All posts by flos56

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

When we talk today about women’s rights we fail to remember that it wasn’t until 1920 that women were allowed to vote in the United States and it has only been in the last forty or so years that women could get their own credit cards or purchase property without a male consigner. Consider that the ERA has never been ratified into law and our country has been unsuccessful in voting a woman into office as President, but still wives have a lot more rights today than they did in the late 1940s and 1950s.

The role of women in 1947 is an underlying theme throughout The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve. Grace Holland is a dutiful wife whose life evolves around her husband Gene and her two young children. She doesn’t work or drive, relying on Gene to provide for the family. His will dominates their lives, but their amiable chatter in the evenings plus her friends in the community, especially her next door neighbor Rosie, are enough to keep Grace content with her lot in life. At twenty three she’s a little confused about their lackluster sex life, wondering why she must lie face down in an uncomfortable position, but the act is over quickly and her husband’s needs must be met (a part of her wifely duty). After an especially rough session, Grace is unsure if she should be grateful for his sudden indifference, but the less he touches her, the less he communicates. Then when one night, after he fails to “perform” despite her assuming the preferred position, Gene becomes taciturn and aloof, withdrawing any of the little bit of affection previously expressed.

When “The Fire” begins in their area, after a summer of drought, the community hopes it won’t come so close to the ocean, but despite their preparations, when the alarm is given they barely have time to escape. Rosie and Grace grab their children and head for the ocean, taking refuge in the water protecting the little ones under their bodies. Rosie is rescued first, but by the time help comes for Grace she is suffering from hypothermia. Kindhearted strangers provide assistance as Grave recuperates at the hospital. Her husband, out fighting the fire, does not return, so Grace finds herself relying on others until she can find a way to take up the mantle as provider. Deciding to move into her deceased mother-in-law’s vacant home (well almost vacant) and with the help of her mother, she restarts her life. The squatter, a brilliant pianist, stays for awhile to help out, and Grace discovers a new identity along with a true sense of contentment which was formerly missing in her life. Taking advantage of some of the conveniences of the large Victorian House, a home where she was never made to feel welcome, Grace finds a way to survive after losing everything. Of course, when things start to go wrong, she has some serious decisions to make, weighing a sense of duty against the loss of any semblance of her new found liberty.

The author creates a story based on a true disaster, an October fire which wiped out parts of Maine from Bar Harbor to Kittery. Grace’s tale also reflects the era prior to the bra burning days where women demanded equal rights. Gene reflects the attitude men had towards their wives who were considered more like domestic servants (with benefits) than spouses. Since Gene was a laudable provider who did not beat his wife and even helped out a bit around the house, he would have been considered a commendable husband (despite his lack of ardor in the bedroom). When I hear people lament about the good old days, meaning the 1950s, they often don’t realize it was a time of inequality, not just for minorities, but for women. (Or maybe they do!). I liked the fact that Grace was able to reinvent herself after that terrible experience. As a mother of four I empathized with her frantic actions and as a grandmother I rejoiced that her mother was right there for her, providing the support she needed. Almost a child herself, Grace certainly had a full plate.

Well written, fast paced, with just enough action to keep our interest, and a starring role for the crazy weather, I particularly enjoyed the culmination (even though I was secretly anticipating these very actions) with everybody getting exactly what they deserved.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Heartland by Ana Simo

Our heroine was living for ten years off a grant to write a book which she totally ignored until the last minute when she began the process only to experience an oddity where she lost the ability to write words – from adjectives to adverbs to vowels and finally to nouns – leaving her unable to proceed. When her backers demanded proof that this book actually existed, she spread the word that she’d fled the country, hiding in her apartment disguised as an Asian gentleman until she finally decided to escape to her childhood retreat. The turning point was running into Mercy McCabe, the woman who stole away her beloved Bebe, the love of her life. Despite the fact that McCabe, after ten years, had broken up with their mutual love interest, our heroine is determined to exact revenge, murder to be exact.

The first step is to convince McCabe to come with her to Judge Wilkerson’s house, a swanky estate at the top of Round Hill in an affluent neighborhood of Elmira which is not too far from the Capital. It is here that our heroine spent her youth as her mother was the housekeeper for the Judge and his wife. Revisiting this haven and establishing a routine of caring for the home, reminiscent of her deceased mother’s tasks, doesn’t deter her from her ultimate plans, even as she comes to care for her companion. Since McCabe is a wealthy SoHo art dealer, she is established as the “owner” of this “rental” property with our heroine the servant, along with the cook/maid, a fellow Latina, who is hired to care for them. Eventually our heroine wants to visit her childhood home in Shangri La, a Hispanic community on the outskirts of Elmira, which isn’t important enough to be included on the area map. She gets caught in a blizzard, seeking inadequate protection from the elements, waking up back on the hill with bandaged frostbitten legs and feet. Unable to walk, McCabe, whose appearance and personality have changed due to an apparent illness, tenderly cares for the invalid over a period of weeks – lovingly washing and bandaging her wounds, emptying her bed pan, and feeding her healthy broths to build up her strength. Our heroine begins to develop positive feelings towards her Protector, but just as she starts to feel better, McCabe disappears without a trace. Frantic to find details of Mercy’s whereabouts, she goes to town visiting the library, “pumping” Mrs Crandall, the librarian, for information (while carrying on a torrid affair in off hours). Despite her desperate attempts to lure McCabe back to the Judge’s house, she still has plans for her execution, setting up a funeral pyre in the old ice house in preparation for the big event. Who shows up when the doorbell rings on Christmas Day is a turning point where unexpected events unfold culminating in confusion and a less than satisfying ending to this saga.

Don’t worry, even though our heroine loses her ability to write, the author, Ana Simo, has pocketed all those verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and nouns and gone into overdrive as she writes Heartland. When I describe her writing style as verbose and even over the top, I am referring to the act of wading through an excess of verbiage to figure out the plot. To make things even more confusing is the intermix of a dystopia starting with The Great Hunger in 1984 where the world as we know it has experienced some sort of trauma which has destroyed a whole swath of areas, leaving behind what is left of the major cities. None of this, or anything else for that matter, is explained, so the reader must come to their own conclusions. The heroine’s homosexual obsession with her former love interests, both childhood and adult sweethearts, as well as the current well endowed librarian, seem to feed a mania which borders on insanity. Whether you want to read the ramblings of an unstable woman who rants crazy, racist expletives, depends on your stamina. Despite its relatively short length, this book is not a quick read and I’m not sure if there’s an audience for this psychopathic, violent tale of an imaginary version of our “heartland”. Not for the faint of heart.

Two stars and a thank you to Edelweiss, Restless Books, and the author for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang

1918 was a difficult time in United States history. There was a war going on – The Great War – and more men were needed for the fight. With each draft calling on younger and younger boys to “enlist”, even eighteen year olds were in danger of being called to duty. Then there was the highly contagious Spanish Influenza which was killing people faster than the war. It seemed the young were more susceptible to its deadliness than the elderly. Hospitals couldn’t keep up with the demand and wards were filled to capacity with not enough personnel to properly care for their patients. Medicine also left much to be desired as antibiotics, such as penicillin, would not be discovered until 1928, readily available in 1942. Yet science wasn’t totally ignorant. Autopsies were useful in diagnosing cause of death with forensic science an up and coming field. All this and more is explored in A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang.

Allene Cutter, while celebrating her engagement to Andrew Smythe Biddle with a houseful of guests, is disconcerted when socialite Florence Waxworth collapses, falls down the stairs hitting her head and ends up in a literal “dead” heap. While everyone thinks it’s an accident caused by too much alcohol, Allene and her friends suspect arsenic as the cause. The distinctive smell of burnt almonds tips them off, especially since Jasper’s own parents committed suicide using that same substance. Jasper Jones works as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital and wants to check out the deceased “friend” to test their hypothesis. Through a convoluted series of events, the medical-wanna-be ends up an assistant to Forensics Chemist, Dr Gettler, in the hospital’s morgue. Unfortunately, since the police have determined Florence’s death accidental, he must secretly perform his own autopsy to confirm his suspicions.

Allene, from society’s upper crust, secretly has feelings for her former friend Jasper as well as for her childhood companion Birdie Dreyer, even though they have lost touch these last four years. Now that marriage looms, Allene wants to reconnect while she still can be somewhat independent. Her old friends aren’t sure they want to resume relations after being previously cut out of her life, yet their previous closeness is easily restored as they try to discover who is sending the little notes discovered near each of the increasing number of victims – all people who are known to them. Together they are determined to solve the mystery and stop the madness.

Each has their own obstacles to overcome. Birdie, despite her general feeling of malaise, maintains her focus on her younger sister Holly. Allene must deal with her upcoming marriage to Andrew who expresses his expectations for her behaviors which do not include the chemistry experiments she adores. He won’t even allow her to carry an electric lighter in her pocket, as this device is inappropriate for women. Jasper strives to make enough money to support himself and his sickly, alcoholic uncle plus save a little for medical school tuition.

There are several potential perpetrators of the crimes, but there are also a lot of misdirections, until the shocking truth is finally revealed. In between, the three eighteen year olds deal with their lot in life, often aggravated by the adults who don’t seem to understand (or care about) their needs and desires. The restrictions on females during the early 1900’s, before women were even allowed to vote, becomes a secondary focus as Allene and Birdie push the limits of their gender, determined to come up with solutions. While not everyone gets a happily ever after, the conclusion resolves most of the issues, with the bad guys getting their just desserts.

Each of the characters is selfishly wrapped up in themselves which make them less than likable, although they did, on occasion, have their honorable moments. The one nice guy, Ernie Fielding, was despised by everyone. There was also too much going on in the plot and while historically accurate, the various secondary crisis were overplayed when combined with the murders. I would have liked a simpler, cleaner plot without so many side issues.

Lydia Kang, a medical doctor, also coauthored Quackery, a book I recently read, with details about the radiation poisoning mentioned in this book. The use of radium in Clock Factories during this time period is also the subject of The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (another nonfiction book I am currently reading). The reviews for these books can be found on this blog, Gotta Read.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Lake Union Publishing for providing this ARC In exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

As an aside, at one point in this book Allene goes to a location at Flatbush and Church in Brooklyn. When I was a child I lived around the corner from that very spot. I can picture the Dutch Reformed Church complete with a small graveyard on one corner, Garfields -a restaurant where my grandfather often ate his meals on another, and a drug store with a decent selection of paperbacks on the third, plus not far down Church, the RKO Kenmore movie theater where I saw musicals such as Gypsy, My Fair Lady, and The Music Man. I didn’t even need to cross a street as I lived right on that longish block. If I had stayed in that neighborhood I would have attended Erasmus High School (where my parents went to vote) and perhaps gone to Brooklyn College (my father’s alma mater). A shout out to grads from PS 249. Just a little walk down memory lane.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

What would you do if you were visiting the neighbors next door while your 6 month old daughter slept in her crib and returned home to find her gone? Kidnapped! That horrible scenario is the premise of the novel, The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena.The police are called but their investigation yields very little and not even the couples plea for help through the press or the offer of a lucrative reward (provided by some wealthy grandparents) turns up enough insight to provide a substantial lead in the case. As Detective Rasbach conducts multiple interviews with the parents, Anne and Marco Contis, he starts to believe it’s an inside job involving either one or both of them despite their united front and obvious frantic distress. He even suspects the child, Cora, is dead.

Despite the lack of pertinent information, things begin to happen, secrets are revealed, marriages become stressful, and friendships are torn apart. Anne can’t help but despise her once close friend, Cynthia Stillwell, who didn’t want little Cora mucking up her dinner party, forcing them to leave their child home alone when the babysitter canceled at the last minute. On top of that, she’s angry about the drunken hanky lanky on the porch, probably at the very moment her child was being kidnapped. How could her husband respond to their neighbor’s flirtation? With everything going wrong, she suspects the worst.

It’s up to Detective Rasbach to unravel the case, discover the real criminal(s), and hopefully recover a living babe and not a corpse. Numerous twists and turns keep the reader guessing until the final few chapters.

While this book had potential and did deliver on the suspense, there were a few flaws which took away from my enjoyment. Number one was the simplistic narrative and the use of present tense which at times made for awkward reading. Then there was the repetition, a constant “let me gather up the facts” – listing them over and over as if the readers are idiots who can’t keep a thought in their head. However it is a quick read and there are enough clues that the climax is more of an “Oh yes, I see” and not a “Huh?” plus the ultimate conclusion has a sense of poetic justice. Still, the writing itself held the book back and there were a couple of loose ends which didn’t make sense.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. I also received a “hard” copy from Goodreads.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

When I first heard of the concept of the Red Tent I was appalled – “What? They send the women into isolation every time they get their period?” – but as I read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant I realized that the red tent was a refuge, even a sanctuary, that women sought out in times of personal crisis. It was a place to go in sickness or for childbirth or even in times of anger or discontent. In essence, I feel all women need a sort of red tent to escape the trials of life, most often caused by clumsy male interference in matters which don’t concern them. And if their troubles aren’t directly related to a man’s actions, it might be the result of a competition to attain that gender’s attention. Sort of the “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” syndrome. How lucky these biblical women could find a brief respite in a socially acceptable manner.

What I like about this book is the emphasis on the female characters. The story of Joseph and the multicolored coat was one of my favorites as a child and, of course, I’ve heard of the Biblical tale of Jacob and Esau. Even the names Rachel and Leah are well known to me, but this book pulls all the elements together into a more comprehensive whole, providing an explanation of events via the back story involving the influence and actions of the behind the scenes women. Their lives are fascinating especially in the context of their existence as depicted in the Old Testament.

Part 1 deals with the back story and Part 2 begins with Dinah’s happy memories as a child in her father Jacob’s camp, the only daughter among eleven sons (little brother Benjamin not being born yet). We go along for the ride when Jacob decides to return to his homeland and reunite with his parents and brother Esau after years of exile for his disreputable actions against his elder brother.

While there are various conflicts throughout the first half of the book, they give the story some bite without actually causing a wound. Then events happen which reminds the reader that this is, after all, a story from the Bible, which highlights some of the worst behaviors of mankind.

Dinah falls in love and “marries” but her family (meaning some of the men) don’t like the match (it isn’t economically adventitious) and slaughters all the townsmen including the unlucky groom and father-in-law. Dinah disappears, all Jacob’s wives meet tragic ends, and the entire family must flee with their reputation in shatters.

Part 3 continues with the pregnant Dinah’s escape thanks to her mother-in-law who has designs on her grandson. Living quietly in the Egyptian Palace as a “guest” of sorts, eventually she finds it necessary to set off on her own, for the first time having some control over her life. As an accomplished, sought after midwife she finds her niche and a sense of contentment despite her forced estrangement from her beloved son, but a series of events (one involving her brother Joseph) complicates her life leading to choices which threaten her happiness. However, survival is Dinah’s middle name and she handles herself with aplomb in the midst of adversity.

Well written and fascinating in its fictional approach to the story of Jacob’s family, this “midrash” is a must read for anyone who enjoys the adventures found in the Old Testament. Warning: those who take the Bible literally will be appalled at the liberties Diamant takes in recreating/reinventing this story. Four and a half stars. This review also appears on Goodreads.

Third Son’s a Charm (The Survivors, Book 1) by Shana Galen

Ewan Mostyn, the third son of the Earl of Pembroke, fought for the British in the Napoleonic Wars. His company, composed of other non-heirs, started out with thirty but only twelve survived the suicidal missions, now known as Dravens Dozen. Mostyn, referred to as The Protector, split his time as a bouncer at Langley’s Gaming Hell and hanging out at Draven’s Club with his wartime comrades. His reputation as a tough, no nonsense guy attracted the attention of the Duke of Ridlington who had need of Ewan’s services. The Duke’s daughter, Lady Lorraine Caldwell, had convinced herself she was in love and in her willful, head strong manner, had attempted to elope. Luckily her love interest refused the honor if it meant his “beloved” would be cut off without funds.

Moysten had no interest in being bodyguard to a spoiled heiress until he discovered her beau was none other than his despised cousin Francis. Francis, a favorite of his father, had been the bane of Ewan’s existence since his mother’s untimely death. Francis used his uncle’s favor to get away with hurtful bullying which always seemed to result in a punishment for Moysten instead of the perpetrator. The Earl’s disdain for his youngest son stemmed from his inability to read (most likely due to dyslexia) and his failure at schooling. Ewan’s stuttering and insecurities contrasted with the slick manner of Francis whose good looks and charm were assets his cousin lacked. The Protector knew that Francis was more attracted to Lorrie’s dowry than he was to her beauty and it would be his pleasure to thwart his nemesis plans.

Lorrie’s long winded babbling was in sharp contrast to the quiet reticent Mostyn who took his bodyguard duties seriously. Despite her youthful ways, Lady Lorraine had a kind heart and was simply looking for an outlet for her passionate nature. Opposites attract and soon Mostyn found it difficult to resist giving his “client” a taste of what she’d be missing if she ran off with Francis. While just a kiss, he was appalled for overstepping societal boundaries and attempted to keep his distance while still fulfilling his duties, but the young debutante was having none of it and the two found themselves in close proximity as they each helped the other work through their personal issues. An additional subplot involved the Duke rekindling a romance with his still lovely wife after years of growing apart.

While Third Son’s a Charm by Shana Galen had a lot of potential, it was just a bit too long for the content. The crush on Francis continued way past her inamorata with Ewan and the plot climax came a little too late to save the day. Galen does, however, know how to write a passionate sexual interlude which will keep the readers hot and bothered. I especially liked the repartee between the secondary characters who will be the subject of other Regency Romances in The Survivors series. Hopefully the plot line of these future books won’t drag in the middle like this one. Three stars.

A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe by Melissa de la Cruz

Austen fans, if you are looking for a modernized retelling of Pride and Prejudice, be forewarned, Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe by Melissa de la Cruz is not the book for you. The author would have been better off forsaking the classic and simply developing her own story without a nod to Elizabeth and Darcy.

A novel set in the contemporary Northeastern part of the United States, the book is full of cultural references to televisions, movies, and music which will be familiar to the average reader. Our main character Darcy Fitzwilliam is visiting her home in Pemberley, Ohio after an eight year hiatus as she built an empire as a business mogul (hedge funds) in New York City. Avoiding her disapproving dad who threatened to cut her off when she refused to marry the local boy from a good family, the 29 year old set out to prove herself. However, she was not too proud to come running home after her mother suffered a heart attack.

With Christmas just days away Darcy was forced to attend the family holiday party filled with acquaintances she’d just as soon never see again. Yet her best friend Bingley Charles shows up and when she introduces him to one of the Bennett boys (Jim), the two hit it off and a romance is in the happening. After drinking one too many of her mom’s potent eggnogs, Darcy is heading back upstairs when she runs into Luke Bennett, her high school debate team adversary. Caught under the mistletoe they exchange a kiss which turns passionate, causing both their hearts to skip a beat. Taken aback they blame it in the booze, remembering their background as enemies. Still, Darcy keeps wondering “what if” even as she resumes a relationship with Carl Donovan, her on again, off again boyfriend from high school days, who is ready to make a commitment. Luke is also dating and girlfriend Charlotte Collins is more than willing to wear his ring. Miscommunications and missteps occur along the way with hurt feelings which must be smoothed out and explained before a happily ever after ending.

A simple narrative without a lot of action and barely tolerable dialogue, even the Christmas setting can’t save this one. It was difficult to be sympathetic towards the main characters and Darcy was a real piece of work. I can’t help but wonder if Cruz ever read the original, perhaps relying on a graphic novel version for her plot points. The best thing I can say about this book is that it is short. Two stars.

A thank you to Netgalley and St Martins Press for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Gotta Read.