“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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“More Miracle Than Bird” by Alice Miller

Genre:  Historical FictionMore Mircle Than Bird
Publisher:  Tin House Books
Pub. Date: June 2, 2020

This book’s unusual title is from a line in the poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” by William Butler Yeats. The novel’s setting is in England on the eve of WWI. The book is marketed for fans (and I am one) of Paula McLain’s female fictional memoir, “The Paris Wife.” I have enjoyed other novels written in this manner, such as “The Aviator’s Wife” by Melanie Benjamin. In both novels, the author blurs the line between a biography and fiction, focusing on the wives of the famous men they married. The catch is that the reader gets to learn about the famous men through the eyes of the forgotten women. “Miracle” is another novel reimagining a romantic relationship through the wife’s eyes. This time between Georgie Hyde-Lees who was married to the great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats. As it says in the prologue, written by biographer, Richard Ellmann, “Had Yeats died instead of marrying, he would have been remembered as a remarkable minor poet…who except in a handful of poems, did not have much to say.” We get it, ‘behind every great man…’—yada-yada.

What makes this one different and a bit odd is that the midlife poet introduces the much younger 21-year-old Hyde-Lees to a mysterious occult that is obsessed with the afterlife. ‘The Order’ is the name of the secret society. (I googled; it’s all true). Fortune tellers, séances and the weirdly hooded, robe-wearing Order members are a large chunk of the plot. I was not expecting hocus pocus in this book. It totally took me by surprise, leaving me with mixed feelings. I enjoyed learning how eccentric Yeats was, but I was not interested in the couple’s occult shenanigans. However, the author does a good job of keeping the pace racing. At one point, Georgie finds herself in a closed coffin as part of an initiation.

Miller has a nice dichotomy going on. By day, Georgie is working in a hospital for injured soldiers, one of whom is smitten with her (not sure if the soldier is real or fictional), and by night, she is with her poet, his famous pals not to mention attending occult meetings. The love affair and marriage are a bit duller than found in “The Aviator’s” and “The Paris,” probably because the author paints W.B. as not as taken with his wife as she is with him. His big love affair that went on for decades was with a married woman pre-Georgie (I googled. Again, true). This is a well-researched and interesting tale. This reviewer never knew how much she didn’t know about the acclaimed poet. Although I would have enjoyed reading a bit more about the British royal family before the war, I still found “Miracle” an interesting read written in compelling prose.

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 Silent Patient” by Alex Michaelides

Genre:  Mystery & ThrillersThe Silent Patient
Publisher:  Celadon Books
Pub. Date:  February 5, 2019

Mini Review

I need to start this review by saying that I guessed the big twist early on in the novel.  This does not mean that I didn’t enjoy this crime thriller, for I did.  The story revolves around Alicia Berenson a 33-old woman who kills her husband.  Tied in a chair, she shoots him five times in the face. Creepy. She stops speaking immediately after the murder.  She is a painter by profession.  Her only communication is through a self-portrait she paints weeks after the murder, titled “Alcestis.” I enjoyed that the author throws his readers a clue in the form of a Greek tragedy. Don’t worry if you never heard of the play, I hadn’t, it is explained to you.  And no, the painting’s title was not the tip-off for me.

There is a short trial. Alicia receives a guilty verdict.  Due to her hysterical silence, she is sentenced to a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. Her psychotherapist, Theo Faber, narrates the story. I found his voice unreliable.  He jumps around in time without letting the reader know.  The narration is also unrealistic. Too much psychobabble.  Thrillers are usually only good when you don’t see the twist coming.  So why did I keep reading? Probably because Michaelides gives us many shady suspects throughout the tale. I kept hoping that I guessed wrong. “Silent” is not a particularly well written novel, still it is a fun ride that should be read in the middle of the night with a tired mind.  You may just find yourself questioning your own sanity.

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“The Second Home” by Christina Clancy

Itsy-Bitsy Mini Review

Genre:  Women’s FictionThe Second Home
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:  June 2, 2020

This is a women’s fiction beach book. The kind I like to read sitting in the sun with a glass of chilled wine in my hand. Considering that I am not usually a fan of women’s fiction and because I read “The Second Home” at the beginning of February, I am surprised that the book kept my interest. The story revolves around a couple with two biological daughters and one adopted son. We follow the kids’ life struggles from their teen years until they are in their thirties. There is rich descriptive writing. The author breathes much life into the families’ generational Cape Cod summer home. (I so wanted to be there). There are thought-provoking dark themes in the plot. However, as the years go by, the story became a bit too melodramatic for my taste. Yet, I went past my 50-page rule and finished the novel. Maybe that is because I enjoyed the family, especially the hippie parents. On the other hand, maybe, it is just that, while reading the novel, I was pretending to be on a warm beach.

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

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“Paris Never Leaves You” by Ellen Feldman

Genre:  Historical Fiction/Women’s FictionParis Never Leaves You
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:  June 2, 2020

When did Women’s Fiction morph into Romance Fiction?  Or is it just me who feels the shift?  Traditional women’s fiction focuses on a woman’s lifetime journey. There is frequently a love interest.  A romance novel focuses entirely on a woman’s romantic relationships and usually has a happy ending. This novel has two timelines: during and post WWII.   Our heroine has a romance going on in both—just not necessary.  One love interest is understandable. The survival of her child and herself depended on it. The other feels like an add-on simply to keep romance readers happy.

During the war, the woman has an eighteen-month-old baby. She works in a tiny bookstore in occupied Paris.  In the next decade, her daughter is a young teen and she works in a NYC publishing house. Although unhappy with the feel of a romance novel, there were parts of the story that I did enjoy. As a reader, I was delighted to find myself reading a book about books. I read to learn and to be entertained simultaneously, which is why historical fiction is my favorite genre. I applaud the author’s research. I did learn something new regarding WWII German soldiers. I cannot say more for it would be a spoiler. I thought she did a good job of showing the impossible choices the mother needed to make, during the war, to keep her child alive. As well as capturing the woman’s overwhelming sense of survivor’s guilt once she was safely living in the States.

Still, I do not think that “Paris” will pose any threat to other WWII historical fiction books.  In the classic, “Sophie’s Choice,” the good versus evil smacks you in the face. In this novel, it feels colorless. There are scenes showing the horrors committed against the Jews, but the brutalities are not as pronounced.  Your jaw will not drop from shock.  Possibly this was the author’s intention since the story revolves more around the main character’s personal journey than war crimes. The character Sophie also has a romance when she is out of Nazi Germany and is living in Brooklyn, NY.  Hers is a violent relationship, which she accepts due to her posttraumatic stress from the war years. Unlike this novel, that romance enhanced Sophie’s tale.

Maybe I was expecting too much. Ellen Feldman is a 2009 Guggenheim fellow, which lead me to believe I would be reading a literary novel.  The book held my interest for the author’s moral analysis of her characters. The mother struggles with what is right and wrong in both of her love affairs.  Her male characters are also wrestling with their consciousnesses.  Feldman creates further tension with her daughter. The mother never tells her teenage daughter secrets from their past causing a rift between them.  However, I am simply not a fan of contemporary romance.  If you are, and you enjoy historical fiction this one is for you.

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

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