Friday, August 1, 2014

American Blonde: A Novel by Jennifer Niven

American Blonde: A Novel. Jennifer Niven. Plume Books. July 2014. 416 pp.  ISBN#: 9780452298210.

Velva Jean Hart returns to America as a WASP war heroine, having rescued her own brother from the enemy and having endured that same enemy’s brutal treatment.  But now all is glory and as the world celebrates the end of the war, she and her brother are caught up in the newsreels, making her famously beloved in the eyes of America! 

Her return home is brief as she receives a phenomenal offer of an actress job with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films.  There it seems like a fairy tale as she is trained in acting, voice, etc and remade in the image of “Kit Rogers.”  She is about to be casted as Betsy Ross in a war picture that the company hopes will become famous as well as a box favorite in sales.  Meanwhile, while this whirlwind of a change begins to develop, Velva Jean gets to know her fellow actors, actresses, directors, stage hands, a novelist and script writer, as well as a former boyfriend and her brother who has begun what seems to be a successful singing career. 

Velva Jean’s best friend, also a former WASP, is Mudge, also a hugely popular actress who has several secret lovers and seems to love the booze a bit too much.  However, she is a loyal and fervent friend to Velva Jean, giving her a home and important tips about their profession.  She’s also quite frank about how Metro owns them and runs their lives, but she finds ways around their machinations, all of which proves to be mysterious to Velva Jean.  All seems like a fairy tale world to Velva Jean, but she’s also a smart character who is always observing and assessing the obvious facts and circumstances, as well as the double standard of lies, secrets and deceptions all too real in this Golden Hollywood Age.  Stardom is costly it seems in more ways than one!
The bubble crashes one night at a party when Velva Jean finds her best friend dead.  The remainder of the novel is about her efforts to find out who killed her, even though MGM does everything in their immense power to cover up the murder and couch it as an accident.  Velva Jean knows she will lose everything she has worked so hard to obtain if she continues seeking the truth but her integrity is far stronger than her fear of the stooges following and threatening her.  In the course of this exploration, she will find out what kind of person she really is, the tough stuff she’s made of, and discover a world of possibility  that she had never dreamed of previously.

American Blonde: A Novel is wonderfully constructed, with an amazingly shocking end showing the story to be a great thriller as well as a work of romance and historical fiction.  Highly recommended – loved this story!!! Watch for more from this writer – someone who hopefully will go far!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Major's Daughter: A Novel by J. P. Francis

The Major’s Daughter: A Novel.  J. P. Francis. Penguin Group (USA). July 2014. 400 pp.  ISBN#: 9780452298699.

Collie Brennan and her father, Major John Brennan, are now living in Camp Stark in New Hampshire.  They’re getting ready to house German prisoners of war, a new role neither has experienced previously.  Major Brennan is not in the best of health as he suffers left-over illness from being gassed in WWI.  Now it’s WWII they are dealing with and this is the story of life in the prison camp.  At first the anticipation is worse than the reality.  Then Collie, who helps her father by translating German into English, very slowly grows fond and fonder of a German POW, Private August Wahrlich. 

Her best friend, Estelle, at the same time has fallen in love with an Indian gardener in Ashtabula, Ohio.  She must decide whether to yield to that growing feeling between them or marry someone safe and stable!

This is a novel about the way war heightens prejudice, the feeling that the enemy induces in those who are already apt to believe every outlandish rumor floating in small communities and in those who have radically suffered from service on the battlefields of Europe.  Today it’s called post-traumatic stress syndrome.  It may be further fueled by alcohol or by jealousy, but it pervades every town across America.
The hatred that is often couched in patriotic beliefs and words is also present in the German POW camp.  There are die-hard Nazis who punish those who aren’t of like mind and those who are weaker.  It’s a parallel universe, a microcosm of the larger world’s classification and persecution of Germans and anyone sympathetic or averse to them.

In the midst of so much ugliness is the beauty of poetry and the enthralling specter of beautifully grown plants and flowers, spiked by the pine forests and immense mountains surrounding the Brennan’s military camp.

No spoilers here, just a beautiful story that is just as often filled with ugliness and beauty beyond what nature and humans can produce.

For those who are open to a different way of thinking, it will leave questions that demand squarely facing all the issues inherent in WWII mentality.  The readers’ points of view will affect whether one loves or hates this complex memorable work of historical and/or romantic fiction.

Collie knows who she is and what she must sacrifice by making a choice to play it safe with another love-sick wooer or risk it all for the love of her life.  The Major’s Daughter has crafted a powerful, memorable work of historical fiction, one that parallels the world in which our young men and women are being held prisoner and returning from unspeakable horrors that our contemporary global conflicts generate.  J. P. Francis has told a simple yet endearing story that will linger in the memory for a long time after the end of reading this particularly moving story!

Fast Track:A Novel by Julie Garwood

Fast Track: A Novel.  Julie Garwood. Dutton Adult: Penguin Group (USA). July 2014. 352 pp.  ISBN#: 9780525954453.

Cordelia Kane sits by her father’s hospital bed, knowing he is dying and hearing from his lips shocking words.  Her mother, who was thought to be dead, is alive and well.  After her father’s death and funeral, Cordelia finds her mother’s last letter to her father in which she states she wanted a different life than the one she found with him.  In it she leaves Cordelia to him and asserts she wants no further contact.  Along with that letter are the numerous letters from Cordelia’s father to her mother, marked “Return to Sender.”

Cordelia is a complex character.  She has just earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is a well-loved teacher of at risk students, but she decides to take off for a year and find her mother.  She has no idea what she will do when she finds her but is determined to at least see and meet this mother who abandoned her and hurt her father in a way that scarred the rest of his life. However, there are complications, to say the least.  For now, she finds out through friends that her mother is living in Sydney, Australia; so Cordelia’s itinerary begins to take shape, albeit with much interference!

Aiden Madison is Cordelia’s past boyfriend who now reappears and in his usual aggressive way begins to take over Cordelia’s life.  In the beginning it’s not clear why he does so other than his desire to wow her with his sexual prowess.  Here is where Cordelia becomes an enigma.  Although she mildly protests Aidan’s constant presence, commands and insistence that she will be in danger if she carries out her plans to travel to Sydney, she never really protests loudly enough to change his mind.  The reader is not even sure that would make a difference if it were to happen.  Still time will prove Cordelia does have need of protection; and as she really is in a vulnerable position from the shock of losing her father and finding she has an alive mother, this may be the reason she constantly gives in to Aidan.

This is the story of her journey, her discoveries about her mother and her mother’s family, Aidan’s wooing and passionate love-making, and some very dire scenes meant to block from Cordelia from making any announcement in Sydney about her connection to her mother.  It seems her mother had given a false name when she initially married Cordelia’s father. Now, all secrets are out and about to have some disastrous results.

Fast Track is another well-crafted contemporary, dramatic novel written by an author who perfectly plots a complex story and adds rivetingly dangerous scenes in just the right places.  Nicely done again, Julie Garwood – a pleasing novel full of ample thrills and romance to please every reader.

The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn

The Last Summer. Judith Kinghorn. NAL Trade. December 2012. 464 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451416636.

Clarissa Granville introduces the reader to idyllic world of her home, Deyning Park, an English country home of the aristocracy.  She spends her days learning to be the proper English wife of another upper class gentleman but the majority of her early story concerns her long, rambling walks around the estate. It’s a dreamy, solitary world she loves which is beginning to be tainted by talk of impending war in Europe (WWI).  Early on in the novel, she falls in love with a servant’s son, Tom Cuthbert.  Tom is the “bastard” child who because of that association has been granted the unheard of privilege of attending Oxford University to prepare for a career in law.  Clarissa’s mother does everything in her power to block this “friendship” from growing but impressively fails to deny what has already grown roots.  Clarissa’s father is sidetracked by failing finances, unknown to the rest of the family, and her brothers are intent on living life to the fullest and then doing one’s patriotic duty for England in the War.

Clarissa’s romance bears tragic consequences and her friends manage to help her repress her tremendous depression with parties, drink and “morphia.”  But eventually it all comes crashing down, along with other terrible losses, exemplified by stark descriptions of the battle fields abroad teeming with blood, gas, life-altering wounds and death in all its grisly reality. 

The novel continues to progress from that naive dreamlike state to an almost surrealistic brutality in which every character’s life is dramatically, emphatically changed forever.  But love will survive and it does so for Clarissa and Tom in spite of marriages, separation by an ocean and years, and the interfering efforts of well-intentioned but hypocritical family members who preach what they do not practice. 

The novel is obviously well-researched regarding WWI and its effects on members of all classes.  What is particularly outstanding about this story, however, is the beautiful quality of Kinghorn’s prose which parallels the mental and emotional ambiance of each time period portrayed before, during and after the war.  While some have compared this novel to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this reviewer found the similar aspects of both novels to be more credible herein as the gaiety is more of a desperate attempt at escapism than anything else, not really a celebration in any true sense of the term.

While the characters may be somewhat stereotypical, the complex plot of this novel is extraordinary and holds the reader mesmerized from the first to last page. Extraordinary historical fiction and highly recommended.