“The New Neighbors” by Simon Lelic

Genre:          Mystery and Thrillers
Publisher:    Berkley Publishing Group
Pub. Date:    The New NeighborsApril 10, 2018

Mini Review

Why do I keep accepting Advance Review Copies (ARC) books that I suspect I will not like?  I am sure many other readers and reviewers will enjoy this novel.  For me, it is a real stinker.  Okay, I don’t think the first half of the book is so terrible.  A young couple in their twenties buys a home together.  The previous owner leaves them all his belongings.  This consists of cheerless junk and his dead stuffed pets, making the house downright creepy.  At first, I thought I was reading a haunted house story.  The author does a good job of keeping it spooky.  I also enjoyed the prose, which is an open journal that the couple is writing for each other.  Alternately, one would write a segment on what is happening to him or her in their weird home and then give it to the other to read and reply.  It did get a tad confusing; still, it is an interesting format.  I often chuckled on how the couple would see the same incident so very differently.  Think “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.”

The reader knows in the first half that the woman has toxic parents.  She had a very abusive childhood.  In the second half, we learn how and why.  She escaped her parents in her teens by running away.  Now in her adult life the parental abuse begins again. Honestly, the abuse as an adult is hard to buy.  If I explain more it would be a spoiler. However, you need to know that this reviewer was once a court-appointed Social Worker who helped put abusive parents in jail.  I have worked in the trenches with many violent families.  I tell you this so you can understand just how illogical and far-fetched the plot became.  Additionally, it doesn’t take the reader long to figure out that they are reading a murder mystery.  Alas, the “who done it” is also unbelievable with predictable twists.  For all these reasons, I cannot recommend this book.  Still, you might want to give it a try.  As I said, I know many will gobble this one up.   Readers seem to love a page-turner that will keep them up all night.   I’m guessing the unrealistic feel won’t bother them.   Psychological thrillers are not my favorite genre.  But, I can enjoy a page-turner, only if they are intelligent as well as unsettling.

I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Girls in the Picture” by Melanie Benjamin

Genre:        Historical FictionThe Girls in the Pictures
Pub. Date:  January 16, 2018
Publisher:  Random House

Melanie Benjamin is a favorite author of mine. She writes in a distinctive genre that I favor known as Historical Autobiographical Fiction. It is reading historical fiction as if you are reading the memoir of the real-life main character. To work, this genre needs to be as well-researched as it is well-written. Also, the reader needs to remember that no matter how knowledgeable, the author is not privy to the actual thoughts of the protagonist (Benjamin reminds us in her endnotes). I think Benjamin always pulls off this style of writing. So far I have been lucky enough to review three of her works prepublication: “The Aviator’s Wife” (Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh), “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” (Truman Capote and Babe Paley), and even “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb” had me captivated. For these reasons, I was thrilled to be given an Advance Review Copy (ARC) of Benjamin’s “The Girls in the Picture” on the early days of Hollywood, concentrating on the lives of screenwriter Frances Marion and the first superstar actress, Mary Pickford.

This is Benjamin’s first book for which my review won’t be full of praise for her talents. But let me start by stating what I did enjoy about the novel, which is a good portion of the book. I was engrossed in learning about the birth of the movies in Old Hollywood. I especially enjoyed learning about the technical side of moviemaking in those days. It wasn’t unusual for the actors themselves to splice and piece the film back together. Actors also frequently went behind the camera to get a better understanding of how a scene would play out. Mary Pickford always did both. Plus, the author does a terrific job describing the details of the WWI era and weaving in how the magic of movie making effected that generation. The industry started out making “flickers” on the streets (there were no sets) with street entertainers such as Charlie Chaplin. These silent movies were watched in Nickelodeons. One will also learn about the beginnings of the Hollywood studios, and how it took the creativity out of the hands of the actors, and how the silent films turned into “talkies,” ruining many careers, and causing some stars to sell their mansions. As Pickford once said, “Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.” I also got a kick out of reading that Pickford and Fairbanks were the original Liz and Dick. Once they married each other, their lifestyles suddenly changed and they became world famous and rich beyond their wildest dreams. Their 18-acre estate in Beverly Hills was called “Pickfair” predating the mashups of celebrity couples’ names like “Brangelina” and “Bennifer” by nearly a century.

The reader discovers that Mary Pickford and Frances Marion were two groundbreaking innovators of American film. The story is told from two points of view: Pickford’s and Marion’s. (Though Marion is written in the first person and Pickford in the third, which made Marion seem more real and autobiographical). The story of Mary Pickford’s tough early years on the stage, struggling to support her mother and two siblings, reminded me of Natalie Wood’s life story. The family was dirt poor and she alone supported them. By 1915, Pickford had become the most famous movie actress in the United States. She was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart,” known as “Girl with the Golden Curls.” The irony wasn’t lost on Mary, because she knew that she never had a childhood. Additionally, I found out that she was also an early feminist. She became one of the few actors and sole woman in those first years to battle the studio system and take control of her own work and career.

Frances Marion also believed women were equal to men and elbowed her way into the Hollywood experience. She was new to the movie industry when Mary was already a star. They soon became fast friends. Frances gained entry into the world of “moving pictures” by becoming a screenwriter, then known as a “scenarist.” She wrote many of Mary’s most popular pictures, including the 1917 film, “Poor Little Rich Girl.” Mary did not do well in the “talkies” with her modern, bobbed hair. Her fans only wanted to see the little girl with the curls. She blamed this on Marion, who wrote petite Pickford as a child. Unlike Mary, Frances remained successful after Mary’s career was over. She continued to write screenplays, remaining the highest paid screenwriter. She went on to win two Academy Awards (the first woman to do so), all while fighting chauvinistic male studio heads.

So why did this novel lose some of my praise? In the middle of the book, these two successful business women, pioneers of their time, began talking like lovesick teenagers about their future husbands. The once crisp and compelling dialogue became just plain old silly and in complete contrast to their established personalities. I actually cringed at some of the corny lines that the author would never have penned to come out of their mouths in the first half of the story. When Frances meets her husband (her first love), it reads like a script from an old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney film, “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” rather than a mature woman finding love. The silliness is emphasized by the fact that this is her third marriage. And, they meet while he is a soldier in the hospital during the war. This venue is not conducive for the sugary tone of their romance. When Mary divorces her first husband and marries Fairbanks (her first love), she too begins talking like a teenager in love. Suddenly, Pickford, a woman with much skill in financial affairs, who was the brains in the marriage, starts acting flaky and puts her husband before her career. When Fairbanks started to cheat on her I was waiting for the author to throw in a verse of Lesley Gore’s song, “It’s My Party, and I’ll Cry if I Want To.” I was so disappointed that I found myself skimming the mushy pages. I realize that characters do evolve in a story, it usually improves the story. But this was a complete 180 and not believable. With that said, overall, I can say that if you don’t know much about the history of early American filmmaking and wish to then I recommend this book. Just know that it can read simultaneously sappy and splendid.

I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

Find all my book reviews at: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list…



Anti-Social Media

“I’m so over you now, you must see,

Our accounts are no longer Linked in.
I’ve deleted your emails to me
And your selfies are all in the bin.
Don’t think you can stalk me with tweets
I unfollowed and blocked you on Twitter
Unfriended on Facebook too, sweets,
So I can’t see you whine as you witter.
I un-programmed my regrams. One tap
Sent Snapchat into the blue,
So when you try to ask me ‘Whatsapp?’
You’ll know I’ve no Pinterest in you!”

E.M. Swift-Hook


“Unravelling Oliver” by Liz Nugent

Genre: Psychological ThrillerUnraveling Oliver

Here is another book with a plot that asks “how well do you really know your spouse?” It is no spoiler to start off saying that the seemingly non-violent husband beats his wife into a state that she may not survive. It is the opening of the novel told by the husband, Oliver, in a non-feeling psychopathic manner. The rest of the book is told in alternating voices, including Oliver’s, and the couples’ friends with each chapter revealing how they know Oliver. And all in their unique perspectives wonder how he could have been so savage to his loving wife of over a decade. I usually enjoy multiple narrations in a tale as I did in “Oliver.” However, this tale, for me, was a page-turner until it wasn’t. And, interesting I found Oliver’s voice to be the boring one.

The story begins in 1970’s Roman Catholic Ireland. And I am sure I am not the only one who feels sympathy for Oliver as a child who grows up in a Catholic boarding school. (No, it is not the priests that abuse the boy). It is easy to feel sympathy for the child, Oliver an illegitimate child of a father who despises him. But since the story goes back and forth in time, and the reader already knows the opening, it is hard to continue one’s empathy for the character. In college, geeky Oliver turns into a popular guy by using his good looks and masterful powers of manipulation. He and other students go to France to work on a winery. Here tragedy strikes in the form of a fire that leaves a long trail of heartbreaking devastation for most of the main characters.

The book is marketed as a dark thriller that would keep me up and night. The reason the tale lost its edge is that I feel it is more of a character study than page-turner. Asking the question; was Oliver born evil, or did his abusive childhood create evil? Or, (potential spoiler) was it the extreme racism of the times that is the real culprit? For me, somewhere in the middle of the novel, the story-line became flat, and I no longer cared.

I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Profane Fire At The Altar Of The Lord” by Dennis W. Maley

Genre:          Historical FictionProfane Fires
Publisher:    Jublio
Pub. Date:    January 25, 2018

This tongue in cheek historical fictional takes place in Europe during the 1600s, and is a fun- and fact-filled piece of work. The protagonist is a Jewish dwarf named David Reuveni, a real historical person, who cons European Jews into believing that he’s the Messiah.  He hires an actor, Diogo Pires, another real person (who is always on the run from one country to another, usually for sleeping with the wrong woman), to aid him with his deception.  They both become rich in this scam. When the two first meet on a ship, Diogo comes close to stabbing David because he calls Diogo a Marrano.  Digio demands an apology because that is what they call Christian Jews in Portugal. Pig.”  David thinks “this is a man with a hidden past.  Perhaps he can be of value to me.”  The novel wears a coat of black humor.  It speaks of greed, manipulation, and religion.  I see these characters as a shrewd, not so nice, version of an “Abbott and Costello” act, especially when the protagonists are in the company of sultry ladies whom they are trying to impress.

There are many real historical characters thrown into the plot.  The author, Dennis W. Maley, had me google to see if Cristoforo Colombo aka Christopher Columbus was really a Marrano, meaning a Jew who is forced to convert and secretly practices Judaism.  I learned that this might be true.  Several chapters or pieces of vignettes on other real historical names are tossed around freely in this book:

  • Sir Thomas Malloy: The radical English writer who wrote and died in prison
  • French King Francis I: He was also King Consort of Scotland as a result of his willing marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots
  • King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: Their marriage caused the first break between the Church of England and Rome
  • Martin Luther: The German Protestant reformer
  • William Tyadle: The leading figure in Protestant reform

The reader will learn that Canon law forbids Christians to charge interest on a loan, so they would hire Jews to do so for them.  It has been suggested that this was the beginning of the banking industry.  And let’s not forget the infamous “Fountain of Youth” that all seemed to be trying to locate.   It is amazing how Maley juggled all these figures together so the reader gets the full picture of the happenings that change the religious world.  He manages to personalize the facts so they aren’t dull.  Plus, he works hard to keep his story a fun read.  But still, I often felt like I was in the middle of a history book.  Because there truly is so much more historical information packed into the novel that I haven’t even mentioned.   There are too many names and affairs and marriages and deaths to keep up with.  For instance, in the “War of the Roses,” which was a series of wars for control of the throne of England, I didn’t care that the war ended when “Henry number seven bedded Elizabeth of York.”  I wish he cut some of the facts out because I felt eager to get back to the perils of the quirky narrators, David and Diogo, the two scheming delightfully unlikable protagonists.

Even though the history lesson is a little too long for my taste, this is a very funny book.  Be prepared to laugh a lot.  Maley writes, “Destruction awaits the Muslim Turks if Christendom joins with his powerful desert tribe. But why hurry? The food and beds are warm, the ladies plump and willing.”   When he requested that I review his novel, “Profane Fire at the Altar of the Lord,” the author shared with me that it “is what would be on reality TV if they had TV in the 16th century.”  This is a great comparison.  I can see our swindlers, attention seekers that they are, puffing out their chests for the cameras. There is enough fame-seeking in those two characters to fit right in with Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

I found myself smiling a lot in this book.  David is surprised to discover that the leaders of the world may also be liars (no surprise to 2017 readers).  He is tired of all the nonsense and becoming fearful of exposure.  This prompts him to attempt to change his ways, though he does not succeed.  He cannot help himself.   David even lies to animals. “What am I doing now, he asked himself, lying to a horse?”  To further complicate truth-telling, Diogo comes to feels it is his turn to be the Messiah.  Again, making me think of the many Reality TV shows that are currently bombarding our brains, begging the viewer to wonder who is the show’s true star.  So, the scam continues. (The next sentence is a potential spoiler.)  I did not care for the ending of this novel, but that may be because I became very fond of the swindlers.

In Acknowledgements, the author states, “This book’s purpose is to entertain.  I am not a historian.”  Still, his work seems well-researchedThe references he cites are impressive.    Just do not take anything, especially the religious references, too seriously.  If you are a historian, you will devour all the facts found in this book.  If you are not, but enjoy historical fiction that is expertly written in black humor you will also enjoy the tale. Just wait until you read about David’s female encounter towards the end of the book.   I am still laughing.  Maley seemed to be having as much fun writing the book as I did reading it.

Purchase here: http://maleybooks.com/#

The author reached out to me to review this book.

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“The Flight Attendant” by Chris Bohjalian

Genre:        General Fiction (Adult)The Flight Addendant

Publisher:  Doubleday

Pub. Date:  March 13, 2018

Possible Spoiler Alert

The author, Chris Bohjalian, is one of my all-time favorite authors. I believe he is today’s Hemingway, writing American literature with an emotional force. I first discovered Bohjalian when I read his 2010 book, “Midwives.” The setting for that book is rural Vermont, known as the Northeast Kingdom (NEK). Since I spend a good deal of my year in the NEK I was delighted when I recognized the towns and the region’s customs that the author is referring to, especially when he mentions the town of Barton, which is where I summer. But even if the work was located in an unfamiliar place, I still would have loved the novel. “Midwives” blends moral, medical and political themes. “The Flight Attendant” is similar if you substitute the word “medical” with “sexual.”

Although, many of the author’s novels (and I have read them all) take place in Vermont, this one doesn’t. The sexy, flirtatious flight attendant, Cassie, lives in NYC, and her work has her traveling internationally. The protagonist is an alcoholic who is self-destructive. She is no stranger to blackouts and is accustomed to waking up in the bed of a man that she just met on the plane. But this time, when she wakes up in a Dubai hotel room, the man lying next to her is dead, she has blood in her hair, and she has no memory of what happened. Did she, or didn’t she kill him? The novel could be entitled “Confessions of a Flight Attendant,” as its filled with sex, murder, and mystery, but have no fear that you are reading a rubbish; Bohjalian is too talented to write a trashy novel. And if a murder mystery is not your type of story, Bohjalian also manages to get today’s headlines into the plot, including Russian espionage, the FBI, and the CIA. His ability to weave these topics together is enjoyable. Moreover, as in all his novels, it is obvious that a good deal of research went into the writing, giving the story an authentic feel.

Unfortunately, for me, this page-turner lost most of its oomph somewhere along the way. Maybe it is because Cassie, who is now known in the news as the “Tart Cart Killer” is so self-destructive you can guess how she will sabotage any progress her lawyer makes on her case. Or maybe the surprise ending is too much of a leap for me to believe. Or maybe, and most probably, I expect the author to write a masterpiece time and time again. Although this is not my favorite of his work, I still recommend you read this book. Bohjalian is not capable of writing an uninteresting novel. He also happens to be a writer who respects his readers and reviewers. He actually, contacts myself and other reviewers via the internet thanking us for reading and reviewing his work. He has been writing best sellers for over twenty years, there is no professional reason for him to do this other than that he is a nice guy who happens to be one heck of a story-teller. Enjoy the book, you will never board a plane again without wondering what your flight attendant is really like.

I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

Find all my reviews at:  https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read  & https://twitter.com/neesrecord