“Winterland” by Rae Meadows

Genre: Historical Fiction Winterland
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Pub. Date: Nov. 29, 2022

“I Will Send Rain” by Rae Meadows captivated me. Set in 1930s Oklahoma, during the dustbowls. It showcased her knack for historical fiction. Her latest historical novel, “Winterland,” is equally powerful. This time we get a brutal look at 1970s Soviet gymnastics, and culture as the athletes prepare for the Olympics. Meadows succeeds once again in restoring the urgency of a distant time and place.

In 1954, a year after the death of Stalin, a man named Yuri meets his future wife, Katerina, on the streets of Moscow. Young and ambitious, they both hope to leave their mark on modernizing the USSR. Along with their friends, they join the Communist League of Youth. From there they are sent to Norilsk, North Siberia, to mine copper. Their youthful optimism is relatable, even to an American reader. As their friends succumb to frostbite, scurvy, and starvation, they return to Moscow. Yuri and Katerina remain in Siberia, refusing to surrender their ideals. Their daughter, Anya, becomes the focus of the story.

Anya grows up in Norilsk, where we now experience the frigid Siberian landscape through a child’s eyes. Her youth is defined by the mysterious disappearance of her mother when she is six years old. Vera, an older woman who lives next door, becomes her only confidant. It is through Vera’s stories that we glimpse the most heart-wrenching details of life in the forced labor Gulag camps, where enemies of the party were sent throughout Stalin’s reign. These well-written, hard-to-read scenes are eerily reminiscent of the German concentration camps with which readers are likely more familiar.

There is plenty of Russian history in this book but its heart and soul is Anya’s life as an athlete. In 1973, at the age of nine, Anya is selected to train as a gymnast. Her childhood as she knew it was over. We watch her rise to the top of an ultra-competitive sport, always under the thumb of her abusive trainers. The author will make you cringe as Anya’s friends and teammates are worked into states of disfigurement. The trainers have no sympathy for them; it is all about money and Russian glory. When Anya’s career is over, she is forced to teach gymnastics back in Norilsk. Not much of a thank you. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Yuri migrates to the US, like many Russians did at the time. Despite his hardships, he keeps his communist party card; the dreams of one’s youth are powerful things.

Every section of Meadows’ novel is heartbreaking in this way. From the dashed dreams of an idealist’s youth, to the terror of achieving athletic excellence in a deeply corrupt system, everything is infused with its rightful poignancy. The many broader lessons of Russian history and politics conveyed throughout the novel do nothing to lessen its intimacy. “Winterland” is also sprinkled with Russian poetry, a touch that felt earned. I thought of the line from the novel “Dr. Zhivago”: “But if people love poetry, they love poets. And nobody loves poetry like a Russian.” My only criticism is that I was expecting to learn more about the disappearance of Anya’s mother. But then again, many Russians have disappeared without answers. The novel is unflinching in this way. I highly recommend it.

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 Sisters Sweet” by Elizabeth Weiss

The Sisters Sweet

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: November 30, 2021

A young woman in a vaudeville sister act must learn to forge her own path after her more talented twin gets married and runs away to Hollywood. I enjoyed this novel because the story resembles the play and movie “Gypsy,” which centers on the life and times of the real-life burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee and her aggressive stage mother. Determined to make her gifted daughter June a headliner the mother drags her other daughter Louise, who is shy, awkward, and decidedly less talented, into their successful vaudeville act. June runs away to get married and the mother pushes Louise to be a star demanding of her what she just didn’t have to give, which is how she becomes the famous stripper.

In “The Sisters Sweet,” both parents come from showbiz backgrounds. Josie is the talented sister and Harriet is written as Louise-like. The likable yet depressed alcoholic father plays the part of the stage mother. When the talented Josie runs off to Hollywood, the father creates a solo act for Harriet. The act doesn’t happen because Harriet finally realizes that she does not want to pursue a life in show business. No burlesque career for Harriet, which paves the way for the author to explore, family dynamics, religion (through a reverend uncle), and buried family secrets. Weiss does a good job weaving the parents’ backgrounds into the plot. However, it is the authentic historical feel of theater life set in the early 20th century that held this reviewer’s interest, more so than Harriet’s coming of age story.

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“West With Giraffes” by Lynda Rutledge

Genre: Historical Fiction/Coming of AgeWest with Giraffes
Publisher:  Lake Union Publishing
Pub. Date: Feb. 2021

Itsy-Bitsy Review

An old man relives the adventures of his youth while he spends his last days in a nursing home. Reminiscent to the novel, “Water for Elephants,” “West With Giraffes” is also a romantic period drama set in the Depression.  It too is part: historical fiction, coming-of-age, an unconventional love story, and discovering that animals can be your most meaningful friends. “West” is based on the true story of two giraffes that made headlines for surviving an overseas trip where they were left for dead. The tale is a good one, giving us a snapshot of the extreme culture of zoos, but the writing often had a predictable feel—one too many clichés. However, I did appreciate that the author included the actual newspaper clippings on the giraffes in her novel.  It added authenticity to the story. Possibly, because I am a huge fan of “Elephants,” with its flawless pacing that I did not see in “Giraffes,” unfairly influenced this review.  Still, I recommend that you try this novel if you enjoy historical fiction centering on animals. I believe, like “Elephants,” the novel would make a very good movie.

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“All Girls” by Emily Layden

All Girls

Genre:/Literary Fiction/Women’s Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: Feb. 16, 2021

Mini-Review

This novel is marketed for fans, which I am, of Curtis Sittenfeld’s, “Prep.” That novel is set in an American boarding school, “a hotbed of privilege, ambition, and neurosis, every bit as snobbish and competitive as anything dreamed up on this side of the Atlantic”. … Google Books.  That pretty much sums up “All Girls” but, add in a sexual assault of a former student by a male teacher that took place twenty years ago.  The girl is now a woman, who wants revenge on the school for kicking her out and covering up the teacher’s crime. The girls in the present, attempt to figure out who the teacher was so the story morphs into a mystery. The reader will follow nine students, which would have been okay if the author had spent time on their character development.  However, this is not the case. Each character comes and goes so quickly that there is no time to be acquainted with them. It is easy to get lost on who is who. This is a shame because the novel has much potential. Layden does such a good job of capturing boarding school female teenage angst. With a good editor, “All Girls” would then read more like “Prep.”

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“To Dare” by Jemma Wayne

Genre: General Fiction/Literary Fiction To Dare
Publisher: Legend Press
Pub. Date: July 1, 2020

This novel explores many themes through a multi-layered style, maybe one too many. You will read about addictions, domestic violence, rape, child abuse, dysfunctional friendships, jealousy, class biases, miscarriage, and claustrophobia. Wayne does a good job in all her themes.  However, I am not sure that they all need to be addressed in one novel. Taking on too much can create a cramped read. Wayne’s astute observations make for a good literary fiction tale. Think the author Ann Patchett. Yet in this novel, the characters’ troubles, written in detailed and lengthy prose, gave off a melodramatic women’s fiction feel, especially the ending. No matter the genre, this story is dark. This reviewer has no problem reading disturbing fiction though others may.

Three women narrate the story. Two are childhood friends and the other is a neighbor to one of them. Their lives are interwoven by chance and proximity.  Simone grew up with money but in adulthood, she lives in poverty. Rebellion against her parents led her to a teenage marriage with a boy who lived in the slums. After his death, drug abuse and loneliness bring her into a disastrous second marriage. This time to a man who is mentally and physically abusive to her and her children. Here the author shines in exploring the reasons for her character’s spiraling downfall where she confuses abuse with love. Through Simone, Wayne does an excellent job of showing the reader the definition of Battered Women’s Syndrome.

We also meet Veronica who is a wealthy teacher.  She and her husband just moved into their dream house. However, she is mentally depressed. The trauma of her miscarriage and the stress of not being able to conceive again are destroying her marriage. Again, Wayne shines in her descriptions of Veronica’s emotions regarding her infertility.  They are good enough to make you wonder if she interviewed couples going through this issue. Then there is Sarah who in the present is a middle-class lawyer married with two children. In Sarah and Veronica’s childhood years, they were best friends. When she re-enters Veronica’s life the adult friendship goes haywire. I compliment the author by nailing their preteen jealousies complete with dangerous dares and power games, which hurt one of them so terribly it left her with claustrophobia.  In the present, both of them revert to their childhood personas.  Here, I thought things became unbelievable. It is hard to swallow that two grown women would have a “Mean Girls” sort of friendship.  It reads like a corny women’s fiction novel.

All three women are fighting their own demons, meaning the reader should be cheering them on. However, I did not. Or I did until the plot began to feel silly to me. When the three female stories are weaved together, rather than enhancing the novel they lose some of their intended punch. I do give the author credit for writing about three often-unlikable female characters. At least, I think that she did this on purpose.  (Spoiler: The tale has an open ending, but hints that the women will do well in their futures), which is usually the case in women’s fiction. Women’s fiction can be done well as it taps into the hopes, fears, and dreams of women today. However, in this novel with its many themes it comes off as excessive, exhausting, and sometimes silly.  This is a shame Wayne is clearly a talented author and I would read her again. I found “To Dare” to be a decent read that with some editing could have been a very good book.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher 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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“Colombiano” by Rusty Young

Genre: YA/Coming-Of-AgeThe Colombmian
Publisher:  Havelock & Baker
Pub. Date:  Feb. 1, 2020

The Coming-Of-Age and Young Adult genres are often confused. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a C-O-A classic. “The Outsiders” is a YA classic. Although I enjoy the YA classics, I am not a fan of contemporary YA. At the age of thirteen, I read “The Outsiders,” which began my life-long love of reading. It inspired me to write my own manuscript at a tender age (something that has never seen the light of day).  It was a teenage S.E. Hinton, afterall, who wrote “The Outsiders,” and she did so with a teen audience in mind.  Still, I know of adults who read the book and became invested in the story’s portrayal of class struggle, with its strong dose of Jets vs. Sharks. Hinton’s writing style provides many satisfying nods to an audience beyond teenagers. Readers fell in love with Ponyboy Curtis as they did with Francie Nolan.  I find most of contemporary YA, on the other hand, to lack anything of interest for those outside its target audience. For example, since I am a fan of Gothic literature, I gave the “Twilight” series a try. I never made it past the first book. Though I’m open to hearing any arguments otherwise, it’s hard to find something in the story beyond the central teen melodrama. Bram Stoker’s literary masterpiece would seem to exist on another planet.

So why in the world did I read “Colombiano,” a contemporary novel over 700 pages long?  The answer is the author. That he once chose to spend four months in a Colombian prison to research his 2004 non-fiction book, “Marching Powder,” demands respect. For this gritty and heartbreaking novel, he interviewed Colombian child soldiers. Not your usual YA kind of author. Young’s experiences make the novel feel utterly authentic. The book’s characters are fictional but based on the real-life children he interviewed, all of whom were swept into the never-ending Colombian civil war. To paraphrase the book’s blurb, you have to choose a side: the ruthless guerrilla FARC, or the equally ruthless Autodefensa, their vigilante rivals. “Pick a side, or one will be picked for you.”

As Young stated in a 2017 interview with the New Zealand Herald, “I took the most dramatic, powerful, of each of these stories, and attributed all those stories to one person.”  His protagonist is Pedro, a rural Colombian 15-year old.  He loves his family, his girlfriend, and fishing. When FARC guerrillas execute his peace-loving father, his life is forever changed. FARC will not allow him to bury his father. They banish him and his mother from their family farm, leaving them no way to make a living.  The execution scene is especially powerful because the author manages to show the father’s goodness and courage with minimal dialogue. When they tell him to kneel, he informs his murderers that he will stand. For the first time in his life, he curses at his son, insisting that he take his mother inside and that they both stay there. Pedro’s mother listens, he does not. His father dies in front of him.

When the police can do nothing to help Pedro seek justice for his father, he joins the vigilante group. Here, Young pulls no punches. The brutality that the boys go through in the Autodefensa training was too much for me, personally. I often needed to skim. These scenes were not practically gory, but Young takes pains to convey the Nazi-like disregard for life, friend or foe, instilled in the boys. As the pages add up, Pedro becomes accustomed to torture and death and moves up the chain of command. Even as he becomes part of a world of unspeakable violence, the author manages to keep Pedro an adolescent with teenage concerns.  Will his mother ever forgive him for joining Autodefensa? Can he win his girlfriend back? Will his best friend remain his friend? He is determined to leave the group once he has killed those involved in his father’s murder, but wonders, after that, will there be anything left of the old Pedro. What sort of man will he become?  Would his father be proud or disgusted with him?

The author took seven years to write this novel, complete with its glossary of Spanish terms and slang. I believe Young’s debut novel, “Colombiano” has the makings of a YA classic. It has enough action, romance, historical fiction, and a coming-of-age plot to please a wide breadth of readers.  Yet, I found the book to be too long. I love many long novels, but each battle in “Colombiano” is explained with such rigorous detail that repetition becomes inevitable. Sometimes, it reads more like history than historical fiction. Still, I find the novel to be a compelling and eye-opening read on Colombia’s history from the 1960s to the present. An intellectual page-turner for readers of all ages.

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“The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett

Genre: Domestic FictionThe Dutch House
Publisher: Harper
Pub. Date: September 24, 2019

After reading a mystery, a feel-good story, and a psychological thriller, this reviewer felt overjoyed to sink my teeth into literary fiction once again.  I can and do appreciate some contemporary reads, but this mythical novel felt like coming home, especially since the story explores the meaning of home itself.  It is not a spoiler to point out that this is a family-saga disguised as a dark fairy tale revolving around a house. The author breathes as much life into the house as the characters. It is not farfetched to say that the house itself is the main protagonist.

The book begins in1946 when a real estate mogul buys a fully furnished, Gatsby-like mansion, as a surprise for his wife.  Turns out that she hates the house, but his five-year-old daughter loves it.  Their son is born 8 years later.  The narrative jumps around in time through the son’s voice.  When the boy is three-years-old, his mother deserts the family, leaving the siblings devastated.  This is how his older sister becomes his main caretaker.  The bond between them is unwavering, even when the boy is a grown man.  Their closeness puts a strain on his marriage. When the siblings are 12 and 19 years old, their father marries a young widow with two little girls of her own.  The wicked stepmother from Cinderella has arrived. When the older sister visits home during a college break, she discovers that her stepmother has given her bedroom—which is the best room in the house—to her little stepsisters. An unused room in the attic is now her bedroom.

The author does a good job of showing rage through humor throughout the novel.   When the older sister learns about the room change she laughs and says, “It’s just like ‘The Little Princess!’ when the girl (Shirley Temple in the movie version of the book), loses all of her money and so they put her in the attic.” She demonstrates this skill with all of her characters, including the loving and long-suffering nanny, cook and housekeeper. The only small room in the house is the kitchen. As the cook says, “that was because the only people ever meant to see the kitchen were the servants.”

It would be wise to remember that you are reading a fairytale, if not the book will feel unrealistic. Put in the fairytale genre the story is as fascinating as the author’s 2011 novel, “State of Wonder,” which also has a mythical feel.  “House” stayed with me after I finished the book. I deliberately did not read the initial reviews. (I missed the ARC reviewers’ suggested deadline on this one). I came to believe that the book is mostly a coming-of-age story, as well as a reflection on one’s childhood as an adult. The author seems to ask the question, ‘Why do we repeat the same mistakes as our parents?’ In addition, wonders, ‘Why do some of us have childhoods that could have been written by the Brothers Grimm?’ Finally, ‘What one may need to accomplish to change our life story’s ending?’

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“Copperhead” by Alexi Zentner 

Genre:  Adult FictionCopperhead
Publisher:  Viking Press
Publication Date:  July 9, 2019

Mini-Review

“Copperhead” has a “Sins of the Father” theme. The novel reads like YA, but it is an adult story about racism that asks the question:  Can you ever out-run your family history? We meet a17-year-old high school football player who has a good chance of getting into an Ivy League school on a scholarship.  He is the star of the team and his grades are good. He desperately needs this scholarship to be able to attend college.  He lives paycheck-to-paycheck in a trailer and takes care of his mom and his 12-year-old sister.  His brother and stepfather are in jail for the murder of two black college students.  However, the students attacked his brother, not the other way around.  The stepfather was only given a four-year sentence since he arrived after the murder.  His crime was just wiping the murder weapon clean.  His family, but not himself, belongs to a white supremacist church.   Many in his town call him white-trash, even though he has shown himself to be a decent and hard-working young man. The book begins with his stepfather’s release from prison on the same day of the school’s big game.  Throughout the story, we watch the teenage linebacker struggle simply to avoid trouble while remaining loyal to his family and friends.  Zentner’s prose is taut and powerful. You can almost hear the music of Johnny Cash playing in the teen’s pick-up truck.  But the author never shares how this boy was able to see beyond his family’s beliefs.  Most of us can not accomplish this while still living in the family system. Still, this is a heck of a good coming of age story for our times.

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“Dear Edward” by Ann Napolitano

Genre:  Literary FictionDear Edward
Publisher:  Random House
Pub. Date:  Jan. 14, 2020

After losing everything, a pre-teen boy discovers there are still reasons to continue living. This is just the sort of sappy novel that I usually do not care for. Surprisingly, I enjoyed and recommend “Dear Edward.” The unique writing style is what made the difference for me. The reader goes in knowing that twelve-year-old Edward’s older brother, his parents, and almost 200 other passengers will die when the plane crashes. Edward is the sole survivor. The book is divided into two timelines, the past, which is during the flight, and the present. On the plane, we get to understand the family dynamics of Edward’s immediate family. We also meet a Wall Street rising star, an unlikeable septuagenarian business billionaire who is the rising star’s role model, an unmarried young woman who takes a pregnancy test while on the plane, a wounded vet with a secret, and an uninhibited, possibly crazy woman who happens to believe in reincarnation. These well-developed characters are very much a part of Edward’s story, creating interesting storylines that are not about overcoming tragedy. This helps make the novel less fatiguing to read since the bulk of the story in the present describes Edward’s overwhelming depression.

The events that occur on the flight are divided by time right down to the minute of the crash. (Boarding your next plane might feel different after reading this one). Even though we know the ending, this part of the tale still reads like a page-turning mystery. In the present, we meet a few new characters. In Edward’s new life, disagreeing with myself, there are characters that read a bit saccharine. His aunt and uncle, new best friend and high school principal are just too self-sacrificing and flawless to feel like true people. This contrasts with the realness felt in the characters from the plane ride. Still, in my mind, Napolitano’s weaving of past and present makes up for that over-sweetening. Plus, by the end of the novel, it can also read as a coming-of-age story, which is a genre I have always liked. Clearly, the novel is not all doom and gloom. By the end of the novel, as the author intended, I had a smile on my face. Heartwarming endings can be a good thing.

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