“More Miracle Than Bird” by Alice Miller

Genre:  Historical FictionMore Mircle Than Bird
Publisher:  Tin House Books
Pub. Date: June 2, 2020

This book’s unusual title is from a line in the poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” by William Butler Yeats. The novel’s setting is in England on the eve of WWI. The book is marketed for fans (and I am one) of Paula McLain’s female fictional memoir, “The Paris Wife.” I have enjoyed other novels written in this manner, such as “The Aviator’s Wife” by Melanie Benjamin. In both novels, the author blurs the line between a biography and fiction, focusing on the wives of the famous men they married. The catch is that the reader gets to learn about the famous men through the eyes of the forgotten women. “Miracle” is another novel reimagining a romantic relationship through the wife’s eyes. This time between Georgie Hyde-Lees who was married to the great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats. As it says in the prologue, written by biographer, Richard Ellmann, “Had Yeats died instead of marrying, he would have been remembered as a remarkable minor poet…who except in a handful of poems, did not have much to say.” We get it, ‘behind every great man…’—yada-yada.

What makes this one different and a bit odd is that the midlife poet introduces the much younger 21-year-old Hyde-Lees to a mysterious occult that is obsessed with the afterlife. ‘The Order’ is the name of the secret society. (I googled; it’s all true). Fortune tellers, séances and the weirdly hooded, robe-wearing Order members are a large chunk of the plot. I was not expecting hocus pocus in this book. It totally took me by surprise, leaving me with mixed feelings. I enjoyed learning how eccentric Yeats was, but I was not interested in the couple’s occult shenanigans. However, the author does a good job of keeping the pace racing. At one point, Georgie finds herself in a closed coffin as part of an initiation.

Miller has a nice dichotomy going on. By day, Georgie is working in a hospital for injured soldiers, one of whom is smitten with her (not sure if the soldier is real or fictional), and by night, she is with her poet, his famous pals not to mention attending occult meetings. The love affair and marriage are a bit duller than found in “The Aviator’s” and “The Paris,” probably because the author paints W.B. as not as taken with his wife as she is with him. His big love affair that went on for decades was with a married woman pre-Georgie (I googled. Again, true). This is a well-researched and interesting tale. This reviewer never knew how much she didn’t know about the acclaimed poet. Although I would have enjoyed reading a bit more about the British royal family before the war, I still found “Miracle” an interesting read written in compelling prose.

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 Silent Patient” by Alex Michaelides

Genre:  Mystery & ThrillersThe Silent Patient
Publisher:  Celadon Books
Pub. Date:  February 5, 2019

Mini Review

I need to start this review by saying that I guessed the big twist early on in the novel.  This does not mean that I didn’t enjoy this crime thriller, for I did.  The story revolves around Alicia Berenson a 33-old woman who kills her husband.  Tied in a chair, she shoots him five times in the face. Creepy. She stops speaking immediately after the murder.  She is a painter by profession.  Her only communication is through a self-portrait she paints weeks after the murder, titled “Alcestis.” I enjoyed that the author throws his readers a clue in the form of a Greek tragedy. Don’t worry if you never heard of the play, I hadn’t, it is explained to you.  And no, the painting’s title was not the tip-off for me.

There is a short trial. Alicia receives a guilty verdict.  Due to her hysterical silence, she is sentenced to a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. Her psychotherapist, Theo Faber, narrates the story. I found his voice unreliable.  He jumps around in time without letting the reader know.  The narration is also unrealistic. Too much psychobabble.  Thrillers are usually only good when you don’t see the twist coming.  So why did I keep reading? Probably because Michaelides gives us many shady suspects throughout the tale. I kept hoping that I guessed wrong. “Silent” is not a particularly well written novel, still it is a fun ride that should be read in the middle of the night with a tired mind.  You may just find yourself questioning your own sanity.

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“The Second Home” by Christina Clancy

Itsy-Bitsy Mini Review

Genre:  Women’s FictionThe Second Home
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:  June 2, 2020

This is a women’s fiction beach book. The kind I like to read sitting in the sun with a glass of chilled wine in my hand. Considering that I am not usually a fan of women’s fiction and because I read “The Second Home” at the beginning of February, I am surprised that the book kept my interest. The story revolves around a couple with two biological daughters and one adopted son. We follow the kids’ life struggles from their teen years until they are in their thirties. There is rich descriptive writing. The author breathes much life into the families’ generational Cape Cod summer home. (I so wanted to be there). There are thought-provoking dark themes in the plot. However, as the years go by, the story became a bit too melodramatic for my taste. Yet, I went past my 50-page rule and finished the novel. Maybe that is because I enjoyed the family, especially the hippie parents. On the other hand, maybe, it is just that, while reading the novel, I was pretending to be on a warm beach.

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

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“Paris Never Leaves You” by Ellen Feldman

Genre:  Historical Fiction/Women’s FictionParis Never Leaves You
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:  June 2, 2020

When did Women’s Fiction morph into Romance Fiction?  Or is it just me who feels the shift?  Traditional women’s fiction focuses on a woman’s lifetime journey. There is frequently a love interest.  A romance novel focuses entirely on a woman’s romantic relationships and usually has a happy ending. This novel has two timelines: during and post WWII.   Our heroine has a romance going on in both—just not necessary.  One love interest is understandable. The survival of her child and herself depended on it. The other feels like an add-on simply to keep romance readers happy.

During the war, the woman has an eighteen-month-old baby. She works in a tiny bookstore in occupied Paris.  In the next decade, her daughter is a young teen and she works in a NYC publishing house. Although unhappy with the feel of a romance novel, there were parts of the story that I did enjoy. As a reader, I was delighted to find myself reading a book about books. I read to learn and to be entertained simultaneously, which is why historical fiction is my favorite genre. I applaud the author’s research. I did learn something new regarding WWII German soldiers. I cannot say more for it would be a spoiler. I thought she did a good job of showing the impossible choices the mother needed to make, during the war, to keep her child alive. As well as capturing the woman’s overwhelming sense of survivor’s guilt once she was safely living in the States.

Still, I do not think that “Paris” will pose any threat to other WWII historical fiction books.  In the classic, “Sophie’s Choice,” the good versus evil smacks you in the face. In this novel, it feels colorless. There are scenes showing the horrors committed against the Jews, but the brutalities are not as pronounced.  Your jaw will not drop from shock.  Possibly this was the author’s intention since the story revolves more around the main character’s personal journey than war crimes. The character Sophie also has a romance when she is out of Nazi Germany and is living in Brooklyn, NY.  Hers is a violent relationship, which she accepts due to her posttraumatic stress from the war years. Unlike this novel, that romance enhanced Sophie’s tale.

Maybe I was expecting too much. Ellen Feldman is a 2009 Guggenheim fellow, which lead me to believe I would be reading a literary novel.  The book held my interest for the author’s moral analysis of her characters. The mother struggles with what is right and wrong in both of her love affairs.  Her male characters are also wrestling with their consciousnesses.  Feldman creates further tension with her daughter. The mother never tells her teenage daughter secrets from their past causing a rift between them.  However, I am simply not a fan of contemporary romance.  If you are, and you enjoy historical fiction this one is for you.

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

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“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens

Genre:  Mystery/Coming-Of-AgeWhere the crawdad sings
Publisher:  PENGUIN GROUP Putnam
Pub. Date:  August 14, 2018

This unusual mystery follows two timelines that slowly intertwine from 1952 and1969. The first timeline revolves around the lonely life of a girl named Kya. Owens will break your heart with this character. She grows up in extreme poverty, living in a shack in the marshlands of North Carolina. The townspeople shun her, referring to the child as the Marsh Girl. She is completely on her own since her family abandoned her when she was six-years-old. The second timeline follows the murder investigation of Chase Andrews, a one-time local football celebrity. The author may have made Chase a one-sided character. He is the epitome of male entitlement. I promise that you will not like him.

The mystery is unusual for a variety of reasons. The author is an American wildlife scientist, so it is not a big surprise to find her protagonist escaping into the wildlife that surrounds her.  However, it is a surprise that Owens spends a good deal of time educating her readers on swampland wildlife. Another unexpected element is that the writing style is often poetic, including actual poems, sprinkled throughout the book. Consequently, it is often hard to remember that you are reading a mystery. The author manages to pull it off by adding a 1969 murder at the beginning of the book, and then at the end having a teenage Kya becoming the suspect.  In between, you will find yourself mesmerized in a slice of the very unusual life of the Marsh Girl.

This ‘whodunit’ is utterly different from contemporary crime thrillers found on the bestsellers list. Other than a twist at the ending of each story, there are no other similarities between “Crawdads” and “Gone Girl.”  The beauty in this novel is that the writing is both silent and loud.  Kya’s silent isolation fosters her loud, powerful sense of independence.  Even though I thought the little girl’s survival skills read more like a super child than a human child, I still just loved the rich tale of Kayla’s coming-of-age. Personally, I could have done without the mystery. Yet, there are no faults with that part of the plot either. This intelligently written, distinct novel is a win-win no matter the genre.

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“Colombiano” by Rusty Young

Genre: YA/Coming-Of-AgeThe Colombmian
Publisher:  Havelock & Baker
Pub. Date:  Feb. 1, 2020

The Coming-Of-Age and Young Adult genres are often confused. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a C-O-A classic. “The Outsiders” is a YA classic. Although I enjoy the YA classics, I am not a fan of contemporary YA. At the age of thirteen, I read “The Outsiders,” which began my life-long love of reading. It inspired me to write my own manuscript at a tender age (something that has never seen the light of day).  It was a teenage S.E. Hinton, afterall, who wrote “The Outsiders,” and she did so with a teen audience in mind.  Still, I know of adults who read the book and became invested in the story’s portrayal of class struggle, with its strong dose of Jets vs. Sharks. Hinton’s writing style provides many satisfying nods to an audience beyond teenagers. Readers fell in love with Ponyboy Curtis as they did with Francie Nolan.  I find most of contemporary YA, on the other hand, to lack anything of interest for those outside its target audience. For example, since I am a fan of Gothic literature, I gave the “Twilight” series a try. I never made it past the first book. Though I’m open to hearing any arguments otherwise, it’s hard to find something in the story beyond the central teen melodrama. Bram Stoker’s literary masterpiece would seem to exist on another planet.

So why in the world did I read “Colombiano,” a contemporary novel over 700 pages long?  The answer is the author. That he once chose to spend four months in a Colombian prison to research his 2004 non-fiction book, “Marching Powder,” demands respect. For this gritty and heartbreaking novel, he interviewed Colombian child soldiers. Not your usual YA kind of author. Young’s experiences make the novel feel utterly authentic. The book’s characters are fictional but based on the real-life children he interviewed, all of whom were swept into the never-ending Colombian civil war. To paraphrase the book’s blurb, you have to choose a side: the ruthless guerrilla FARC, or the equally ruthless Autodefensa, their vigilante rivals. “Pick a side, or one will be picked for you.”

As Young stated in a 2017 interview with the New Zealand Herald, “I took the most dramatic, powerful, of each of these stories, and attributed all those stories to one person.”  His protagonist is Pedro, a rural Colombian 15-year old.  He loves his family, his girlfriend, and fishing. When FARC guerrillas execute his peace-loving father, his life is forever changed. FARC will not allow him to bury his father. They banish him and his mother from their family farm, leaving them no way to make a living.  The execution scene is especially powerful because the author manages to show the father’s goodness and courage with minimal dialogue. When they tell him to kneel, he informs his murderers that he will stand. For the first time in his life, he curses at his son, insisting that he take his mother inside and that they both stay there. Pedro’s mother listens, he does not. His father dies in front of him.

When the police can do nothing to help Pedro seek justice for his father, he joins the vigilante group. Here, Young pulls no punches. The brutality that the boys go through in the Autodefensa training was too much for me, personally. I often needed to skim. These scenes were not practically gory, but Young takes pains to convey the Nazi-like disregard for life, friend or foe, instilled in the boys. As the pages add up, Pedro becomes accustomed to torture and death and moves up the chain of command. Even as he becomes part of a world of unspeakable violence, the author manages to keep Pedro an adolescent with teenage concerns.  Will his mother ever forgive him for joining Autodefensa? Can he win his girlfriend back? Will his best friend remain his friend? He is determined to leave the group once he has killed those involved in his father’s murder, but wonders, after that, will there be anything left of the old Pedro. What sort of man will he become?  Would his father be proud or disgusted with him?

The author took seven years to write this novel, complete with its glossary of Spanish terms and slang. I believe Young’s debut novel, “Colombiano” has the makings of a YA classic. It has enough action, romance, historical fiction, and a coming-of-age plot to please a wide breadth of readers.  Yet, I found the book to be too long. I love many long novels, but each battle in “Colombiano” is explained with such rigorous detail that repetition becomes inevitable. Sometimes, it reads more like history than historical fiction. Still, I find the novel to be a compelling and eye-opening read on Colombia’s history from the 1960s to the present. An intellectual page-turner for readers of all ages.

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

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