“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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“Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger

Genre:  Literary Fiction /Murder MysteryOrdinary Grace
Publisher: Atria
Pub. Date:  Oct. 19, 2012

“The sky had changed.  The gray sky deepened to the color of charcoal and the clouds had begun to boil” is an example of the gorgeous prose in this gem of a novel.   “Ordinary Grace” is marketed as a murder mystery.  It reads much more like a touching coming-of-age story set in a small Minnesota town where a murder takes place.  The book was published in 2012. It later went on to win the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2014.  I am not sure how I came across this novel but I am very glad that I did.  “Grace” sends readers back in time to 1961 when the Minnesota Twins were playing their debut season, JFK was the new young president and life in a small town included a soda fountain, barbershop, and church. In the prologue, you will learn “It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms.  Accident.  Nature.  Suicide.  Murder.”  Rather than focusing on the whodunit, “Grace” tells the story of how the deaths affect the town’s residents.

Frank is the 13-year-old narrator.  He is a kid who has a tendency to get into trouble.  His voice is charming.  He describes his father as “a man with a son who stuttered and another probably on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent.”  His father is the local Methodist minister.  Post-traumatic stress is delicately woven into the story.  Before his dad left for WWII, he was on his way to being a hotshot lawyer. His mother resents her husband’s change of career. She is not a believer in God, which makes for good tension in the plot.  His siblings are a Juilliard-bound teenage sister and his sweet younger brother who is bullied for having a stutter. There are pages filled with other colorful, nice and not-so-nice townspeople.  All are written with in-depth character development.  There are similarities to Stephen King’s novella, “The Body,” which later became the movie, “The Stand.”  “Grace” like “Body” is a dark read at times that can be heartbreaking but overall its message is optimistic.

Without being preachy (pun intended), the author managed to write a book filled with life lessons. At the end of the tale, Frank thinks, “Loss, once it’s become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand. It has weight and dimension and texture. It’s solid and can be assessed and dealt with.”  Even though the family goes through terrible experiences, his brother says, “The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”Simply said, “Grace” is a story of when bad things happen to good people and how they overcome their pain.  Krueger’s characters go through a wide range of believable and conflicting emotions.  You will laugh and cry along with them. The author’s skill in building tension, drama, and acceptance will leave the reader with a heartwarming glow.

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“The Octopus” by Tess Little

Genre:  Murder MysteryThe Octopous
Publisher:  Hodder &Stoughton
Pub. Date:  August 20, 2020

Mini-Review

In this unusual whodunit along with eight party guests, a pet octopus is also a murder suspect.  The octopus may just be the most interesting and emphatic character.  Our long-suffering protagonist is a woman attending her ex-husbands 50th birthday party.  He is now living with his male partner. There is lots of boozing and drugging going on.  They all pass out.   When the guests wake up the birthday boy is dead. Early on, the ex-husband is outed as a nasty guy.  The author ensures that you won’t feel much sorrow about his death.  After all, what sort of person, just for the fun of it, traps and watches a living creature constantly attempting escape? This is a murder mystery. There should be tension but because there are changing timelines with no warning of the change, the tension is dulled. Although I didn’t particularly care for Little’s debut novel (she has published two short stories), it is hard to miss that she is talented. I look forward to her future work.

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 Lottery and Other Stories” by Shirley Jackson

Genre:  Short Story Collection The Lottery
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pub. Date: June 26, 1948

Mini-Review – Spoilers

This short story collection was published in 1948 and appears to still have a following.  After reading the collection, I understand why. The author, Shirley Jackson,  writes brilliantly.  She has been described as one of the most famous short story writers in the history of American literature.  Her work is still being taught in schools today (that was news to me). The stories range from dark humor to bloodcurdling.  All are written with a surrealist tone. I didn’t like every short in the series. “Fair Garden” is about racism and dragged on a bit longer than needed.  However, I did enjoy most of them.  Here are my two favorites.

The title story, “The Lottery” has a diabolical theme.  Jackson, will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up (other shorts in the collection will do the same). The tale centers on a fictional small town in America that has a highly unusual annual lottery. In their lottery, a member of the community is selected, by chance, to be murdered— Stoned to death. This is supposedly for the town’s continued well being. As the townspeople surround their victim, Mrs. Hutchinson, she screams, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right” to her neighbors who begin the barbaric ritual.  The community members’ mob mentality is especially terrifying since the characters read as if they are hard working, ordinary farmers who enjoy square dancing and town picnics. The author explores the relationship between civilization and violence. Shades of the dystopian book, “Hunger Games” that won’t be published for another sixty years.

There is great dry wit in “My Life With R.H. Macy.” This short is written in the first person with an unidentified narrator, who describes her first day as an employee at Macy’s. She is immediately segregated into a nondescript group, then constantly shuffled and ordered around by faceless employees, all who go by the name of Miss Cooper.  The author nails conformity and lack of individuality that she sees in society.  I found myself laughing aloud when reading the woman’s employee number, locker number, time-clock number, cash-register number and drawer key number.  Of course, the protagonist is nameless, because she is faceless, nameless at her place of work.  The short ends with this: “I wrote Macy’s a long letter, and I signed it with all my numbers added together and divided by 11,7000 which is the number of employees in Macys. I wonder if they miss me.” Insightful yet remainig light.

You shouldn’t rush through this book.  For full impact, these stories are meant to be read and digested slowly.

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“City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Genre:  General FictionCity of Girls
Publisher:  Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication Date:  April 7, 2020

A friend asked me if I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s third book, “City of Girls.”  I explained that I was the only woman I knew of that didn’t like “Eat, Pray, Love.”  She replied that “Girls” was a better book.  I had promised myself that I wouldn’t read another novel with the word “girl” in the title.  I am so glad that I broke my promise.  My friend was right.  The plot is funny yet also thought-provoking. The story begins in the present, when Vivian, the narrator, is 90 years old. In a letter, she tells her life story to Angela, the daughter of the only man she ever loved (and she had many). Think this is a romance novel? Think again.  Gilbert penned a broad, fun historical fiction of mid-20th-century New York that is jammed with rich characters. The author’s wit shines through the entire book. She starts her letter by telling Angela that she is an “ancient woman still tottering around New York City, absolutely refusing to abandon either her life or her real estate.”

Vivian recounts her life starting from 1940. The author nailed the essence of the 1940s screwball comedies. Think the movie, “Girl Friday” but with a sharp edge.  When our protagonist is nineteen, she flunks out of Vassar College. Her pretentious parents are mortified.  She goes to live in NYC with the black sheep of the family, her Aunt Peg. Peg owns an offbeat neighborhood playhouse, which runs on a threadbare budget. Here Gilbert creates such fun characters, all thrown at the reader at a fast-moving pace. In the upstairs of the playhouse lives the 19-year-old with her exuberant, hard drinking, Aunt Peg and Peg’s no-nonsense girlfriend.  Even though the couple has been together for over 20 years, Peg is still married to a famous Hollywood director who is a notorious—but oh so lovable—playboy.  Add in Peg’s longtime British friend who is a great stage actress. The actress is married to a much younger, not-so-smart, but movie-star handsome man. Last but not least are the sexually free-spirited showgirls. One of them is Vivian’s roommate.  Our nineteen-year-old jumps in headfirst into her new, wild lifestyle. The dialogue in this group is extra sharp “just because these were show-business people.” Yes, there is plenty of reckless sex, boozing and nightclubbing, along with a hilarious account of Vivian’s deflowering.  But this is historical fiction. You will also meet real-life characters from that time such as the theater critic Brooks Atkinson.  And Heywood Broun, the American journalist who founded the media union, “The Newspaper Guild.”  Other well researched, real-life persons have scenes in the book as well. My favorite is Walter Winchell, the newspaper gossip columnist. I need to google to learn if he really was as tawdry as portrayed in the novel.

At the age of twenty, Vivian made a major blunder that enraged the playhouse’s famous actress. A front-page racy photo of Vivian turns her into “A dirty little whore.” The author goes deep here showing female shame. Vivian was banished from her new home and place of work.  She was shipped back to her parents.  Now the novel takes on a different tone. In the second half of the book, Gilbert remains witty. Peg is now an old woman.  She tells her niece “The doctor says that there’s nothing much wrong with me, kiddo, but there is nothing much right with me either.” There is still good-humored banter going on, yet, the writing becomes more serious in this part of the story. When Vivian returns to NYC, she is older, wiser and calmer.  She is still promiscuous but no longer acting like a college girl gone wild. Now the character reads more like an independent-minded woman living her life on her own terms.  Gilbert makes sure the reader gets that her protagonist is decades ahead of her time and we cheer her on for it.  Vivian is simply a sensual person.

This is also when Vivian, and the reader, meet Frank, Angela’s father.  “And then there was Frank. He was a devout Catholic, a police officer, and a veteran who had been through hell in service to his country.  There was nothing of the sensualist about him.” Frank is a WWII vet with posttraumatic stress.  Now Gilbert’s writing captures male shame.  The author explores the notion that it could be every bit as painful as female shame.  Vivian asks him, “for the sake of argument, what if it’s true Frank that you were never made for combat?”  He replies, “It means I’m a coward…a failure…a bad person.”  Vivian becomes angry.  “Now you listen to me Frank Grecco…do you think my aunt is a bad person because she has no control over booze?…do you think I am a failure because I am not pure…Of course you don’t…you’re a wonderful person…you’re no failure.”  This is not your average women’s fiction. Men may enjoy the novel too.  Gilbert proves that she is a powerful storyteller. She writes a sassy tale with non-judgmental, poignant life lessons. She may give you the courage to emulate Vivian’s letter and fearlessly examine your own life.

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“Wolf: A Novel” by Herbert J. Stern, Alan A. Winter

Gene: Historical FictionWolf
Publisher: Skyhorse
Pub. Date: Feb. 11, 2020

The Director of Publicity for “Wolf: A Novel” contacted me to ask if I would be interested in an Advance Review Copy (ARC) of this historical fiction. I was about to say thanks but no thanks (already have too many on my TBR list) until I learned who the authors were—more to come on them later. I am so glad that I accepted the book and grateful that it was offered to me.  Wolf is a meticulously researched historical novel about a man who isn’t yet the monster that he will become later in life, a man who is the embodiment of evil known as Adolf Hitler.  I was amazed at how much I learned about Hitler in this book.  Did you know that Wolf was his nickname?  Did you know that in 1918 he was in a soldiers’ mental health hospital for hysterical blindness?  Or that as a corporal Hitler was denied a promotion for lack of leadership ability?  And most surprisingly, this most hated man was also known s to be a ladies’ man?  I kid you not. Throughout his career, he paid off women to squash the potential sex scandals.

“Wolf” is the story of Hitler’s life immediately following WWI. If you ever wondered how the Nazis took control, you won’t after reading this book.  They did not seize the country.  It was a slow political movement made possible due to all the fighting amongst the country’s political parties striving to obtain power. I was so fascinated by this systematic explanation, like chess pieces on a board, that I actually typed it all up.  Then remembered I was writing a book review, not a history paper.  The authors make it look easy to weave together fact and fiction. In between reading about the rise of real-life monsters such as Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich, there is also the book’s fictional protagonist and narrator, Friedrich Richard. Through this character, you will find yourself in nightclubs with movie stars as well as prostitutes in brothels. Moreover, you get a front row seat to Germany’s then-bohemian life style.  All sorts of unconventional shenanigans became acceptable.  Think the 1970s movie “Cabaret.”

The book’s co-authors are Herbert J. Stern and Alan A. Winter. Stern is a former US attorney for the District of New Jersey.  He also served as a judge of the US Court of Berlin. He authored the non-fiction book, “Judgment in Berlin.”  Winter graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in History and has graduate degrees from New York University and Colombia University. He is the author of four novels. One was a “Kirkus Selected Best Book.”  The newsletter “The Jewish Voice,” wrote that this novel “debunks the myths surrounding the life of Adolf Hitler.”  One learns that he was capable of loving and maintaining friendships. I know, very hard to believe but it’s footnoted.   Friedrich meets Hitler when they are in the same hospital in 1918.  He is there because he is suffering from a war-related brain injury that left him with impaired memory. They become good friends.  I thought it was ingenious how the authors created a protagonist with amnesia.  As they say in the endnotes, “He is a clear window through which we observed people and events.”

Though the narrator’s eyes the plot simply hits me in my American gut.  One of the many examples is when Hitler began his sterilization programs in an attempt to prevent persons deemed to possess undesirable heritable characteristics. Friedrich questions the reasoning behind needing an Aryan race.  It is explained to him that they took the idea from America’s broadly accepted law that “One-Drop” of black blood in a white person is enough to consider that person to be black.  “They enforce purity and superiority of Anglo-Saxon blood. Their goal is to protect the integrity of anything that threatens American heritage.” Because our protagonist’s memory is a blank slate, it suddenly seems understandable to him.  Another heartbreaking example is when reading that in the early years of the Nazi party, the wealthy Jews donated to Hitler. They considered themselves loyal Germans who wanted the best for their country. Again, since Friedrich has no past knowledge, he naively agrees with them.

Historical fiction is my favorite genre, so I read many. A complaint I have is that it has become a trend to compare German Fascism to the current White House Administration. They are usually written so loud that it gives me a headache and bores me to tears. “Wolf” is over 500 pages long.  The chapters are divided by months and years in chronological order.  By the time you finish the novel, the comparison becomes inevitable, but you need to piece them together over the years.  It is not spoon-fed to you.  Now, I am not saying that President Trump is Hitler-like.  I am saying that the book helps one understand the comparisons.  Germany had a perfect political storm that allowed evil to flourish.

The book’s last paragraphs take place in1934.  The German President Hindenburg dies. “The next morning a law was passed that combined the offices of president and chancellor.” Hitler fools the Germans into believing that this is out of respect for the deceased President. In reality, dictatorship is his goal.  Then Hitler calls for his Generals to swear before God their unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, Fuhrer of the Reich. “These few words—and what they represented—sealed the fate of Germany.”  Before Hitler, “the armed forces swore their allegiance to protect the country.”  “Wolf” only has six fictional characters, including the protagonist. The rest is pure history. Yet, the tale reads like a page-turning thriller. I do wish that the authors had explained in more detail why a dark haired Austrian man was so intent on creating a blond-haired, blue-eyed German nation (something about his troubled childhood); Still, I just gobbled this one up.  This educational read is easy to follow. Although it is an adult historical fiction, young adults would learn much while getting lost in the tale’s drama. If “Wolf” ever shows up on a syllabus in a high school history class, I would be surprised if kids cut the class.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review
.
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“Big Summer” by Jennifer Weiner

Genre: Women’s FictionBig Summer
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pub. Date: May 19, 2020

Vacation primes us for the pleasure of reading light books with plots that are not too heavy or thought-provoking.  Usually, the reader just wants to unwind in the sun, the sand, and a story.  Beach books are at their best when read on a beach, which is where this reviewer read “Big Summer.”

There are two timelines in the novel, 1994 and 2018.  They do not intertwine. The prologue takes place in 1994. We meet Christina Killian, an unmarried pregnant woman.  With no financial resources, she goes to live year-round in her family’s seasonal summer cottage located on Cape Cod.  She has a son and they both thrive while living on the peninsula. When the boy is four years old, the prologue is over and the story takes a completely different turn. Christina is out of the plot.  This is a shame because her story had the makings of a good beach read.

The bulk of the story takes place in 2018 and is told in the first person. The protagonist, Daphne Berg, is a plus-sized, likable young woman with low self-esteem. The story begins when she is in the 8th grade and continues until she is in her mid-twenties. Her best friend, Drue Cavanaugh, is the opposite of her. Drue is the epitome of the character from the movie “Mean Girls.” You will wonder if you accidentally picked up a YA novel. The plot is mix-matched and all over the place. You will read about school bullying with a strong emphasis on fat shaming and the pros and cons of today’s 24/7social media culture. Throw in a rather dull romance that morphs into a completely unbelievable murder mystery.

The reader comes back to the beach when Daphne is in Drue’s Cape Cod, over-the-top wedding.  This is fun to read.  Think of the TV shows, “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Or any episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”   This is also when the story turns into a chick-lit murder mystery. And when we finally learn what happened to Christina.  Publishers put out beach books in piles for the summer.  You may want to add “Big Summer” to your pile, but not at the top.

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

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