“Magnificent Rebel: Nancy Cunard in Jazz Age Paris” by Anne de Courcy

Genre: BiographyMagnificent
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub Date: April 11, 2023 

Anne de Courcy wrote a fascinating and well-documented biography of Nancy Cunard, who dominated the Paris scene in the 1920s, hanging around with all those famous people you read about in Paula McLain’s biographical fiction “The Paris Wife” referring to Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Nancy was the epitome of a hard-core socialite with an “I don’t give a damn” attitude. She was also a poet and a journalist who founded Hours Press. She was promiscuous and a cruel lover. She didn’t care who she hurt as long as her needs were met. I wondered if she had a Borderline or Narcissistic personality disorder. She was an alcoholic, which may have or not have brought on mental illness. This portrayal of a complex woman during the roaring twenties in the City of Lights is first-rate. Unfortunately, I thought I would read a biographical fiction novel, not a biography. I continued reading because the writing was good, and Nancy was a pistol. If you enjoy biographies who will enjoy “Magnificent Rebel.”

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

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“The Paragon Hotel” by Lyndsay Faye

Genre:         Historical Fiction Mystery Hotel
Publisher:    PENGUIN GROUP Putmam
Pub. Date:   January 8, 2019

In a nutshell, this novel is about racism and the American underworld in the early twentieth century.  The novel begins in 1921, during the time of America’s Prohibition.  A young white female protagonist is on a train out of Harlem running to escape her Mafia boss who is displeased with her.  She is suffering from an untreated bullet wound.  A black male Pullman porter takes pity on her and brings her with him to his home in Portland, Oregon, which happens to be in an all-black hotel.   The story goes back and forth in chapters and settings from NYC to Oregon.

This is a difficult review to write since I had different opinions throughout the novel on whether I did or did not like the book.  I appreciate that the alternating settings begin with a real quote from each area’s non-fictional newspapers.  Plus, the author has historical endnotes.   Good research is always a plus in historical fiction.  I liked that the author chose that the scrappy little kid character, who grows up to be a mobster, is a girl rather than a boy.  This is unheard of in most mob stories.  I got a kick out of learning that at one time Harlem NY had a large Italian population know as Little Italy.  As a native New Yorker, I really should have known this.  For me, Little Italy is the infamous neighborhood located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  (I used to push my, now-grown, baby in a stroller right there on Mulberry St.)    And I thoroughly enjoyed how skillful the author is in immersing the reader in the feel of the era.  I was hooked on the visuals and the slang of the times. I was expecting Bogey or Cagney to materialize on any given page.

Then the historical fiction morphs into a mystery.  Although it is a well-written mystery, it is not needed to enhance the already interesting tale on the happenings of the young woman’s two lives:  One in white America and another in black America.  Both are filled with police that are as corrupt as the mobsters.  Nor was I wild about a couple of twists that seem thrown in for good measure.  They are decent twists, but again, not needed.  Maybe I just don’t care for the mixing of genres.  I also was not pleased that in this book, and recent others is that the theme and characters are pointedly aligned to this current dysfunctional White House administration.   I am growing weary of all the new historical novels that make anti-Trump statements without using his name.  (And, I am no fan of the 45th American President).  In this tale, I read over and over how in the 1920s the KKK expanded into the north because of the hatred against people who deemed not “truly” American.  Their motto was “America First.”  Sound familiar?  I am aware that these historical connections need to be repeated in words to serve as reminders of what can happen when politics run amok.  But, after finding this Trump-metaphor linking trend so often I, as a reader and a reviewer, need a breather from political teachable moments in my fiction.

After writing down my thoughts on the pros and cons in “The Paragon Hotel,” I discover I am still confused on whether I would recommend the book or not.  I guess it depends upon what your expectations are when venturing into the story.  I was not expecting a mystery.   Hopefully my confusion will help give you a clear picture of what you may like or dislike in the story.

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

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