“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.

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“Father Figure” by James J. Cudney

father-figure-main-fileGenre:             Contemporary Fiction
Publisher:      Creativia Publishing House
Pub. Date:      April 2, 2018

Picture a story that cuts between two teenage girls living in very different places and times, without explaining their relationship to the reader.  This is just the puzzle that the author, James J. Cudney, goes for and solves.  One heroine lives in the Deep South, in a shoddy town in Mississippi.  She grows up with an abusive mother, that I promise you will hate.   The other girl lives in hip NYC, the Big Apple.   She grows up with a loving mother who you will like and admire.  She is a wonderful mom even though she struggles with single mom issues such as financial strain, social isolation, exhaustion, and guilt.   You will wonder why this lovely mom keeps secrets from her daughter.  Both girls go off to college in Pennsylvania where their young adult lives begin.  However, first, the author teases us with a few pages of the mystery that the reader is about to be swept up in.

The story goes back and forth in time.  We meet the sweet and completely naïve Southern girl in 1984.  How she remains such a nice person while living with daily abuse is another mystery for this reviewer.  As a retired social worker, I wish her personality traits could be bottled to be shared with real life abuse survivors.  You will fall in love with her.  Then we meet the feisty and rebellious Northern girl in the year 2004.  The city teen does not realize how good her life is because her constant focus is on wondering who her father is.  Her mom refuses to say a word.   Choosing to write this tale from past and present in alternating chapters keeps with the plot’s main mystery: just what is the connection between the young women?

Cudney does a great job of nailing female teenage angst, especially since one of the girls is struggling with her sexual identity.  I am thinking of one particular scene where this girl decides to lose her virginity to help her decide whether she is gay or straight.  The author has a nice little twist here, which I never saw coming.  I will not spoil your pleasure by discussing the other shockers.  But, I will share that I did guess the link regarding one of the mothers, although it took me awhile.   Here is my own teaser: there might be more than one father figure in this book, but whom?  I hope I am leaving you purposely confused.

For me as a woman, this book was particularly interesting because of the insight it gave into the young female psyche who want nothing more than to experience a mutual adoring relationship with their dads.

FF image

Not many male writers can achieve success in writing in a teen female voice.  I enjoy that the city girl does not try to be a “good girl” (though deep down I feel that she really is).  Although the characters can feel a bit too one-sided, being all good or all bad, this is a fine family saga page-turner.   I didn’t get that feeling of “not another YA book posing as an adult work of fiction.”  Expect your emotions to be all over the place.  You will read enough abusive horrors, in more ways than one.   Be prepared to cry.   There are also enough moments of love to put a smile on your face, and enough suspense to keep you turning pages.  When all is said and done, the novel has a real Agatha Christie feel to it.  I recommend “Father Figure” to all who enjoy contemporary fiction filled with twists.

The author has given a copy of his book to me for an honest review.   I have been in friendly contact with him through our book blogs and Goodreads, but in no way does this influence my review.

“Father Figure” is on Amazon at:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BW77CWQ?tag=creati0a5-20

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“Robin” by Dave Itzkoff

Genre:          BiographyRobin
Publisher:    Henry Holt & Company
Pub. Date:    May 15, 2018

The author, Dave Itzkoff, is a culture reporter writing about film, television, and comedy for The New York Times. Itzkoff writes this book as a combination of straight reporting and insightful analysis.  This is a bittersweet biography; the author portrays the artist, Robin Williams, not as a tormented soul who ends his own life, but more as a tender man desperate for talent validation.

We all know that Robin was a comic genius.  But not many, including myself, know that he had a great memory (some would say photographic).  He could show up on sets, late and hung-over, often in the same clothes from the night before, to discover that the writers made major script changes while he was out partying.  While other actors struggled and fumbled to remember the new lines, Robin would just glance it over once and proceed to nail it.  This skill flabbergasted many over the years.  From his breakthrough television role on “Mork and Mindy” to his long movie career, his stage shenanigans fascinated his audiences, especially when he switched characters on a dime.  He was the king of improvisation.  In the author’s (and my) opinion no other stand-up comedian came close.  Just watching him perform, the man could exhaust you.

Like most biographies, the book begins when Williams was a child.  The son of a well-to-do executive who had two older half-siblings who did not live with him growing up, Robin had a somewhat isolated youth, especially since his family frequently moved.  He spent hours alone creating imaginary characters in his mind.  It was in his teen years when the family moved to California, that he found acting.  Over the decades, he learned to harness his manic talents and became a household name to be endeared by all.   The author left me sadly wishing that Robin could absorb that his audience truly did love him.

According to the author, Robin was actually a sweet and shy man known for his caring nature.  He was kind to people even while he fought his own darkness.  He met Christopher Reeve when they both were studying acting at Julliard.  Robin was politely asked to leave the school because there was nothing else that they could teach him.   His style of improv was simply too bizarre for his teachers to understand.  After Reeve’s accident, Robin helped pay for his medical equipment.  He remained a loyal friend.  When the Reeve family went on their first vacation with Chris in a wheelchair, Robin joined them just to keep his dear friend’s spirits from spiraling downwards as they often did.

Robin was also consistently honest about himself.  While most celebrities go into a hospital for “exhaustion,” Robin was truthful about his demons. Whether in his stand-up acts or during interviews, he openly discussed his troubles with depression and addiction.  He eventually conquered his addictions, but his self-esteem remained low throughout his life.   He thought of himself as an ugly man since he was not the epitome of a movie star.  Robin had hair tufts throughout his body.  He did indeed have a hairy body, which embarrassed him.  I couldn’t help but think his insecurities over his looks were so adolescent.  But then again, in ways, the author shows that he never really grew up, preferring the company of children to adults.  Off camera, he could play with his child co-stars endlessly.  If he was in the company of a five-year-old, he became five-years-old.  I confess, this reminds me of myself.  Personally, I find it delightful to be able to connect with a child on their level.

He might not have seen himself as a handsome man, but women sure did.   He wasn’t a faithful husband for two of his three wives.  There were too many female temptations around him.  He was a bit of a promiscuous player.   However, he was an excellent father to his three children.  After Robin’s death, it was his adult children who insisted that it couldn’t have been depression that caused their dad’s suicide.  They are confident of this since they knew that even at his lowest he would never hurt them in any way.  They were all in constant contact with him, they adored him and he adored them.  What his fans learn via his family, is that in the months before his death Williams was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  He couldn’t remember his lines while filming his last movie.  Can you imagine how this must have felt for a man with a photogenic memory?    However, not until the coroner’s report, three months after his death, did we learn that he was actually suffering from a little-known but deadly brain disease, Lewy Body Dementia (LBD.)  LBD is a neurological disease that is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson.  It was LBD that was causing his paranoia and confusion.

The author’s best writing moments are when he describes LBD symptoms.   The last year of Robin’s life, the actor suffered from tremors, insomnia, impaired senses, and extreme anxiety.   He had difficulty reasoning and was often hallucinating.  When coherent, he told many that he was losing his mind.  Sadly, he was.  The disease was eating away at his brain.   Throughout all of this, Robin remained clean and sober while searching for a possible cure.   Reading how this gentle and sensitive man suffered put tears in my eyes.  Itzkoff wrote an in-depth, impressively researched biography on the life of Robin Williams.  At times, I felt the book is packed with too much detail on his career.  There are dozens of pages with footnote citations.   I feel that the author was torn between writing a scholarly research paper or a compassionate book on the actor.  He tried to do both and I believe that he mostly succeeded.

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

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“Love and Ruin” by Paula McLain

Genre:           Biographical Historical Fiction    Love and Ruin
Publisher:    Random House
Pub. Date:    May 1, 2018

The author, Paula McLain, has made a career writing historical fiction memoirs.  Her most popular novel, “The Paris Wife” is a fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley Richardson.   Hadley is Ernest’s starter wife.  He had four wives by the time of his death.  While married to Richardson, Hemingway wrote, “A Moveable Feast,” his classic memoir of Paris in the 1920s.  In McLain’s next novel, “Circling the Sun,” she writes in the voice of Beryl Markham, a British-born Kenyan aviator who became the first woman to fly solo, nonstop across the Atlantic.   In “Love and Ruin,” McLain once again comes back to Hemingway.   This time, the narrator is his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, known as Marty.  As in her other books, it is clear that the author did her homework by researching previously published biographical material on her heroines.

“Love and Ruin” are words that seem to be twin preoccupations in life and literature.  It may not be as catchy, but if this book was titled “Love, War and Loss,” the reader would know exactly what they were about to dive into, because the story is about the carnage of war and the ruin of a painful marriage.  Marty Gellhorn is considered one of the most important war correspondents of the 20th century.  She meets Hemingway in late 1936, in the now infamous “Sloppy Joe’s Bar,located in Key West, Florida.  The bar was a favorite watering hole for the writer.  (I’m proud to say I had a drink there).   He invites Marty, and her mother, to his Key West house, where he lived with his 2nd wife and two sons.  He had another son from his first marriage.  (Since I visited the house, which is now a museum, I can assure you that all details are accurate, right down to his wall art. which are movie posters of his books that became films).  When Marty hears his plans to travel to Spain as a war correspondent covering the takeover of Spain by Franco, she decides to meet him there.  It is during this journey that she discovers her love of adventure.  It is also here that the couple’s love affair begins.  Hemingway’s experiences in Spain were his inspiration for his book, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which he wrote in their home in Cuba.  I wonder if he needed a woman in his life to write his most famous novels.

Ernest Hemingway truly was a larger-than-life individual.  He was also a misogynist alcoholic.   His career hit an all time high with “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” while Marty, also a writer of novels, only received notice as Hemingway’s wife.  Ernest’s “Bell Tolls” became a movie and they went to Hollywood, California to be on the set.  She hated everything about Hollywood.   But Earnest was in his glory with all the attention and becoming buddies with Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.  She believed that in order for her to breathe, she needed to get away from Ernest’s needy ego.  This was the beginning of the end of their marriage.  Determined not to live in the shadow of her famous husband, she accepted dangerous war journalist assignments overseas.  Realizing her true passion comes from on-the-ground reporting.   She decides to cover D-Day by stowing away on the first hospital ship to land at Normandy, wading ashore to become the first journalist, male or female, to make it there and report back.  I found her to be a brave and amazing woman.  Unfortunately, her husband saw her leaving not as a work assignment, but as her leaving the marriage.  He started the divorce process.  You have to love Marty, even though he filed the papers, she was his only wife to leave him.  She was heartbroken to read in the newspaper that he already had another woman living with him in their Cuban home.  It is hard to like Hemingway, but through Marty’s voice, the author does a great job of describing his deep depressive episodes.  For anyone who knew the man, his suicide was not a surprise.  Even after their divorce, Marty still worried about her self-destructive ex.  As the reader, I wondered if Hemingway would have had a better life if he hadn’t become so famous.

Reading Marty’s first-hand view of war was engaging as well as traumatic.  I very much enjoyed the history lesson through the heroine’s thoughts.  But, I also felt her feelings on the horrors she witnessed in war, which could be tough.  Maybe, this is why I so enjoy historical fiction memoirs.  You feel like you are getting inside the head of the narrator, and McLain does this genre extraordinarily well.  I should mention that the author has lived an interesting life.  She wrote her own memoir, “Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses.”  McLain’s parents abandoned their children.  She and her two sisters grew up in foster care homes.  Even if you do not care for fictional memoirs; I strongly recommend that you give the well written “Love and Ruin” a try.  It has a something for everyone, no matter your favorite genre.

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

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“Someone” by Alice McDermott

 

I have been a book lover/book junkie for decades.  Still it is a first for me to finish the lastSomeone word on the last page and then immediately go back to the first page and re-read the whole book again.  The author, Alice McDermott, flawless writing explains why she has been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize.   McDermott casts a wide net with this novel; this is a story about nothing and everything, a human life.  Though the story may seem mundane at first, its life-like complexities draw one in.  The story takes place in between WWI and WWII.  We meet the heroine when she is seven years-old, sitting on a Brooklyn stoop, waiting for her dad to come home.  Though the story is not linear, it ends when she is an old woman dying in assisted living.  To say “the characters jump off the page” does not give due service to McDermont’s skills.  Her writing is always tender and subtle never melodramatic managing to hide an upcoming punch that will make you gasp for air.

 

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“Baby Teeth” by Zoje Stage

Genre:          Mystery and Thriller  baby teeth
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:    July 17, 2018

The book is marketed as a “We Need to Talk About Kevin” meets “Gone Girl” meets “The Omen.”   I am not always a fan of commercial fiction, but since I enjoyed both books and liked the movie “The Omen,” I assumed I would enjoy “Baby Teeth.”  Well, I was wrong.   The story is about a disturbing little girl that wishes her mother dead so she can have her father all to herself.   There is suspense at first, but soon chilling turns into repetition, which makes for a boring book.  Just how many times do you want to read about a child viciously attacking her mother?  Or, read about a father who ignores, or plays down his daughter’s behavior?

bad seed

The story attempts to emulate the 1956 movie, “The Bad Seed,” which is also melodramatic storytelling.   In “Teeth” the reader is left wondering just what is wrong with the parents and especially the little girl.  Is she mentally ill, does she have multiple personalities, is she a witch?   This tale shocks for shock purposes only.  There are a lot of good thrillers out there.  Don’t bother with 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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“The Summer I Met Jack” by Michelle Gable

Genre:         Women’s FictionJack
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:   May 29, 2018

The book’s blurb reads, “Based on a real story – in 1950, a young, beautiful Polish refugee arrives in Hyannisport, Massachusetts to work as a maid for one of the wealthiest families in America.”  The family is the Kennedys.  Of course, the Jack in the title is a young Jack Kennedy.  I was disappointed in this book, but it may be my own fault.  I thought I was reading historical fiction and not women’s fiction.  The story reads close to a romance novel, which is a genre I do not care for.   I did read and like the “The Paris Apartment,” also by Michelle Gable.  In “Apartment,” Gable wrote a similar type of book.  She wove together a tale of romance and mystery, to become a past and present page-turner.   However, I went into that book knowing what I was about to read.

This book is based on the true events from the life of American socialite Alicia Corning Clark, married to Alfred Corning Clark who was a Singer Sewing Machine heir.   We first meet Alicia soon after she leaves Poland in the late 1940s and arrives in the United States as a displaced person.    To begin fresh, she changes her name from Barbara Kopczynska to Alica Darr (and then, by marriage, to Alicia Corning Clark).”  Corning Clark lived a life that should have been a movie.  She had more lives than a cat.  In Poland, she was a Jewish girl hidden in a convent to escape the Nazis.   In the United States, she was a Roman Catholic maid, an aspiring artist, a call girl, and a Hollywood movie star.  She was also a woman whom J. Edgar Hoover insisted was paid by the Kennedys to keep her affair with JFK, and their possible love child, out of the headlines.  An interesting tidbit for me is that I once again was able to read about a Singer Sewing Machine heir.  I first read about Pairs Singer in the historical fiction “Isadora” by Amelia Gray.  Alfred Corning Clark’s father was partners with Paris’ father, Isaac Singer.   In real life, it was Corning Clark who changed Darr into a wealthy, respectable society woman.  Both men lived a life filled with scandals.  Who knew there is so much dirt revolving around the Singers?  Sort of like the Kennedys.

Darr’s real-life story is one reason why I did not give up on the book.  That and the Kennedys.  My interest was constantly re-sparked: Was Rose Kennedy really an odd duck and a cold mother?  Was Joe Sr. really a Nazi sympathizer?  Was Bobby really a dislikable man?  Not to mention, the family connections to the mafia, or the rumor that they had Marilyn Monroe being murdered before she could expose that she was sleeping with both Bobby and Jack.  (I did chuckle when reading that Jackie put a poster of Monroe over Jack’s bed.  Wonder if that was true?)  And so on and so forth with all the Kennedy rumors.

Gable lists extensive research for this novel in her end-notes, which is always a plus.   Her most moving writing moments are when she is describing JFK’s painful long suffering due to being born with Addison’s disease, a condition that is life-threatening when the adrenal glands fail to manufacture adequate amounts of essential hormones.  It was imperative to the Kennedys that Jack presents an image of robust good health. Naturally, they denied his medical condition, as well as playing down his back problems due to a degenerative disc disease.   What is it about the Kennedy clan that still pulls us in?  Whatever it is, it helped this reviewer overlook the story’s melodrama, the Hollywood celebrity name-dropping, and the exotic romance settings to find the historical fiction hidden inside.  I am glad that I did.

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

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