“Jackie and Maria” by Gill Paul

Genre: Historical Fiction/Women’s FictionJackie & Maria
Publisher:  HarperCollins
Pub. Date: August 18, 2020

Mini-Review

In this historical/women’s fiction, the emphasis is on women’s fiction. The story revolves around Jackie Kennedy and the world-famous opera singer, Maria Callas, with whom Jackie vies for the affection of Ari Onassis. By the third chapter, I went to check the endnotes. I was not surprised to see that there weren’t any.

What you get is a lot of already known gossip about Jackie and Jack Kennedy’s marriage, how heavily she leaned on Bobby Kennedy after Jack’s assisination, all the rumors swirling around the Kennedy boys and Marilyn Monroe, Jackie’s transformation into Jackie O, and of course, the love triangle between Jackie, Ari, and Ari’s longtime lover, Maria.

At one point, the novel’s lines come straight out of the 1978 film, “The Greek Tycoon,” based on Maria, Jackie, and Ari.  I remember this clearly because of the harsh words Ari used in bed with Maria when describing his wife’s skinny American thighs. He was all class. In addition, many would say Maria was a fool for staying with him after he married Jackie.  

It has been suggested that this book was meticulously researched—hard to imagine, at least with the version I read on Kindle. If you are in the mood to read about famous women and their trouble with love then this is for you.  If you wish for some well documented history, I’d skip this one.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.
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“Daddy: Stories” by Emma Cline

Genre:  Literary Fiction Short Story Collectiondaddy
Publisher:  Random House
Pub. Date:  Sept. 1, 2020

Once again, due to an injury I am writing this review via voice to text. Please forgive any errors.

I wish this short story collection had a different title. “Daddy’” makes it sound like you’re about to read erotica. Thankfully, these stories are not. Maybe Cline wanted the reader to be surprised. I certainly was. What captured my interest when agreeing to read and review this book was its description as “literary short stories.” It’s the word “literary” that sold me. Plus, I appreciate short stories.

What you get in these ten stories are edgy slice-of-life tales that explore human nature. Cline portrays moments in her characters’ lives that reveal the dark parts of themselves that they would prefer to keep hidden. She does this well. Dare I say, there are traces of Joyce Carol Oates in this young author. Connecting all the stories is a father or father-like figure, though they are often not the main character.

One story in the collection, “Marion,” was the winner of the 2014 Plimpton Prize. From its first sentence, the writing is vivid. “Cars the color of melons and tangerines sizzled in cul-de-sac driveways.” Here, Cline takes the reader inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl who does not understand the sexual desires of her 13-year-old best friend. There is a ”Mean Girls” vibe to it, but the reader will find themselves forgiving the older girl since she appears to be at the mercy of her own unstable parents and the questionable boundaries between herself and her father. The short is good but I found “Arcadia” more chilling.

“Arcadia” is the type of story that sticks with you and you really wish it didn’t. An older brother acts as a parent to his 18-year-old sister. The sister is pregnant. Her boyfriend, the protagonist, moves in with her and her brother. The three live in the house the siblings grew up in. The sister and her boyfriend sleep in her childhood bedroom, still decorated as when she was a child. This is the author’s first hint that something might be off with this brother/sister relationship. What is so creepy about this short is that the boyfriend slowly begins to realize that there are inappropriate sexual intimacies between the siblings. He tells his girlfriend ”this is no place to raise a baby.” The power in this short is how the boyfriend chooses to look the other way because he gets sucked into the unhealthy family’s dynamics.

”Son of Friedman” is a sad tale of a father who is, rightly or not, disappointed in his son. George Friedman, a washed-up movie producer, has dinner with an old friend, who still has a thriving acting career. The actor is also the godfather of Friedman’s adult son. The reason for this get-together is that Friedman’s son is having a screening of a short movie he created, a pure vanity project. During dinner, the actor asks Friedman about his godson. Friedman thinks, ”It never even crossed my mind to invite him to their dinner.” With that line, we know what we are about to read. A father who is utterly embarrassed by his son’s project. I thought the author’s talent shines brightest with how she goes deep into the relationship between father and son without ever spelling it out. The father thinks, ”he was always a nervous child.” He often recalls the many expensive drug addiction centers his kid has been in. He never admits his own drinking problem to himself.

In 2017 Cline was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Her perceptions are close to brilliant. With a few more years under her belt, I believe she will get there. Part of what makes this collection so good is that in each story there is some sort of perversity right underneath the surface. You can sniff it but you cannot see it. And what will really scare you is when you recognize some of her characters’ traits in yourself. Well done, Emma Cline.

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 Safe Place” by Anna Downes

Please excuse that this review is not up to my usual standard. Due to a broken shoulder, this will be a mini review written via voice to text. I enjoyed this psychological thriller. At first, I thought it was going to be your typical tale of horror revolving around a hunted house.  (If you were a psych major the next lines in quotes are a spoiler).  “Remember little Albert, you will be reading about him once again. Very clever move by the author.” Downes does a good job of scaring you. If you read this book in the middle of the night, you might be surprised to find yourself questioning your own sanity.

“Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” by Joyce Carol Oates

Genre:  Literary Fiction/Family Saga Night. Sleep. Death
Publisher:  HarperCollins
Pub. Date:  June 9, 2020

Joyce Carol Oates has long been a favorite literary author of mine. Just when I think that she can’t do it again—write another gripping family saga—she does. The book’s title comes from the closing lines of Walt Whitman’s “A Clear Midnight.” The poem “refers to the moment of transition that happens from one day to the next. The moment is used as a metaphor from changing corporeal existence to the spiritual existence.” The interruption of the poem is from PoetAndPoem.com. Yes, I needed to look up its meaning. Once I got it, I could easily see how its message is used repeatedly throughout this weighty novel of 800 pages.

The theme of “Night” is familiar to fans of Oates. Once again, she is writing about love and loss, which most would agree are preoccupations in our lives as well as in our literature. Oates has lost two husbands, one after forty-seven years of marriage, and the other after ten. I read her 2011 memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” which she wrote after the death of her first husband. There she suggests that to get through the agonizing grief, “the widow should think I kept myself alive.” In this novel, the author holds nothing back when writing on the psychological effects of grief on Jessalyn, who is one of the main characters, and a grieving widow. The novel is filled with her emotions of shock, loss, feelings of unreality, and thoughts of never loving again. Oates didn’t write personally after the loss of her second husband. I can’t help but wonder if she chose to tell any of that story here. The author has said no such thing, to be sure.

In this big, sprawling tale, Oates takes her readers to a small town located in upstate New York. Along with examining grief, healing and a family coming undone, the author takes on race and class issues. The story revolves around John Earle “Whitey” McClaren, a successful 67-year-old husband and father with a big personality. He is the anchor of the family as well as the respected former mayor of the town. When he sees two cops beating a defenseless, nonwhite man, he stops his car to intervene. The police do not recognize him and they use their taser guns on him repeatedly. Consequently, he has a stroke. And that is it for Whitey. Oates has him die in the hospital soon afterward.

The rest of the tale centers around Whitey’s widow and five adult children, all with very different personalities.  All the kids lose their footing after their father’s death. Their fragile mental states are not immediately noticeable as with their mother, but they all experience life-altering changes. Oates writes the family’s pecking order at a pace that begins slow and controlled, but builds up angrily. Out of all of the kids, the youngest son is the most sympathetic character. He is the black sheep of the family and at the bottom of the pecking order. The author portrays him with bone-deep loneliness. The middle daughter is a high school principal. She transfers her anger onto her students. She actually (spoiler) sabotages some kids by editing their transcripts so they will not get into their first choice colleges. The author has never shied away from writing on the dark side of human nature.

“Night” has been compared to Oates’ 1996 “We Were the Mulvaneys,” which is a saga about another family living in a small, rural upstate New York town, which happens to be where she grew up. “Mulvaneys” is one of my favorite novels by the author. I believe that it is superior to “Night.” An argument can be made that “Night” takes on too many characters with too many details. It can leave the reader thinking that each character’s story should be a novel in itself, making the story feel bloated. Indeed, the master storyteller’s latest novel (according to her website, this is her 59th) is long. Whether it’s too long is debatable—at times yes, at times no. Still, the poetic quality of the author’s prose is worth your time. When all is said and done, the thing about Oates, is after reading her work, it becomes impossible not to notice when you are reading a mediocre novel. That is the power of Joyce Carol Oates.

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

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“Time with Norma Jean” by Elyse Douglas

Itty-Bitty ReviewTime with Norma Jean

I thought the story might show a new playful insightfulness into Marilyn Monroe told with the twist of being written as a time-travel novel.  I really tried, but still found the book to be sophomoric and not enjoyable. The story has two timelines that do not meet. The 16-year-old narrator is a girl named, Darla.  In 1998, the author has her goes back in time to the early 1950s.   She hangs out and goes on a road trip with her favorite old movie star—the legendary blonde.  I did appreciate the connection between Darla, and Dorothy, from Oz, learning the life lesson of “there is no place like home,” but that is about as magical as this tale reads.  Maybe, I am being too harsh. Maybe, this book is YA. After all, the author spends time on Darla’s first crush, which I think I would have enjoyed when I was a teenage girl.  I know it is supposed to be a light read, but it wasn’t for me.

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

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