“Love And Other Consolation Prizes” by Jamie Ford

 

Genre:         Historical FictionLove and Other Consolation Prizes

Publishers:  Random House

Pub.             Date: September 12, 20017

Mini Review

This sweeping historical novel revolves around two World’s Fairs that take place in Seattle, fifty years apart. The narrator goes back and forth in time from his life during the 1909 and the 1959 World’s Fair. We first meet our male protagonist in China at the age of five in the year 1902. He watches his mother burying his infant sister alive (horrible to read). The baby is already near death from starvation. His destitute mother, who is near death herself, has him shipped off to America to save his life. Aboard the ship he and other Chinese children, and some Japanese children, are kept captive in the cargo and treated like animals. However, they manage to remain children even in such horrendous conditions. They played, teased, had a bully and formed bonds with each other. This reminded me of stories about German Jewish children in concentration camps who managed to play together before they were worked to death. On the ship, he meets a beautiful Japanese girl a few years older than himself. During the journey, he survives a body of water known as Dead Man’s Bay. Here the ill children that cannot be sold are put into a sack and thrown overboard (I need to google this to learn if it is true, but I am afraid of what I will find).

In America, he ends up as a charity student in a boarding school in Seattle. Though it’s a lucky break, the boy is very lonely and makes no friends and has no family. (Think young Ebenezer Scrooge being left alone in his boarding school when all the other kids went home for Christmas). But our boy does not grow up to be a bitter man as Scrooge did for the strangest of reasons. As a healthy preteen, he is raffled off in the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair. (Hard to believe that was legal but it was). He is won by a famous Madam in Seattle’s Red Light District. This is not an ordinary brothel. It’s is a high-class establishment, where the grand dame owner is famous for educating and caring for her girls. Instead of living in another horrible place where people treat him terribly, here for the first time, he has a family. He has a job he enjoys, first as a houseboy and later as the house’s chauffeur. His occupation as a man will remain a chauffeur. He is lucky to learn a trade because one day the house will eventually close. This happens when the famous Madam will succumb to an occupational hazard. The sexual disease is never mentioned in the book. Saying without saying that this house would never use such vulgar language, but the writing makes it apparent. In the interim, he discovers the Japanese girl he befriended on the boat to America also works in this establishment. And to his delight, he meets the Madam’s pretty daughter who is his age. The three of them become great pals and our young house boy falls in love with both. Even though the three live in a brothel the author beautifully captures the sweetness of a first kiss.

I should have gobbled up this novel. It has all the elements of good historical fiction. It is interesting as well as educating. The reader will meet crooked police, suffragettes, and learn about the politics of the times. Reading about the brothel was a hoot, but with enough sadness to keep it real. I giggled when the adult chauffeur’s grown daughters were shocked to learn that their ordinary parents have some unordinary and rather scandalous secrets. My issue is that from the time the boy is still a boy until he becomes a young man, he could not choose between the Japanese girl or the Madam’s daughter. The premise of the plot, which is supposed to be inspired by a true story, is a good read. But the love-story triangle (which remained innocent) went on and on, dragging out the pages. I didn’t appreciate trying to guess which girl he would end up with, because the guessing became tiresome. I wanted to jump into the book, grab the young man, and sing to him the Loving Spoonful’s lyrics “You better go home, son, and make up your mind.” However, even with my issues, I have to recommend the novel. It is rich in history and I personally got a kick out of learning that political morals haven’t changed one bit.

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“The Best Kind of People” by Zoe Whittall

Publication Date:   Sept., 19, 2017The Best Kind of People

Publishers          :   Random House

Genre:                :   General Adult Fiction

Mini Review

Zoe Whittall is a respected poet and novelist. She is considered one of the top Canadian writers, winner of the 2008 Dayne Ogilvie Prize. So why did I dislike this novel so much?

The novel asks the question, what would you do if you found out that your husband or father was not the beloved person you thought? In this story, the husband/father was charged with sexual misconduct against several teenage girls at the high school where he taught and annually won the best teacher award and where his daughter was an honors student. The author certainly took on an ambitious topic, and I have learned it took her six years to write this novel, but after the first few chapters, I was still waiting to find the meat on the bones.

The husband/father’s adult gay son was once bullied, as a student, at the same school, yet somehow it was never mentioned why this wonderful dad and teacher had not even a hint of an idea that this was happening to his son. The wife/mother had my pity at first, then her unhappiness was described over and over again until it became ad nauseam. I wanted to slap her, wake her up. The teenage daughter had some depth, simply because she was a teenager self-medicating away her pain and confusion. She went from being a popular girl to an outcast. The father she adored may or may not have been who she believed he was. We never really became acquainted with the accused, his character was never developed. I found this to be a flaw in the writing. And don’t even start me on the ending, which you will simply have to read for yourself to make your own judgments. I’m simply not sure what all the hype was about.

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

 

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Trophy Son” by Douglas Brunt

Publisher: St Martin’s PressTrophy Son

Published: May 30, 2017

Genre:      General Fiction Adult

This book came along to me at the perfect time.  I am recovering from a surgery and wanted to read something different than I usually do (historical fiction).  The author tells a story of a child tennis prodigy whose driven, narcissistic father pushes his son so hard that the boy knows nothing of life outside of brutal trainings and playing tournaments.   He is taken out of school so he can concentrate on nothing but tennis.  All through his childhood and teen years he has neither friends nor social skills.   “A tennis racket lurks in my earliest memories like a sick relative who had come to live with us.” The reader will hurt for this isolated boy who grows up to become the #1 ranked tennis player in the world.

This is a work of fiction, but back in 2009 I read “Open, an Autobiography” by tennis great Andre Agassi.  The similarities are strong.   Both have abusive fathers (think Pat Conroy’s novel “The Great Santini” if the father in Conroy’s book was on steroids) whom they couldn’t escape from until they became men.   Both have an elder brother (in real life Agassi has three) who couldn’t take the pressure or make the grade, leaving the child most gifted in the family  forced to live in their backyard  tennis prison, while their elder brother(s) have a normal life, playing tennis only for fun.  And, as an adult, both have a Hollywood celebrity girlfriend. This fictional work reads as an autobiographic coming of age story.

I actually know little about tennis.  It is one of the sports that I do not follow. However, you do not need to know about the game to enjoy this story.  My favorite part in the book is when our teenage tennis player slowly begins to attempt to get out from under his overbearing father’s thumb.  He begins to wonder if his success is in exchange for his happiness.  When steroids are pushed on him he struggles with the questions, is he ruining his health and endangering his career?  Unfortunately, sometimes the dialogue is wooden or so obvious I rolled my eyes. “I told him how winning never feels as good as losing feels bad.”  Still, this is a good book that allows the reader to get inside the mind of a professional athlete, especially an athlete who begins his career as a child and is marketed as a prodigy.

The novel left me wondering, are the makings of a champions this brutal for all sports child prodigies?  Do any grow up to be as mentally healthy as they are physically resilient?  Are there any athletes that are household names without ambitious parents who seek to control and live vicariously through their children?   I think the author misses an opportunity in exploring these questions.  No matter, I was rooting for our tennis player throughout the story and I recommend the book if you are, or are not, a tennis fan.

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“Deadly Spirits” by E. Michael Helms

Deadly SpiritsI am not usually into books that are a part of a series, or detective stories, which this is, but I respect the author, E. Michael Helms, and agreed to review his novel.  I quickly found myself liking the main character PI Mac McClellan, even though he gives his dog beer.  This was the give away to me that the novel was written through a male’s perspective because it was something my husband used to do his dog, while I thought it was terrible.  Helms has an engaging and very personal writing style. He incorporated his Marine background into his main character, which I especially enjoyed (since I read his memoir “Proud Bastards: One Marine’s Journey from Parris Island through the Hell of Vietnam”).  I could hear the author’s own voice in this novel, and it is a pleasant voice to get to know.

In this novel, the protagonist’s girlfriend is part of a paranormal investigative group which is why this “whodunit” has ghosts with potential supernatural actions that lead to murders.   Our skeptic PI suspects there are more than spirits doing the killing.  There are strong shades of Philip Marlowe in this novel. I could almost see Bogie (Humphrey Bogart) with a cigarette between his teeth. Though, I personally found Mac to be more of a soft-hearted tough guy.  My only criticism is that the characters seemed one dimensional, but that might be because I haven’t read the previous three novels in the series.  All and all, this is a good beach book (if you don’t mind homicide on your beach) with likable characters and enough twists to keep you guessing.  If you are into detective stories, give PI Mac McClellan a try, I do not think you will be disappointed.

I would like to thank the E. Michael Helms for giving me the opportunity to be able to say that he can write and excel in any genre.

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

“The Proud Bastards: One Marine’s Journey from Parris Island through the Hell of Vietnam” by E.Michael Helms

proud bastardsThis is a coming of age memoir of a young soldier that was written twenty years ago.  The author, E. Michael Helms, was kind enough to send me an e-copy while also sending me another one of his book’s, “Deadly Spirits” for review.  In “Proud Bastards,” we follow Helms from his brutal experiences during boot camp to the unspeakable acts of violence he witnessed in combat.   I have never read a memoir about Vietnam before, so even though I had heard of the horrors I was still often shocked reading (and mentally seeing the pictures in my mind) of a Marine grunt’s experience of life and death inside a foxhole.  The book begins with an 18-year-old Helms, joining the Marines with John Wayne glory in his eyes.  As a mother, I found the brutality of boot camp difficult to read.  The recruits are immediately thrust into the stressful whirlwind of in-processing, haircuts, uniform and gear issue.  It appeared to me that from day one, the recruits must begin to learn how to cope with emotional and physical abuse.   Just as in the movies, confused kids really were screamed at from the moment they woke up till the moment they went to bed.  “Get out of them goddamn racks you goddamn shit maggots.” The author was such a sweet kid, after any day where he might be forced to eat his own vomit, he writes home “Dear Mama….I am getting along fine.”   His charming ways allowed me to continue reading without breaking for this poor disillusioned boot camp abused kid.

It has been said, Marine Corps recruit training will be the most difficult thing one endures in life that is unless you are sent into the Vietnam War.  I thought boot camp was an impossible situation to live through, and then I read about combat and realized boot camp was a piece of cake compared to what went on during the Vietnam War in 1967.  I found myself in hell with the author and his buddies – especially when he wrote of watching friends die violent combat deaths.  Reading about teenagers with peach fuzz on their chins in horrifying battles scenes often had me in tears.  (Think of the movie “Full Metal Jacket”).   Helms is a talented writer who managed to capture every horrifying experience down as if he experienced it yesterday.  It amazed me that even at war he managed not to lose his natural humor and wit (which I think helped keep him alive) into his writing.  When he first arrives in Vietnam and is meeting his fellow soldiers, he makes a comment that doesn’t come out right and thinks “Way to go Mikey.  Real smart move, boy.  How to win friends and influence people.”    How can the reader not like this kid?

In this riveting memoir, the author does not talk about politics or of the controversy that surrounds the Vietnam War.  Instead, he gives the reader a mix of emotions he felt during the good times (usually the bonding with other young men) and bad times (literally everything else.)  So many heroes, so much maiming and killing of young men had me thinking of the author’s story long after I finished the last page of his memoir.  Helms always made me think, he often made me cry, and sometimes made me laugh.    I highly recommend reading this memoir, even if you are not interested in war stories.  I found it hard to put down, needing to know what would happen next to our endearing and very brave 18-year-old “grunt.”

https://www.amazon.com/Proud-Bastards-Marines-Journey-through-ebook/dp/B000NY12QO/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1

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“This Is How It Always Is” by Laurie Frankel

 

First off, please excuse this review that was written in a New York minute.  I’m off to This is how it always isParis tomorrow and swamped with things to do.  Okay, the message in the blurb was what attracted me to this novel.  The story was about a brave and loving family that usually was in a hectic state from the responsibilities of raising five sons.    Besides all the challenges that come with a large family, they were also struggling with the difficulties of bringing up a transgender child.  The parents immediately noticed that their youngest son was different.  He was sweeter, calmer and more sensitive than his older brothers ever were.  He didn’t like to wrestle with them or blow things up, he would rather spend his time in a Cinderella coloring book.   At the age of three, he started to ask his parents if he could wear a dress.  They didn’t see any red flags because they thought, Don’t most children of both sexes want to wear their mom’s heels sometime in their early childhood?  By the time he was five, they let him wear a dress at home but not to kindergarten, but it was so clear that this little boy did not want to be a boy.

My heart broke for this child when he asked his parents, if when he grew up, would he finally be a girl.  He was so miserable being a boy that both parents knew something needed to be done.  With the help of the school’s social worker, his parents let him wear a dress, hair barrettes and all sorts of “girly” accessories to school. This was too confusing to all at the school and the poor kid had to use the nurse’s bathroom.   The family decided to move from Wisconsin to Seattle, which is a more gay-friendly state. However, even in Seattle (where their little boy is now passing as a little girl) they still kept their secret, because they simply didn’t know how to explain the situation.   Nevertheless their unhappy five-year-old son starts school as a very happy little girl.

In the end-notes, we learn that the author has a transgender daughter, but she makes it clear that this is not her story.  She does a wonderful job of raising awareness on gender dysphoria.  But for me, the story read unrealistically.   All the complications that would arise in such a family were too easily solved.    All of her brothers were 100% supportive without any questions asked.    At the age of ten, this child was “outed.”  Of course the transgirl was devastated.  So the mother, who is a doctor, takes her youngest child to Thailand on an excursion to work at a clinic there.  Here the child is exposed to Buddah and discovers that Buddah could be a man or a woman.  In Thailand, she meets many people who are genderless.  The country is very accepting of all gender identities and she gets a big boost of encouragement and decides that it was time to go home and try school again.  This is wonderful for the character, but let’s be realistic.   Most moms wouldn’t be able to just pick up and go to a foreign country.  Plus, the ending was so tidy, it should have been wrapped up in a bow.  Back in the States, at her school (where now all know what is under her pants), she is completely accepted.  At her first dance, she is asked to dance by a boy she has a crush on.  It is doubtful to me that such acceptance would come so easily to children. How I wish this was true, and maybe one day soon, it will be.  But in the year of 2017 it was hard to buy.  I hope I’m wrong about this.

This was a sweet story about a loving and wonderful family who would move mountains if that was what it took to raise a happy child.  The story was more about how to be a loving parent to a transgender child, so I guess the book needed to be written.  But, I found that the tale often went flat.  (I actually started to skip the father’s fairytales created to help his daughter cope).  For me, I much preferred the novels “Trans-Sister Radio” by Chris Bohjalian and “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides that were also on the subject of being transgender.

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“Small Mercies” by Eddie Joyce

 

small mercies

I appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which is a portrait of a family,  a portrait of everyday life taking place in Staten Island, NY.  The story reminded me of my own roots, growing up in Queens, NY in the 1960s and 1970s.  Maybe a different place, but the same cultural mix, where Irish Americans and Italian Americans frequently marry and produce the most beautiful black haired blue eyed children.   The author, Eddie Joyce (who is from Staten Island), writes as if the actual island is one of the characters.  The Verrazano Bridge is a metaphor for the ethnic customs and class battles just as the Queensboro Bridge is for that NY borough.

In this story, an Irish girl from Brooklyn marries an Italian boy from Staten Island where they live and raise their family of three boys. The story revolves around the week leading before the birthday party of the couple’s seven-year-old grandson, the son of a firefighter, their youngest, who was a casualty of 9/11.  Each member of the family has a variety of knots they must untangle before they meet the boyfriend of the widow of the firefighter.   The young widow, who is very close to the family (of course, this is Staten Island), and has been a part of them since she was a teenager.  She too is dealing with the changes in her life.  And if one thing is clear, in this novel it is that the only constant in life is change.

The narration shifts each time a family member reminiscences about their own youth to the present day.  The oldest son is the only one who leaves the borough to become a successful lawyer and marry a WASP (a foreign religion to the family), but immediately before the birthday party, we learn that his professional and marital life is crumbling. The mother’s relationship with her eldest adult son is and always was strained. “He was fourteen or fifteen. Cock of the walk…. Already entitled, not in a rich-kid way but expectant…She wanted the little prick to taste some disappointment. Strange how you can hate your own kids at times.”  The middle son is an alcoholic, like his maternal grandfather and basically is the black sheep of the family who never recuperated from his brother’s death.  He was “a drunken ruined memorial to his dead brother.”  As a grown man he often slips into his parents’ home “drunk and melancholy, while they were sleeping, spreading one sadness over another.” His parents thought they had reached rock bottom when he was a young adult and was arrested.  They realized he would never sober up with the love of the right girl, because the right girl would never date this particular son.  And then real tragedy struck when death took their youngest son on 9/11.  The dead firefighter is very much alive in all their memories.  He was the sweet brother, everyone’s favorite.  His personality was “easy as a hammock…(in his room there is still an award reading) MOST IMPROVED PLAYER, FARRELL JUNIOR VARSITY 1990–91.”  For years his widow couldn’t bring herself to date because she thought, “He was the absolute best possible version of a man, the absolute best. To try to love some lesser version of him would be the greatest insult to his memory,” which is why it took her seven years to attempt to find love again.

While giving voice to six different family perspectives, the author uses flashbacks to develop well-drawn life histories.  I felt as if I was going through the family photo album, flipping pages from their youth to the present day. (And when looking at her teen sons in this imaginary album I always thought of the character “Vinnie Barbarino” played by an unknown John Travolta from the 1970’s TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter”).    Then I turn a page, and the present day grandmother of the seven-year-old grandson “takes a quick look in the mirror. Not for vanity, not anymore, but for its older sister: dignity.”  And her husband who is shocked to see his long-dead father’s Italian “right off the boat” face in the mirror looking back at him.  To bring his characters to life, the author focuses on family, community, marrying young, tradition, and participation in the NCAA basketball pool at the neighborhood watering hole with lots of booze all around.  I usually felt as if I was sitting there myself sharing a pint with a neighbor while making bets. The author takes the reader through four generations of an immigrant family.  My favorite author, Richard Russo, who also writes about blue-collar families, summed it up perfectly: “Eddie Joyce’s terrific first novel is so American that the story might as well have taken place at the base of the Statue of Liberty.”

However, nostalgia can be funny and play tricks with our memories.  I so liked reading about a time and place when there was no need to be politically correct about, well anything, but I guess I like to forget that back in my own youth some members of my Queens community were silently hurting because anything outside the norm was simply unimaginable.  In my real life, a boy in high school who is now a 60-year-old man just came out as gay.  He spent his whole life lying solely because he was a tough Queens kid and gay does not fit into that mold.  But in this book the reader does not need to think of such discrepancies, we only need to focus on this family’s strength and failures that are common to Staten Island (or any NYC neighborhood).  There is much-noted pain in this book about an ordinary family.  They weathered many storms, a husband made a wrong career move and someone else gets rich on his father’s butcher shop, a son cannot tame is addictions, a wife almost has an affair, a son dies and now another man will be raising his children.   But each chapter has a “small mercy.”   Joyce focuses in on how human we all are, and that sometimes a “small mercy” is just being able to enjoy a good veal parmesan sandwich.

(If you enjoyed this book try “The Clancys of Queens: A Memoir” by Tara Clancy).

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