“The Dining Car” by Eric Peterson

Pub. Date:  Nov. 1, 2016

Publisher:  The Independent Book  Publisher Associationthe dining car

The narrator of this novel is a once-famous college football star whose career ended after an accident.  Once he recovers, he is employed as a bartender on an elaborate, old-fashioned railroad dining car owned by a rich, alcoholic, eccentric man.  This character is modeled after legendary Lucius Morris Beebe (1902-1966).  Beebe, as our protagonist, was an American author, gourmand, railroad historian, syndicated columnist and a notorious socialite.  Reading about the absurdity of this sort of insanely rich life through the eyes of a regular Joe, our football player, will give the reader many a chuckle.

The book is called “The Dining Car” because our gourmand, the protagonist, refuses to ride on an airplane.  He writes that airports treat people like cattle, touching them in ways that one should be able to sue over. (I laughed many times over his opinionated statements he makes in his column).   So instead he buys an old Pullman railroad car and travels solely on his vintage private luxury dining car, which is straight out of the 1930s.  He has his own personal top-tier chef and his own bartender who is always decked out in a white jacket.  Both are at his beck and call twenty-four hours a day.  Our quirky gourmand always starts his day with some kind of decadent breakfast that would clog anyone’s arteries. Of course, breakfast is served with a Bloody Mary.  The food and alcohol continues until the end of the day, when he finally drops off in a stupor.  He surrounds himself with the rich and famous who are beyond wealthy, as well as beyond obnoxious.   We really should dislike them.  Yet the writer somehow makes them into endearing characters to chuckle over.  We also should dislike the protagonist because he is such a self-absorbed narcissist.  But despite all his flaws, the reader will come to love him because his wit and charisma are as big as his appetites.

The farcical situations he accidentally finds himself in are so ridiculous one cannot help but laugh out loud with him rather than at him.   When meeting his 11-year old niece for the first time, his magazine’s Board suggests he give her a teddy bear.  They do not suggest this because it will be a kind gesture, but because it will be a good photo-op.  First, they buy a talking Smokey the Bear doll by mistake.  Then they try to feminize the bear with a hat and dress.  When he hands the bear over to the child (of course, he is as drunk as a skunk), the hat is no longer on the bear’s head.  Then the bear’s voice mechanism jams and he begins laughing uncontrollably.   So what observers witness is a man laughing at Smokey in a dress.  This is how he inadvertently manages to get himself in trouble with the LGBT community who think he is poking fun at transgender people.   The scene reads like an updated “I Love Lucy” episode where everything goes wrong and is misinterpreted creating simply silly slapstick humor.

I could have happily read about the fictional Beebe’s overindulgent lifestyle and his hilarious antics throughout the whole book.  But the author adds romance, chef spying, a sister in politics, murder, and an orphaned niece into the plot.  The niece is written as if she is 6-years old instead of 11-years old.  Her character felt rushed in as a means to influence the bartender’s fate.  I did not feel a connection to her at all.  Nor did I care if the football player falls in love with his co-worker or a celebrity chef.    By adding in these other characters, I felt that the author is trying to write a bestselling book, not realizing that he already has one.  For me, these characters with their subplots felt like filler.  One sees the author putting his plot-driven fingerprints all over a delightful, character-driven novel.   Nevertheless, I recommend that you treat yourself to a delicious book with course after course of scrumptious meals served with signature cocktails that will leave you hungry for more travels on “The Dining Car.”

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“The Last Neanderthal” by Claire Cameron

Pub. Date:  April 25, 2017The Last Neanderthal

Publisher:   Little, Brown and Company

This is a novel about the makings of the female species. There are two female protagonists. One lives in the present and the other lives forty thousand years ago. The author, Claire Cameron, weaves the two females’ very different lives together in flashbacks and flash-forwards. Cameron writes her novel as if it is a thesis, with a theory that needs to be proved. Her hypothesis is that our ancestors were strikingly similar to the humans of today. Her end notes have an impressive list of references on the subject, showing that she did her homework. In the hands of a lesser author, this dissertation-like focus could be the book’s weakness. Instead, her storytelling skills are so good that it is the book’s strength. It reads as a historical fiction, a mystery, a fast-paced suspense tale with taboo sex, and a love letter to the human race, with an emphasis on the female ability to create life.

The modern day woman is a pregnant archaeologist who is racing to get grant funding to continue her work on Neanderthal artifacts before her baby is born. The bones she finds in her dig are of two bodies and they are a shocking discovery because they are of a female Neanderthal and a human male buried together, positioned as if embracing. In the distant past, the Neanderthal teenage girl is also pregnant. She is racing to find shelter before her baby is born. It is crucial that this baby lives since she knows that her species’ numbers are low. Her mother taught her that her reason for being born is to reproduce so the “family” can continue. (Family here can mean their immediate family but is also used as their word for all Neanderthals). It is clear to the reader that the female bones found by the archaeologist are the bones of the female Neanderthal protagonist. Both the Neanderthal girl and the modern day woman have very difficult births, one without her partner, in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, and the other alone in a hole in the earth during a snowstorm. Both almost lose their life giving birth and have to decide whether to save their own life or the life of their unborn baby. This type of choice always makes for a thought provoking and heart-tugging read.

By itself, the story of the modern day heroine would have been a good feminist tale, asking if working women can have it all—a fulfilling career and family life? The author adds in a postpartum psychosis episode, and the Archaeologist begins to think about killing her baby. This temporary madness makes for an interesting story but it has been written before in “All She Ever Wanted” by Rosalind Noonan and other stories on this subject. But the story of the Neanderthal girl is so intriguing that I sometimes became annoyed when the next chapter focused on the Archaeologist. In the girl’s story, I became lost in the world of 40 thousand years ago, when the last families of Neanderthals roamed the earth. They were incredible people, and I choose to call them people because of what I learned in this book. Yet, they had an animal-like fairness to them that modern humans do not have. Unless desperate, they never killed a baby animal. They understood that this would disrupt the balance of the order of life because then the baby bison would not grow and continue the circle of life.

I became fascinated with other side stories in the novel too, such as the girl’s friendship with a tiger too old to hunt. He would come to visit her like a pet and she would give him strips of meat, usually cooked. (The Neanderthals would eat raw meat immediately after a successful hunt but once brought home the carcass is cooked). The Neanderthal girl and the tiger jointly knew that if it came down to it, one would kill the other even though they were friends. It is survival of the fittest with a certain kindness and respect. Another character that intrigued me is a boy child that the mother Neanderthal takes in when she finds him lost and orphaned. He became a much loved family member even though they see him as an odd looking child as well as rather strange. He had impressive qualities that they did not have. Something about his arms allowed him to throw and hit a target as only an adult could. Unlike the others, who rarely use their voice to communicate in words, he chattered all day long, driving the others crazy. And a difference that made this reader laugh out loud is that the family worried that when his time came he will never find a mate, because he is such an ugly looking male, no female would find him attractive enough to want him. (Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I guess Neanderthals were not physically attracted to humans’ facial features).

I will not share what happens to each of the female heroines or their babies. It would be a spoiler. I will share that one of my favorite parts in the Archaeologist’s story is when she is in labor and couldn’t talk with the doctor so they locked eyes and somehow managed to communicate without words, just as the Neanderthals did. This book makes me want to pay attention to my own forgotten senses lost from lack of use. I often joke that my sinus and spine pains can tell me when the weather is about to change. Could this be how modern Homo sapiens modified our alertness to nature? And can we once again regain instincts that we have lost? The author made me truly feel for our ancient ancestors as if they were my relatives and not just extinct creatures that I once read about in a history book. This is a powerful novel that made me often tear and sometimes laugh, all while exploring the concept of what makes us human?

 

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“Under the influence” by Joyce Maynard

under the influence

This is a contemporary women’s novel that manages to have all the drama expected in this genre, but the author manages to keep the novel from reading like a soap opera.  The protagonist is a young woman whose mother never wanted her, and whose father she never met.  Early on she is familiar to the hard knock in life.  She is the girl in high school who nobody notices until she meets her future husband.  The reader gets the feeling that she marries him to become part of his big, tightly knit family.  When her mother-in-law enters her name into the family tree, she thinks she finally belongs somewhere, with a family that wants her.  It doesn’t take her long to realize that her husband is a cad.  She can put up with him because they have a little boy who is her main reason for living.  Still, after her husband asks for a divorce, she is devastated that his family disowns her.

She makes a nice life for herself and her little boy.  Still, the loneliness and responsibilities of being a single mom are trying.   She self-medicates with alcohol, though only after her son has been put to bed.  She finds herself in trouble when her son is sick in the middle of the night, and she races to get him to the hospital.   She is pulled over and is given a DUI.   When her now remarried ex-husband learns of this he demands full custody.  Her lawyer assures her that her ex-husband doesn’t stand a chance, because other than her recent DUI she has a spotless record.  Unfortunately, the judge in the case has a personal vendetta against drunk driving.  He informs all those in the courtroom that “Four years ago my wife of thirty-four years was killed by a drunk driver.”  She unjustly loses custody.

The story is told in the first person narrated by the heroine.  The writing feels very personal, as if it is a confession.  Even after three years of sobriety, she can only see her son for a few hours every two weeks.  She is at the mercy of her ex-husband and his moods.  This mom reads like the mother of the year (with probably one too many pages showing her complete attentiveness to being a good mother.)   The unfairness of the situation will make you cringe.  During a catering waitress job for a charity event, she meets a very wealthy, older, charismatic, and unusual couple.  The wife, who is in a wheelchair, takes a shine to this bright young woman and invites her to visit their home.  The older woman seems to take the younger woman under her their wing.  Soon our young mom is over their glamorous, art-filled home almost every day.  She feels as if they have adopted her.  Before you know it she is working for them on a philanthropic project regarding rescue dogs, which is the wife’s passion.  Her world, when not on a visitation day, revolves around them.  She is thrilled to be socializing with “the rich and famous.”  She meets the couple when she is in a very vulnerable state.   It is easy to understand how she misses that she is being used by them, sometimes as a servant.  However, the couple is so beguiling she looks the other way.  The husband is a larger than life character.  He is crude (continually talking about their amazing sex life), yet still very likable, and appears to be loyal to his blue-collar friends from his youth.  The reader can see him more clearly than the heroine as a vulgar narcissist.  Think of a male version of the legendary actress Joan Crawford in her daughter’s autobiography, “Mommy Dearest.”

The protagonist uses her friends/employers too.  Her son has been angry with her since she lost custody.  On a visitation day, she brings him to her employers’ over-the-top house, with all kinds of luxuries that a child would love, such as swimming pools and boats.  Additionally, her son adores the macho husband.  He asks “Is that guy a superhero or something?” and begins asking his father if he can spend more time with his mom.  The couple’s true nature comes out when her son witnesses an accident on the husband’s racing boat, which is the fault of his adult son.  This accident has serious consequences for a young woman.  At the hospital, where they are taken by the police, she notices that when her wealthy friends leave, they do so without saying one word to her, or her traumatized son, nor will they ever again.  They drop her, and her son, like a hot potato.  Once again, she loses another would-be family.  Soon she learns that the super rich are different.  Unlike her, they can afford the best lawyers, and buy their way out of anything.  Now she needs to make a moral choice.  She “must choose between the truth and the friends who have given her everything.”  The story ends years later when the now older mom realizes that she never needed them.  She has a family, a family of two, consisting of her and her son.

In between all of this, there is a boyfriend who offers true loyalty.  But her new friends think he is boring, for them a sin worse than a mortal sin, and she dumps him.  Personally, I feel that the boyfriend, though important to the plot’s ending (I cannot share why for it would be a spoiler) made the story read more as chick-lit.  There is another minor character that I feel did enhance the plot, who is the couple’s longtime female servant.  They betray this woman in the most brutal of ways (again, if I share it would be a spoiler.)  At the close of this story, the long time servant quietly explains to our heroine how an unthinkable immoral act can happen with the simple statement of “people tell lies.”   The book’s writing isn’t very deep but still, I enjoyed the novel.  It is a good beach read that can be thought provoking.  Would you inform on a friend who you consider to be your fairy godmother?

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“The Patriots” by Sana Krasikov

ARC books are given before publication to professional the-patriotsreviewers for free in exchange for an honest review.  I missed the publication deadline on “The Patriots,” and did not remember I owned the book until I saw a review of it in the NYT (which I did not read for fear of influencing my own review). I do hope my review, being written after publication, will still assist with this book’s sales, for this is historical fiction at its finest. The story revolves around a Jewish girl, from Brooklyn who lived in Russia from 1933 to 1979. The author, Sana Krasiko, moved between voices and decades. The story is linear except for the prologue, which takes place in the 1950s. After that the story of the mother, which is told chronologically and in the third person, begins. However, her story is punctuated by the first-person voice of her 60-year old son, who narrates in the year 2008. I enjoyed this writing style— it kept the prose fresh while showing the different views of the times. Both mother and son lived in Russia for parts of their lives. In the 1930s, when most were immigrating to the US, our heroine was leaving New York for the Old World. She remained trapped there under Lenin and Stalin’s rule. She was sent to a prison camp. The son was forced to live in orphanages until his mother was released in the 1950s. But before all this happened, she was romanticizing the possibilities of creating a better life in Russia. Looking at today’s news, this book could hardly feel more relevant to this reviewer. I shyly admit that I did not know that Putin was once a KGB officer.

In this novel, our Russian bound teen originally wanted to go to an elite American Women’s College. However, the family finances stood in the way, as her father’s business suffered from the Depression. She thus entered the co-ed world of NYC’s free public college education. It was here that she discovered other Jewish students arguing Marxism-Leninism and Communism vs. Capitalism. Her desire for pearls was replaced with a passion for political activism favoring socialized states. Think Barbara Streisand in “The Way We Were.” She graduated, and in her first job met and fell in love with a Russian man who was in the US for only a few months. To the horror of her family, she booked passage on a steamliner to Russia. She told her family that she was off to pursue her dream job and that she would be gone for one year, maybe two. In reality, she was really going to meet up with her Russian lover. Once she arrived and finally located her man, he rejected her. It appears that he was worldlier than she was, informing her to go home for she was in way over her head and that the USSR does not at all resemble a US college campus. Her pride would not let her return home. Besides, “Purges and politics aside, there was plenty of fun to be had in Moscow in 1934.” (One of the nice things about reviewing after publication is that I now can use quotes, unlike pre-publication.)

Eventually, she met a new young man. They married and had a child. Ironically, her husband was also a New Yorker who sympathized in Communist theories. In the early days of her marriage, her American passport was confiscated, which she demanded be returned to her. This was the beginning of her troubles with the secret police. Her confusion and fear during interrogations were shown when she informed on her best friend, another American girl that she met on the steamliner to Russia. Between non-stop questions with little time to think, she betrayed her friend in order to save her own family. In the long run she fails at this too. Despite her efforts to keep her family safe, her husband was shot, and she was imprisoned as a spy in a Holocaust-like concentration camp (think Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice”), being worked to death while covered with scabs from scurvy among other deadly ailments. These scenes were very hard to read. But, what was even harder, for me, was reading how her own US Embassy would not let her through the gates. It seems the US considered Americans in Russia as “pinko” traitors.

Still, before her imprisonment, she appeared happy to live in an apartment that held 12 people, with a common outhouse and a common kitchen where one had to hide their food for fear of stealing. These so-called apartments had no privacy or any conveniences at all. Even the light bulb in the entrance way was stolen so frequently that the residents were perpetually in the dark. While reading about the living conditions in “Patriots,” I had images of when the book and movie character “Dr. Yuri Zhivago” returned after the war to learn that his once-grand Moscow house had been divided into tenements. Her contentment to live in this manner left her son, as well as this American reviewer, very confused about how easily she adjusted when “She had grown up on the elm-lined streets of Flat-bush, Brooklyn, debated… at Erasmus Hall High, studied mathematics among the first emancipated coeds at Brooklyn College, tuned in to Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, and watched Cagney kiss Harlow on the projection screen at the Paramount.” How and why did this phenomenon happen?

Even in 1979, she refused to leave Russia to come to the US with her now grown son and his young family. She insisted that her life was in Russia, and that this was the country where she belonged. Mother and son had many issues around this subject. The reader knows that the real problem was as a 6-year old boy, her son, had no understanding that his mother didn’t abandon him, but was forcibly taken away from him. To make matters worse, the grown son was furious when he explained this to her and she replied that Russia takes care of their children.

Ultimately, she does leave for America with her son, most likely to be with her grandson who she adored. Sill, mother and son never got along. Until her last breath, she wished she stayed in Russia. “Maybe I would have been less hard on my mother had she been another ordinary Russian afflicted with that national form of Stockholm syndrome they call patriotism. But she wasn’t. She was, like I am now, an American….What I could not abide was her unwillingness to condemn the very system that had destroyed our family.” Sadly, what the son didn’t know was that when Stalin’s purges began, she decided it was time to go home. But, by then it was way too late.

Dare I say that this multi-generational saga will become a classic? The reader will go through the history of the pre-Cold War, Cold War, and post-Cold War told as a mother-son story. Once I finished the book, I wondered how the author’s own roots influenced her writing. Krasiko is a Jewish woman who was born in Ukraine and grew up in the former Soviet republic of Georgia before coming to New York. Her character of the mother was so complex that I couldn’t help but wonder if she was a real person. Or maybe, my thoughts are due to the author’s talent?

The book ends with the mother’s younger brother giving her now almost senior citizen son possible clarity on his Mom’s stubbornness, finally answering the how and why of the phenomenon of a typical Brooklyn girl becoming a loyal Communist party member. Maybe it had nothing to do with Russia at all but rather her guilt. In her decision to leave for the USSR she had hurt all those that she loved. It began with her family back in Brooklyn. Then it ended the life of her best friend, another 20-year old Brooklyn girl who also had dreams of a better world, as well as ending the life of her husband. And clearly hurting her son in all stages of his life. Unfortunately, her youthful optimism backfired on her. The uncle suggested that just maybe, his sister felt as if she didn’t deserve the comforts of America or a good life anymore? She was a living epitome of a sad Russian poem. Before Stalin became a Bolshevik revolutionary he was a poet. This book makes it clear that although Stalin is long dead his cruelty lives on.

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“Where the Sweet Bird Sings” by Ella Joy Olsen

Pub. Date:  August 29, 2017       birds

Publisher:  Kensington Books

Why do I always fall into the same trap?  This is a novel about a young married couple who live in Salt Lake City (the location alone should be a spoiler) who lose a child through a rare genetic disease.  The parents did not know that they were carriers.  So my maternal instincts seem to go through my fingers and before I know it, I click “yes” agreeing to read and review.  Well, there are many heartbreaking stories of child loss out there, and in fairness, this one had its moments.  I think the author’s problem was trying to combine past and present mysteries into the plot.  Yet, reflecting, I probably would have been okay with that.  I guess my problem was that I felt that the writing was preaching forgiveness to the point of nausea.   But, that is me, and I bet I have blog buddies that I admire who will eat this one up.

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“Almost Missed You” by Jessica Strawser

Pub. Date:   March 28, 2017almost

Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press.

Two married couples with more issues and melodrama than a soap opera. A story about a kidnapped child should be heartbreaking, but nothing rang true for me in this one.  I found the cabin scenes particularly ridiculous.

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In The Shadow of Lakecrest” Elizabeth Blackwell

Pub. Date:   February 1, 2017shadow

Historical fiction is my favorite genre.  I am not sure why this book is labeled as historical fiction.    Although the story takes place in the 1920s, I didn’t see any history in the plot (except for references of flappers.)  The story revolves around a poor young woman, with a shady past.  She marries a rich man that she meets while she is employed as a governess.  It turns out that her hubby’s family is just as shady as hers.

“Lakecrest” has potential.  The heroine’s new home is an creepy isolated old mansion, complete with scary gargoyles.  She inherits a mysterious unwelcoming new family with a mother-in-law from hell.  She learns that her gentleman husband has his own demons.

This could have been a good psychological thriller with a Gothic “Rebbeca” theme, but the writing is dull and not believable.   I know I am telling and not showing which makes for a boring book review, maybe my review is emulating the book, a Gothic wannabe that poses as historical fiction.

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