“The Confessions of Frannie Langton” by Sara Collins

Genre: Historical FictionThe Confessions
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Pub. Date:  May 21, 2019

This novel is good, unusual, but not unusually good, although it could have been.  There may be too much going on, which I will get to, but at its center is a gripping narrative about a female servant in England who was a former Jamaican slave.  In 1826, she is accused of the brutal double murder of her employer and his wife, George and Marguerite Benham.   The first half of the tale is written so well.   We meet Frannie in jail writing her life’s story.   She was born on a West Indian plantation whose master, John Langton, is a sadist.  (Spoiler: She is her master’s bastard daughter).  As a child, she was taught to read and write. She grows to be highly self-educated.

The reason for her literacy was for her to participate in and take notes on her master’s pseudoscience experiments.  Langton is studying racial differences.  He is trying to prove that blacks are not human.   He uses skulls, blood, and skin samples from dead as well as live slaves.  The author chooses to leave out, what could be barbaric descriptions.  You will read about a baby being used as a research subject.  Rather than focusing on what is being done to the infant, Collins writes about the child’s desperate mother scratching on the outside of the locked room.  Or, that Frannie knows that the woman will be sold in the near future.  Less gore can equal more horror.  In the endnotes, the author cites “Medical Experimentation and Race in the Atlantic World.”  The author’s research charges these scenes with a terrible plausibility.

During the trial of the “The Mulatta Murderess,” Frannie is asked why she didn’t just leave England.   By then, slavery was illegal in Great Britain.  Her reply is heartbreaking:  No one told her that she could.   It is this style of understated writing that packs the strongest punch.  If the author would have stayed with this theme, this could have been an unusually good story, different from other historical novels on the subject of slavery.  This is shown through Frannie’s narrative, “…no doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories…with misery and despair.  But who’d want to read one of those?…What no one will admit about anti-slavers is that they’ve all got a slaver’s appetite for misery…And, for all their talk of men as brothers, most of them stared at me as if I had two heads.”

In the second half of the book, Frannie is a lady’s maid to a wealthy Georgian couple who live in London.  Here is where the story’s pacing becomes uneven with way too many subplots.  It is easy to become less invested in the character because the story is all over the place.   You will read about betrayal, murder, lesbian love, drug addiction, and a whorehouse devoted to spankings.  The punch is muted, but not completely gone.  It is impossible not to be swept away from a story with such concise and powerful writing.  “My intentions in writing my jailhouse musings …it’s my life, I want to assemble the pieces of it myself…For every crime, there are two stories, and that an Old Bailey trial is the story of the crime, not the story of the prisoner. That story is the one only I can tell.” The writing’s strength is reason enough to recommend the novel.

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

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“Miracle Creek” by Angie Kim

Genre:  General Fiction/MysteryMircle Creek
Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton
Pub. Date:  April 16, 2019

This complex novel begins with a tossed cigarette causing an explosion that kills two people in what is believed to be premeditated murder.  Still, the story can read more sci-fi than murder-mystery.   This is because of a seemingly bizarre treatment for autism.  Parents who are seeking a miracle cure take their children into a large chamber that looks like a submarine.  The families take ‘dives’ where they are exposed to high levels of pressurized oxygen.  This is an actual treatment commonly used in Asia named “hyperbaric oxygen therapy” (HBOT).  This reviewer needed to google to learn that fact.  You can even buy a chamber online.  Turns out, the author was not bending reality.  Learning this took some of the fun out of the story, but have no fear, this is a very good murder-mystery. The author is a former litigator, which makes for authentic courtroom scenes.

The story centers around a South Korean American couple and their teenage daughter who recently arrived in the United States.  They own and run a small HBOT facility.  A mother and a child, not her own, both die in the chamber due to the explosion.   The mother of the deceased child was taking a parental break and she remained outside for that fatal session. This mom has been known to show her burnout and has said, while the other mothers only thought, “Sometimes I wish my child was dead.”   For this reason, she becomes the murder defendant on trial.  But the author keeps us guessing.  Could it have been the owners, who needed the insurance money?  Or perhaps a protesting mom who does not believe in the therapy?  All the twists make for an entertaining read.  What makes the story complex are the aspects of the characters’ individual lives.  The exhaustion and depression that comes from the daily superhuman caregiving demands placed on the mothers, the difficulty of the immigrant experience, the confusion of the teen who wants to go back to Korea, despite being more American in her speech and mannerisms than her parents will ever be.  It has been reported that HBOT can help with many other medical issues; a white American doctor married to a Korean American woman participates in the dives because his wife says it will help them conceive.  He personally believes the treatments are nonsense but appeases his wife, putting himself in what he considers a humiliating position—Great tension.

Combining a murder-mystery with family issues, the immigrant experience, and the keenly felt, heart-wrenching emotions of the parents makes for an interesting use of the genre.  There is even an emphasis on the social drama provoked by different parenting beliefs.  A group of protesting moms feel those who put their kids in these chambers (which can on rare occasions be dangerous) do not accept their children as they are, and want to ‘fix’ them.  They hold signs reading “I’m a child, not a lab rat.”   In the April 2019 Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW) interview, the author’s shares that her own son received HBOT treatments.  Once again, Kim uses her personal experience to create a powerful human story disguised as a legal thriller.  Kim’s courtroom drama will pose threat to any others out there.

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

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“Conversations with Oscar Wilde: A Fictional Dialogue Based on Biographical Facts” by Merline Holland

Genre:       Fictional Biographies & Memoirs/Historical Fiction Conversatons Oscar Wilde
Publisher: Watkins Publishing
Pub. Date: June 11, 2019

This story is one in a series regarding other imagined conversations with legendary people.  The infamous Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900) is easily one of the most paramount playwrights of the Victorian age.   This novel was originally published under the title “Coffee with Oscar Wilde.”  No matter the name, what a treat to review this clever novel about a fictional conversation with Oscar Wilde over coffee and a cigarette.  The premise of the tale is that Wilde is being interviewed by an unnamed interviewer.  What makes this book so clever is that he is being interviewed in the present.  The author never explains how this phenomenon happens.  Still, much fun to read Wilde’s possible views on histories’ take on him.  Or how appalled Wilde might be to learn that smoking is now frowned upon.  “A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure.”― Oscar Wilde, “The Picture of Dorian Gray

The novel is set in Paris, where he fled once released from prison after the scandalous trial that revealed his homosexuality.   During the trial, he was actually accused of literally being his character Dorian, who never ages, from his novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”  The story comes so close to spelling out homosexual desire.  In Holland’s book, the author is at his wittiest, channeling Wilde’s feelings about the trial.   He does a wonderful job of showing Wilde’s misjudgment on what would be the trial’s outcome.  After all, at that time in his life, Oscar was the darling of upper-class society.

In the book’s prologue, the author explains that he did not cut out Wilde’s quotes and sew them back together.  He feared that would become a book of one-liners.  Instead, he wrote Wilde-like flavored interview answers.  Holland did this by heavily researching Wilde’s works and letters.   The result feels fresh.  This book is a fast (under 200 pages) and delightful read. However, it is easy to imagine that if you are familiar with all the aspects of Wilde’s life then the novel may not be as impressive.   Personally,  this reviewer was surprised to learn that Oscar was married and had two children.   Reading about the close relationship he had with his mother, and the lover who caused his downfall was new to me.  I was so impressed with this concept of a fictional memoir that I hope to read “Conversations with Mozart” by Simon Parke.

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

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“Mrs. Everything” by Jennifer Weiner

Genre:           Literary Fiction/Women’s FictionMrs. Everything
Publisher:    Atria Book (Simon & Schuster)
Pub.  Date:   June 11, 2019

This multigenerational novel spans the 1940s to the present.  The weight of the novel is devoted to how women’s roles in society have changed and yet remained the same over the decades.   The author states in her prologue that after the 2016 election she wanted to write about a woman like her mother.   A woman, who married, had children, divorced, fell in love with another woman and married her.  This reviewer applauds Weiner for her honesty and ambitious effort.  The novel takes on many issues: ethnicity, race, bias, class, religion, sexual assault.  Most of all, the relationships between mothers, daughters, and sisters—shades of “Little Women.”  The reader will go through the civil rights movement to the #MeToo movement.  Fittingly, Weiner tries to work everything into “Mrs. Everything,” but the result often feels bloated with detail and explanation. Overkill.

The novel is narrated by two sisters, Jo and Bethie.  The reader will follow them from their childhoods until they are senior citizens.  Jo is a tomboy.  She prefers playing sports rather than with dolls.   Her choice of clothing is masculine.  Bethie is content with being pretty, loving all things girlie, and being her mother’s favorite.   The family is Jewish, and the parents’ immigration, due to persecution in Europe, plays a large role in the novel.  The religious and cultural parts of their lives did not read like overkill.  Weiner manages to ‘show’ their heritage, rather than ‘telling’ it.  Meaning it doesn’t feel jammed in.  If all 500 pages were written in this manner, the book may have become a classic as well as a (probable) bestseller.

Sometimes Weiner seems to struggle with making her characters’ arcs believable, or how the story’s developments can feel forced, at times, by the author’s desire to subvert expectations.  (Spoiler:   In the early 1970s, Beth will find drugs in college, drops out, and worst of all, for her mother, Beth gets fat.)  Since Joe marries and has children she now becomes the apple of her mother’s eye.   This is hard to swallow because the mother is cringe-worthy cruel towards Jo as she was growing up.  The mom always guessed Jo’s sexuality and couldn’t make peace with it.

Oddly, with so much packed into the story, it is still a fast read.  The novel is marketed as Literary Fiction/Women’s Fiction.  It is really more Women’s Fiction—good women’s fiction, well researched.  If you enjoy the genre you may feel this critique is too hard on the author.   Indeed, there are parts in this sweeping saga where Weiner nails women’s personal struggles spot on.  She especially shines when writing about sexual assault or how hard it can be for females to like their bodies or simply like themselves for who they are.  Her book has a very important message.   If you can get through the information overload, it is worth the read.

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

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“Machines Like Me” by Ian McEwan

MachinesGenre:          Literary Science Fiction
Publisher:    Doubleday Books
Pub. Date:   April 23, 2019

This is Ian McEwan at his storytelling best.  At first, you may think you are reading a futuristic novel.  You are not.  You are in 1982 London.  But, this is an alternative 1982, which has futuristic technology.   Got it?  Once you wrap your head around that, be prepared to be entertained as well as educated on the legendary British mathematician and father of computer science, Alan Turing.  Still, much in this timeline diverges from ours, so you may find yourself googling when unsure what’s real and what’s McEwan.   You will read made-up battles regarding The Falkland war, which are written amazingly believable.  In this narrative, Margaret Thatcher didn’t win back the islands.  Jimmy Carter beat Ronald Regan.  And, my personal favorite, the Beatles got back together.  Best of all, no one killed John Lennon—Sweet.

The premise of the book is a what-if scenario regarding artificial intelligence.  This brings us to Alan Turing.  In real life, Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts.  He chose chemical castration over imprisonment.   He died in his early forties.  McEwan asks the reader what if he chose imprisonment instead and is still alive.   Turing’s fictionalized imprisonment gives him more time to create.  In prison, he takes artificial intelligence to a whole new level.  The year 1982 reads more like, maybe, 2082.   Robots have just been designed as fully convincible as human beings.  So far there are 25 of these human/machines on the market:  12 “Adams” and 13 “Eves.”   Got to love those names.  For a large sum of money, anyone can buy an Adam or an Eve.

There are three protagonists in this novel, two male and one female.  One is an Adam.   The other is a 32-year old screw-up of a guy named Charlie.  He blows his inheritance to buy the artificial man.   We also meet Charlie’s 22-year-old, sort of, girlfriend, Miranda.    Together Miranda and Charlie program Adam to have the personality qualities that they desire in a friend.  They consider Adam to be their baby.  But, they don’t share with each other what traits they programmed into their new friend.  By the way, Adam is cable of having sex.  Now, what could possibly go wrong?  Think Frankenstein meets the computer Hal from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” then throw in some kinkiness.

Yes, if you read this book you are going to go on an acid trip.  Though, it is really not as convoluted as it sounds.  Unlike pulp sci-fi novels, “Machines” is written plausibly in all dimensions, reminiscent of the movie “Bladerunner.”  McEwan certainly gives the reader plenty to think about in his what-if alternative world.  I’m sure he meant there to be a moral in his tale.  And there is.  Just what makes us human?  What makes us addicted to artificial intelligence?   Will we ever end up being controlled by machines?   However, this reviewer so enjoyed the trippiness of the plot that I didn’t pay too much attention to the author’s message.   Possibly, that is what McEwan wants.  Or, possibly, I need to reread the book.  I am sure I will anyway.

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

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“The Escape Room” by Megan Goldin

Genre:          Mystery and ThrillersThe Escape Room
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:    July 30, 2019

A publicist from St. Martin’s Press contacted me to read and review this book, which I find hard to review.  The plot is simple and predictable, not to mention implausible.   The twist is a cinch to figure out and yet, interestingly, I enjoyed the story.   Possibly, this is because most of the story could be straight out of the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” which I, and most moviegoers, thoroughly enjoyed.  (If you are too young to know the film, google it).

I would say that the book is more a psychological thriller than a mystery. The novel reveals the cut-throat world of Wall Street corporate finance, where greed and corruption rule.   Four hot-shot financial dealers work and live in a world of million-dollar salaries—designer everything.  We are talking $11,000 for a pocketbook to be bought in numerous colors.  And all four would turn on their grandmother to ensure they keep their million-dollar salaries.  Think of the character Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street.”  Gekko says to the young new financial advisor, “The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don’t want to do.”  And these four have done some horrible things to ensure they have numerous $10,000 wristwatches.  I thought the author did overkill in writing about their ridiculous spending habits but she proved her point.  These four coworkers, who you will love to hate, are summoned into an elevator in the belief that they are engaging in some sort of team-building exercise.  The reader knows from the prologue that bullet shots are heard from the elevator.  It is not a team-building experience but a revenge plot against the four.

There are two timelines in the novel told in the first and third person.  The four characters trapped in the elevator are told in the third person.  The second timeline follows a young woman who graduated at the top of her class with an MBA.  She sacrifices food and all her savings to buy an interview suit to look the part for a job in a top-tier finance company.  She gets the job and works as the bottom link with the hot-shots.  Her narrative is a bit boring.  The author clearly wants a good vs. evil theme so, I guess, she is needed to have a moral character in the story.  What kept my attention, even when things got a bit tedious, is just how horrible the other four actually are.  How far would they go to ensure their hefty bonuses?   This one is unquestionably movie material.  If you go in knowing the novel’s flaws, you will be able to enjoy the elevator ride.

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“Secrets of Eden” by Chris Bohjalian

Genre:         Psychological FictionSecrets of Eden
Publisher:    Broadway Books
Pub. Date:   2010

Wanting a quick break from Advanced Review Copies (ARCs), I decided to read a 2010 novel by Chris Bohjailian.  He is one of my preferred authors of page-turners.  In “Midwives,” one of my favorite novels, Bohalian crafts a courtroom drama that investigates an impossible decision made by a midwife who lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.   In “The Double Bind,” he weaves together the world of “The Great Gatsby” and the lives of his current day Vermont characters.  This results in a spellbinding tale of tension.   “Eden” is a decent read but doesn’t have the literary chops shown in Bohjalian’s other suspense novels.  It lacks the powerful writing that makes the reader want to read quickly to learn the ending.  Unlike “Midwives” and “Bind,” the characters aren’t intriguing enough to make one want to jump into the book to meet them.

“Eden” is also a psychological thriller that is once again located in rural Vermont.    The author takes on the subject of domestic violence.  We meet a couple in a troubled marriage that ends in an apparent (or was it?) murder-suicide.  This happens soon after the wife is baptized in a river. The story is narrated by the four protagonists:  the town’s reverend, the prosecutor, a female author whose own parents died in a murder-suicide, and the dead couple’s teenage daughter.  The reverend is an interesting character.  The reader is not always sure what to make of him.  I found the prosecutor’s part in the story rather dull and predictable.  “I can tell you that the river Denial is indeed pretty freaking wide.”  There is none of the sophisticated fire of “Midwives.”  The female author, who happens to see angels, is simply an unneeded character.  Can’t figure out why she wasn’t edited out.  Maybe the author wanted to show different thoughts on religious paradise: The Garden of Eden.

However, the orphaned teenage daughter is very well written.  She becomes alive on the page.   It feels as if you are reading a real teen’s diary.  “What it was like to suddenly be an orphan (and I am an orphan) and feel all the time like you’re an imposition….Membership in Club Orphan has its privileges too.”  She could do anything and no one would reprimand her.  “Still, I wouldn’t recommend it.”   Hers is the only voice that allows the author to shine.  In an odd way, the daughter’s irony and wit, combined with her survival instincts, remind me of the females in Bohjailian’s “The Sandcastle Girls.”  That story is about the 1915 Armenian Genocide.  It is filled with the suspense of life and death.  I was mesmerized when I read that one.  My point is that the author’s talent pokes through even in a tale not quite as polished as I know his work can be.

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