War, Crime, New York, and Great Writing in "Manhattan Beach", by Jennifer Egan - Book Review

I stayed awake nights to read this.  I couldn’t wait to reach the end, then hated when it was over. It’s that good.  I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad several years ago and liked it well enough.  Egan’s latest, Manhattan Beach, far exceeds its predecessor. 

Egan's first work of historical fiction was diligently researched over several years, and takes place in New York as World War II breaks out. It crosses time and oceans chronicling a famous gangster longing to do good; a father entwined in a gangster’s life he cannot sustain; and our imperfect heroine, whose strengths and smarts lead her from childhood to adulthood. The war itself is a character as well, propelling the lives of those left at home to support the “innocents” sent to fight, manifesting patriotism in even the most cynical, and fastening together the diversity of New York that would otherwise remain apart.

Manhattan Beach: A Novel
By Jennifer Egan

Anna is a child when the story begins, her father, Eddie, making ends meet as a bagman for a small time gangster. A loving relationship, Eddie takes Anna along for many of his drops. This ends suddenly however, when Anna turns 14, and Eddie begins employment for one of the most prominent gangsters in New York, Dexter Styles.  A dangerous path, clearly, but it allows Eddie to financially provide for his family, including Anna’s younger, disabled sister Lydia.

One day, Eddie doesn’t return home. Years pass, and after Pearl Harbor, the war effort is in full swing. Anna fills a role in the Brooklyn Naval Yard measuring ship parts; a job much too mundane, but she enjoys being part of the war effort.  Through mighty will and perseverance, she becomes the first female naval diver, making ship repairs underneath the water’s surface.  As Anna is discovering herself as a strong woman in very much a man’s world, she navigates the extreme chauvinism of the 1940’s, acceptance of her father’s disappearance, and meeting the gangster with whom her father was involved. Along with a supporting cast gleaned from interviews of people who lived and worked in Brooklyn supporting the Naval Yard, Egan weaves their real stories into a captivating plot.

Egan’s characters are beset with intersecting conflict and humanity; her writing and pace excels. She has uncanny ability to surface and convey emotions in the subtlest of ways; possibly the best feature of her writing.  Manhattan Beach is without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

Escaping the Past in “Transformations”, by James Foley Smathers – Book Review

My friend’s dad, who is very large in stature and personality, gave me Transformations with the instruction to ‘read it.’ Out of respect and a sense of obligation, I did as told with little expectation. This is the first book for James Smathers, a retired marine and Vietnam veteran, and I was pleasantly surprised. I read it in two days.

The story tracks two main characters, Helen Warner and Jackson Andrews, who have a chance encounter in the Bahamas after their respective marriages fall apart.

By Mr James Foley Smathers

The manner in which those marriages fall apart is fairly pedestrian. The ensuing levels of revenge in which the jilted lovers engage is not. Knowing that Smathers is happily married for decades makes one wonder where he came up with his ideas but, hey, that is what fiction is all about, right?

Smathers’ dialogue is a bit stilted with run-ons and hazy transitions which sometimes requires back tracking in order to figure out which character is actually speaking. And his attempt to replicate the local Bahamian accent is overwrought and feels more like a nod to southern slaves in the 19th century, although you do get the point. There are also some punctuation errors which are typical in a self-published book. 

Those things aside, the story telling is sound and the book moves along at a fast clip. Smathers demonstrates vast knowledge on the Bahamas, marlin fishing, addiction recovery, small aircraft flight and maintenance, and bearer bonds. Whether those insights are personal or based on research, they add texture to a classic story line of love lost and new love found.

Fun summer vacation read.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Self Published, James Foley Smathers

Elizabeth’s rating: 3 stars

Hilarity and Meaning in "Valentina Goldman Ships Out", by Marisol Murano - Book Review

We received this book from the publisher with a request for review.

I grabbed Valentina Goldman Ships Out as a vacation read. It is the second in a series by Marisol Murano.  I hadn’t read the first book, but I liked the look of the cover and it seemed appropriate for summer reading.

Valentina is barely treading water after her husband’s sudden death when her Venezuelan mother shows up at her house with one mission in mind: to get Valentina out of her funk. How does she propose to do this? A Mediterranean cruise, of course. The dynamic between mother and daughter brings equal amounts of laughs and cringes. Serena is the quintessential controlling Latino mother who wields guilt like a sword to get those around her to do exactly as she wants. And what she wants is to go on a cruise with Valentina.

Valentina Goldman Ships Out
By Marisol Murano

Murano’s cynical and witty take on ‘cruisers’ is spot on. From the impeccably dressed haughty gay men to the elderly widows all fussing over the one eligible, wealthy octogenarian, Valentina manages to makes friends with someone in each of the stereotyped cruise groups. She even devilishly participates in the art auction of the ‘faux classics,’ without being a registered bidder, much to the other bidders’ chagrin but the reader’s delight.

Amid the antics of the cruise, Valentina does some intense self-reflection on the effects of love and loss in her life, and Murano’s phrasing is often eloquent. “Life doesn’t let you distill the bad days from the good. In the end, love guarantees nothing. And yet, despite the trickery, despite the land mines, despite the seismic shifts, people still fall in love.” These gems among the quipping cruise stories give the book an unexpected depth.

Valentina and Murano both had more heart and soul than I was expecting when I picked up Valentina Goldman Ships Out. It was a good summer read, yes, but a good anytime read too. I’m hopeful there is a third book in the offing so I can find out how Valentina readjusts to life back on solid ground.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Hipso Media

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars

Deceit, Love, and Decades of Mystery at "The Rocks", by Peter Nichols - Book Review

Author Peter Nichols has written a wonderful novel that takes us to the coast of Spain with vivid, intertwined characters, romance, secrets, and deception.  Nichols weaves a unique story in The Rocks that is captivating and hard to put down. He methodically leads us back through time as the deftly structured story is slowly revealed.

The Rocks: A Novel
By Peter Nichols

We begin with Lulu and Gerald who once had a relationship, but have not spoken in over fifty years despite living in the same Spanish town. They hold a secret to their disdain that remains a mystery until the end. While unfolding the lives of Lulu, Gerald, their children and those around them, Nichols’ setting is a beautiful seaside resort called "The Rocks", which Lulu has run since the 1950’s. The Rocks attracts a colorful cast of English expats - a reformed criminal, failed writer, and other regulars all loyal to Lulu and her welcoming hospitality. The retreat is a sexually charged place where friends and family come for comfort and escape, with the resort’s bar at its vortex for meals, chess, conversation, and lots of misbehavior. 

Also central to the narrative are the children of Lulu and Gerald - Luc and Aegina respectively. Their separate dramas and shared thorny past provide another layer of tension and provides its own mystery, divulged over decades. Their parents and their own unusual relationship contributes to the dark, decades long family saga.

The characters in The Rocks are loved and scorned, but Nichols makes it so alluring I could sense the ocean breezes, walks through the lemon groves, and feel of a boat at sea. Nichols doesn’t deliver his story on a silver platter - he makes us think about the facts presented and leaves it to us to put the pieces together with great anticipation as he reveals the past to us. The Rocks is an intelligent, romantic, disturbing page turner - very high on my summer favorites list.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Riverhead Books

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars 

Offbeat and Wise is “The Sunlit Night”, by Rebecca Dinerstein - Book Review

Sunlit Night is breezy, like a good summer read; yet thought provoking, humorous and at times dark. This is the debut novel by Rebecca Dinerstein and is an impressive first effort. It’s the story of strange and estranged families, and in particular, two young adults who must find themselves despite their familial dysfunction.

Early in the novel, we discover Frances and Yasha, both New Yorkers, in separate tales. Frances, a neurotic recent college graduate dealing with romantic heartbreak and a flawed family, decides to accept an artist’s apprenticeship in Norway (above the Arctic Circle) to escape the oppressiveness of Manhattan and create space between herself and all that is familiar to her. Yasha, a Russian immigrant, has just graduated high school and works side by side with his father in their Brighton Beach bakery. Abandoned ten years earlier by his mother, she makes a mysterious reappearance and breaks his father’s heart all over again - literally.  His father’s last wish is to be buried at the top of the world, which is where Frances’s and Yasha’s lives intersect.

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Humor, Dysfunction and Scandal; a Great Memorial Day Read: "I Take You", by Eliza Kennedy - Book Review

Disclaimer: If you don’t like lawyers or graphic sex, you should skip this book. Post script: Read it anyway.

I Take You is set in Key West during the week leading up to Lily and Will’s whirlwind wedding. Lily, a New York lawyer, is having some serious doubts about the upcoming nuptials as evidenced by the fact she can’t stop sleeping with other men. Will, on the other hand, the nerdy anthropologist, appears steadfast and only more committed to Lily as the big day draws near.

The story heats up as the secondary characters, which really give the book its texture, begin arriving.  There are Lily’s “moms”, her real mom, her two ex step moms and her fierce grandmother, who band together to try to talk Lily out of the wedding. Lily’s dad, from whom she obviously inherited her wandering eye, shows up with very few helpful contributions other than to play the role of the old guy Lothario. And then there is Will’s acerbic politico mom, who has zero love for Lily and is determined to wreck the wedding. And finally, Freddy, Lily’s sexually confused loyal best friend, who will do anything to get Lily through the week, wedding or not. 

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