“His Favorites by Kate Walbert

Genre:          General Fiction   His Favorites
Publisher:    Scribner
Pub. Date:   Aug. 14, 2018

“His Favorites” is a slice of life story about the wealthy with two different plotlines connected by the female protagonist, Jo.  It is written by the acclaimed American author Kate Walbert.  Similar to Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, “Prep,” this tale is a powerful coming of age story that spotlights (no matter how rich you are) the vulnerability and powerlessness of female girls.  Unlike “Prep,” there is no laughter in “Favorites.”  This is a sad story which might have been easier to read with a little tension-cutting humor.  Walbert is also writing on the same female issues that follow girls into womanhood.  The story is narrated by an adult Jo, who is recounting painful memories.  In the 1970s, she was twice traumatized.

At fifteen, she and her two childhood best friends go on a drunken joyride in a golf cart. Jo is the driver.   The ride ends tragically when the golf cart flips over.  Two girls are left laughing and the third girl is left dead.  The author asks the reader to question if the tragedy is a type of privileged entrapment.  The girls are usually unsupervised.  They live on the grounds of a country club.   They know where the golf cart keys are kept.  Did Jo really do anything that most teens in her position wouldn’t have done?   I don’t think so, do you?  Nevertheless, after the death of her friend, Jo becomes the neighborhood’s version of a human pariah—Avoided.  Detested.  The dead girl’s mother, who is like a second mother to Jo, spits on her.  Her parents pretty much desert her.  Scared, alone, grieving her friend and brimming with endless guilt, she is sent off to a boarding school in New England.  I felt real anger at how heartlessly Jo is punished for being a teenager.

The second plotline begins at the boarding school.  It feels as if Jo is once again set up by affluent adults.   Isolated from family and friends she is easy pickings to become the next favorite (there are/were many) of her 34-year-old male teacher.  She has an unwanted sexual relationship with him.  The author now goes into society’s sexual unfavorable biases towards females of all ages.  She nails why Jo or the other girls didn’t say anything to the school’s authorities about their teacher’s sexual misconduct.  Who would believe them?  He is a powerful man and an academic award-winning teacher.  Who would believe them?  Everyone knows that girls and women have embellished imaginations. Who would believe them?  None of the girls actually said no.  They were so manipulated into the relationship that they themselves never realized that they were abused.  Of course, they were but, The Me Too Movement is decades away.  Hopefully, the days of powerful men getting off scot-free are nearing an end.

The reader never learns how adult Jo coped living with so much undeserved shame.  Was the rest of her life a wipeout like another one of the professor’s favorites?   Adult Jo has an unexpected encounter with her.  The other favorite now suffers from a cocaine problem.  (Possible Spoiler) After this meeting, the author teases the reader with the idea, ‘that the power might finally be in Jo’s hands.’  But, we really don’t know.   I have mixed feelings on the novel’s conclusion.  I think I would have preferred going back full circle to the story’s beginning with an explained ending.  But then again, Walbert’s ending gives me food for thought.  In a weird way, it is similar to the last scene in the last episode of another fictional wealthy family—“The Sopranos.”  Does, Tony live or doesn’t he?  We are left with the same question regarding Jo.

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

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“With Shuddering Fall” by Joyce Carol Oates

Genre:          Literary Gothicwith shuddering
Publisher:    Vanguard Press
Pub. Year:    1964

It was such a joy to find Joyce Carol Oates’ debut novel, “With Shuddering Fall.”  She is an all-time favorite author of mine.   Written in 1964, when the author was in her mid-twenties, the novel does not disappoint.   In a previous review of  “Night-Gaunts,” 2018, I wrote that a recurring theme in her work is the abuse of women, as portrayed in  “Do With Me What You Will,” 1973,  “We Were the Mulvaneys,” 2002, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” 2007, “Blonde: A Novel, 2009,” “The Sacrifice”, 2016.  I have read them all. They are flawless.  (I admit that when I read her memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” 2011, I was surprised to see how very ordinary her own marriage was).   So I wasn’t overly surprised to read that she began her career on a theme that we have come to associate with this author— a dark tale of two lovers entwined in sexual chaos.

On Oct. 25, 1964, the NY Times reviewed “Shuddering” and wrote of the female protagonist,Karen Herz at 17 is fragilely beautiful, and, as she herself recognizes, a little “queer in the head.” Her impulses are ungovernable; her whims must be carried to the limit.”   Her being queer in the head actually reads as if she may be autistic. If she is autistic, I did wonder if Karen embraces a twisted love affair as a means to feel. I have no idea if that is how Oates meant for her character to present, but that is my take on Karen.  Her born angry 30-year-old racecar driving lover is Shar.   He appears to have a death wish.  There is little doubt that his violent occupation symbolizes their relationship.  Karen marries Shar and things go from bad to worse.  Remember the Billie Holliday song “My Man?”  “My life is just despair, but I don’t care, He beats me, too, what can I do?” Well, that can be Karen singing about her man Shar.  But then again, Shar’s feelings about Karen are just as bizarre.  He literally cannot live with her (he never was a one-woman kind of guy) or without her (he stays since he is obsessed that he cannot bring her to sexual orgasm).  There is a constant struggle of brutality and indifference between them.

Although the story may revolve around sex her prose is never porn-like.  The Times reviewer also wrote, “This material is not as garish as it sounds _because of the clarity, grace, and intelligence of the writing.”  For Oates to pull this off at such a tender age is nothing short of amazing.  This does not mean “Shuddering” is flawless.  The story can wander off at certain times with unneeded subplots, which detract from the real tale.   She was still in the process of learning her craft.

So why does Oates’ unwavering theme on the abuse of women keep working for her?  I believe it is her willingness to unabashedly dive into the darkest cavity of the human psyche.  And let’s face it—such tales are fascinating to read.  She always seems to ask the question just what is insanity?  Aren’t we all just a little scared to find bits of ourselves in her unstable characters?  You might cringe, but Oates has a unique voice and is one hell of a storyteller.

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“Wunderland” by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Genre:         Historical FictionWonderland
Publisher:    Crown Publishing
Pub. Date:   April 23, 2019

Though I found “Wunderland” to be a letdown, this may be my own fault. The author, Jennifer Cody Epstein, has written for BCHBO, and The Wall Street Journal, among other prestigious journals.   Because of her credentials, maybe I was expecting something unusually good and/or different.  Or, possibly my disappointment may be because historical fiction is my favorite genre.  I may have simply read one too many WWII stories revolving around the Hitler Youth movement. Nevertheless, surprisingly, I did not feel the empathy and rage that I should have when the persecution of the German Jews began in this novel.

The story goes back and forth in time from 1933 to 1989.  In 1933, we are in Berlin and meet two preteen and then teenage female best friends.  In 1986, we are in the East Village and we meet the grown daughter of one of the Berlin friends who is estranged from her mother. The daughter has no idea who her father is and her mother is still mum on the subject.  There is some suspense as to her paternal parentage.  Could she be the daughter of a nameless Nazi?  Was her mom part of the breeding program wherein German women were impregnated to produce children of alleged Aryan purity?   Unfortunately, the writing is underwhelming, making the reader not invested in the question.  I do believe that Cody Epstein does a good job in catching the dynamics of female teenage friendships (competition for a boy’s interest) as well as mother/daughter relationships (always knowing how to push each other’s buttons).  But, this insight into relations is not enough to hold the reader’s interest long enough to care about the characters.

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 Sentinel” by Jeffrey Konvitz

Genre:           Horror FictionThe Sentenal
Publisher:     Ballantine Books
Pub. Year:     1974

My Halloween book for 2018 was written in 1974 by Jeffrey Konvitz.  I read this book the year after I graduated high school (dating myself) and I remember it scaring the bejesus out of me.  I was wondering if it still could. It did, but with noticeable flaws.  As a teen in 1968, I read “Rosemary’s Baby.”  And in 1973, I read “The Exorcist.”  Both books better stand the test of time than this one did.  I can see what attracted me back then to the “Sentinel.”   As a native New Yorker, I enjoyed that the setting takes place in the Big Apple.   The teenage me would have found the protagonist, a beautiful-but-troubled fashion model to be a fascinating character simply because she was a model.

Here is a snapshot of the plot.  The heroine moves into an old brownstone building and befriends the other occupants who are bizarrely eccentric.  Sounds like “Rosemary’s Baby” right?  Wrong—I actually found these neighbors even spookier (possible spoiler) because the reader is not sure if they truly exist or are part of the model’s imagination.  The house is inhabited on the top floor by a reclusive blind Catholic priest, who may or may not be evil.   He spends his time sitting at his open window.  Yes, such a thought can still scare the Catholic schoolgirl in me.  Is our heroine crazy or is she in hell?  The book also has an unsolved murder in its plot.  This would be the deceased wife of our heroine’s boyfriend.  I can’t say anymore about him or it would be a spoiler.

So why didn’t this book stand the test of time?  First of all, as an adult, I was pissed off that her loving boyfriend uses his hands on her.   Plus, her abusive father is written as such an insane deviant, he is not a believable character. Not to mention that a lesbian couple are referred to as perverts.   Okay, there was no PC in the 1970s hopefully we have all grown since then.  But what bothered me most was how the story’s lewdness seems to have been written for shock value only and that seldom works.  Maybe I am being too critical.   Stephen King’s “Carrie,” which was published in 1973, also had a crazy religious fanatic parent who beats her daughter.  I guess I need to reread King’s first novel to see if it also feels dated.  Still, I feel that “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist” are superior to “Sentinel” because, like another King novel “The Stand,” they are basically fables about good vs. evil, which means we are talking about the Bible. According to the March 2007 “Time” edition “the Bible has done more to shape literature, history, entertainment, and culture than any book ever written. Its influence on world history is unparalleled, and shows no signs of abating.”  Now that is staying power. And let’s face it: when it comes to horror inspired by the bible nothing is more terrifying.

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“The Girls at 17 Swann Street” by Yara Zgheib

Genre:          General FictionThe girls
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:   February 5, 2019

Due to the Goodreads blurb (The chocolate went first, then the cheese, the fries, the ice cream. The bread was more difficult, but if she could just lose a little more weight) the reader knows right away that the story will revolve around a young female with an eating disorder.   Author Yara Zgheib is a Fulbright scholar, which explains her intelligent yet poignant prose.  Her novel is inspired by her own experience with the disease. The story is eerily similar to the movie “Girl Interrupted,” the true story of Susanna Kaysen (played by Winona Ryder).  Though they depict different mental disorders, both are heartbreaking stories of girls living in a treatment center, fighting a disease that can take their life.  Both characters are at a crossroad between deciding to live in such a facility forever or to attempt to rejoin society—like all addictions, easier said than done.

Since I skipped the blurb, I wasn’t aware of the book’s subject matter.  I probably wouldn’t have picked this novel to review because I am someone who has lived long enough to have heard and read countless female celebs who have talked of their anorexia/bulimia during interviews and/or read of their disorder in their autobiographies.   Plus, I grew up in the age of Twiggy.  Back then, all of us girls starved ourselves to look like her.  In the 1960s, at least where I grew up, no one had ever even heard of the term “eating disorder.”  For me, the disease didn’t seriously enter my consciousness until 1983, when singer Karen Carpenter died due to heart failure brought on by her unpublicized anorexia.    On a personal note, for someone who survived the age of the “Twiggy look,” it was disheartening to observe the skinniness fetish make a comeback in the “heroin chic” of the 1990s.

With that said, I applaud that the author frequently mentions the inpatients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTS).   Unaddressed trauma can manifest itself as an eating disorder.  It can be deadly when the eating disorder is treated but not the underlying trauma.  Sadly, these are the unlucky girls and young women who often die from starving or binging or both.   I was similarly impressed that the author, in a debut novel, uses an unusual writing style. The story is told in different fonts.  One for internal thoughts and another for external words, there is also a third style.  It is used as the sort of commentary that you would find in a medical journal.  This is how Zgheib weaves education into the plot to enlighten the reader throughout the novel.

In a nutshell, I can safely write that if you are struggling with the disorder yourself, or if you are unfamiliar with the topic, this story will make you cry (skeletal women gasping to breathe), and learn (the causes of the disease) and hopefully grow (as with other addictions one is never considered cured, but may learn to live a good life).   However, I suggest that you skip this one if you have read the many other titles out there on the subject, such as, “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia” or “Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia.”   “Swann Street” is a good novel, but I didn’t find anything new in the story that wasn’t said before.

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 Age of Exodus” by Gavin Scott

Genre:            Historical Murder Mystery Age of Exodus
Publisher:    Random House
Pub. Date:   Sept. 28, 2018

A murder-thriller nestled in historical fiction, The Age of Exodus reads like a blend of James Bond, Mickey Spillane, and Indiana Jones. The result, I’m pleased to report, is an addictive reading experience. Exodus brims with compelling research without sacrificing the breakneck speed at which it unfolds. The author, Gavin Scott, juggles archaeological artifacts, demon gods of Mesopotamia, and British espionage. Scott rarely misses a beat.

The year is 1947. The story begins in England and then shifts to America via the legendary British luxury liner, the Queen Mary. A General Assembly Meeting of the United Nations is its destination.  Aboard is our protagonist, the charming archeologist and Oxford lecturer named Duncan Forrester. This is the third book in Scott’s Duncan Forrester Mystery Series, but one needn’t read the first two novels to follow along. The author smoothly informs us that Forrester was a trained British special operations agent in the war, just what the UN needs.

Scott builds tension skillfully. You will witness a trail of grisly murders that echo ancient rituals. You will meet the real-life Aleister Crowley, an English occultist, who founded his own religion in the dark arts.  Remember, the book and movie The Exorcist?  Yes, this novel has sections that can get that terrifying.   You will also meet other real-life persons that played a part in history, such as Ernest Bevin and Arthur Koestler.  Bevin was a British unionist and statesman whose help was instrumental in winning the war.  As Foreign Secretary in 1947, he announced that the “Palestinian problem” will no longer be a British issue because Britain was handing it over to the United Nations.  As in the tale, his announcement caused quite the uproar inside the UN.  Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian journalist who achieved fame during this time period as the author of the anti-Communist novel, Darkness at Noon.   Interestingly, his books had been burned by both the Nazis and the Communists.

There is not an excess of Forrester’s love life in the plot, but enough to please. After all, where would Indiana Jones be without a beautiful woman by his side?  The reader will discover that tough guy Forrester is not so tough at all.  The woman who has caught his eye and has romantic feelings towards him is the younger sister of his deceased girlfriend, making him shy around her. Unlike so many romantic subplots, Forrester’s plight endears him to the reader.

Be prepared to learn of the intricate history between the Jewish Zionists and Palestinian Arabs who fought over the creation of a Jewish nation for Holocaust survivors.  Our hero has a role on the non-fictional historical steamer, the SS President Warfield.   Once in French waters, the ship donned a banner renaming the vessel, Exodus 1947.  The fictional commander tries to kill our hero because he is unaware that the British man, Forrester, is actually trying to help him.  Sadly, in the story, as well as in the history books, the Exodus 1947 did not succeed.  On July 11, 1947, the ship was boarded by the British in international waters.  The Jews trying to immigrate to Israel were taken to Haifa where ships were waiting to return them to refugee camps in Europe. “But by this time the ship was big news around the world, and the pitiful sight of the frightened children and former concentration camp victims…undermined everything Ernest Bevin had been claiming about the justice of his policy on the Jewish Homeland.”  Ernest Bevin was a man Forrester had once greatly admired, but not after this tragedy. Such moments are effective at raising the emotional stakes.

After getting lost in such a gripping moment in history, the reader may feel a tad disappointed when the story returns to another demon murder.  However, later events will reignite the story’s historical charge. The ending makes one hopeful that there will be a number four in the series to pick up where number three left off.  There is such creative finesse in Scott’s presentation of history that you can easily forget you’ve returned to the classroom. But a word of caution to the reader: although this book is a murder-mystery page-turner, read slowly. With so many real and fictional characters, it can get confusing if you are tempted to fly right through the novel in one sitting.  Still, if you do, the story is so enjoyable you will probably just reread it again for any clarifications that you might have missed, and you’re likely to take delight in it, even more, the second time around.

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“Other People’s Love Affairs” by D. Wystan Owen

Genre:         Literary FictionOther People Affairs
Publisher:    Algonquin Books
Pub. Date:   August 21, 2018

My first thought, once I finished the last page of this connected short story collection, was that the author, D. Wystan Owen, manages to pen a book to the Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby.” With its lyrics of, “All the lonely people, Where do they all come from?  All the lonely people, Where do they all belong?”  This mostly brilliant ten story collection follows the lives of characters who live in the same coastal English village. All are unhappy.  All are desperately lonely.  All are disappointed in life.

The title story is one of the weakest tales in the collection.   Two women have lived together for twenty years.  Neither the village people nor the reader knows if they are lovers or simply friends.  No matter, they are passionately devoted to one another and inseparable.  After the death of one, the other learns that years ago the deceased had a male lover.  The living companion is devastated to learn this news.  She is left feeling that she never really knew her partner at all.  Reading of their longtime relationship is glorious.  The tale is filled with pieces of the fine and playful life that they made together.  The ending is a bit melodramatic.

“Housekeeper” is the stellar story in the collection.   An unmarried woman cares for an old man with dementia.  From the beginning, when she moves into his home, she is grateful that she is no longer alone in the world.  She is pleased when he mistakes her for his deceased wife.   She encourages his confusion and pretends to be the wife.  She now feels that she too can say she has been in a marriage.  She is very loving towards him.  She is an endearing character.  And yes, to be pleased with this fictional marriage and other actions I cannot mention for fear of a spoiler, also makes her very creepy.

Owen frequently changes voices within a story, allowing the reader different interruptions of the characters. This can clearly be seen in “The Patroness.”   A widow of a wealthy man hosts elaborate bi-weekly luncheons to make herself feel special among the once-famous.  At such an event, she purposely seats next to one another an elderly, once-beautiful film goddess and a young male student.  This reviewer was surprised by the malice intentions of the generous hostess.  There is darkness and devastation in the storylines, but there is also a dual sweetness to the characters that lingers.

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

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