“The Madonna of the Mountains” by Elise Valmorbida

Genre:           Historical FictionMaddonna of the Mountains
Publisher:     Random House
Pub. Date:     June 12, 2018

Whenever I give a book a five-star review, that means, for me, it is an incredible read.  I admit that when a book is on a subject I enjoy or something that I can relate to, I usually add in an extra star.  After all, this reviewer is only human.   In this book, I strongly identify with the characters’ culture.  Still, this does not take away from the vivid imagery in the superior writing.  You will feel as though you are inside the pages and everything is personally touching you.  The novel is filled with the feel of Italy, its food, its way of life and its picturesque wonders.   As well as the ugly underbelly of peasant living; the author, Elise Valmorbida, explores the moral questions on the uneven balance of power between the sexes in Italian life.

The novel derives much of its weight from its setting: War in Italy during the 1920s to the 1950s.  The main female protagonist is the epitome of an unsentimental woman doing whatever it takes to keep her family alive during hardship in unstable times.  She and her husband have lived through and survived WWI.  Now they must do it again, with four children, during WWII.  As the reader knows, at the beginning of the war, Benito Mussolini chose to ally Italy’s forces with those of Adolf Hitler.  Soon German and Italian armies were battling Allied troops on several fronts.  Italian civilians suffered on many levels. Their homes were bombed, their food sources cut off.  Then, one month after Italy surrendered to Allied forces; it declared war on Nazi Germany.   And, the Italian people were further bombed and starved and still suffering. “War is hell.” ― General William T. Sherman.

“Madonna” focuses on the female character’s role.  Women seemed the most burnt out by life because they were the most abused.  The enemy, whoever they might be at the moment, was beating and raping the females.  Their own husbands were often no better, especially in peasant life where it is the norm for men to beat their wives and children, and have affairs.  Think the movie “Zorba The Greek,” not an Italian film but so similar in the scene where the village peasants stone to death a woman who was unfaithful to her husband.   If you think this casual acceptance of violence against women can be attributed to the period, think again.  According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year.”   I actually found myself comparing our Italian mother to Tina Turner and her husband Ike.  Ike once told the newspapers in 1985. “Yeah, I hit her, but I didn’t hit her more than the average guy beats his wife.”  I have read much fiction and nonfiction on violence against women, this novel explains it so well.  The reader will observe how mothers taught their daughters that they must be subservient to men.  And if they are not, they will be physically punished.  Here is another movie for you, “Divorce Italian Style.”  The film is a comedy that still screams of a patriarchal society where it is expected that husbands and fathers hit.

All in all, as a reviewer, I appreciate that the author did not portray the mother in a romantic sense.  What she did was show wartime horrors and the abuse the women endured in an epic novel.   The author’s characters are so real and so gut-wrenching that I was not surprised to learn about the possibility that this is autobiographical.  I applaud Valmorbida for such an honest description of Italy’s wonders and shames.

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

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“Days of Awe: Stories” by A.M. Homes

Genre:         FictionDays of Awe
Publisher:   Penguin Group Viking Press
Pub. Date:   June 5, 2018

If you want a razor sharp look into the absurdities of present-day life that will force you to admit your own ego issues, then this is your book.  But be prepared: some of it may be difficult to interpret. This short story collection is penned by the author A.M. Homes.   Homes is known for her controversial novels and unusual short stories.  She has received numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship.   This is literary fiction and not a beach read.  Although this genre is usually harder to read, I still enjoy it.  Still, frankly, it is not the genre that makes this book difficult.   It is that some of the stories are incoherent.  One of my favorite authors, Roxane Gay, wrote on Goodreads, “I am a fan of Homes…This just wasn’t the collection for me.”   I get Gay’s words since I loved Homes’ dark comedy, “May We Be Forgiven,” but I had trouble with this book.  In fact, there are only two stories in the collection that I enjoyed:  “Brother On Sunday” and “The National Cage Bird Show.”

In “Brother On Sunday” we meet two male siblings and observe their contentious relationship.  One brother is single and rather obnoxious.  He is the type of guy who dates women half his age to wear as arm candy.  Every Sunday, this brother visits his married brother and his wife, along with the couple’s friends at the beach.    However, the story is not really about the brothers, it is actually about how plastic we all have become: in our physical appearance as well as in our personalities.   The married brother is a doctor who deals in vanity.  Eh, you know what I mean, the sort of doctor that gives botox injections and facial fillers.  The group’s beach talk is about the agony one goes through to starve oneself thin.   That horrible feeling one gets when they realize that their thighs begin to dimple.  And God help us all, the inevitable telltale of age: sagging of skin.  In many ways, this story reminded me of the nonliterary novel, “You Think It, I’ll Say It.”  By the end of “Brother,” the reader discovers that it’s not only the single brother who is obnoxious but rather all the characters are hard to like.

It is harder to follow than “Brothers,” but I did enjoy “The National Cage Bird Show,” a story told entirely through messages in a chat room for bird owners.  The main protagonists are a teenage girl and a grown man who is in the army and stationed overseas.  Thank goodness there is nothing sexual in their chats.  The man is trying to cheer up the girl because when her mom meets her in the emergency room after she is in a car accident her mother’s first words imply that her daughter’s face is now ruined.  The mother’s words pretty much sum up the book’s nods to the over-the-top importance of beauty in today’s society.  But there are many other topics in this chat room, and some conversations are as sweet as they are bizarre, making me chuckle.  Think a couple of old women seriously discussing the importance of which brand of bird feed one uses.

I am afraid the other ten stories lost my interest.  I admit just skimming them making me wonder that if I had put in more effort I might have found something to like in the whole collection.  But, most reviewers know not to waste time reading something you have lost interest in.  I agree with the title of Sara Nelson’s book,  “So Many Books, So Little Time.”  Yet, I still encourage you to read the book because the author has once said about her books, “I write the things we don’t want to say out loud.”  And, that is a very admirable trait.

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

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Twitter: Martie’s Book Reviews: https://twitter.com/NeesRecord


“Not Exactly Love: A Memoir” by Betty Hafner

Genre:           MemoirNot Exactly Love
Publisher:    She Writes Press
Pub. Date:    Oct. 11, 2016


“Part memoir, part warm-hearted look at the ’70s, and part therapeutic journey “Not Exactly Love: A Memoir” is an intense and inspirational story of a woman who grew from her experience.” –Goodreads blurb.

It is the above book blurb that peaked my interest in wanting to read this book.  This memoir takes place in the early 1970s; a battered wife endures years of beatings without telling her family or friends.  Back then, very few women did. This was decades before the “Me Too” movement.  The author, Betty Hafner, wore a long-sleeve top on her wedding day to cover a bruise on her arm, along with her hippy gaucho pants that horrified her mother (if mom only knew the real horror of the day).  But they were young and there was no denying the chemistry between them, so she ignored the signs and married her young man in 1969.  This is certainly not a new story, what kept my attention is that Hafner had the courage to bare all her secrets, even during her therapy sessions, without shame.  She vividly describes the mental and physical abuse.  She does not shy away from her codependence in the relationship.  Hafner clearly wants her memoir to help other women while somehow still managing to keep a light touch when describing the decade.  This reviewer was a teen in those years.  I could identify with those times.   “I had rocketed from the June Cleaver’60s of my youth straight into the Age of Aquarius.”  That line alone brought me down memory lane.  While reading, I could hear Janice Joplin singing in my head.  Hafner does a stellar job in pairing nostalgia and laughter into her painfully honest story.  She manages to add in comic relief to give the reader a breather from the tension; while still managing to break the silence of domestic violence.

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Amazon.com has a list of the “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime” that’s been compiled by Amazon’s editors. I saw this on Marie’s blog www.book-chatter.com and also wanted to see how many of the amazon recommended books I have read.  (Thanks Marie, it was fun.)  I hit 44.  Considering I am 62 years old, I was expecting a higher number.  But I only read books that I am interested in, so I guess I will not be hitting 100.  You don’t have to be directly tagged.  Just copy and paste my list to your post and fill in your answers.

The Rules:

  1. Include the link to Amazon’s List
  2. Tag the creator of the meme (Perfectly Tolerable)

The List:

Title Author Read?
1984 George Orwell 1.        Yes
A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Dave Eggers  
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Ishmael Beah
The Bad Beginning Lemony Snicket
A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle
Selected Stories, 1968-1994 Alice Munro 2.        Yes
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll
All the President’s Men Bob Woodward 3.        Yes
Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir Frank McCourt 4.        Yes
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Judy Blume  
Bel Canto Ann Patchett  
Beloved Toni Morrison 5.        Yes
Born to Run Christopher McDougall  
Breath, Eyes, Memory Edwidge Danticat
Catch-22 Joseph Heller 6.        Yes
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl
Charlotte’s Web E. B White
Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese 7.        Yes
Daring Greatly Brené Brown
Diary of a Wimpy Kid Jeff Kinney  
Dune Frank Herbert  
Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury 8.        Yes
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S. Thompson
Gone Girl Gillian Flynn 9.        Yes
Goodnight Moon Margaret Wise Brow 10.     Yes
Great Expectations Charles Dickens 11.     Yes
Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond Ph.D.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone J.K. Rowling
In Cold Blood Truman Capote 12.     Yes
Interpreter of Maladies Jhumpa Lahiri
Invisible Man Ralph Ellison  
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth Chris Ware
Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain 13.     Yes
Life After Life Kate Atkinson 14.     Yes
Little House on the Prairie Laura Ingalls Wilder
Lolita Vladimir Nabokov 15.     Yes
Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez 16.     Yes
Love Medicine Louise Erdrich
Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor E. Frankl
Me Talk Pretty One Day David Sedaris 17.     Yes
Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides 18.     Yes
Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game Michael Lewis
Of Human Bondage W. Somerset Maugham 19.     Yes
On the Road Jack Kerouac 20.     Yes
Out of Africa Isak Dinesen 21.     Yes
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood Marjane Satrapi
Portnoy’s Complaint Philip Roth 22.     Yes
Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen 23.     Yes
Silent Spring Rachel Carson
Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt Vonnegut 24.     Yes
Team of Rivals Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Age of Innocence Edith Wharton
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay Michael Chabon  
The Autobiography of Malcolm X Malcolm X 25.     Yes
The Book Thief Markus Zusak 26.     Yes
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Junot Díaz 27.     Yes
The Catcher in the Rye J. D. Salinger 28.     Yes
The Color of Water James McBride 29.     Yes
The Corrections Jonathan Franzen 30.     Yes
The Devil in the White City Erik Larson
The Diary of a Young Girl Anne Frank
The Fault in Our Stars John Green
The Giver Lois Lowry
The Golden Compass Philip Pullman
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald 31.     Yes
The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood 32.     Yes
The House at Pooh Corner A. A. Milne  
The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins 33.     Yes
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot 34.     Yes
The Liars’ Club Mary Karr
The Lightning Thief Rick Riordan
The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Long Goodbye Raymond Chandler
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 Lawrence Wright
The Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat Oliver Sacks 35.     Yes
The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan  
The Phantom Tollbooth Norton Juster
The Poisonwood Bible Barbara Kingsolver 36.     Yes
The Power Broker Robert A. Caro
The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe 37.     Yes
The Road Cormac McCarthy  
The Secret History Donna Tartt
The Shining Stephen King 38.     Yes
The Stranger Albert Camus  
The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway 39.     Yes
The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien
The Very Hungry Caterpillar Eric Carle
The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame  
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami
The World According to Garp John Irving 40.     Yes
The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion 41.     Yes
Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee 42.     Yes
Unbroken Laura Hillenbrand 43.     Yes
Valley of the Dolls Jacqueline Susann 44.     Yes
Where the Sidewalk Ends Shel Silverstein  
Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak


“The Dream Daughter” by Diane Chamberlain

Genre:              Women’s FictionThe Dream Daughter
Publisher:         St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:        Oct. 2, 2018


Just what would you do to save your child?  This is the question that is presented to the reader.  The author, Diane Chamberlain, is a hit or miss author for me.  I think if I was reading this book on the beach it would have been a hit.  Since I wasn’t, it was more of a miss.  Think the movie, “Back to The Future” meets the book, “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”  The humor in the book reminds me of the movie with someone from the past trying desperately to fit into the future without sticking out like a sore thumb.  While it also reads similar to “Traveler’s Wife,” making the reader wonder did the magic of the complicated plot take away from the realism of the characters?  Like most women’s fiction “Daughter” has enough drama to pull heartstrings.  I did think the book ended too nicely, it could have been wrapped up with a bow.  All though this style of writing bothers me; this reviewer admits I was anxious to learn how it would end.  If you are a fan of this genre, I suspect you will gobble this one up.

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

Find all my book reviews at:

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list
Leave Me Alone I am Reading & Reviewing: https://books6259.wordpress.com/
Twitter: Martie’s Book Reviews: https://twitter.com/NeesRecord





“Speakeasy” by Alisa Smith

Genre:          Historical FictionSpeakeasy
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:   April, 10, 2018

So why did I like this book so much?   Maybe I am just a sucker for a bygone era.  I still love the old black and white 1930s and 1940s gangster movies.  I am filled with nostalgia for the Prohibition Era, with its handsome celebrities playing the main roles.  Think “Key Largo” with Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and the great beauty, Lauren Bacall.  Or, “The Glass Key” with the handsome actor, Alan Ladd, and his gorgeous costar, known for her peek-a-boo hairstyle, Veronica Lake.

the glass key

Do not expect a “We had it all just like Bogey and Bacall” type of read.   There are many smart twists in this novel.  Don’t be fooled by the title; this not a story about bootlegging.   This reviewer is impressed with the author’s choice for the book’s title, very clever.  I will not spoil it for you with an explanation.   The entire story is not what it appears.   I suspect some will be disappointed in “Speakeasy.”   Between the book’s title and blurb, it is fair to expect a novel that leans heavily into women’s fiction.   However, that is simply not this book.   You will soon discover that it’s written more literary than contemporary in how it begs the question: Which life would you choose?   Would you prefer stable but boring or dangerous but exhilarating?

Here is what is hard to buy about this book.   It is two novels in one.  The female protagonist is an outlaw in a gang during the depression robbing banks with her boyfriend, the gang leader.  Ten years later, she is a naval code breaker during World War II, intercepting Japanese messages.  Both subject matters would be enjoyable to me.  But together it becomes a hard sell.  It took me a while to accept the disjointedness of these two stories, but the author pulls it off.   She manages to successfully merge a gangster noir with a spy thriller.

There are two first-person narrators that alternate between paragraphs —tricky to follow, but worth the effort.  Our gal’s voice and a male voice from the past, who is another gang member though, not her man.  These two characters have something in common.   He is a law-abiding citizen until the likable bandit comes and shakes up his dull and friendless life.  She is a beautiful law-abiding bank teller, who happens to be bored out of her young mind.  When the bank is robbed, she can see that the unmasked leader is Clark Gable handsome, with the sort of killer smile women melt over.  During the robbery, she asks the charming but violent man to take her with them.  This is the beginning of her Bonnie and Clyde years.

There are certainly flaws in the story.  In order to become a high ranking naval code breaker, our heroine must be a very bright woman.  Yet, she has no way of assessing the character of the people in her life.   Plus, she repeats past errors, which is incongruent with a sharp mind.  At age twenty, she has to get beat up by her boyfriend to realize her honey is a creep.  In typical noir style, he slaps some sense into her.  That incident prompts her to run away from him and return to a lawful life.   At age thirty, she fears that her past is catching up with her, but has no clue who in the naval unit is digging into her youth.   And, even though she is now a grown woman, she once again falls for a guy who does not have her best interest at heart.  I wanted to jump into the pages and yell, “Enough already with the bad boys.”

In ways, Alisa Smith reminds me of the wonderful Joyce Carol Oates.  In Oates’ novel, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” she writes an historical fiction about a woman who falls for a charismatic, abusive, hard-drinking man sounding similar to our bank robbing code breaker.  Like in all of Oates’ work, this book too is a well written powerful drug—one page and you are addicted.  Such talent cannot be found in a cheesy plot-driven tale about domestic violence.  I highly recommend “Speakeasy,” that reads partly as an historical espionage, and partly as an intellectual version of Mickey Spillane.

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

Find all my book reviews at:

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list
Leave Me Alone I am Reading & Reviewing: https://books6259.wordpress.com/
Twitter: Martie’s Book Reviews: https://twitter.com/NeesRecord