“Eagle & Crane” by Suzanne Rindell

Genre:         Historical FictionEagle & Crane
Publisher:   Penguin Group Putnam 
Pub. Date:   July 3, 2018

On the first page of this historical fiction is an old black and white picture of a handsome young man with laughter in his eyes and a cocky grin on his face.  He is standing in front of a biplane – a small plane for two, with an open cockpit.  Over the picture, it reads, “In memory of my grandfather, Norbert.”  The image and words left me with a feeling that I would enjoy this novel, which I did.

The characters include two friendly but highly competitive male teens living on their farms in California during the 1930s to the 1940s.   Both are the sons of farmers who have been feuding for years.  One of the boys is shy despite a handsome, all American face.  The other boy is also handsome.   His face displays his Japanese American features.  This teen’s nature is much more outgoing than his friend’s, but because we are in the years prior to and during WWII, he hides his true personality, emulating humility to stay out of harm’s way.  We also meet a young teenage girl, her mother, and her con artist stepfather who makes a living by selling snake oil.   He usually gambles away what little money they have.  But, one time he is lucky and wins two biplanes.  Eventually, they all meet, and so begins the story of their traveling flying circus, known as barnstorming.    The conman gathers the crowds with their act, which consists of two biplanes, two stunt pilots, and two wing walkers.  They make their money by selling tickets to the crowds for biplane rides.  This is all illegal, but lots of fun.  In case you haven’t guessed, the boys are the wing walkers and they both fall for the girl.

The young love triangle is written sweetly. The description of farming during the depression and life during WWII is spot-on.   But, what I really enjoyed is learning how the early Japanese found their way into the United States.  This book didn’t concentrate on the Japanese railroad workers but rather on the Japanese farm workers.  I was completely ignorant that in the 1880s Japanese immigrants first came to the Pacific Northwest to farm.  They traveled throughout the States buying land.  Many became very successful farmers.   Sadly, these farmers lost everything when the war led to the internment of Japanese Americans.  Not a proud moment in our history.  I found this beautiful sad poem that I encourage you to read.  “Japanese-American Farmhouse, California, 1942” by Sharon Olds:   https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/sharon-olds/japanese-american-farmhouse-california-1942/.

There is also a mystery in this story, which I didn’t think enhanced the novel at all. Rather, the extra plot detracts from it, causing the tale to be too long.   In 1943, an FBI agent comes looking for the Japanese teen and his family.   (Eerily similar to today’s unfair treatment of immigrants coming to the US.)  While there, he witnesses a biplane crash.  The passengers are burned to death and not recognizable.  The pilot and the passenger are assumed to be the Japanese father and son.   Now, the agent’s job is to investigate the crash.  I felt as though this added plot is to ensure a bestseller.  The author would have been better off deciding to write one or the other, a mystery or a historical fiction.  But it wasn’t enough to stop me from enjoying the novel overall.

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 Madonna of the Mountains” by Elise Valmorbida

Genre:           Historical FictionMaddonna of the Mountains
Publisher:     Random House
Pub. Date:     June 12, 2018

Whenever I give a book a five-star review, that means, for me, it is an incredible read.  I admit that when a book is on a subject I enjoy or something that I can relate to, I usually add in an extra star.  After all, this reviewer is only human.   In this book, I strongly identify with the characters’ culture.  Still, this does not take away from the vivid imagery in the superior writing.  You will feel as though you are inside the pages and everything is personally touching you.  The novel is filled with the feel of Italy, its food, its way of life and its picturesque wonders.   As well as the ugly underbelly of peasant living; the author, Elise Valmorbida, explores the moral questions on the uneven balance of power between the sexes in Italian life.

The novel derives much of its weight from its setting: War in Italy during the 1920s to the 1950s.  The main female protagonist is the epitome of an unsentimental woman doing whatever it takes to keep her family alive during hardship in unstable times.  She and her husband have lived through and survived WWI.  Now they must do it again, with four children, during WWII.  As the reader knows, at the beginning of the war, Benito Mussolini chose to ally Italy’s forces with those of Adolf Hitler.  Soon German and Italian armies were battling Allied troops on several fronts.  Italian civilians suffered on many levels. Their homes were bombed, their food sources cut off.  Then, one month after Italy surrendered to Allied forces; it declared war on Nazi Germany.   And, the Italian people were further bombed and starved and still suffering. “War is hell.” ― General William T. Sherman.

“Madonna” focuses on the female character’s role.  Women seemed the most burnt out by life because they were the most abused.  The enemy, whoever they might be at the moment, was beating and raping the females.  Their own husbands were often no better, especially in peasant life where it is the norm for men to beat their wives and children, and have affairs.  Think the movie “Zorba The Greek,” not an Italian film but so similar in the scene where the village peasants stone to death a woman who was unfaithful to her husband.   If you think this casual acceptance of violence against women can be attributed to the period, think again.  According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year.”   I actually found myself comparing our Italian mother to Tina Turner and her husband Ike.  Ike once told the newspapers in 1985. “Yeah, I hit her, but I didn’t hit her more than the average guy beats his wife.”  I have read much fiction and nonfiction on violence against women, this novel explains it so well.  The reader will observe how mothers taught their daughters that they must be subservient to men.  And if they are not, they will be physically punished.  Here is another movie for you, “Divorce Italian Style.”  The film is a comedy that still screams of a patriarchal society where it is expected that husbands and fathers hit.

All in all, as a reviewer, I appreciate that the author did not portray the mother in a romantic sense.  What she did was show wartime horrors and the abuse the women endured in an epic novel.   The author’s characters are so real and so gut-wrenching that I was not surprised to learn about the possibility that this is autobiographical.  I applaud Valmorbida for such an honest description of Italy’s wonders and shames.

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

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“Winter Sisters” by Robin Oliveira

Genre:        Historical FictionWinter Sisters
Publisher:  Penguin Group Viking
Pub. Date:   Feb. 27, 2018

“Winter Sisters” is historical fiction. We see life in 1879 Albany, New York, as clearly as if we were walking down the street with the main characters.

“Winter Sisters” is a family saga with a poignant feminist narrative. One character is a midwife who becomes a surgeon. The author models the surgeon after, Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D. (1821-1910), America’s first female doctor.

“Winter Sisters” is a mystery. A blizzard blasts the city and in its chaotic wake, two young girls go missing. Her family spends weeks searching for them in case they survived. This blizzard is not fiction. It occurred in 1888 and took the lives of four hundred people. The author moves the year back in time for a legal matter in her story.

“Winter Sisters” is a courtroom drama. This occurs later in the book and brilliantly portrays a sensational trial that has the local newspapers working around the clock and the residents arguing over their dinner tables. Here is where the reader discovers the reasons for pushing back the year of the storm. (Next sentence is a possible spoiler.) In 1879, the age of female sexual consent was ten years old. Learning this fact made this reviewer physically ill. The law was changed in 1886. The legal age for female consent went from ten years of age to sixteen years of age.

One can argue that although the book is marketed as historical fiction, it is actually a thoughtful thriller hidden within a historical fiction tale with a feminist theme. The only flaw lay in the first few chapters. There is a difficulty in following just who is who in the story’s many protagonists. This may be so because “Winter” is the follow up tale to “My Name Is Mary Sutter,” which I never read.   Mary is the female surgeon.  The book is engaging as well as politically profound, with matters that are still present in today times. Simply turn on the news.

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 Girls in the Picture” by Melanie Benjamin

Genre:        Historical FictionThe Girls in the Pictures
Pub. Date:  January 16, 2018
Publisher:  Random House

Melanie Benjamin is a favorite author of mine. She writes in a distinctive genre that I favor known as Historical Autobiographical Fiction. It is reading historical fiction as if you are reading the memoir of the real-life main character. To work, this genre needs to be as well-researched as it is well-written. Also, the reader needs to remember that no matter how knowledgeable, the author is not privy to the actual thoughts of the protagonist (Benjamin reminds us in her endnotes). I think Benjamin always pulls off this style of writing. So far I have been lucky enough to review three of her works prepublication: “The Aviator’s Wife” (Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh), “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” (Truman Capote and Babe Paley), and even “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb” had me captivated. For these reasons, I was thrilled to be given an Advance Review Copy (ARC) of Benjamin’s “The Girls in the Picture” on the early days of Hollywood, concentrating on the lives of screenwriter Frances Marion and the first superstar actress, Mary Pickford.

This is Benjamin’s first book for which my review won’t be full of praise for her talents. But let me start by stating what I did enjoy about the novel, which is a good portion of the book. I was engrossed in learning about the birth of the movies in Old Hollywood. I especially enjoyed learning about the technical side of moviemaking in those days. It wasn’t unusual for the actors themselves to splice and piece the film back together. Actors also frequently went behind the camera to get a better understanding of how a scene would play out. Mary Pickford always did both. Plus, the author does a terrific job describing the details of the WWI era and weaving in how the magic of movie making effected that generation. The industry started out making “flickers” on the streets (there were no sets) with street entertainers such as Charlie Chaplin. These silent movies were watched in Nickelodeons. One will also learn about the beginnings of the Hollywood studios, and how it took the creativity out of the hands of the actors, and how the silent films turned into “talkies,” ruining many careers, and causing some stars to sell their mansions. As Pickford once said, “Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.” I also got a kick out of reading that Pickford and Fairbanks were the original Liz and Dick. Once they married each other, their lifestyles suddenly changed and they became world famous and rich beyond their wildest dreams. Their 18-acre estate in Beverly Hills was called “Pickfair” predating the mashups of celebrity couples’ names like “Brangelina” and “Bennifer” by nearly a century.

The reader discovers that Mary Pickford and Frances Marion were two groundbreaking innovators of American film. The story is told from two points of view: Pickford’s and Marion’s. (Though Marion is written in the first person and Pickford in the third, which made Marion seem more real and autobiographical). The story of Mary Pickford’s tough early years on the stage, struggling to support her mother and two siblings, reminded me of Natalie Wood’s life story. The family was dirt poor and she alone supported them. By 1915, Pickford had become the most famous movie actress in the United States. She was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart,” known as “Girl with the Golden Curls.” The irony wasn’t lost on Mary, because she knew that she never had a childhood. Additionally, I found out that she was also an early feminist. She became one of the few actors and sole woman in those first years to battle the studio system and take control of her own work and career.

Frances Marion also believed women were equal to men and elbowed her way into the Hollywood experience. She was new to the movie industry when Mary was already a star. They soon became fast friends. Frances gained entry into the world of “moving pictures” by becoming a screenwriter, then known as a “scenarist.” She wrote many of Mary’s most popular pictures, including the 1917 film, “Poor Little Rich Girl.” Mary did not do well in the “talkies” with her modern, bobbed hair. Her fans only wanted to see the little girl with the curls. She blamed this on Marion, who wrote petite Pickford as a child. Unlike Mary, Frances remained successful after Mary’s career was over. She continued to write screenplays, remaining the highest paid screenwriter. She went on to win two Academy Awards (the first woman to do so), all while fighting chauvinistic male studio heads.

So why did this novel lose some of my praise? In the middle of the book, these two successful business women, pioneers of their time, began talking like lovesick teenagers about their future husbands. The once crisp and compelling dialogue became just plain old silly and in complete contrast to their established personalities. I actually cringed at some of the corny lines that the author would never have penned to come out of their mouths in the first half of the story. When Frances meets her husband (her first love), it reads like a script from an old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney film, “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” rather than a mature woman finding love. The silliness is emphasized by the fact that this is her third marriage. And, they meet while he is a soldier in the hospital during the war. This venue is not conducive for the sugary tone of their romance. When Mary divorces her first husband and marries Fairbanks (her first love), she too begins talking like a teenager in love. Suddenly, Pickford, a woman with much skill in financial affairs, who was the brains in the marriage, starts acting flaky and puts her husband before her career. When Fairbanks started to cheat on her I was waiting for the author to throw in a verse of Lesley Gore’s song, “It’s My Party, and I’ll Cry if I Want To.” I was so disappointed that I found myself skimming the mushy pages. I realize that characters do evolve in a story, it usually improves the story. But this was a complete 180 and not believable. With that said, overall, I can say that if you don’t know much about the history of early American filmmaking and wish to then I recommend this book. Just know that it can read simultaneously sappy and splendid.

I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

Find all my book reviews at: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list…

 

 

“Profane Fire At The Altar Of The Lord” by Dennis W. Maley

Genre:          Historical FictionProfane Fires
Publisher:    Jublio
Pub. Date:    January 25, 2018

This tongue in cheek historical fictional takes place in Europe during the 1600s, and is a fun- and fact-filled piece of work. The protagonist is a Jewish dwarf named David Reuveni, a real historical person, who cons European Jews into believing that he’s the Messiah.  He hires an actor, Diogo Pires, another real person (who is always on the run from one country to another, usually for sleeping with the wrong woman), to aid him with his deception.  They both become rich in this scam. When the two first meet on a ship, Diogo comes close to stabbing David because he calls Diogo a Marrano.  Digio demands an apology because that is what they call Christian Jews in Portugal. Pig.”  David thinks “this is a man with a hidden past.  Perhaps he can be of value to me.”  The novel wears a coat of black humor.  It speaks of greed, manipulation, and religion.  I see these characters as a shrewd, not so nice, version of an “Abbott and Costello” act, especially when the protagonists are in the company of sultry ladies whom they are trying to impress.

There are many real historical characters thrown into the plot.  The author, Dennis W. Maley, had me google to see if Cristoforo Colombo aka Christopher Columbus was really a Marrano, meaning a Jew who is forced to convert and secretly practices Judaism.  I learned that this might be true.  Several chapters or pieces of vignettes on other real historical names are tossed around freely in this book:

  • Sir Thomas Malloy: The radical English writer who wrote and died in prison
  • French King Francis I: He was also King Consort of Scotland as a result of his willing marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots
  • King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: Their marriage caused the first break between the Church of England and Rome
  • Martin Luther: The German Protestant reformer
  • William Tyadle: The leading figure in Protestant reform

The reader will learn that Canon law forbids Christians to charge interest on a loan, so they would hire Jews to do so for them.  It has been suggested that this was the beginning of the banking industry.  And let’s not forget the infamous “Fountain of Youth” that all seemed to be trying to locate.   It is amazing how Maley juggled all these figures together so the reader gets the full picture of the happenings that change the religious world.  He manages to personalize the facts so they aren’t dull.  Plus, he works hard to keep his story a fun read.  But still, I often felt like I was in the middle of a history book.  Because there truly is so much more historical information packed into the novel that I haven’t even mentioned.   There are too many names and affairs and marriages and deaths to keep up with.  For instance, in the “War of the Roses,” which was a series of wars for control of the throne of England, I didn’t care that the war ended when “Henry number seven bedded Elizabeth of York.”  I wish he cut some of the facts out because I felt eager to get back to the perils of the quirky narrators, David and Diogo, the two scheming delightfully unlikable protagonists.

Even though the history lesson is a little too long for my taste, this is a very funny book.  Be prepared to laugh a lot.  Maley writes, “Destruction awaits the Muslim Turks if Christendom joins with his powerful desert tribe. But why hurry? The food and beds are warm, the ladies plump and willing.”   When he requested that I review his novel, “Profane Fire at the Altar of the Lord,” the author shared with me that it “is what would be on reality TV if they had TV in the 16th century.”  This is a great comparison.  I can see our swindlers, attention seekers that they are, puffing out their chests for the cameras. There is enough fame-seeking in those two characters to fit right in with Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

I found myself smiling a lot in this book.  David is surprised to discover that the leaders of the world may also be liars (no surprise to 2017 readers).  He is tired of all the nonsense and becoming fearful of exposure.  This prompts him to attempt to change his ways, though he does not succeed.  He cannot help himself.   David even lies to animals. “What am I doing now, he asked himself, lying to a horse?”  To further complicate truth-telling, Diogo comes to feels it is his turn to be the Messiah.  Again, making me think of the many Reality TV shows that are currently bombarding our brains, begging the viewer to wonder who is the show’s true star.  So, the scam continues. (The next sentence is a potential spoiler.)  I did not care for the ending of this novel, but that may be because I became very fond of the swindlers.

In Acknowledgements, the author states, “This book’s purpose is to entertain.  I am not a historian.”  Still, his work seems well-researchedThe references he cites are impressive.    Just do not take anything, especially the religious references, too seriously.  If you are a historian, you will devour all the facts found in this book.  If you are not, but enjoy historical fiction that is expertly written in black humor you will also enjoy the tale. Just wait until you read about David’s female encounter towards the end of the book.   I am still laughing.  Maley seemed to be having as much fun writing the book as I did reading it.

Purchase here: http://maleybooks.com/#

The author reached out to me to review this book.

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“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan

Genre:         General Fiction (Adult)Manatthan Beach

Pub. Date:   Oct. 3, 2017

Publisher:    Scribner

Here is the thing about this author, Jennifer Egan: she is brilliant, I might go as far as to say there is a something Shakespearean in her writing, complete with betrayal and tragedy. But like Shakespeare, for me, she can be hard to follow. I did read her 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” “Goon Squad” has a complicated narrative with each chapter written as a tweet, or a music chart, or a PowerPoint presentation. In other words, her writing style is unique in this work.

In “Manhattan Beach” the author writes a traditional novel. The story spans from the years of the Great Depression to WWII. We meet the Kerrigans, a Brooklyn family, and learn of their successes and failures. There is twelve-year-old Anna, her adored father, Eddie, her mother and severely disabled little sister. They are a Brooklyn Irish family that is barely scraping by in the 1930s with a strong father-daughter bond. Sounds familiar right? But this is not “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” There is another protagonist, the New York gangster, Dexter Styles. The father works for him. The book’s title comes from the gangster’s wealthy home on Manhattan Beach.

This is a hard review for me to write because the book is clearly well researched, which is always a plus. The feel of the novel is realistic, as are the characters. Furthermore, I love historical fiction and as a native New Yorker, I was drawn into the story with its sharp observations of NYC in this time frame. Maybe it is the plot that bothered me? There didn’t seem to be a steady tempo. I felt as though I was reading three different stories about the girl, the father and the gangster. It is when Egan flashes forward several years that I began to have trouble with the storyline.

Anna at 19 is working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Her father has mysteriously disappeared. She alone is the breadwinner. She elbows her way into a job as their first female diver. She also sleeps with Dexter (who initially doesn’t realize whose daughter she is). Of course, there is a disastrous outcome. The affair’s beginning seems so unlikely that it reads absurd. No matter how talented the author is, this just feels like way too much soap for my taste. I cannot talk about the father’s fate for it would be a spoiler, but that also is a bit hokey.

So what do you say about a book written by an extremely talented author, in your favorite genre, with interesting characters that keeps you hooked until it doesn’t? I am not sure. (I wish I could quote to explain, but the publisher doesn’t allow this since the book is not yet published). Maybe, I need to brush up on my own skills. Or, maybe, it would have read better as interconnected short stories. Either way, I can safely recommend that you read this book if you wish to get lost in the world of the past, the Navy, a young woman breaking into a man’s field, speakeasies, nightclubs and the end of Prohibition. As well as a lovely family saga, expect your heart to break for them. Just don’t be surprised when things start getting far-fetched.

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

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

“The Vengeance of Mothers (One Thousand White Women)” By Jim Fergus

Genre:         Historical Fiction

Vengence of Mothers

Pub. Date:   September, 12, 2017

Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press

When I read this historical novel I wasn’t aware that it is a sequel.  I did have the feeling that I was missing the first part, but I wasn’t at all confused, meaning one can read it alone.  Set in the 1800’s the book begins with the journals of two sisters, the Kelly twins,  who were part of the Wives for Indians Program that sent “undesirable” women from prisons and asylums to marry Native Americans of the Cheyenne Nation as a means to encourage assimilation.  The Kelly sisters were part of the original story, “One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd.” In “Vengeance” the reader learns that their village is destroyed by U.S. soldiers while they were waving a white flag, in a raid that leaves their children and husbands dead.   The title of the novel comes from the sisters’ desire for revenge on the US Calvary. The second journal we read in this story belongs to Molly McGill, another woman sent to marry into the Cheyenne tribe. But when Molly arrives in the West, the program is virtually defunct, and the group of Cheyenne she was sent to meet is now on the run.  Originally, this batch of women was held as hostages by the Native Americans.  When given their freedom they decided to stay. Living with the Cheyenne would be as equally dangerous and as hard a lifestyle yet still desirable than to returning to prisons or asylums.

I have learned that the first novel “The Journals of May Dodd” has been made into a movie.  I have also learned via Wikipedia that “the spark for this novel was an actual historical event that occurred in 1854. A Cheyenne chief did request the gift of 1000 white women as brides but the offer was rejected by the U.S. Army.”   This is an okay read though obviously written by a man for the author’s generalizations on women falling in love are stereotypical.  When Molly realizes she is falling for her Cheyenne captor, I felt it could have been a scene from the 1920s silent movie, “The Sheik” starring Rudolph Valentino.  However, I did enjoy learning about the Native Americans’ ways of life. Because of this novel, I intend to read more hoping it all will not be too similar to another movie named, “Dances with Wolves,” where Kevin Costner plays a disillusioned Civil War lieutenant who comes to realize that it is he and his government and not the Native Americans who are the real savages.  I say this because (although I agree with the statement), I would like to learn something new about the tribes other than that they seemed to be a more decent set of human beings than the whites who destroyed them.

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

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read