Category Archives: Fiction

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

Review: The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain

Title: The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Historical (40s), Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

Steeped in history and filled with heart-wrenching twists, The Stolen Marriage is an emotionally captivating novel of secrets, betrayals, prejudice, and forgiveness. It showcases Diane Chamberlain at the top of her talent.

One mistake, one fateful night, and Tess DeMello’s life is changed forever.

It is 1944. Pregnant, alone, and riddled with guilt, twenty-three-year-old Tess DeMello abruptly gives up her budding career as a nurse and ends her engagement to the love of her life, unable to live a lie. Instead, she turns to the baby’s father for help and agrees to marry him, moving to the small, rural town of Hickory, North Carolina. Tess’s new husband, Henry Kraft, is a secretive man who often stays out all night, hides money from his new wife, and shows her no affection. Tess quickly realizes she’s trapped in a strange and loveless marriage with no way out.

The people of Hickory love and respect Henry but see Tess as an outsider, treating her with suspicion and disdain. When one of the town’s golden girls dies in a terrible accident, everyone holds Tess responsible. But Henry keeps his secrets even closer now, though it seems that everyone knows something about him that Tess does not.

When a sudden polio epidemic strikes Hickory, the townspeople band together to build a polio hospital. Tess knows she is needed and defies Henry’s wishes to begin working at there. Through this work, she begins to find purpose and meaning. Yet at home, Henry’s actions grow more alarming by the day. As Tess works to save the lives of her patients, can she untangle the truth behind her husband’s mysterious behavior and find the love—and the life—she was meant to have?

Review:

The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain is a well-researched, historically accurate novel set during the mid 1940s in North Carolina.

Twenty-three year old Tess DeMello is happily engaged to next door neighbor Dr. Vincent Russo. Looking forward to her upcoming wedding and completing her nursing studies, she is disappointed yet understanding when Vincent goes to Chicago to help out during a serious polio outbreak. When his return date continues to get pushed back, she and her best friend take a trip to Washington, DC that forever alters Tess’s life and eventually leads to a loveless marriage to furniture maker Henry Kraft.

Tess is a strong, confident young woman who has a close relationship with her mother and Vincent’s family. Her one misstep has far reaching implications and she loses everything dear to her the aftermath. Not expecting Henry to offer marriage, she nonetheless accepts his proposal and relocates to his hometown of Hickory.  Needless to say, neither her mother-in-law Ruth nor her sister-in-law Lucy welcomes her into the family and Tess grows incredibly lonely in her new circumstances. She is also puzzled by Henry’s lack of interest in their marriage and although she would like to confront him, Tess is fearful of upsetting their fragile bond. Tess remains hopeful things will improve over the coming months and despite her reluctance to go against her husband’s wishes, she nonetheless holds firm when it comes to attaining her RN license.

Tess is definitely a fish out of water in her new home. She is expected to conform to Ruth’s wishes and she gradually loses her sense of self under the weight of these expectations. Dealt a crushing blow in the aftermath of tragic losses, Tess unexpectedly finds the opportunity to fulfill her prior dreams when the town comes together and builds a hospital for polio patients.  When her past crashes headlong into the present, Tess realizes the enormity of everything she has lost, but will she find a way to escape her increasingly unhappy life?

The Stolen Marriage is an enthralling historical novel with a rich cast of vibrantly developed and life-like characters. Tess is an extremely sympathetic and appealing protagonist who is a victim of not only her impetuous decisions but the strictures of time period. The small town of Hickory is realistically depicted but it takes the townspeople’s generosity in the face of adversity for Tess to realize she has misjudged most of its residents.  Diane Chamberlain’s meticulous research of Hickory’s past highlights a remarkable but little known piece of important history. An incredibly captivating and thought-provoking novel that provides an insightful glimpse of turbulent race relations, haunting polio epidemics and limited choices women endured during the mid 1940s in America.

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Filed under Diane Chamberlain, Fiction, Historical, Historical (40s), Rated B+, Review, St Martin's Press, The Stolen Marriage

Review: Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

Title: Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Historical, Fiction
Length: 321 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

For twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World’s Fair feels like a gift. But only once he’s there, amid the exotic exhibits, fireworks, and Ferris wheels, does he discover that he is the one who is actually the prize. The half-Chinese orphan is astounded to learn he will be raffled off—a healthy boy “to a good home.”

The winning ticket belongs to the flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel, famous for educating her girls. There, Ernest becomes the new houseboy and befriends Maisie, the madam’s precocious daughter, and a bold scullery maid named Fahn. Their friendship and affection form the first real family Ernest has ever known—and against all odds, this new sporting life gives him the sense of home he’s always desired.

But as the grande dame succumbs to an occupational hazard and their world of finery begins to crumble, all three must grapple with hope, ambition, and first love.

Fifty years later, in the shadow of Seattle’s second World’s Fair, Ernest struggles to help his ailing wife reconcile who she once was with who she wanted to be, while trying to keep family secrets hidden from their grown-up daughters.

Against a rich backdrop of post-Victorian vice, suffrage, and celebration, Love and Other Consolations is an enchanting tale about innocence and devotion—in a world where everything, and everyone, is for sale.

Review:

Based on a real life event and weaving back and forth in time, Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford is a bittersweet novel about a mixed race Chinese orphan who is raffled off during the 1909 World’s Fair.

The 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle proves to be quite illuminating to Ernest Young’s family. Much of Ernest and his wife’s Gracie’s history is unknown to their daughters, investigative reporter Judy and Las Vegas showgirl Hannah.  At the age of five, young Ernest’s mother arranges for her son to travel to America where she hopes he will find a better future. Upon his arrival in Washington, he becomes a ward of the state and later comes to the attention of a wealthy benefactress who pays for him to attend a private boarding school. Unlike the wealthy children in attendance, Ernest and the other orphans experience racism and discrimination and  when his answer to a question displeases his benefactress, she  arranges to offer him as a prize for a raffle at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific World Exposition. The holder of the winning ticket is Madame Flora, the proprietress of a notorious yet popular high class brothel. Life at The Tenderloin is a surprisingly positive experience for young Ernest and he quickly befriends Flora’s daughter Maisie and scullery maid, Fahn. Ernest’s feelings for both girls run deeper than friendship but there is not much room for love in a brothel. When Madame Flora’s health begins to deteriorate, what will the future hold for Ernest, Fahn, Maisie and the rest of the staff at the brothel?

In 1962, Ernest is facing the harsh reality of Grace’s dementia and he is willing to make any sacrifice  to protect her.  With memories of the past already stirred up as Seattle prepares for the upcoming Century 21 Exposition, he is concerned when Judy begins an investigation into the orphan raffle in 1909 for an upcoming newspaper article. Fearing the effect the truth about his and Gracie’s history will have on their friends and daughters, Ernest tries to keep the secrets he and his wife have closely guarded for half a century. When Gracie becomes more cognizant of events occurring in the present, will she inadvertently reveal their hidden pasts?

In Love and Other Consolation Prizes,  Jamie Ford presents a very poignant and realistic depiction of the hardships and prejudice that immigrants endured after arriving in the United States.  Rich with historic elements, this incredible novel has a fascinating storyline that is heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting.  A moving novel which keeps readers waiting with breathless anticipation to learn the identity of the young woman who finally wins Ernest’s heart.

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Filed under Ballantine Books, Fiction, Historical, Jamie Ford, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, Rated B, Review