Sunday, September 14, 2014

Penny: Women and War by Ellie Keaton

Penny: Women and War.  Ellie Keaton. Amazon Digital. E-Book. August 2014. 276 pp.  ASIN#: B00N47L8ZC.

Penelope (or Penny as she is called herein) is a French woman who has lost both of her parents due to the cruelty of Alain, the man who controls most of the small French town where Penny lived for most of her life.  It is a neighborly and elderly woman whose kindness to Penny builds up her strength to travel to England and meet the relatives she’s never known in the past.  As Penny has been raised as a farmer’s daughter and is totally unused to the world of aristocracy, she is hard-put to conform to the expectations of her rich Aunt and cousin. However, her grandmother, Meme, is determined to build up Penny with love in the present, disregarding the past in which so much harm was done to so many people in this family. None of this warm and hostile treatment deters Penny from her decision to do what she can for the war effort and to exact revenge on the man responsible for the death of her parents!

This is the story of Penny’s training and activities as a member of the French Resistance during WWII.  She is hired by England because she passes all of the tests, speaks fluent French and passes with great skill the training for her work as a British spy.  During her training she’s attracted to someone she thinks is enlisted as a Royal Air Force member.  Is this real love or just an initial infatuation?  That picture will change during her time in France when she is even more attracted to a fellow spy, Victor.  While in that service, she observes the brutal attacks of German soldiers, the arresting and torture of innocent French men, women and children by Germans and the fact that she can and does kill when the need arises. Penny is challenged further when she is arrested and tortured as a spy.

However, the war story needs to be told.  Penny is a survivor but the obstacles she faces test every mental, physical and emotional ability she possesses.  Even more distressing is the fact that many of her people are traitors in order to survive.  That makes it no less evil to Penny who does what she has to do.  She also learns that she may have to make a choice about her dream for revenge, one that may hurt her more than the one who she hates more than anyone in the entire world.

Penny: Women and War is a great read and shows a maturity in Ellie Keaton’s writing skills as she has crafted a more complex plot than in her previous novel in this series.  Finely written, Ms. Keaton and highly recommended!

Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America by Donald L Miller

Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America .  Donald L. Miller. Simon and Schuster.  May 2014. 784 pp.  ISBN#: 9781476745640.

New York City’s fame lies in its dynamic people, places and events that have earned it the fame and fascination of the world.  Donald Miller’s tome, however, concentrates on the evolution of that immense growth since the time just preceding the Jazz Age to the present.  Great stories involve vibrant people who usually have a multifaceted presence that most people find intriguing and perhaps praiseworthy or even notorious. 

Our story opens with a long complex, multilayered presentation of New York City’s Mayor Jimmy Walker.  A man who secretly longed to be in the exciting world of acting in New York City’s theater, circumstances led him instead into governance.  He was a man who pushed the development of huge projects, particularly the city’s railroad system and real estate development, while often neglecting to realize that his attention to financial overspending was lacking.  At the same time his personal life was the fodder of tabloids with partying and an extramarital affair.  The world either loved or hated Jimmy Walker; but either way, he remains an outstanding figure in New York City’s history.

The rise and fall of Tammany Hall, the political system that controlled elections and their aftermath in every single segment of NY business, government and society, is a fascinating read.  It was not only focused on local politics but also had an immense influence on national elections.  What began as a group of powerful players that offered protection, jobs, health care, education and so much more to the little-known citizen became a huge organization that bred inescapable corruption.  

The remainder of the text explores diverse areas of New York City’s fame: its highbrow growth in real estate and fashion along Fifth Avenue and other memorable places within the city, its skyscraper and architectural development, its fragrance and beauty industries through the genius of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden respectively, its phenomenal talented and unique music industry beginning with the famed Jazz music evolving from downtown Harlem, its stupendous creation of mammoth transportation entities such as Grand Central Station terminal and the Holland Tunnel, and so much more.  

Supreme City is a fascinating read as Donald Miller has infused each segment with personal interest and factually accurate facts that makes this a highly readable and intriguing study.  He has obviously intensely researched his subject and yet never allows it to become dry or boring. This is a text to not only slowly relish but to keep on one’s coffee table, not as a dust-gathering knickknack but as a book that will draw further interest and reading from all who stop to momentarily and briefly pursue any one of its page – it’s that great and wonderful a book and definitely a classic study of New York City!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic: A Novel by Emily Croy Barker

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic: A Novel.  Emily Croy Barker. Viking: Penguin Group (USA). July 2014. 576 pp.  ISBN#: 9780143125679.

Nora Fischer has just been dropped by her boyfriend and her Supervisor has informed her that her slowness with her dissertation writing is proving to be a problem that might mean she’ll be out of the program.  All in all, she’s in a bad place, unable to be inspired to do the requisite research and writing and in a surrealistic way unable to accept that her former lover has dumped her.  So she decides she needs a break and sets off to a friend’s wedding.  One day she decides to take a walk, one that will change her life forever!

For Nora has literally walked into another world, time and place!  Ilyssa becomes Nora’s mentor, guiding her with gifts of dress, makeup, and introductions to the “partying” crowd who share love and fun indiscriminately.  In time Nora can hardly believe she was the troubled woman of before as now she sees herself in an entirely new way – beautiful, smart, and loving life!  Ilyssa’s son Raclin is an artful, teasing and seductive lover with whom Nora becomes obsessed!  It all seems too good to be true and so it is – after their wedding, Nora begins to realize that something is dreadfully wrong.  Raclin has no time for her and disappears for days, eventually telling her that now she is pregnant, he will have very little time for her.  Now Nora begins to realize something is dreadfully wrong and that these people are far from human and are her sinister imprisoners.  One ray of hope appears in the magician Aruendiel who will rescue Nora, albeit reluctantly!

Nora longs to return to her own life but must learn the magic she abhors in order to go home. This portion tends to slow down and drag a bit but she will learn what she needs to, to a certain degree.  The relationship between Aruendiel and Nora seems to be of growing attraction the never really evolves to reality for some unspoken reason.  However, the last portion of the story picks up the pace with a few unexpected and stunning turn of events, leading this reviewer to believe there will definitely be a follow-up to his intriguing novel.

There are allusions to Pride and Prejudice, Game of Thrones, Alice in Wonderland and a few other vaguely veiled connections.  I’m not sure these work so well but they perhaps increase the tension-filled plot.  The origins and purpose of the enemy are slowly and even lately provided, which is interesting to a point but then inches into frustration.  Standard formulaic fare or a new addition to the Harkness, Potter, Martin-style fiction – you the reader must decide!

Interesting, Ms. Baker!

The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

The Mathematician’s Shiva. Stuart Rojstaczer. Penguin Group (USA). September 2014. 384 pp.  ISBN#: 9780143126317.

Alexander "Sasha" Karnokovitch’s mother is dying and he would like to protect her final days and the aftermath of her death with a small family’s presence and quiet dignity.  But Rachela is one of the most famous mathematicians in the world and it is believed she secretly had solved the most difficult mathematical problem in the world, the Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem.  They fear she will take it to her grave and therefore plan on being there to find it either before she is laid to rest or before the family takes control of her material legacy.  Sasha is just as determined to keep order and not let these crazy people create chaos and dissension in the days ahead.
Sasha is mourning, both before and after his mother’s death, a great woman.  He knows perhaps she wasn’t the warmest mother to him but she was definitely a “brilliant” mother, a woman who always used reason and common sense in her advice to him.  She spends the few months before she dies trying to do years’ work as she wanted to leave nothing unfinished. Such determination and fortitude marks her mothering of Sasha, who has also become a renowned geophysicist.  Reason and common sense borne of suffering are the hallmarks of Rachela’s parenting.

We learn from her own words the suffering she and her family endured as a Polish Jewish Russian in WWII. It was a time when individuals abandoned family members in order to survive.  Later on, the fact that she was a woman in the world of mathematics totally dominated by men led to this same survival instinct rearing its head; victory was the reward but a victory borne out of incredibly hard work coupled with obsession and highly creative thinking.

Interspersed between the meetings of family and friends are Rachela’s own words about her own moving, dynamic life. It includes her meeting with the man who was to be the mentor behind her career, a man whose genius has remained unsurpassed except perhaps by Rachela.  Years later, the mathematicians who gather to sit Shiva are a crazy lot who converse in a slapstick comic style.  Their time together, monitored and limited by Sasha’s rules, is a mixture of sadness, speculation, careful and not so careful questions, and just plain schmoozing back and forth. It has smatterings of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Woody Allen humor and dialogue. For Sasha, it’s endearing and crazy-making in this world of geniuses with whom his mother had worked, lived and loved. It’s a truly abnormally normal family Shiva, a delight!

Stuart Rojstaczer has written a very clever novel about the past and present as well as the allowing us to share the minds and hearts of those who foster and share sheer genius!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Wishing Tide by Barbara Davis

The Wishing Tide.  Barbara Davis. Penguin Group (USA). September 2014. 416 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451418784.

Lane Kramer escaped from a devastatingly bad marriage, loss of a child, and the manipulations of her family!  Her wounds are deep but her strength formidable as she finally settles in Starry Point, North Carolina where she starts afresh by renovating and running a bed and breakfast inn on the beach.  It’s a quaint home resembling a castle more than a home and yet Lane has made into a cozy, welcoming home that appeals to every visitor.  It’s now the end of the season and Lane’s anticipating time to write the light articles as a free lance writer that keeps her financially secure.  She once was a writer but that, as far as she’s concerned, was just another failure.  Little does she know the cycle of adventure and chilling mystery about to infiltrate every aspect of her life!

On the evening before the storm hits, a young, handsome man, Michael Forrester, knocks on Lane’s door and literally begs her for shelter.  She ambivalently agrees and he soon becomes a fixture planning to remain through the winter.  He’s also a writer, but a scholarly, academic writer researching the life of Charles Dickens. Shockingly, the reader finds he knows intimate details about her home and the haunted home across the street, a secret only revealed to the reader and not to Lane, at least not for quite a while. How can a relationship develop with so much chaos and pain lurking with no apparent resolution?

Add to the mix that Lane meets a scary woman, Mary, who appears as a bag lady and who gradually shares her story, at times sounding rational and at other times exhibiting frightening and bizarre behavior.  While Michael tries to warn Lane about the dangers Mary poses, Lane’s compassion and curiosity propel her to discover a story that is phenomenally Gothic and terrible, involving more people on this quiet island than the reader could originally imagine.

To say more would spoil a magnificent thriller of a tale, one that is sure to please every reader who loves a dark, Gothic tale with more twists and turns than anyone could predict.  The evolution of Mary’s story is carefully plotted at just the right pace, a story that will bring healing and wholeness to many but not until much suffering and forgiveness has been broached.

The Wishing Tide is a fine mystery and romance story that this reviewer recommends for great reading any time of year!  Finely crafted, Barbara Davis – oh, and this would also make a phenomenal movie!

House of Wonder by Sarah Healy

House of Wonder.  Sarah Healy. Penguin Group (USA). September 2014. 352 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451239877.

Jenna and Warren grew up as twins in a small New Jersey town throughout the 1950s and thereafter.  Their mother was a famous beauty queen who was primed for fame but neglected and abused in every other way.  Jenna was born without trouble but Warren had to be delivered half an hour later by C-section.  Warren has an obvious mental disability but is sweet, loving, smart and extremely sensitive to those whom he trusts.  He and Jenna have an obviously close relationship; all they have to do is pull on an earlobe when in distress and the other will come to help immediately!

Jenna is grown now and has a daughter of her own, Rose.  She is drawn back to her hometown when her mother starts exhibiting strange behavior arising from shopaholic tendencies.  One senses something else is wrong with Priscilla but as with Warren the disorder is never named and that’s a good thing as the reader is drawn to learn more about them rather than stereotypically labeling them and fitting future behaviors to that label.  We also are able to discern the positive aspects of their personality that we might miss otherwise!

This is the story of Jenna returning to help her mother and Warren, who is beat up severely and accused of the random, frequent robberies in the neighborhood.  Add to that that Rose’s absent Dad has now returned and wants to be a father, although his new wife makes everything more than difficult.  The bright life in Jenna’s world is an old high school friend Bobby who is preparing to be a doctor and his daughter Gabby.  Both of their children have a prescient feeling about their relationship which makes it all the more endearing as their relationship grows into something lovely!

Many secrets are gradually revealed throughout this novel that hurt but hurt less than the lack of ability to explain the way things have evolved with Priscilla and her family and her husband.  There’s something wonderfully unique about this story that manages even in the worst of scenes to maintain a respect and love for each other that supersedes all else.  Love isn’t easy but it is healing when one sticks around long enough to observe, reflect and act rather than react.  Love is precious in this highly recommended novel about family, dysfunction, mystery and growth!

The Garden of Letters: A Novel by Alyson Richman

The Garden of Letters: A Novel.  Alyson Richman. Penguin Group (USA). September 2014. 384 pp.  ISBN#: 9780425266250.

Elodie is a cello prodigy living in Verona, Italy during WWII.  Her childhood is free of worry and stress as she is concerned only with music. She has a photographic memory and so remembers every score after she has played it only one time.  Add to that the heightened sensitivity she exhibits as she melds into her cello and infuses emotion into every piece she plays, no matter how different or complex! She’s a wonder and her parents appreciate and nurture her very special gift, so wonderfully told that the reader can feel the music and ambiance it creates through each description!

One day her father, a music instructor, arrives home after being brutally beat up by some German thug soldiers.  He never really recovers but that event changes everything for Elodie and her mother.  Elodie changes her name to Anna as she evolves into a trusted and respected member of the Resistance movement working to thwart the coming invasion by Germans.  Her service is heightened by the tender but passionate love affair that develops between Anna and the bookseller/Resistance leader, Luca.

In between these scenes is another story of a love memorialized in an exquisite arrangement of love letters from Angelo serving in the war and Dalia.  It’s a “Love Story” of beauty and heart-rending sadness that lives on forever.

After much suffering and loss, Anna is taken home by Angelo with only the purest of intentions.  For those who have lost much know that they have much to give to fellow travelers of devastation.  This leads to a new story that is heightened by Anna’s fierce loyalty and dangerous field activities that have led her to this quiet, healing place in Portofino, Italy! 

The Garden of Letters is lyrical, poetic, literate historical fiction of the highest order!  Alyson Richman is one hugely talented writer whose writing displays the beauty and sensitivity she has infused into her characters, without sacrificing the starkness and terror of WWII along with the nobility and courage of Resistance fighters.  Gorgeous, extraordinary historical fiction this reviewer insists is must reading!