The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Genre: Literary/General FictionRoses in test tube
Publisher: Celadon Books
Pub. Date: May 31, 2022

The novel reads as a dramedy of errors revolving around an unhappy wealthy, NYC family. We follow the Oppenheim triplets, a girl and two boys, which their mother desperately wanted, and had to endure numerous attempts with In vitro fertilization (IVF).  From birth, the triplets never had the kind of close bond that their mother expected them to have. Actually, the siblings seem to loath one another, which makes for entertaining dialogue when observing their mother’s denial of their true feelings. Most of the time, the mother is the only character that you will like. Just as the triplets are leaving for college, they learn that a fourth sibling, the long-gestating egg from their in-vitro procedure, has been born—the “latecomber.”  Korelitz keeps us in suspense wondering what role the “latecomer,” a second sister, will play in this dysfunctional family. Grief, guilt, trauma, privilege, and religion are woven into the tale through the Oppenheim quirky characters. The Megan Abbott, Edgar Awardwinning author is noted for the depth of her character studies and has written a funny yet poignant family narrative.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“My Evil Mother” by Margaret Atwood

Genre: General Fiction/Short StoryMy Evil Mother
Publisher: Amazon Original Stories
Pub. Date: April 1, 2022

If you are expecting to read a horror novel, this short story is not for you. There is nothing scary in this fun, light-hearted novella. That is unless you consider exploring the mother/daughter relationship frightening. Life is difficult enough for our unnamed fifteen-year-old narrator. In the 1950s, she and her single mother live alone in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. Not too many single moms back then so our protagonist might have felt out of place anyway. However, she is further teased in school because her mother acts oddly. The rumors are that her mom is a crazy person. At home, just between the two of them, her mother has always claimed that she is a witch with insights into the future. This is where all the fun comes in.

Since childhood, her mother has given her some peculiar advice, much of which is intrusive, and downright bizarre. As a four-year-old when she asked her mom a question, mom would reply, “go ask your father.” According to her mom, her dad is the garden gnome. There are many other hilarious exchanges between the mother and her resentful daughter, with the added twist that this mother may or may not be a witch. You will read of the customary mother-daughter squabbles about a boyfriend. However, the mother’s point in this story is not that the boy is unsuitable for the daughter. Rather, the mother informs her daughter that she must break up with the boy because if they continue together, he would die in a car accident, which she will be held responsible for. What a brilliant technique to break your teenager’s romance without having to worry about her sneaking off with him behind your back.

When the daughter is especially teenage challenging the mother threatens that she will “point,” at her. It seems this is how the father became a gnome. The author keeps us wondering whether the mom is insane or using unorthodox impressive parenting skills. As the years pass, our protagonist alternates between believing that her mother is performing witchcraft, or simply a quirky and troubled woman. Either way, this is a perfectly crafted short story about the lengths mothers will go to protect their daughters. Few authors could condense and catch the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship into so few pages written in such an unusual manner. Margaret Atwood may be in her 80s but her writing skills are still as sharp as a sorceress’ knife. And, every bit as powerful as a witch’s brew.  

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“Godspeed” by Nickolas Butler

Genre: Literary Fiction Godspeed
Publisher: Putna
Pub. Date: July 27, 2021

This book is difficult to review because the pace is often slow. Still, it picks up in places, almost feeling like a thriller. At both speeds, it draws the reader into a story about friendship, addiction, class, and greed. It centers around three blue-collar buddies in their forties who start a construction company together. They’re just scraping by when a wealthy woman offers them a contract to finish her trophy house in the mountains. They’ll earn a big sum, including a sizable bonus, if they can finish it in her four-month deadline. The hitch is that it’s nearly impossible considering the amount of work involved. They begin the project knowing that they will almost certainly incur exhaustion and physical injuries.

Godspeed” brims with insights into the politics of rural gentrification. As the townies rage at the influx of affluence into their small community, we see how stronger forces work against them. The mystery surrounding the trophy house’s previous contractors, as well as the purpose behind the four-month deadline, create further tension for the protagonists still. But even with all this conflict to explore, Butler sometimes dwells, too often, on the beauty of the house and countryside at the exclusion of his characters. The descriptions are lovely, but after a while, they get tedious.

A few of the book’s plot twists seem modeled after those of a thriller novel. There was good suspense however, Butler is stronger when focusing on the complexities of working-class male friendships, especially in the setting of physically-demanding work. He ensures that the reader comprehends what construction work really means. I have a newfound admiration for people who work outside with their hands. I also found the woman footing the house’s construction compelling, and wish Butler did more to develop her. Still, the novel succeeds as a story about the haves and have-nots. A couple of the twists are over the top, but the novel’s core message rarely suffers. Whether it’s leaning too hard into its genre trappings, or its physical descriptions of the mountains, “Godspeed” always manages to keep us thinking about survival, and what we’re willing to sacrifice in an unequal world.

Personal note: If you read this book, am I the only one who thought that this novel was more than a thriller.

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“The Circus Train” by Amita Parikh

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s SonsThe Circus Train
Pub. Date: December 6, 2022

As an infant, our heroine suffered from  Polio. We watch her fight to live a normal life. Well, as normal as can be for someone who grows up in a traveling circus. The blurb states that “The Circus Train” is a cross between “The Night Circus” and “Water for Elephants.” I enjoyed both of those books as I did “Train.” However, “Train” was more entertainment than historical fiction. The writing was lacking in comparison to the other two novels. Still, I did enjoy being entertained. It may not read believable but the magic, mystery, and love story in Nazi-occupied Europe kept my interest.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Matchmaker’s Gift” by Lynda Cohen Loigman 

Genre: Historical Fiction/Women’s Fiction The match makers gift
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: Sept. 20, 2022

This novel is women’s fiction written in the form of historical fiction. I suspected as much after reading the blurb. I’m not usually a fan of women’s fiction, but the Lower East Side of Manhattan is the setting of one of the protagonists in the story. My home was in that neighborhood decades ago, in a subsidized apartment not far from the district’s gritty alleys and tenement-style apartments, which in the 1970s, were filled with the neighborhood’s Jewish, Italian and Chinese heritage. I read the book out of nostalgia.

In this dual timeline novel, the author weaves together the tale of a young Jewish child named Sara and her granddaughter, Abby. Sara, in 1910 discovers that she is blessed with the gift of finding marriage matches but only for those in true love. This gift remained with her until she passed away in her golden years. She explains to Abby that when she has found two soul mates, she simply knows, sees, and feels it. In this story, there is a lot of sweet-natured magical realism. Her granddaughter refuses to believe in such nonsense. That is until after her grandmother’s death when she recognizes that she, too, possesses the ability.

Loigman brings feminism into the novel long before it was even a word. When Sara was in her twenties, devout older men who do not believe a matchmaker should be female take Sara to a religious court in an attempt to stop her matchmaking. Without giving spoilers, I will share the decision was not very believable. I loved reading about my old hangouts but this book while charming was too predictable for me to truly enjoy.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Leisure Seeker” by Michael Zadoorian

Genre: Romantic TragicomedyThe Leisure Seeker
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pub. Date: January 2009

Recently, I watched the 2017 movie “The Leisure Seeker” although the film was syrupy, I enjoyed this feel-good, end-of-life film. I learned that the movie was based on a book, which I decided to read. The novel is grittier and more realistic than the film. Still, it is also a delightful read. The author somehow managed to find the perfect balance of sad and touching moments mixed with the right amount of humor so the book isn’t depressing. Instead, it has a down-to-earth accepting of reality feel with likable and spirited protagonists.

As in the film, the future holds nothing but shorter, bleaker days for both Ella and John Robina. Ella has refused chemotherapy and radiation treatment for her stage four cancer. John suffers from Alzheimer’s. (I guess I should mention here that Ella has promised him that she will never put him in a nursing home or let him be a burden to their family). So, after a lifetime spent worrying about their children, who now have children of their own, they sneak out of their Detroit suburb against their doctors and kids’ wishes for one last trip in their cranky old Winnebago, which they christened “The Leisure Seeker” decades earlier.

They set off on one last final journey. In the film, their destination is Key West, Florida, to allow John to finally visit Ernest Hemingway’s historic home. In the novel, they are headed to Disneyland in California, a place they often took their children when they were young. Disneyland is a better fit for how they lived their lives. The story of their marriage unfolds as they travel. They decide to go the long way via the Route 66. As they travel the famous route, Zadoorian finds many ways to make his readers smile. Such as when they stop at all of 66’s quirky landmarks as well as the endless Route 66 diners, which all display the same photos of Marylyn Monroe and James Dean. While this well-written, character-driven novel is packed with hard truths about a long-married couple heading towards their eventual death, it still manages to be both funny and poignant at the same time. I preferred the novel to the film. But then again I usually do.

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“The End of Her” by Shari Lapena

Genre: Domestic Mystery & ThrillerThe End of Us.
Publisher:  Random House UK
Pub. Date: July 23, 2020

While on vacation, looking for beach reads I downloaded two novels by Shari Lapena. “Someone We Know,” and its sequel “The End of Her.” The author returns to the suburban town of Aylesford, nestled in New York’s Hudson Valley.  I read “Someone” first and then “End of Her,” both were terrible. In this one, there is a young couple with colicky newborn twins. Again, the father is accused of murder. Once more, there is a woman who is trying to or already sleeping with  the men in town. The characters were two-dimensional with no depth. The twist is laughable. Even the beautiful island beaches where I read these books could not help me enjoy either novel. I have enjoyed other beach/mystery reads by the author, but after these two, I doubt I will be reading her again. Maybe, because I read the novels in a row, influenced me on how much I disliked this one.

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“Someone We Know” by Shari Lapena

Genre: Mystery & Thrillers Someone we know
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pub. Date: May 12, 2020

Mini-Review

The author is known for her suburban domestic thrillers. This is not one of Lapena’s best. A murder has thrown a quiet Hudson Valley, NY neighborhood into chaos. Raleigh Sharpe is a 16-year-old, who has been breaking into houses and hacking into computers to send prank emails. This is the start of all the bedlam. Then the neighborhood police are brought into the plot but, for another crime. The body of Amanda Pierce (who appears to have been sleeping with all of the townsfolk’s men) is discovered in the trunk of a submerged automobile. Raleigh’s father, Paul, is one of the numerous suspects. In the interim, Ralph’s parents do everything they can to keep him out of being investigated for breaking and entering, resulting in even more suspicion on Paul. Everyone is doubting everyone. Sounds like a good thriller though it isn’t. Unfortunately, Lapena does not provide readers with any fleshy characters to root for or hate. Moreover, most readers will likely see the major twist coming a mile away. Pass on this toothless suburban thriller and try another by the author. She is often very good.

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“The Maid” by Nita Prose

Genre: Clue-Like Mystery The Maid
Publisher: Penquin-Random House
Pub. Date: Jan. 04, 2022

I am not often a fan of cozy mysteries but I did enjoy, “The Maid,” Nita Prose’s debut novel, which is satisfying on every level. A guest is found dead at a posh city hotel, and the major suspect is Molly Gray, a cleaning servicewoman who takes unusual delight and pride in her work. Molly Gray is a quirky girl who probably is on the autism spectrum.  She doesn’t understand the complexities of social interaction and frequently misinterprets others’ intentions. This is how the hotel bartender, who she has a crush on, exploits and uses her in a drug ring. While some readers may be able to figure out who the killer is right away, that will not spoil the novel. The story is more about Molly and her development as a person. This is a heartwarming tale that will have you rooting for Molly, and maybe like myself, help one remember that there is a real person with feelings inside all of us.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“I’ll Cry Tomorrow” by Lillian Roth, Gerold Frank and Mike Connolly

Genre: Hollywood Memoir/AlcoholismI'll cry tomorrow
Publisher: Frederick Fell Publishers, Inc.
Pub. Date: 1954

Mini-Review

I am old enough to recall watching old black and white movies on television. There were no DVDs, cable, or streaming back then. I used to, and still do, enjoy classic black and white films. I remember watching the actress, Susan Hayword portray Lillian Roth in the 1955 film adaptation as her book with the same title of “I’ll Cry Tomorrow.” Roth’s memoir recounts her life in radio, vaudeville, and cinema in the 1920s and 1930s. Decades ago, much had been written about her time as a celebrity. But, the true narrative is about her battle with alcoholism and the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous with its twelve-step recovery concepts. Did you know that back then, AA would give someone in the throes of delirium tremens (DTs) a drink to ensure that they didn’t die?

Roth grew up with a typical stage mother and their grandiose demands. She recounts her sexual abuse as a child actress when she was six years old. As an adult, she, like her father, was an alcoholic. After her fiancé’s death, she rushed into marriage and drank, even more, to keep herself disracted. Roth married and divorced four different men in all. Sounds familiar to many film stars who became addicted to drink and/or drugs. She was in two physically violent relationships, one of which resulted in a broken jaw. Her wired jaw made headlines. The film suddenly looks tame after reading Roth’s memoir. What astonished me, but should not have, is regardless of the century, Hollywood rarely takes care of their child or adult stars. According to Ben Hecht who assisted Marilyn Monroe in her autobiography “My Story,” written at the height of her fame but not published until over a decade after her death, she supposedly said, “In Hollywood, a girl’s virtue is much less important than her hair-do. …Hollywood’s a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss, and fifty cents for your soul.” Whether Marilyn said this or not the statement remains true. Spoiler alert—I googled to learn that in reality there isn’t a happy ending for Roth as told in the book and film.

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