“The Glass House” by Beatrice Colin

Genre: Historical FictionThe Glass House
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Pub. Date: September 15, 2020

In the twentieth century, a woman in India marries a Scottish man.  They live together in India with their biracial daughter. He is a plant biologist who travels on expeditions around the world in search of discovering rare flowering plants. His wife and child make an unannounced trip to Scotland to visit her husband’s estranged sister who lives on the family’s grand estate. The estate has a glasshouse filled with exotic plants. Yes, you are guessing correctly. There are reasons why they showed up unexpectedly with their suitcases. This was not a social call. I found this book to be way more of a women’s fiction than historical fiction, lots about marriages and not much about history. The only thing I learned is that some wealthy families have always looked down on those that are different.  The one percent rule of black blood has been around before America created that unholy rule. The novel was not for me.  However, if you like twists you will find them in this story.

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

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“Dangerous Women” by Hope Adams

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery and ThrillersDangerous Women
Publisher: Berkley
Pub. Date: February 16, 2021

Mini-Review

Let me start off by saying the Adams mixes the genres in this one. This is not the best nor the worst historical fiction that I have read. I always enjoy reading historical facts that reads like fiction, which you will find in this novel. The author takes us back to the year 1841.  The story revolves around a true historical event.  Approximately, 200 English women, who have been convicted for mostly petty crimes are released from their cells. The government places them on the real-life historical vessel named the “Rajah,” which will take them to Australia to start a new life. Adams does a good job showing us how many of the women were forced into a criminal life for survival.  She also nails the dialogue/emotions between her characters on the ship with their bickering, their fears, and sometimes their kindness to one another. On their voyage, they create a real-life giant quilt, which now hangs in the National Gallery of Australia. The author explains that she has seen this Rajah Quilt and it was her inspiration to write this novel. The women received the quilt’s materials from the Ladies Society of England who were promoting the reformation of female prisoners.  On the ship, there is a real-life character from this society who organizes the project. In the novel as well as in actuality she ends up marrying the captain—very sweet. The author surely did her research homework. Through the making of the quilt, we feel the women’s sorrows as well as their hopes, while enjoying their newfound friendships. I found all of this captivating.  Getting back to the mixing of the genres, at the beginning of the book, on the ship, a young mother is killed.  This subplot stays with us throughout the entire story.  I did not think it was necessary and actually took away from the story rather than enhancing it. I kept skimming the murder mystery scenes to get back to the fascinating, old-fashioned, straight historical fiction. If the story stayed in that mode and didn’t throw in a “whodunit,” I would have enjoyed “Dangerous Women” so much more than I did.

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

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“Speakeasy” by Alisa Smith

Genre:          Historical FictionSpeakeasy
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:   April, 10, 2018

So why did I like this book so much?   Maybe I am just a sucker for a bygone era.  I still love the old black and white 1930s and 1940s gangster movies.  I am filled with nostalgia for the Prohibition Era, with its handsome celebrities playing the main roles.  Think “Key Largo” with Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and the great beauty, Lauren Bacall.  Or, “The Glass Key” with the handsome actor, Alan Ladd, and his gorgeous costar, known for her peek-a-boo hairstyle, Veronica Lake.

the glass key

Do not expect a “We had it all just like Bogey and Bacall” type of read.   There are many smart twists in this novel.  Don’t be fooled by the title; this not a story about bootlegging.   This reviewer is impressed with the author’s choice for the book’s title, very clever.  I will not spoil it for you with an explanation.   The entire story is not what it appears.   I suspect some will be disappointed in “Speakeasy.”   Between the book’s title and blurb, it is fair to expect a novel that leans heavily into women’s fiction.   However, that is simply not this book.   You will soon discover that it’s written more literary than contemporary in how it begs the question: Which life would you choose?   Would you prefer stable but boring or dangerous but exhilarating?

Here is what is hard to buy about this book.   It is two novels in one.  The female protagonist is an outlaw in a gang during the depression robbing banks with her boyfriend, the gang leader.  Ten years later, she is a naval code breaker during World War II, intercepting Japanese messages.  Both subject matters would be enjoyable to me.  But together it becomes a hard sell.  It took me a while to accept the disjointedness of these two stories, but the author pulls it off.   She manages to successfully merge a gangster noir with a spy thriller.

There are two first-person narrators that alternate between paragraphs —tricky to follow, but worth the effort.  Our gal’s voice and a male voice from the past, who is another gang member though, not her man.  These two characters have something in common.   He is a law-abiding citizen until the likable bandit comes and shakes up his dull and friendless life.  She is a beautiful law-abiding bank teller, who happens to be bored out of her young mind.  When the bank is robbed, she can see that the unmasked leader is Clark Gable handsome, with the sort of killer smile women melt over.  During the robbery, she asks the charming but violent man to take her with them.  This is the beginning of her Bonnie and Clyde years.

There are certainly flaws in the story.  In order to become a high ranking naval code breaker, our heroine must be a very bright woman.  Yet, she has no way of assessing the character of the people in her life.   Plus, she repeats past errors, which is incongruent with a sharp mind.  At age twenty, she has to get beat up by her boyfriend to realize her honey is a creep.  In typical noir style, he slaps some sense into her.  That incident prompts her to run away from him and return to a lawful life.   At age thirty, she fears that her past is catching up with her, but has no clue who in the naval unit is digging into her youth.   And, even though she is now a grown woman, she once again falls for a guy who does not have her best interest at heart.  I wanted to jump into the pages and yell, “Enough already with the bad boys.”

In ways, Alisa Smith reminds me of the wonderful Joyce Carol Oates.  In Oates’ novel, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” she writes an historical fiction about a woman who falls for a charismatic, abusive, hard-drinking man sounding similar to our bank robbing code breaker.  Like in all of Oates’ work, this book too is a well written powerful drug—one page and you are addicted.  Such talent cannot be found in a cheesy plot-driven tale about domestic violence.  I highly recommend “Speakeasy,” that reads partly as an historical espionage, and partly as an intellectual version of Mickey Spillane.

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 Summer I Met Jack” by Michelle Gable

Genre:         Women’s FictionJack
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:   May 29, 2018

The book’s blurb reads, “Based on a real story – in 1950, a young, beautiful Polish refugee arrives in Hyannisport, Massachusetts to work as a maid for one of the wealthiest families in America.”  The family is the Kennedys.  Of course, the Jack in the title is a young Jack Kennedy.  I was disappointed in this book, but it may be my own fault.  I thought I was reading historical fiction and not women’s fiction.  The story reads close to a romance novel, which is a genre I do not care for.   I did read and like the “The Paris Apartment,” also by Michelle Gable.  In “Apartment,” Gable wrote a similar type of book.  She wove together a tale of romance and mystery, to become a past and present page-turner.   However, I went into that book knowing what I was about to read.

This book is based on the true events from the life of American socialite Alicia Corning Clark, married to Alfred Corning Clark who was a Singer Sewing Machine heir.   We first meet Alicia soon after she leaves Poland in the late 1940s and arrives in the United States as a displaced person.    To begin fresh, she changes her name from Barbara Kopczynska to Alica Darr (and then, by marriage, to Alicia Corning Clark).”  Corning Clark lived a life that should have been a movie.  She had more lives than a cat.  In Poland, she was a Jewish girl hidden in a convent to escape the Nazis.   In the United States, she was a Roman Catholic maid, an aspiring artist, a call girl, and a Hollywood movie star.  She was also a woman whom J. Edgar Hoover insisted was paid by the Kennedys to keep her affair with JFK, and their possible love child, out of the headlines.  An interesting tidbit for me is that I once again was able to read about a Singer Sewing Machine heir.  I first read about Pairs Singer in the historical fiction “Isadora” by Amelia Gray.  Alfred Corning Clark’s father was partners with Paris’ father, Isaac Singer.   In real life, it was Corning Clark who changed Darr into a wealthy, respectable society woman.  Both men lived a life filled with scandals.  Who knew there is so much dirt revolving around the Singers?  Sort of like the Kennedys.

Darr’s real-life story is one reason why I did not give up on the book.  That and the Kennedys.  My interest was constantly re-sparked: Was Rose Kennedy really an odd duck and a cold mother?  Was Joe Sr. really a Nazi sympathizer?  Was Bobby really a dislikable man?  Not to mention, the family connections to the mafia, or the rumor that they had Marilyn Monroe being murdered before she could expose that she was sleeping with both Bobby and Jack.  (I did chuckle when reading that Jackie put a poster of Monroe over Jack’s bed.  Wonder if that was true?)  And so on and so forth with all the Kennedy rumors.

Gable lists extensive research for this novel in her end-notes, which is always a plus.   Her most moving writing moments are when she is describing JFK’s painful long suffering due to being born with Addison’s disease, a condition that is life-threatening when the adrenal glands fail to manufacture adequate amounts of essential hormones.  It was imperative to the Kennedys that Jack presents an image of robust good health. Naturally, they denied his medical condition, as well as playing down his back problems due to a degenerative disc disease.   What is it about the Kennedy clan that still pulls us in?  Whatever it is, it helped this reviewer overlook the story’s melodrama, the Hollywood celebrity name-dropping, and the exotic romance settings to find the historical fiction hidden inside.  I am glad that I did.

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

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