The All-Night Sun by Diane Zinna

Genre: Literary Fiction The All-Night Sun
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pub. Date: July 14, 2020

Min-Review

The book’s title comes from the Swedish holiday, Midsummer Eve, which takes place during Sweden’s summer solstice and is celebrated all day and all night under the light of Sweden’s midnight sun. The story revolves around a troubled 28-year-old female adjunct professor and her unlikely friendship with an 18-year-old female Swedish student who invites her teacher home for the summer. The story is actually about grief for they have both lost their parents and are mentally struggling. The teacher stays hidden in the background.  The student craves attention to fill her empty emotions.   The author shines when capturing her characters’ loneliness and grief. Zinna’s best writing is in the strong sensory imaginary that allow the reader to experience Midsummer Eve with its maypoles, crown flower wreaths, singing, and dancing. As well as the turmoil created, when an adult is trying to fit into a teenage world that celebrates as if the holiday is the infamous Woodstock festival from the 1960s. However, although the prose is deep the story manages to drag.  As a fan of literary fiction, I am aware that the novel will be a slow-paced character-driven read that usually focuses on the human condition, and less concerned with a fast-paced plot, which some readers prefer. So, I understand why fans of popular fiction could be turned off by “All Night.”Still, for literary fiction to keep your interest one needs to be invested in the protagonist’s growth, which I was not in this novel.  Still, this is a debut novel and the author shows talent with its beautiful prose.  I look forward to reading her next novel.

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“The Thirty Names of Night” by Zeyn Joukhadar

Genre: LGBTQ/Historical FictionThe Thirty Names of Night
Publisher: Atria Books
Pub. Date: November 3, 2020

There is so much going on in this beautifully written novel. You will meet artists and three generations of Syrian American women. You will learn about French-occupied Syria during the early twentieth century, as well as a long-forgotten NYC neighborhood called Little Syria.  You will also read about birds and ghosts.  The author mixes up the genres. There is historical fiction, literary fiction, magical realism, coming-of-age, speculative fiction, and always LGBTQ fiction.  All the main characters in this novel are queer. There are two alternating narrators, one from the late 1920s and one from the present. In the present, we meet a young trans man, who moves into his grandmother’s NYC apartment to take care of her since her health is failing. In the past, the female protagonist is also an artist. She paints mysterious birds.  The three generations of Syrian Americans are linked together by their secrets, their art, and—here is the magical realism—a species of a bird that wears feathers that seem to hold the key to unlocking their secrets and allowing the characters to break free from society’s restrictions.

When the author wrote his debut novel, “Map of Salt,” he identified as a woman. He now identifies as a man. I mention this in light of the fact that the trans male protagonist talks about his confusion from when he was a child feeling extremely uncomfortable in his female body. This is written with such lucidity that one cannot help but wonder how much is fiction. The scene where the character gets his period is all-telling and so heartbreakingly sad. The child is devastated because, up until that moment, he held out hope that his true body as a male would surface. As his body conspires against him, his delighted mother says that her little girl is growing up. She tells the child that he is a woman now. To add to the child’s confusion, although he hates the feeling that his body is betraying him, he simultaneously loves the feeling of closeness that he is experiencing as his beloved mother braids his hair, sharing female pearls of wisdom now that he has a woman’s body. (When the girl grows to be the young man his mother is deceased but shows up as a ghost that he can see and talk to.  It reads more sweet than weird).  The author writes the child’s conflicting emotions so well that he makes you want to jump into the pages and give the child the word non-binary.  My maternal instincts had me crying for the boy.

Overall, I enjoyed the Syrian immigrant experience as observed in the novel.  As a native New Yorker, I loved the descriptions of Little Syria, which sounded like an Arab version of NYC’s Little Italy. I could have done without the birds, but then again I have never been a fan of magical realism. However, I did think it was clever of the author to make the trans man’s mother an ornithologist to keep the magic as believable as possible.  At times, there was just too much going on in the story to hold my interest. I found myself skimming to get back to the Syrian-American experience, but then again, historical fiction is my favorite genre.  There is no denying Joukhadar’s talent as an author.  The book could have easily been written as a boring teacher’s manual on all the themes in the novel that many of us do need to be educated on.  Instead, what you get is lyrical prose that is captivating as well as educational.  Still, for someone like myself who has trouble with mixed genre novels, the book wasn’t for me. Though, I feel confident that other readers and reviewers will consider it a story-telling feat.

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

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“A Week at Surfside Beach Short Stories” by Pierce Koslosky Jr

Genre: Literary Fiction/Short StoriesA Week
Publisher: Vertel/Loba
Pub. Date: June 9, 2020

Author Pierce Koslosky Jr. has created sixteen slice-of-life short stories with unrelated characters.  What they do have in common is that they all rent the same beach house with an ocean view, Portofino II-317C. All the characters become temporary inhabitants for one week in a single rental season that spans from May to December.  As a beach lover, how could I resist this collection?  To further capture my interest, Koslosky Jr., along with his family, has gone to Surfside Beach, South Carolina for over twenty-five years, staying in the same blue home where his shorts take place. The image of the house on the book’s cover is the actual house.  My first thought was of Mark Twain’s famous quote, “Write what you know.”Although set at the beach, this is not a typical beach book. It is not fluff. The stories’ characters are of all ages and come from varying backgrounds.  The tones of the shorts fluctuate. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, some are sad, some are thought-provoking. However, they are not all hits with this reviewer. Some are unsurprising, Some are unsurprising, feeling repetitive.

My favorite and, one of the funniest, is “The Right To Bare Arms, June 20-27.”  Going on a vacation with close friends who have a brood of children the same age as your own always seems like a good idea.  However, being on vacation disrupts one’s everyday routines, which is what bonds these two families to one another in the first place.  The battle begins the moment they arrive. They are large families so they rented two homes that sit next to one another, but Portofino II-317C has a glorious ocean view and Portofino II-317B does not. The family that is stuck with 317B begins the feud. Not helping a bit, a Romeo and Juliet situation emerges. The young teens learn to kiss between their braces, making their already annoyed parents see red. The night before they are to return home, the wives set up a dinner at a restaurant on the pier. The purpose is to discuss how to ease back into their normal suburban routines, which force them to depend on one another for car-pooling, school meetings, and after school activities. I chuckle just remembering the scene where they arrive at the restaurant. Two long tables await them—one faces the ocean, the other faces the kitchen.

When a stressed young family with three children goes on a vacation, there is no vacation from the fighting between mom and dad.  Spending every waking moment with three children all under twelve years old would cause any parents to quarrel. “Lucy, June 27-July 4” is a story about three-year-old Lucy who goes missing on the beach while her parents are bickering. This tale is too preachy for my taste.  The author does a good job of laying the foundation, yes. There’s that first moment of panic, the call to the police, the visions of their child on a milk carton. There is good suspense going on here. Also, the author did make me wonder why we enjoy reading so many stories about missing children. Is it because we are grateful that our kids are safe, no one has abducted them? However, none of this stops the tale from feeling tedious. The moral is obvious.

“Swimming Lessons, July 4-11” could feel preachy but doesn’t.  Readers will follow a father brave enough to take on the challenge of going on vacation with his two teenage sons and one of their friends. One thing that can grind the fun to a halt faster than bad weather on a beach vacation is a group of teenagers. Of course, the plane ride is hell, constant bickering and shoving among the boys. Naturally, dad needs a cocktail to calm himself down. Once inside the blue beach house, the attitude among the boys necessitates further cocktails. “Get out of my life, but first drive me here, and buy me this, etc.”  What could be worse?  How about if the oldest, most sullen son was recently arrested for stealing? The week on the beach isn’t a reward, but rather the dad is hoping to teach his oldest a lesson on owning up to one’s mistakes through relaxed, heart-to-heart conversations. If you have ever had a teenager you can guess how these chats can go. This short has many funny scenes because the dad is so over his head. The scenes in which he learns his own lessons also land.  I think this story didn’t have that holierthanthou vibe because of the humor that dominates the tale.

The author has an appealing, folksy style of writing. He packs his characters’ suitcases with sunscreen, kids’ toys, and their individual life experiences. There may be one too many tales with a happy ending. Still, the themes of community, friendship, family, love, and loss create scenarios in which all readers can relate. I mean, who hasn’t spent at least one rainy vacation cramped in a rental or someplace that brings out your worst behaviors?

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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.

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“The New Husband” by D.J. Palmer

Genre:  Mystery and ThrillerThe New Husband
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:  April 14, 2020

Mini Review

After minor hand surgery, I wanted an easy read to keep my mind off the discomfort. (Please forgive me if this review is not up to par; typing is still a challenge).  I wanted easy, but this book is, well, sophomoric.  I know many other ARC reviewers enjoyed this one, but once again, I am in the minority.  However, this time I am not completely alone. As Goodreads reviewer Meredith puts it, this book reads like a Lifetime movie.  Those were my exact thoughts on this one.  (I had already written this before reading her review). You know what I mean, with movie titles such as “Sleeping with the Devil” or “Escaping My Stalker,” etc. you know you are watching a film that will be somewhere between a weepy melodrama and a campy thriller focusing on the various ways women suffer by men who first charm them until they show their true colors.

“House” revolves around a single mom with two kids.  Her husband has been missing for two years.  His family and the police assume he is dead.  The wife lets a new man into her life.  He moves in, gets along with her teenage son, but not with her middle school-aged daughter. That is really all you need to know because, from the moment, the new husband begins keeping her from her friends, you know exactly what you’re reading. Of course, there are twists, though, in my opinion, unbelievable ones.  Like a Lifetime movie, this novel can feel like mindless entertainment to be read when you want to keep your mind off real life.  Since the novel accomplished this for me, as lame as it is, I feel obligated to give it two out of five stars.

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“Dreamland” by Nancy Bilyeau

Genre:  Historical Fiction Murder Thriller Dreamland
Publisher:  Endeavour Media
Pub. Date:  January 16, 2020

Mini-Review

I had some disappointment with this novel. I thought it would be a shoo-in for me since I was reading about my childhood backyard. The novel is set in 1911 in Coney Island, Brooklyn NY. Back then, the amusement park truly earned its nickname of “America’s Playground.” For more than 100 years Coney Island has been synonymous with summer. I am a summer person. I couldn’t wait to dive into the story. The author does a good job of capturing the park’s energy and the feel of the times. There is also a decent murder mystery. My issue is with how the protagonistic—a 20-year-old who is from one of the wealthiest families in America—is not a believable character. She flip-flops from wanting to be a suffragette to acting like a prim and proper young woman from old money. Even though I was disappointed, overall I enjoyed the describitive writing in the tale

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

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“Before You Know Kindness” by Chris Bohjalian

Genre:  Domestic DramaBefore You Know Kindness
Publisher:  Random House
Pub. Date:  Aug. 9, 2005        

Chris Bohjalian is one of my all-time favorite authors.   However, this is not my favorite Bohjalian novel.   Actually, it is probably my least favorite.  “Kindness” is a character-driven novel about the importance of family.  Later I will get to what I didn’t like about the story.  I did enjoy the well-developed characters. The novel centers on a 70-year-old grandmother, her two grown children, her children’s spouses, and her grandchildren, two preteen girls and an infant boy.  The grown son and daughter grew up in their mother’s luxurious apartment in NYC.  As children, they summered in their country home in New in Hampshire. The family has owned both homes for generations. We are talking old money here—lots of it. In the present, at the end of each summer, all three generations meet at the country home for one week of tennis, golf, the club, the pool, the beach, and summer cocktails.

I found the family drama interesting.  Both marriages are in trouble for different reasons.  Bohjalian does a good job of explaining what can happen when one of the husbands is obsessed with his work for animal rights.   And the other is feeling the strain of having a newborn in middle age.  The author does an excellent job of nailing down preteen dilemmas.  Out of the female granddaughters/cousins, one is a bit shy of thirteen who desperately wants to be sixteen.  The other is a bit shy of eleven and her older cousin’s tag-along.  One night the female cousins go to a teenage bonfire where there is pot and beer.  Both girls get in way over their heads while their parents’ lost in their own dilemmas are clueless.

Before the reader even gets to know the family, the novel opens with a prologue describing the aftermath of a tragic accident involving a rifle. As the tale progresses, we learn that the man who is shot (no spoiler here) is the father who is the animal rights activist as well as an advocate and lecturer for abolishing hunting.  These are two noble causes.  My issue with the author’s narrative is that the characters often seem to have been forgotten so that he can write what feels like a lengthy paper on these social issues. There is so much extensive detail on the subject, pages long worth that I found myself skimming.   If the master storyteller simply would have cut out some of the lecturing, this would have read more like his usual novels, consisting of an interesting plot with believable, well fleshed out characters, rather than a close-to-boring term paper.

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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.

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

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“My Life as a Rat” by Joyce Carol Oates

Genre:  Literary Family DramaMy Life as a Rat
Publisher:  HarperCollins Publishers
Publication Date:  June 4, 2019

Oates’ latest novel is raw.  It is hard to read, yet hard to put down.  The story is fiercely written in an urgent tone to expose every nasty aspect of paternalism and male entitlement.  We follow a 12-year-old girl from a working-class tight-knit Irish Catholic family.  The setting is South Niagara, New York during the 1990s.   Her life as a “rat” begins after she accidentally slips to her school nurse that her two eldest teen brothers were involved in a racially motivated attack that left a male African American honor student dead.   Once her father’s favorite, she is now exiled to live with her aunt.  Her dad has forbidden her mother and sisters to visit or even phone her.  She is in a new home that doesn’t feel like home and friendless in a new school.  Confused and in shock, she is easy pickings for a male teacher to sexually abuse.  It seems fitting that her family begins a slow mental and financial decline after banishing their youngest child:  A just punishment for deserting a child who did nothing wrong.

This storyline is nothing new for the acclaimed writer.  Violence against women is a recurring theme in her work: “Do With Me What You Will,” 1973, “We Were the Mulvaneys,” 2002, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” 2007, “Blonde: A Novel, 2009,” “The Sacrifice”, 2016.  Just when you think Oates must have finally run dry on the subject she pulls off another winner.   So why does Oates’ unwavering theme on the abuse of women keep working for her?  Possibly, 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.   More importantly, her work has been part of  #MeToo decades before the movement existed.  She forces the reader to acknowledge that her male protagonists seeking emotional release by abusing women are mentally ill men.  And her female characters are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because of a male-dominated society.   Unlike other writers, Oates does not use violence in a sensational manner.  She uses violence to echo the misogyny found in modern times, which is where her characters dwell. At least, that is what this reviewer thinks.

“Rat” has a lot in common with Oates’ 1996 novel, “We Were the Mulvaneys.”   The Mulvaneys are another large Irish Catholic family living in upstate New York. This once-proud family also began a descent into financial ruin after a disgraced daughter was either raped or had consensual sex with a high-school boy.  This reviewer preferred “Mulvaneys” over “Rat.”  The litany of traumas inflicted upon the female protagonists in “Rat” can seem like they are one too many.  This may be because the author expanded on what had been published as a short story a decade and more ago.  Still, this doesn’t mean that “Rat” isn’t another literary success in the world of JCO.  The characters are painfully real.  Oates is begging the question, how does a child feel safe and loved in a universe with rules one doesn’t quite understand.

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“The Emancipation of Veronica McAllister” by Shawn Inmon

Genre:  FantasyThe Emancipation of Veronica
Publisher:   CreateSpace Independent Publishing
Pub.  May 2018

This is the fifth book in the Middle Falls Time Travel Series.  Still, it is a standalone read.  This reviewer didn’t know that the novel was part of a series until after finishing the book.  The story begins in 2018 when the protagonist, 80-year-old Veronica, is on her deathbed.  She is ready to die.   As she breathes her last breath she is anxious to learn the answers to the question we all wonder about—what happens after death?  Is there a heaven?  Is there a hell?  Or will it be an eternity of nothingness?  Once dead, Veronica opens her eyes, to see that she is back in 1958 and is a teenager again, wearing a poodle skirt and apparently babysitting.  The author does a good job with her complete confusion and excitement at seeing her old friends and parents again.  “Oh, Daddy, you’re so young and handsome,” she says.  Often you may think of the comedy-drama film, Peggy Sue Got Married.

But the story theme isn’t really about time travel.  The author is asking the question, What If you could live your life over and over again until you got it right?  What would you do differently not to duplicate your mistakes made in each life?   Not an original thought but an interesting one, especially when you imagine yourself in such a situation. Where the story begins to become a bit tiresome is after Veronica’s second or third life. Each time she dies, she wakes up as a teenager at the same babysitting job.  Until she finally learns her own personal meaning of self-actualization, she and the reader are stuck in a purgatory-like, Groundhog Day existence.  If the author would have stayed with keeping his protagonist to a one do-over life, while adding in anything new to the theme, this may have been an interesting tale regarding the nature of changing oneself kept light with humor.  Instead, it can read as a bit preachy—neither marriage nor money guarantees happiness— time-loop redemption tale.  The novel is too cliché to encourage this reviewer to read the first four in the series.   This may not be the case for other readers who enjoy when characters get to stop the clock and start over again.  You will have to read the book yourself to decide.

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