down their drinks as they flip the pages – shouting “I’d do the same!” It’s also Mary Pat’s internal dialogue with herself that is thoughtful about the larger events happening in Boston and her commentary to other characters that makes me understand Lehane knows what he’s doing – and why he’s including the things he does. She’s a mother who doesn’t take no for an answer, puts her only living child first – and is not swayed by what the neighborhood expects her to do.
There are a number of side characters that many readers will want to know more about. In many of Lehane’s novels and others in the area, a Boston Police detective plays opposite to the main- here he gives us perspective into the hunt for what happened to both of these individuals. Another strong character, he is stuck between the neighborhood, his badge and what’s wrong and right. We get some background of his thought process and how he is trying to help a family he’s known forever, deal with corruption and just make an honest living. We meet Auggie, the young man who was murdered, on track to a management program, profiled based on his race and what he looks like. There’s Marty Butler and Frank Toomey, local mobsters taking control of the neighborhood, “what” goes in and out, as well as “who” goes in and out and their connections to Auggie and Jules.
I think that the entire book will have you angry, yelling as you flip pages – but needing to know what happens next and what justice means to Southie, Lehane, these families, the time period and what you believe now. I know this will be a popular one, so let us know your thoughts!
Book 2: One True Loves
By: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Grab this one if you’re a super fan of romance. It is one of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s “older” books from 2016 – and I’m sure you’ve already heard of her more popular ones including: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Daisy Jones and the Six, After I Do and Maybe in Another Life. It’s the perfect quick read to get you out of a reading slump or if your brain has been running on thrillers and blood is leaking out of your ears. It’s centered on the main character, Emma, leaving her small town and parents’ dreams for her behind. (Note: They want her to work at their bookstore, so I wish these fictional parents would just adopt me.) She goes off to her dream life – freelance writing around the world – with her high school sweetheart, love of her life- Jesse. But on their first wedding anniversary, his plane disappears and Emma moves back to be with the familiar – her family, her routine and her hometown. It’s there she has to pick the pieces of herself off the ground and decide if life’s worth living without her life partner. As I read this, I paused at a lot of points to consider if I was in Emma’s shoes – WHAT WOULD I BE DOING? I can’t even imagine getting out of bed, but the book makes you root for her – and at every page turn, something else comes up. One big “something else” is another fixture from her past named Sam. It’s Sam who brings her back to life. It’s Sam who reminds her she has life to live. It’s Sam who shows her home can be the support system one needs. It’s Sam who she’s with when she hears that her husband, her Jesse – has been found alive and is coming back to her. WHO WOULD YOU CHOOSE? WHAT WOULD YOU DO? And…. yup! I recommend this quick summer read that you can probably get for a few books used on Amazon or in a bookstore basement aka Brookline Booksmith or More Than Words… then let me know what you think.
PS. They just made it into a movie on Hulu.
Book 3: Circus Train
By: Amrita Parikh
Review: I loved everything about this book. End Review.
But really, what a book! I had this one sitting on my shelves for months and I kept bypassing it. Now, I recommend it to everyone. As someone who was obsessed with Zac Efron in the Greatest Showman and sitting front row at Cirque de Soleil (NOT the animal-cruelty ones), I consider myself someone highly in tune with the circus world.
Circus Train stretches from Boston to Europe – London to Greece and everything in between and all around. We follow a young Lena and her father, who is the master illusionist on a train that travels across the continent with various acts. Readers are fully immersed into the different sets and stages, the descriptions of backdrops, and each stop that the train makes. Lena initially is confined to a wheelchair due to polio, but welcomed by the circus owner – as a favor to her father. She is bright and intelligent, soaking up knowledge working alongside the train’s doctor. One day, she notices a young stowaway – that her father requests to take under his wing as an apprentice. The childhood relationship between Lena and Alexandre is written beautifully by the author – one that grows without force and each seeks the best for each other. It’s hard at times to remember that they are both children. Alexandre becomes her backbone, encouraging her to learn to walk, to advance her studies.
As time goes on, the background noise of World War II is difficult to ignore. The crowds start to disappear, Nazis stop and search the train at every stop and everyone is on edge. Lena’s father and Alexandre are arrested and sent to entertain soldiers and a subset of Jews in a town called Theresienstadt. It was marketed as a spa town that had all the things a regular town does, but still a version of a concentration camp where they were forced into labor, victim to cruelty and murdered when no longer needed. I had personally never heard of these towns, but the author includes some background info to her research at the back of the book. This section was difficult to read, but highlights the willpower to live and the connection between Lena and her father, Lena and Alexandre. This whole time Lena does not know they are still alive – and is away in London, trying to figure out if it’s possible to move on without them.
I recommend this book if you liked Kristen Hannah or Kate Quinn novels.
If you got this far, thank you! Let us know what you think via the comments on @caughtinsouthie or catch me at @glossinbossin / @josiegl on Instagram.