“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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“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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“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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“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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“A Hundred Suns” by Karin Tanabe

Genre:  Historical Fiction/Women’s FictionA hundred suns
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: April 7, 2020

This historical fiction has moments of greatness. The story is set in Indochina during the late 1920s and the early 1930s. If you are a history buff, you will be delighted to know that this reviewer learned much about Indochina, the French Colony in Vietnam. Unlike any schoolbook, Tanabe makes you feel as if you are there with the ‘coolies’ during their long, impossibly hard workday.   The anti-colonialist roots of communism are captured in the abject poverty of the Vietnamese and the abundance of wealth and luxurious living conditions of the French who ruled and lived in Indochina. The author gave me the gift of detailed knowledge. Thanks to “Suns,” I finally have a better understanding of how the Martin Sheen character in “Apocalypse Now” could go from fighting in the jungles of Vietnam to having an elaborate dinner there, while being waited on by servants, with a wealthy French family who insist that Vietnam is their home.

The tale revolves around an American wife who marries a Frenchman who is a member of the Michelin dynasty. The famous family is a major part of the story. In real life, the Michelin brothers organized two Indochinese rubber plantations in 1925, where they operated until the end of the Vietnam War. The author does a thorough job regarding less known information about the Michelins. Surprisingly, at least for me, the family is painted as part of the wealthy imperialists who cannot understand the pain of the underprivileged. The quality of life for their workers read as horrendous.  Since I have always smiled at the image of “The Michelin Man,” I looked for proof of Tanabe’s descriptions.  I found them to be true.  On just one Michelin-owned plantation, 17,000 deaths were recorded in the 20 years between the two World Wars. “Suns” is written so the reader will sympathize with the communist Vietnamese. The author has the ability to make one question what you learned in school. I will never again read a “Michelin-Star Rated Restaurant Guide” without thinking of how their rubber and money was made.

Turns out, the novel is also written as a psychological thriller regarding the American wife. She has a history of mental illness. The author presents this as an “Or does she?” type of situation.  I didn’t mind this component of the novel at all. It did not interfere with the history.  I actually found it intriguing. My issue is that romance finds its way into the plot. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that this genre is historical fiction as well as women’s fiction, something I do not usually care for. So my disappointment is on me for not carefully looking over the genre before choosing the novel.  My only strong criticism is that Tanabe did not have endnotes. True facts make historical fiction feel authentic and give the author credibility.  However, this may be due to the fact that I read an Advanced Review Copy and the citations may come once the book is published.  Still overall, I enjoyed this novel very much and recommend it.  The entire plot revolving around the history of Vietnam during those years is powerfully written.  And the thriller part is clever.  Plus, if you enjoy women’s fiction this will be a win-win book 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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“Delayed Rays of A Star” by Amanda Lee Koe

Genre:  Historical FictionDelayed Rays
Publisher:  Doubleday Books
Publication Date:  July 9, 2019

Spanning the 1920s to 2003, this sprawling novel is expertly woven with characters who are powerfully alive.  Koe’s novel was inspired by a 1928 photograph taken in Berlin of then up and coming real-life actresses, Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl, at a party in Berlin.marleneFor those who don’t know these film icons, Marlene Dietrich was a gender-bending.  German actress who was one of the highest-paid Hollywood stars in her day.  Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American actress to achieve international acclaim.   Leni Riefenstahl was an actress turned director of Nazi propaganda films as well as nonpolitical films.

There are two moving secondary characters in the novel.  There is a Chinese maid who was a onetime sex-trafficked prostitute.  She now takes care of an old and difficult reclusive woman who happens to be Marlene Dietrich.  And there is a gay German soldier who had worked in films before the war.  He was recruited off the battlefield to be a film crew member with Riefenstahl.  He is mourning the lover he watched die in battle. Through his character, one gets glimpses of the average young German soldier’s thoughts during the war.  Not at all different than from those they were fighting.  “Please God let me live through this war…Why am I crawling in the mud when the bigwigs that started the war are safely sitting at home?”  Both characters are written in a way that will break your heart without being saccharine.

The ambiguous novel takes on many subjects:

There is sexuality.   Marlene Dietrich’s public image included openly defying sexual norms.  She was known for her androgynous dressing fashion sense.  Dietrich was the Hollywood legend who made being queer acceptable, even downright sexy.  Men and women both drooled over her and she famously bedded both.  How she got away with this in that period of time is quite a feat.   Perhaps it was her narcissist personality traits that helped her pull it off.   Still, while America adored her, Germany was angry and disowned her.  Marlene remained Marlene until the end of her life.   The author writes a scene of her maid holding her nose while cleaning an antique Limoges pitcher the 88-year-old uses as a bedpan.  In her famous throaty voice, she hollers at the maid, “Everyone should be glad I can still pee.”  For her funeral, she requested that red and white carnations be distributed to those who attended.  A red carnation would be handed to those who slept with Dietrich and a white one to those who didn’t.  She fantasized fistfights over ‘You slept with her and I didn’t!’ These laugh out loud moments are written to perfection.  (This reviewer googled an interview with Marlene’s daughter and learned that this was indeed her mother’s funeral wish.  Her mom would have been very disappointed if she knew it wasn’t carried out).

There is racism.  Despite being born in California, and the daughter of parents who were themselves born here, Wong was only offered bad/evil woman Chinese character roles.  She was never a lead character.  The Chinese were as furious with her as the Germans were of Dietrich.  A moving scene in the book happens when she is in China for a publicity tour.   Wong is criticized by a film critic for taking stereotypical roles.  She tries to explain that as a non-white in America life can be hard.  She fiercely fought for different roles.  She desperately wanted the lead role in the film “The Good Earth.”  The movie takes place in turn-of-the-century China.  She thought she had it.  She was deep into preparation, giving ideas and costume suggestions when she received a phone call informing her that the role went to a white actress.  The reason: She was too Chinese.

There is sexism.  Leni Riefenstahl was an accomplished filmmaker, one of the first of female filmmakers of her generation.  Still, she is easy not to like.  She received financial support from Hitler but, after the fall of the Nazi regime, claimed no knowledge of the Holocaust.  Koe paints her as willfully unknowing.  Leni is written in a way that one can ‘almost’ understand where she is coming from.  Since she was a woman, no one was willing to take her seriously as a director and back her films.  She took money where she could and concentrated on her art.  Like Anna May, she was forced to take whatever she got in order to perform.  In 1993 there was a documentary made about her, “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.”  Maybe, this is why she is the only one of the three who gets an entire section in her own voice.

Koe’s debut novel shows that she is a master storyteller.  Clearly, her talent comes from being a fellow of the International Writing Program of Iowa and a fiction editor of Esquire Singapore as well as the editor of the National Museum of Singapore’s film journal.  “Delayed” will appeal to a wide variety of readers:  Fans of historical fiction centering on women, film buffs, gossipy stories, and those who enjoy WWII political novels that feel like nonfiction–in other words, for fans of all genres.

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