Category Archives: Fiction

Review: The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard

Title: The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Genre: Historical (40s), Fiction
Length:384 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss

Summary:

In the bestselling tradition of Hidden Figures and The Wives of Los Alamos, comes this riveting novel of the everyday people who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II.

“What you see here, what you hear here, what you do here, let it stay here.”

In November 1944, eighteen-year-old June Walker boards an unmarked bus, destined for a city that doesn’t officially exist. Oak Ridge, Tennessee has sprung up in a matter of months—a town of trailers and segregated houses, 24-hour cafeterias, and constant security checks. There, June joins hundreds of other young girls operating massive machines whose purpose is never explained. They know they are helping to win the war, but must ask no questions and reveal nothing to outsiders.

The girls spend their evenings socializing and flirting with soldiers, scientists, and workmen at dances and movies, bowling alleys and canteens. June longs to know more about their top-secret assignment and begins an affair with Sam Cantor, the young Jewish physicist from New York who oversees the lab where she works and understands the end goal only too well, while her beautiful roommate Cici is on her own mission: to find a wealthy husband and escape her sharecropper roots. Across town, African-American construction worker Joe Brewer knows nothing of the government’s plans, only that his new job pays enough to make it worth leaving his family behind, at least for now. But a breach in security will intertwine his fate with June’s search for answers.

When the bombing of Hiroshima brings the truth about Oak Ridge into devastating focus, June must confront her ideals about loyalty, patriotism, and war itself.

Review:

The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard is an absolutely fascinating novel about four disparate people who work at the atomic research lab in Oak Ridge, TN during World War II.

Eighteen year old June Walker is a farm girl whose future husband is killed not long after he enlists in WW II. Leaving her family and small town behind, she goes to the super secret military reservation in the newly created Oak Ridge, TN which, coincidentally, is built on land her grandfather and his neighbors were forced to sell to the Army. After filling out reams of paperwork, she is assigned to a boring job adjusting knobs for a project she knows nothing about.

June’s roommate, Cici Roberts, is a beautiful yet shallow young woman who is popular with the men but not very well liked by women other than June. Cici is a fun-loving, good-time girl who has a very selfish reason for accepting a job in Oak Ridge. While the two women are initially rather good friends, they eventually fall out over June’s boyfriend, Dr. Sam Cantor.

Originally excited to leave academia for a job at the lab, Sam’s enthusiasm soon wanes once he fully comprehends the magnitude of the  work he is doing. He is rather morose and drinks to excess to deal with his conflicted feelings. He works in the same building as June and their chance meeting at a New Year’s Eve party is the beginning of their unlikely romance.

Joe Brewer left his wife and three children behind in Alabama when he took the job as a construction worker at Oak Ridge. The negro workers are not allowed to live with their spouses and Joe misses his family desperately. He is also growing quite concerned over his friend Ralph’s friendships with other activists who are working to improve condition for the negro workers.

With the war in Europe finally winding down, the race to develop a bomb before the Germans loses its urgency but work still continues at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, NM. The project remains shrouded in secrecy although Sam has confided in June the exact nature of their research. The various situations for June, Sam, Cici and Joe quickly come to a head as the US continues fighting the Japanese and the scientists’ research finally culminates in success. Cici is disgusted by June’s romance with the much older, Jewish scientist and their friendship suffers as a consequence. Joe is increasingly worried about Ralph as racial tensions increase. As Sam becomes more despondent and his drinking escalates, his relationship with June continues to deteriorate.

The Atomic City Girls is an educational exploration of a mostly unknown piece of American history.  The characters are well-developed and add vital insight to the events that are unfolding. Although Los Alamos is famous for its part in the building of the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oak Ridge, TN’s role is not well publicized.  Janet Beard’s meticulous research brings this little known but immensely interesting portion of history vibrantly to life. This all around riveting read also includes a lovely epilogue so readers know what happens to the various characters long after their lives intersect in Oak Ridge.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical, Historical (40s), Janet Beard, Rated B+, Review, The Atomic City Girls, William Morrow Paperbacks

Review: Brass by Xhenet Aliu

Title: Brass by Xhenet Aliu
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Contemporary/Historical, Fiction
Length: 304 pages
Book Rating: C

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

“A fierce, big-hearted, unflinching debut”* novel about mothers and daughters, haves and have-nots, and the stark realities behind the American Dream

A waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner, Elsie hopes her nickel-and-dime tips will add up to a new life. Then she meets Bashkim, who is at once both worldly and naïve, a married man who left Albania to chase his dreams—and wound up working as a line cook in Waterbury, Connecticut. Back when the brass mills were still open, this bustling factory town drew one wave of immigrants after another. Now it’s the place they can’t seem to leave. Elsie, herself the granddaughter of Lithuanian immigrants, falls in love quickly, but when she learns that she’s pregnant, Elsie can’t help wondering where Bashkim’s heart really lies, and what he’ll do about the wife he left behind.

Seventeen years later, headstrong and independent Luljeta receives a rejection letter from NYU and her first-ever suspension from school on the same day. Instead of striking out on her own in Manhattan, she’s stuck in Connecticut with her mother, Elsie—a fate she refuses to accept. Wondering if the key to her future is unlocking the secrets of the past, Lulu decides to find out what exactly her mother has been hiding about the father she never knew. As she soon discovers, the truth is closer than she ever imagined.

Told in equally gripping parallel narratives with biting wit and grace, Brass announces a fearless new voice with a timely, tender, and quintessentially American story.

Review:

Brass by Xhenet Aliu explores the relationship of a mother and daughter who both dream of escaping their economically depressed town.

In 1996, Elsie Kuzavinas is working as a waitress at a diner owned by Alabanian immigrants. She has big dreams of earning enough money to purchase a car and leave behind both her dead-end job and hometown.  Entering into an affair with Bashkim, whose wife, Agnes did not accompany him to America, an unplanned pregnancy threatens to derail her plans. With promises to help raise their baby, Bashkim convinces her to continue the pregnancy but he leaves before she gives birth. Now following in the path of her own mother (but hopefully minus the drinking problem),  Elsie barely ekes out a living for herself and her daughter Luljeta “Lulu”.

Fast forward seventeen years and Lulu also dreams of leaving Waterbury for New York where she plans to attend college.  A bit of a social outcast, she is a painfully shy young woman who always follows the rules.  When she receives a college rejection letter, she ends up suspended from school following an altercation with the school bully. Lulu decides it is time to learn the truth about the father she has never met.

The storyline weaves back and forth in time so readers get to see both mother and daughter at the same age as they each attempt to reach the same goal: leave their bleak hometown with hopes of a brighter future.  Elsie and Bashkim are both a little naive about finances but once Elsie gets pregnant, reality strikes rather quickly. Life with Bashkim is not easy and she is planning a way out when he betrays her. Lulu wants to avoid the same fate as her mother and she has worked hard to ensure she makes it into college, but the rejection letter hits her hard and she becomes a little cynical.

Brass is an unflinchingly honest portrayal of life in a financially depressed town.  Xhenet Aliu paints a rather hopeless and depressing future for both Elsie and Lulu as they fail to realize their dreams of escaping the same fate as the previous generations. While the storyline is interesting, the pacing of the story is rather slow. Elsie’s chapters are much easier to read than Lulu’s which are written in second person.  The novel comes to a bit of an unexpected conclusion that is a little heartrending.

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Filed under Brass, Contemporary, Fiction, Historical, Historical (90s), Random House, Rated C, Review, Xhenet Aliu

Review: The It Girls by Karen Harper

Title: The It Girls by Karen Harper
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Genre: Historical, Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Book Rating: C

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss

Summary:

From New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper comes a novel based on the lives of two amazing sisters . . .

One sailed the Titanic and started a fashion empire . . .

The other overtook Hollywood and scandalized the world . . .

Together, they were unstoppable.

They rose from genteel poverty, two beautiful sisters, ambitious, witty, seductive. Elinor and Lucy Sutherland are at once each other’s fiercest supporters and most vicious critics.

Lucy transformed herself into Lucile, the daring fashion designer who revolutionized the industry with her flirtatious gowns and brazen self-promotion. And when she married Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon her life seemed to be a fairy tale. But success came at many costs—to her marriage and to her children . . . and then came the fateful night of April 14, 1912 and the scandal that followed.

Elinor’s novels titillate readers, and it’s even asked in polite drawing rooms if you would like to “sin with Elinor Glyn?” Her work pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable; her foray into the glittering new world of Hollywood turns her into a world-wide phenomenon. But although she writes of passion, the true love she longs for eludes her.

But despite quarrels and misunderstandings, distance and destiny, there is no bond stronger than that of the two sisters—confidants, friends, rivals and the two “It Girls” of their day.

Review:

Beginning in 1875 and spanning several decades, The It Girls by Karen Harper is a fictionalized novel about real life sisters, Lucy (Lucile) & Elinor (Nellie) Sutherland.

Rising from humble beginnings, Lucy and Elinor’s professional lives took divergent paths, but their personal lives bear startling similarities. Both women are rather impetuous and neither of them make the best decisions regarding the men in their lives. Each of their marriages are somewhat disastrous and they both embark on somewhat scandalous love affairs. Lucy’s love of fashion results in a lucrative career as a designer while Elinor goes on to enjoy success as an author even though her books are rather risqué.  Lucy survives the sinking of the Titantic and later goes on to face a few legal challenges regarding her fashion designs.  In addition to her novels, Elinor pens a few screenplays and mingles with some the famous actors of the silent film era.

Despite the sisters’  fascinating accomplishments, The It Girls is rather slow moving and a little choppy since the novel covers several decades of their lives. The characterization of the women is a little superficial and despite their very different interests, they lack individuality on paper.  While the story is not without flaws, Karen Harper effectively brings attention to two successful women who were very much ahead their time.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical, Karen Harper, Rated C, Review, The It Girls, William Morrow Paperbacks

Review: Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

Title: Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak
Publisher: Berkley
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Length: 362 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:  

A warm, wry, sharply observed debut novel about what happens when a family is forced to spend a week together in quarantine over the holidays…

It’s Christmas, and for the first time in years the entire Birch family will be under one roof. Even Emma and Andrew’s elder daughter—who is usually off saving the world—will be joining them at Weyfield Hall, their aging country estate. But Olivia, a doctor, is only coming home because she has to. Having just returned from treating an epidemic abroad, she’s been told she must stay in quarantine for a week…and so too should her family.

For the next seven days, the Birches are locked down, cut off from the rest of humanity—and even decent Wi-Fi—and forced into each other’s orbits. Younger, unabashedly frivolous daughter Phoebe is fixated on her upcoming wedding, while Olivia deals with the culture shock of being immersed in first-world problems.

As Andrew sequesters himself in his study writing scathing restaurant reviews and remembering his glory days as a war correspondent, Emma hides a secret that will turn the whole family upside down.

In close proximity, not much can stay hidden for long, and as revelations and long-held tensions come to light, nothing is more shocking than the unexpected guest who’s about to arrive…

Review:

In Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak, a seven day quarantine means the dysfunctional Birch family are sequestered together during Christmas. With each of them keeping secrets, will this tense reunion prove to be a time of healing once the revelations begin to unfold?

Oldest daughter Olivia is a doctor who spends most of her time volunteering with humanitarian agencies during health epidemics in third world countries. With her latest rotation over, she is forced into quarantine to monitor for symptoms of the deadly Haag virus. She and fellow doctor, Sean Coughlan, ignored the strict no contact rule and for the first time in her life, she has fallen in love. Olivia has zero patience for her self-centered and frivolous younger sister, Phoebe, and her relationship with her parents,  Andrew and Emma, is also quite strained. Olivia is already struggling with her reintegration into regular life when her world is rocked by possibly devastating news.

Twenty-nine and still living at home, Phoebe is happy about her recent engagement despite her disappointment with some aspects of her fiancé George’s proposal.  Now completely wrapped up in planning her upcoming nuptials, she has no interest in anything negative intruding on her excitement.  Needless to say, Phoebe is not exactly the most sympathetic family member due to her self-absorption and unhappiness when she is not the center of everyone’s attention.

Matriarch Emma is determined to make the most of Olivia’s first Christmas with the family in years so she conceals some unexpected news about herself.  Relentlessly upbeat and positive, she refuses to let anything mar their time together and it is almost comical how she acknowledges bad news yet immediately pretends it has no effect on her or her family. When she learns some very troubling information about her husband, Emma becomes quite reflective about their marriage but will she confront Andrew about this discovery?

A former war correspondent who gave up his career for his family, Andrew is a restaurant critic whose distant past unexpectedly collides with his present. As he looks back on the early years of his courtship and marriage to Emma, he barely recognizes who they used to be. He delights in Phoebe’s sparkling personality and they are quite close but his relationship with Olivia has always been distant.  Turning his back on a stunning disclosure, how will Andrew react when is forced to deal with this life-altering bit of news head on?

Despite a rather slow beginning, Seven Days of Us is ultimately an engrossing family drama that is sure to resonate with readers who can relate to imperfect family relationships. The characters are quite eclectic and diverse with relatable flaws and strengths. The storyline is refreshingly unique and Francesca Hornak bring the novel to twist-filled emotional conclusion.

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Filed under Berkley, Contemporary, Fiction, Francesca Hornak, Rated B, Review, Seven Days of Us

Review: Start Without Me by Joshua Max Feldman

Title: Start Without Me by Joshua Max Feldman
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Length: 288 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss

Summary:

The author of the critically acclaimed The Book of Jonah explores questions of love and choice, disappointment and hope in the lives of two strangers who meet by chance in this mesmerizing tale that unfolds over one Thanksgiving Day.

Adam is a former musician and recovering alcoholic who is home for Thanksgiving for the first time in many years. Surrounded by his parents and siblings, nieces and nephews—all who have seen him at his worst—he can’t shake the feeling that no matter how hard he tries, he’ll always be the one who can’t get it right.

Marissa is a flight attendant whose marriage is strained by simmering tensions over race, class, and ambition. Heading to her in-laws for their picture-perfect holiday family dinner, her anxiety is intensified by the knowledge she is pregnant from an impulsive one-night-stand.

In an airport restaurant on Thanksgiving morning, Adam and Marissa meet. Over the course of this day fraught with emotion and expectation, these two strangers will form an unlikely bond as they reckon with their family ties, their pasts, and the choices that will determine their way forward.

Joshua Max Feldman focuses his knowing eye on one of the last bastions of classical American idealism, the Thanksgiving family gathering, as he explores our struggles to know—and to be—our best selves. Hilarious and heartrending, Start Without Me is a thoughtful and entertaining page-turner that will leave its indelible mark on your heart.

Review:

Start Without Me by Joshua Max Feldman is an interesting character study that will resonate with readers who have complicated family relationships.

Recovering alcoholic Adam Warshaw is spending the first Thanksgiving with his family in years and he has barely arrived before he runs away. Planning to fly back to San Francisco, he is passing time at a hotel restaurant where he meets flight attendant Marissa who is also not looking forward to spending the day with her husband, Robbie and his family.  After changing his mind about leaving town, he and Marissa are uneasy traveling partners when she agrees to drop Adam off at his parents’ on her way to her in-laws. Unlikely allies, they are often unable to find answers for their own problems  yet  Marissa and Adam offer one another some rather insightful advice about the troubles they are grappling with. As their time together is coming to an end, both Marissa and Adam are facing monumental decisions about their respective futures.

With each of them dealing with very different issues, Adam and Marissa are incredibly world weary.  Adam’s latest stint in rehab seems to have finally made a difference and although he is not exactly loving his life, he is committed to his sobriety. And yet, for all the progress he has made, Adam is rather daunted at the prospect of dealing with his family without the numbing effects of alcohol. Already overwhelmed, Adam runs when he makes the tiniest mistake.

Marissa is conflicted over the seemingly insurmountable reality of her unplanned pregnancy from her out of character one night stand. Her once happy marriage has been strained for quite some time and she is slowly realizing that she and Robbie see their future quite differently. She is also dreading spending the day with her in-laws who have always made her feel like an unwanted outsider. The events that transpire over Thanksgiving coupled with Robbie’s reaction to her news leave her very uncertain about what choice she will make about her marriage and her pregnancy.

Start Without Me is an engaging novel with well-developed characters who are dealing with realistic problems.  Despite his new self-awareness, Adam remains mired in negative thinking and a defeatist outlook. Marissa is clinging to her marriage in spite of the fact that she and Robbie are no longer on the same page.  Joshua Max Feldman brings this contemplative and thought-provoking journey of self-discovery to a satisfying conclusion.

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Filed under Contemporary, Fiction, Joshua Max Feldman, Rated B, Review, Start Without Me, William Morrow

Review: Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano

Title:Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Genre: Fiction
Length: 304 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss

Summary:

A raw, unflinching literary debut for fans of Dennis Lehane and Tom Franklin examining the aftershocks of survival, and the price of salvation. 

In the blue-collar town of Chittenango, New York, two young boys are abducted from a local festival and taken to a cabin in the woods. One is kept; one is killed. When they are next seen, ten-year-old Dean has escaped by swimming across Oneida Lake holding his brother’s dead body.

As the years pass, the people of Chittenango struggle to cope with the collateral damage of this unspeakable act of violence, reverberations that disrupt the community and echo far beyond. With nothing holding it together, Dean’s family disintegrates under the twin weights of guilt and grief, and the unspoken acknowledgment that the wrong child survived. At the center of it all, Dean himself must find a place in a future that never should have been his.

In a sweeping narrative spanning decades and told from alternating points of view, Where the Sun Shines Out tells the story of a town and the inevitable trauma we inflict upon each other when we’re trying our best. Exploring the bonds, and breakdowns, of families, Kevin Catalano’s fearless debut reminds us that although the path to redemption is pockmarked, twisted, and often hidden from view, somehow the sun makes it through.

Review:

Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano is a dark and gritty debut that is quite enthralling despite the utter heartbreak that follows the kidnapping of two young boys.

In 1992, ten year old Dean Fleming and his younger brother Jason are kidnapped while they are attending the town’s annual Oz Festival. Dean manages to survive the ordeal and in the years that follow, he remains wracked with guilt and caught in an increasingly downward spiral. Over the next 22 years, his life touches other residents of their small town and no one escapes unscathed.

Each of the chapters feature different characters and how their lives are affected in the aftermath of the tragedy. The first chapter is dedicated to the kidnapping and the traumatic outcome that virtually destroys the Fleming family. Dean is unable to tell authorities what they need to know to capture one of the kidnappers and in the years that follow, he bullies his only friend Brett Patrick.

The next chapters continually move forward in time and jump from character to character.and eventually circle back to Dean. Attempting to quash his pain, anger and confusion, he goes down a very dark path that leaves destruction and despair in his wake. Just as it appears that he has finally conquered his haunting past, Dean finally must face his demons but will this final showdown destroy him?

Where the Sun Shines Out is an emotionally compelling read that is impossible to put down. The characters are deeply flawed yet sympathetic. The storyline is full of angst with Dean and the residents whose lives intertwine with his with making choices that end with devastating consequences. Kevin Catalano brings this bleak novel of despair and dysfunction to a bit of a cliffhanger conclusion that will leave readers wondering what the future holds for Dean Fleming.

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Filed under Fiction, Kevin Catalano, Rated B, Review, Skyhorse Publishing, Where the Sun Shines Out