The second book in John Heldt’s American Journey series finds three generations of twenty-first century women on an adventure to pre-WWII New Jersey iThe second book in John Heldt’s American Journey series finds three generations of twenty-first century women on an adventure to pre-WWII New Jersey in a search for closure, clarity, and childhood innocence. Novelist Susan Peterson is still trying to find calm amid the chaos following her husband’s unexpected death, grappling with the reality of his infidelity while trying to hold the world together for her daughter, Amanda. When Susan’s mother, Elizabeth, accompanies the Peterson women on a California adventure, none of them expect that Elizabeth’s curiosity over time-travel lecturer Professor Geoffrey Bell will grant them all the chance of a lifetime. With nothing to lose, the trio embark from 2016 California to 1939 California, and from there across the country to Princeton, New Jersey and a rented house on Mercer Street where Elizabeth comes face-to-face with her immigrant parents and their infant daughter Lizzie. With the world’s best hindsight to her advantage, an elderly Elizabeth relishes the chance to spend more time with her parents and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a meaningful connection with her younger self. Meanwhile, Susan finds love and fulfillment in working with a handsome naval admiral as Amanda finds herself crossed in love – and maybe danger – with a dashing German whose family is keeping a secret.
Wonderfully capturing the calm before the storm of World War II, Mercer Street is another beautiful novel from author John Heldt, whose remarkable talent allows him to transform time-travel from a plot device into the foundation of a substantial and unforgettable story. With terrific pacing and comfortable narratives, Heldt takes his novels outside the bounds of genre fiction and into uncharted territory as he combines romance, suspense, and observations on human nature. Mercer Street is not unlike previous novels from Heldt in its ability to carry profound insight in even its more lighthearted passages, making for an experience that will please both escapist fiction lovers and more contemplative readers alike. The era and the characters in Mercer Street suit this scheme well. Through Amanda’s love interest, Kurt, Heldt explores the vulnerability of a young German as he clings to his powerful sense of morality in the shadow of Nazi Germany’s uprising; through Elizabeth, the grace of an elderly woman’s reconnection to her younger self as she literally relives moments of her life too old to be remembered; and through Susan, a woman’s search for her own strength as one love life takes shape even as another is still to be mourned. While each character and their personal experiences manage to take root for the reader, perhaps the most arresting is that of Elizabeth as she seems to get to the very heart of the human experience. It’s hard not to be affected by the imagery Heldt creates through Elizabeth’s first meeting her younger self, and then the fostering of an undeniable connection that grows so strongly between one’s present and past selves.
One of the other great strengths of Mercer Street, as with so many of Heldt’s novels, is the intrepid research that goes into the groundwork of its story. The energy of the time, when so much was unforeseeable, is captured in detail while unexpected figures from history take their turns gracing the pages in a series of cameos that will delight enthusiasts of the era. For his first novel set on the east coast Heldt has chosen a place as unforgettable as the time, with Princeton coming to life in both the simplest narrative illustrations and in Elizabeth’s poetic recollections of the world she once knew. It all comes together as the story whirls through its many manageable layers, at once comfortable to read and quite steeped in meaning, as it works up to its unexpected ending. With all the charisma, humor, and wisdom of the author’s previous novels – and with perhaps an even richer cinematic quality – Mercer Street is another winning and unmissable read from a truly well-skilled writer.
Over the course of her past five novels, DeMaio has explored the deep emotional caverns of many relation// full review available at Literary Inklings.
Over the course of her past five novels, DeMaio has explored the deep emotional caverns of many relationships as they are put to the ultimate test, but here she gives her readers a sweet novel that’s light on drama, devoting itself entirely to the simply joys that the holiday season and small-town life can bring, and the special way love looks all the more magical under the gleam of twinkling Christmas lights.
As enchanting as a season’s first snowfall and with all the warmth of an open fire, Snow Deer and Cocoa Cheer is a worthy gift from a writer who loves to give her readers stories to fall in love with. ...more
Born of Lewis’s inspiration, the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society has for decades been an important institution// full review available at Literary Inklings
Born of Lewis’s inspiration, the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society has for decades been an important institution in the continued study of Lewis and his ideas, as well as a tribute to the lives and works of those who shared his intellectual circle. By sustaining the ideas of the Inklings, the society stands as a guide for generations of thinkers whose visions would blossom under such influence.
This year the society released C.S. Lewis and His Circle, a new book which adds to the extensive library of publications exploring Lewis’s ideas and insights. C.S. Lewis and His Circle contains many previously unpublished talks from influential speakers, giving Lewis enthusiasts a new chance to witness what the study of Lewis is like in the writer’s own home, so to speak....more
Cold War Berlin is the backdrop of Paula Closson Buck’s debut novel, one that adds to the author’s career// full review available at Literary Inklings
Cold War Berlin is the backdrop of Paula Closson Buck’s debut novel, one that adds to the author’s career as a writer of short stories and poetry. In Summer on the Cold War Planet Buck draws from her experiences of the other literary forms as a means of approaching the novel format with a certain sense of being free from traditional constraints. The result is an artistically-driven and uniquely visionary novel that marries lyrical prose with a daring exploration of human nature....more
A moving collection of Sue Monk Kidd's deeply open-hearted spiritual writings. (I scribbled quotes into my notebook like mad.) I'll be discussing FirsA moving collection of Sue Monk Kidd's deeply open-hearted spiritual writings. (I scribbled quotes into my notebook like mad.) I'll be discussing Firstlight on Literary Inklings this fall....more
Billy Collins is an American treasure. I'll be discussing Questions About Angels and Collins's other collections of poetry on Literary Inklings this fBilly Collins is an American treasure. I'll be discussing Questions About Angels and Collins's other collections of poetry on Literary Inklings this fall....more
Runcie's timeless style and charming protagonist make this a wonderful start to an instantly iconic series. I'll be discussing Sidney Chambers and theRuncie's timeless style and charming protagonist make this a wonderful start to an instantly iconic series. I'll be discussing Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death as well as PBS Masterpiece's adaptation, Grantchester, on Literary Inklings this fall....more
An insightful and empathetic guide to self-actualization through Pema Chodron's remarkable modernization of ancient Buddhist wisdom. I'll be discussinAn insightful and empathetic guide to self-actualization through Pema Chodron's remarkable modernization of ancient Buddhist wisdom. I'll be discussing Taking the Leap on Literary Inklings this fall....more
In her follow-up to A House Near Luccoli author D.M. Denton takes readers back to 17th century Europe, moving the story of impassioned young spinsterIn her follow-up to A House Near Luccoli author D.M. Denton takes readers back to 17th century Europe, moving the story of impassioned young spinster Donatella from Stradella’s Genoa to the England of Henry Purcell.
One instantly remarkable element of D.M. Denton’s fiction is her unique blending of history and fiction; such was the backdrop for her 2012 novel, A House Near Luccoli, which introduced a memorable fictional protagonist – Donatella – to one of Italy’s most enigmatic composers, the roguish Alessandro Stradella. This strength of Denton’s is played upon in Luccoli’s sequel novel, To a Strange Somewhere Fled, which finds a heartbroken Donatella amid a cast of decidedly English characters plucked with utmost authenticity from the resonance of history. After tragedy struck in Genoa, Donatella joins her family in her father’s native England, trading the majesty of the Mediterranean for the unruly weather and unusual society of Oxfordshire. Despondent and bereft, Donatella suffers renewed sadness as she comes to terms with her new life as a foreigner in a strange land, struggling to replace her native Italian with the confusing language of the English and ultimately learning to adapt to their ways.
Even as Donatella is haunted by the memory of Stradella – whose charming and often mischievous presence seems to have followed her, along with several never-performed copies of his compositions, to England – the determined heroine, expecting to resign herself once more to spinsterhood, finds unexpected emotions and, gradually, a new adventure awaiting her. From neighbors charming and catastrophic to an invasion of Italian musical greats, and even an appearance by the celebrated Henry Purcell, Donatella is soon buoyed between her own grief and the alluring, irrepressible pull of creativity. Almost all of the immediate characters in the story, with the exception of Donatella’s family and one or two others, are rooted in history, and the author shares her insights with the reader in a well-organized collection of historical notes at the back of the book. With this novel, Denton takes her fusion of history and fiction into an even deeper territory, depicting not only composers of British and Italian nationality, but also female singers and even men of law, such as the story’s male protagonist, biographer and lawyer Roger North. With sublime grace and devotion, Denton marries the two worlds together to form a setting for her novel that’s nothing short of enchanting.
Keeping true to A House Near Luccoli, much of the foundation of this novel relies heavily on music as expression. The cadences and temperaments of compositions are reflected in Denton’s pacing as well as her confidently executed freedom of narrative: some scenes that would traditionally be laid out in show-stopping dramatics may happen quietly, maybe even outside of the narrative completely; revelations are made, characters introduced, and emotions uncovered with unexpected swells and surges of expression. As a result, Denton’s writing is as beautiful and complex as the music she effectively seeks to honor. And while Donatella and her story, full as it is of such a legion of colorful characters, are vastly entertaining in their own right, often Denton’s descriptions of musical performances manage to swoop in and lift the reader up to even greater heights. Her passionate research and personal love of the art both shine through in the remarkable imagery her prose evokes, enrapturing her audience and taking them just a bit deeper into the intricacies of the 17th century setting. Irrevocable in its magic and intrepid in its storytelling, To a Strange Somewhere Fled is an fascinating and delectably original work that readers won’t soon forget.
Innocent and kind, Billy Wilson lives a pleasant life in London with his fussy mother, barrister father, and a new baby sister. His is a world untouchInnocent and kind, Billy Wilson lives a pleasant life in London with his fussy mother, barrister father, and a new baby sister. His is a world untouched by war and drama, until rumors of Hitler’s army begin to float around town and whispers carry the dangers of a bleak future for England. In the midst of it all, Billy’s own war comes upon him in the shape of his devious cousin, Kenneth. Frail and handsome, Kenneth seems to be the joy of every grown-up he meets, while Billy – try as he might – always seems to fall short of pleasing. With their family, Kenneth is all grace and charm, but behind closed doors Billy soon recognizes Kenneth for what he is: a bully and a lair. As the onset of World War II turns the lives of all Englanders upside down, Billy is swept up in a hurricane that mixes Kenneth’s psychological attacks with the threat of air raids and desperate evacuations. Through it all, Billy’s imagination keeps him grounded as he dreams of owning a Cossack sabre like that of kindly Mr. Durbins, a weapon that would, he imagines, keep both Hitler’s dangerous war and Kenneth’s horrid bullying at bay.
Intrusion, the first book in Rosalind Minett’s historical trilogy, is an intensely readable novel that balances the poignancy of youth with the ageless struggle for acceptance in a world governed by brutes. Minett reimagines a London on the cusp of war with imagery that leaps from the pages, particularly as seen through the eyes of remarkable young Billy. The author’s dedicated research and inherent knack for storytelling grab the reader’s attention from the first moment and maintains its cinematic hold until the last page. The grown-up anxiety of an impending war mixes with a child’s worry of being evacuated to a strange house in the country; the sightless drama of living through air raids and the quiet terror evoked by the carrying of gas masks all speak to the raw experience of England in the late-1930s as wireless radios announce news from abroad and warn of the dangers making their way to home. With sharp attention to detail and a deep sense of emotional complexity, Minett wraps the world of her novel around the reader with skillful eloquence.
While England is poised precariously on the cusp of war, what comes most startlingly to life in Intrusion is the protagonist, Billy: his physical experience in the story as well as his heart-warming imagination, which keeps him hopeful in the face of harsh realities. Billy is bullied at the hands of both his cousin Kenneth and his imposing Uncle Frank, a topic that Minett handles with much grace and gentleness. Almost always seen as an imposition or nuisance, Billy’s only escape from being both mistreated and misunderstood is his daydream of being a great warrior with the power to vanquish anyone – be it Hitler, or Kenneth, or mean Uncle Frank – to the ends of the earth. Every character in the novel comes to life under Minett’s insightful prose, but Billy takes a special place in the reader’s heart as he endeavors to make sense of the terrible things that have begun happening to him. He is at turns taunted by his cousin with lies and fearsome truths – having, then, to decipher which is which – and berated by his family for the stammer that undoubtedly arises as the result of his constant worry. His experience is put to the page through a touchingly honest narrative that captures the innocence of youth and draws from the reader an even deeper affection for the charming young hero. With a true mastering of the era and her characters, Minett sets readers up for a captivating series with Intrusion.
When last readers met with Jack and Julia in Leslie Wells’s Come Dancing they were deep in the throes of a rollercoaster love affair after misunderstaWhen last readers met with Jack and Julia in Leslie Wells’s Come Dancing they were deep in the throes of a rollercoaster love affair after misunderstandings and meddling enemies had threatened to tear them apart. In her new follow-up novel, Keep Dancing, the author takes readers back to the tumultuous world of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll in New York’s glittering 1980s. We follow Jack and Julia through the end of 1981, when the British rocker sweeps Julia away to England to meet his imposing family; but as 1982 dawns, new challenges and old adversaries once again test Jack and Julia’s relationship. British rock star Jack is set for a multi-city tour across the States while book editor Julia is on the rise at a fabulous new job, but as their newly-minted living situation seems to be paving the way for a lasting relationship, the stresses from both of their jobs will put them to the test. Add to the mix a screaming nephew, a screeching smoke detector, a wily puppy, and a penthouse full of praying mantises and Julia will find herself at wit’s end. Struggling to balance her career aspirations with her newly-domesticated home life, she’ll also have to face her uncertain trust as Jack flies off on a star-studded, drug-laden rock tour with his raucous bandmates and a raving horde of devoted groupies at their disposal.
Keep Dancing hits many of the same notes as Wells’s terrific first novel, with a full cast of charming characters, steamy romance, and writing that strikes as both humorous and poignant. While it could certainly be read as a standalone novel, Keep Dancing reads at its best following up the story of Jack and Julia’s first meeting. The duo get caught in some of the same dangerous webs this time around as high tempers and fragile trust threaten to derail their relationship, while Jack’s meddlesome manager Mary Jo and the band’s conniving lead singer Patrick both try to sabotage what Jack and Julia have built together. Through this novel, though, Jack and Julia have had a chance to grow through their past challenges. As a result, they’re both looking at their relationship – and Julia her career – with mature new eyes. Jack wants to start a family, a sentiment readers see brought to life through his devoted interactions with his sweet-but-destructive nephew Oliver; Julia, meanwhile, sees a glimmer of her own fame in the distance as she strives to take on a posh literary author in her new editing job. As Jack’s want of domestic bliss and Julia’s craving for career achievements draw tension between them, Wells once again allows her characters to grow through the ups and downs of their love for each other.
One of the highlights of the novel is Julia’s alternately fabulous and heartbreaking experience as she accompanies Jack and the band on a leg of their cross-country tour. In these scenes, Wells is able to fully utilize her skill for capturing all the opulence and scandal of the 1980s rock scene, complete with devious gossip headlines and outrageous backstage antics. The other members of Jack’s entourage – southern boy Sammy, unpredictable Mark, and Mark’s patience wife Suzanne – come to life with renewed vigor, entertaining the reader at every turn of the page.
Meanwhile, Wells turns from the glitz of the rock star life to more serious, heartfelt matters as Julia’s search for her father takes her into all manner of uncharted emotional territory. And for Julia, an altogether new feeling of vulnerability befalls her when her rocky relationship with Jack leaves her feeling particularly isolated from everything she thought she knew. With grace, humor, and sparkling imagination, Keep Dancing is a worthy second chapter in a smart new adult series.
Michael Tiranno, also known as The Tyrant, is the imposing force behind The Seven Sins, the most luxurious resort and casino in Las Vegas. Born into pMichael Tiranno, also known as The Tyrant, is the imposing force behind The Seven Sins, the most luxurious resort and casino in Las Vegas. Born into poverty in rural Italy, Michael – then Michele Nunziato – was taken under the wing of mafia powerhouse Don Lucciano after the murder of his family, and from there he became Michael Tiranno: Italian for “tyrant”. A larger-than-life persona across the pages, the character first appeared in Jon Land’s The Seven Sins in collaboration with The Tyrant’s creator, Italian investor Fabrizio Boccardi. While “The Tyrant” is in some ways Boccardi’s alter-ego, he’s also something of a superhero for the Vegas set – James Bond meets Tony Stark with a Sin City vibe. Boccardi’s creation comes to literary life through author Jon Land’s timeless skill, resulting in a high-octane thriller that keeps readers on the edge of their seat.
While The Seven Sins introduces readers to the man behind the moniker, Black Scorpion reveals how Michael Tiranno is finally able to fully realize himself as The Tyrant. When his casino is once again under threat, Michael’s investigation leads him to an Eastern European organization that even the most well-informed government entities thought to be a myth: Black Scorpion. And as Michael works to discover the identity of whomever controls Black Scorpion, he’ll find that the sinister organization’s endgame hits shockingly close to home. Caught up in the danger is Michael’s girlfriend Scarlett Swan, a skilled archaeologist on the cusp of a discovery that could change the course of history and unravel the secret behind the medallion Michael has treasured since it was handed down to him by his father. Inscribed with a Latin script that translates as “To Dream, To Dare, To Win”, the medallion has become something of a good luck totem to Michael; he even attributes the slogan of his casino and business brand to the Latin words. But he soon discovers that the mysterious piece of gold may hold greater power and value than he could ever imagine, and it could drive some men to murder at the chance of possessing it.
Land captures the drama and decadence of Vegas superbly in both The Seven Sins and Black Scorpion, the pages humming with the vibrations of a city steeped in decadence and mystery. In a style reminiscent of his other books, he takes the reader across time and into the throes of history as he weaves a story that’s both intricate in its details and lightning fast in its pace. He utilizes short chapters – sometimes pages long, sometimes only a few paragraphs – in a way that makes the reader feel as though they’re locked into a film reel, seeing scenes play out at the speed of a thrill ride. And throughout the different points in history, there’s one thing that connects the story as a whole: the medallion. In The Seven Sins readers are first taken back to the time of Julius Caesar where Caesar acquires the very medallion from Cilician pirates, while other points in the story hint that Michael’s gold piece may actually have gotten the Midas touch. In The Seven Sins readers also meet a modern-day pirate with her sights set on the gold: the elusive and fascinating Raven Kahn. After revelations are made at the end of that book, she returns to the story in Black Scorpion as well, this time with a vengeance. The central plight at the heart of Black Scorpion is the global devastation of human-trafficking and it’s in her empowered determination to free enslaved women and children that we see the true heart of Raven take hold.
Joining Michael on his adventures in both novels are his greatest allies both in the business of Vegas and, it would seem, in the business of saving the world: whip-smart lawyer Naomi Burns and warrior-turned-bodyguard Alexander Koursaris. While Land has a knack for surrounding his protagonists with colorful supporting characters, Naomi and Alexander are especially intriguing; they’re both well drawn and terrific fun to read about. As for The Tyrant himself, it’s no wonder that Boccardi has also brokered deals for comic book and graphic novel interpretations of the Vegas would-be superhero, as well as talk of a film that would adapt both novels for the big screen. Tiranno is an exuberantly likable character with panache as well as heart, equal parts ruthless grit and a do-good attitude; under Jon Land’s literary handling, the character becomes a worthy center for a collection of explosive adventures that will hopefully continue for a long time to come.
While Joanne DeMaio has written five consistently wonderful books, perhaps her most memorable characters first appeared in her 2013 novel, Blue JeansWhile Joanne DeMaio has written five consistently wonderful books, perhaps her most memorable characters first appeared in her 2013 novel, Blue Jeans and Coffee Beans. It was the story of beach friends Maris, Jason, Eva, Matt, Kyle, and Lauren as they reunited years after a tragic accident killed Jason’s brother, Neil, the pillar of their collective friendship. Each suffered Neil’s loss in varying ways; Jason harbored a relentless guilt over his own survival of the accident, while for Lauren the memory of her love for Neil clouded her relationship with her husband Kyle. In The Denim Blue Sea, DeMaio revisits her characters from Stony Point as the friends gather together for Jason and Maris’s wedding day. It’s a time of celebration as Maris and Eva settle into their newly-realized sisterhood, as Jason and Maris prepare to make a lifelong commitment to each other, and as Kyle and Lauren return to the beach with their marriage stronger than ever. But as the sea breeze changes without warning, so too does the peaceful summer when their old beach town once again brings back difficult memories and the ghosts of wounds left unhealed.
The Denim Blue Sea is filled with all the hallmarks of DeMaio’s work, from the poetic narrative to the lush descriptions of seaside life that bewitch a scent of salty sea air right into the reader’s world. The many characters from her former novel are brought back to the pages with all their original charisma, each stepping back into the reader’s mind with instant familiarity. There’s a running theme throughout the novel, of matrimonial bliss and hardship alike; but the strongest thread that ties the stories of DeMaio’s characters together is the commitments we make to those we love, and how love itself can sometimes find a way to challenge those commitments. It’s the novel’s one character to never fully appear – Neil – whose memory tests each friend’s commitment in unexpected ways. For Jason, it’s the arrival of an unwelcome figure from his past, and the soul-searching journey of how this unforeseen reconnection might help him come to terms with the loss that’s still so painful; for Maris, it’s the discovery of a much-loved journal and the secrets it contains, which could turn past wounds into entirely new challenges; and for Kyle and Lauren, it’s a burning truth that lies unresolved between them and, when exposed once again to the memories waiting for them at the beach, could ultimately tear them apart.
The emotional complications that arise from each character’s struggle are unfolded before the reader in DeMaio’s ever-luminous prose, which finds no shortage of inspiration from the sea, itself an extraordinary life form that teaches us about patience and acceptance, about how to slow down, how to pay attention, and especially how to endure through any storm. As Maris designs her new denim collection, inspired by Neil’s teachings on the sea’s majesty, the nuances of a dreamy beach life become vivid; but as the characters of the novel face their struggles, through arguments and heart-opening conversations alike, DeMaio reminds her reader that life and the sea have a lot in common: they may not be peaceful all the time, but the beauty is always there to be seen. With the author’s familiar blend of poignant drama, heart-warming romance, and idyllic seaside charm, The Denim Blue Sea brings Stony Point to life in a way that will make its readers feel as though they never left.
A Touch of Stardust blends fact and fiction, combining newly imagined original characters with unforgettable icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age, as KateA Touch of Stardust blends fact and fiction, combining newly imagined original characters with unforgettable icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age, as Kate Alcott explores the topsy-turvy world of cinematic glamour and its impact on human nature. Julie Crawford, Alcott’s fictitious protagonist, is a bright-eyed, sensible girl from Fort Wayne, Indiana; a graduate of Smith College, she’s determined to pursue her dream of writing screenplays, walking in the footsteps of her hero, Francis Marion. When she arrives on the set for the menial publicity job that’s granted her passage into the glamorous, cutthroat world of Hollywood she’s swept up into the drama and grandeur of David O. Selznick’s seemingly ill-fated, all-consuming project: adapting Margaret Mitchell’s beloved novel, Gone with the Wind. On the set, Julie witnesses burning sets and fiery tempers as catastrophe after catastrophe threatens to derail what Selznick believes will be the best film in motion picture history. She meets fascinating people at every turn, but none as tremendous as the straight-shooting Carole Lombard, another daughter of Julie’s hometown. Hired by Lombard, whose affair with Gone with the Wind’s own Rhett Butler has Selznick making every effort to keep the press at bay, Julie finds herself ushered into an altogether more overwhelming world where dinner parties are fairytale-glamorous and – at Lombard’s whim – piglets are let loose in the foyer.
Alcott does a superb job with her handling of the notoriously disastrous filming of Gone with the Wind as the backdrop for her novel. She captures the genius of Selznick’s efforts – sometimes desperate, sometimes torturous for those in his employ – and her reimagining of the film’s stars is charming. Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel, Leslie Howard, Butterfly McQueen, George Cukor, Victor Fleming, and Louis B. Mayer all make appearances throughout the pages, working as delightful cameos in a novelization of one of the most memorable times in Hollywood history. Chief among them, of course, are Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, whose love affair and subsequent marriage is remembered for its uncharacteristic robustness – and its tragic ending. Their easy camaraderie and their chemistry are captured beautifully, as is Lombard’s ribald wit, unforgettable style, and charming, unflappable nature. Clark Gable is less the charismatic hero as he struggles under the insurmountable difficulties of filming and rails against Selznick at every turn, but it’s Lombard’s wisdom and intimacy with his character that guide him through each challenge. Though dealing in the fictionalized world of the novel, Alcott remains true to the faults and struggles of every bright star in the Hollywood sky.
Ultimately, though, A Touch of Stardust is the story of a young woman setting out to make it in a seemingly impossible world; of her unexpected friendship with an iconic star at the other end of the Hollywood spectrum and her journey to learn how to love – and trust – in a famously unstable business. Julie is a charming character, brought to life in a slightly different way than that of her history-based counterparts; this cements her as something of an outsider throughout the novel, but in a way that builds her up as an independent woman with a strong mind who won’t be drawn in by the pretenses of the glamorous world around her. With the fly-on-the-wall perspective of the Gone with the Wind set as the novel’s backdrop, it would undoubtedly be a challenge for any author to divert her reader’s attention elsewhere, but Alcott’s storytelling is so engaging and her heroine so honest as to easily captivate her audience. Julie’s romance with handsome producer Andy Weinstein, as complicated and thrilling as any Hollywood film, helps her to grow into her own. As a result, following Julie on her adventure as she begins to understand what she wants in the bright world of Hollywood becomes as enthralling as the screenplays she hopes to write. For fans of classic Hollywood, A Touch of Stardust is a rare combination of fascinating history and enchanting fiction that captures an iconic era in all its cinematic glory.
Jonathan Lethem’s career in writing has garnered him much praise for his ingenuity and his handling of both the novel and short form. More than anythiJonathan Lethem’s career in writing has garnered him much praise for his ingenuity and his handling of both the novel and short form. More than anything, his new collection, Lucky Alan, is an example of his diversity as a storyteller, or rather of his refusal to adhere to rules and structure. With a Salingerian total of nine stories, the new book charts a rambling journey across surrealism and pop culture, through sharp observations and comic absurdity alike. Its diversity is both its strength and weakness insofar as it shows off much of Lethem’s literary scope, yet requires much commitment and elasticity from the reader. The first story, which takes its name from the collection’s title, finds the narrator entranced by a famous theater director named Sigismund Blondy, with whom he begins to develop a comfortable camaraderie over bad films and wine bars. Blondy is an elusive figure who radiates a certain New York brand of charm. When he disappears for several months, he returns to regale the narrator with his happenings of late, a tale about Blondy’s former neighbor, Alan Zwelish, who “walked in a fiery aura of loneliness” and enchanted Blondy in much the same way that Blondy himself enchants the narrator.
In the story, Lethem handles placid comedy and seriousness with an existential focus, not unlike the penultimate story, “Pending Vegan”, which charts a family’s rather simplistic visit to SeaWorld. This visit, in which Lethem doesn’t refrain from poking at the hyper-commercialized hysteria of domestic tourism, is a black-and-white scenario colored in by the father’s existential yearnings and aspiringly vegan insights. Recently weaned off of anti-depressants, the father grapples with the depravity and disconnect around him, and the reader is offered many puzzle pieces to put together in an attempt to unravel the father’s reality from the subconscious unreality of his withdrawal.
Similar in style, “Lucky Alan” and “Pending Vegan” serve as strong anchors for the collection while the stories in-between expound on a heady selection of the bizarre. Stories like “Their Back Pages” and “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” leave nothing to connect them to reality; the former introduces a selection of comic book tropes who’ve crash-landed on an island, while the latter explores a blogger’s vengeful mission to bring down a troll. Both sometimes wrestle with indiscernible hyperactivity, though there’s plenty to observe beneath the service; ultimately, by sojourning so far to the outskirts of reality, they could tarnish the collection for readers more interested in realism.
That realism is still to be had – bent and twisted into various manifestations – throughout the collection. “King of Sentences” follows a farcically obsessed couple in their attempts to align themselves with their overtly revered favorite writer, a reclusive and cranky sort whom they’ve dubbed the King of Sentences. Meanwhile in “Traveler Home”, a man and his terrier are snowed in when they find themselves the caregivers of a baby delivered by uncanny means. While Lethem departs into a sort of Gothic magical realism for portions of this story, his energetic nature is largely focused on the sparse, disorderly language of the narrative. A gem of the collection is “Procedure in Plain Air”, in which a man witnesses the bizarre imprisonment of a presumed criminal in a hole in the streets of Manhattan. Preternaturally compelled, the man takes up a vigil to protect the prisoner despite the unconcerned reactions from everyone else in the city. Beneath the layers of wordplay and visual stimuli in this story, the reader gets the sense that profound observations are being made on the inaction of society against injustices and what this could mean for its future.
The two remaining stories in the collection, “The Porn Critic” and “The Empty Room”, handle realism with leanings toward the profane. The former is an account of a young book nerd’s unusual career as a sex shop clerk and reviewer of porn, zeroing in on the imbalance of his muddled romantic life and the salacious reputation afforded him by his job, while “The Empty Room” tells of a family’s obsession with a room quite literally intended to be left empty. In many cases throughout the stories, Lethem’s characters remain consistently unremarkable while the crux of his artistry is fed into the underlying observations, the hyper-stylizations, or the explorative narrative voice. There are strengths and weaknesses in each story which will undoubtedly shift with every reader. Ultimately, though, Lucky Alan is a showcase of what makes Lethem so uniquely Lethem.
Kristin Hannah’s newest novel is the story of sisters Isabelle and Viann, young women still feeling the aftershocks of the First World War, which uproKristin Hannah’s newest novel is the story of sisters Isabelle and Viann, young women still feeling the aftershocks of the First World War, which uprooted their lives and made their father a stranger to them. After their mother’s death, the ties that bound their family seemed altogether severed; Isabelle was sent off to boarding school after boarding school while Viann married the young love of her life and began trying to stitch together a new story for her new family in the country. But when World War II erupts in Europe and Nazi officers begin occupying France, Viann and Isabelle’s lives are pushed and pulled again – joined together, ripped apart, even as they both fumble with the ultimately indestructible tatters of their sisterhood.
There’s so much to The Nightingale that touches the heart – so much sorrow, so much courage, so much importance – that it becomes a bit challenging to write about it all. Capturing the full essence of the novel’s powerful story, beautifully written as it is, feels a bit intimidating. It’s proof that words are our most important tool for relaying emotions and experiences, the way Hannah wields them with such tender care and honesty. The story of unruly Isabelle and anxious Viann, both brave in their own ways, is captivating enough on its own, but through it Hannah also gives voice to the millions of women who’ve since been silenced by the ravages of the war. Isabelle, Viann, Anouk, Rachel, Sophie; all the female characters across the novel are stalwart remembrances of unthinkable strife, speaking and acting for the many women who lived through it. Hannah does not hold back, not in her descriptions or her storytelling, nor in her research and her dedication to these women. The result makes for a novel as heartbreaking as it is empowering, as challenging as it is necessary, and the artistry behind it all is makes The Nightingale resonate at an even deeper level.
With her careful attention and thoughtful prose, Hannah recreates WWII France in an entirely new light, letting it be seen through a unique set of eyes: the women who bore witness. Though the reader is taken into both the concentration camps and the struggles of the French resistance, it’s the position of these women as domestic prisoners that creates the palpable connection between the reader and the horrors of the experiences. These women have, in many cases, been forgotten by history, much as they were overlooked by the enemy in their homeland. They were Christian women whom the enemy – and maybe everyone else – expected would wait in the shadows for salvation. But they too have their own extraordinary story or resilience, courage, and survival. You feel the plight of these women so profoundly and the sadness of the situation becomes so tangible as to truly break your heart.
This unexpected doorway into the past is handled beautifully and reverentially by Hannah. She fills her novel with characters and scenes that call up a vision of the war that is somehow new while being at the same time frighteningly familiar: a young Nazi solider missing his family abroad and clipped by his own horror of the crimes being planned by his countrymen, or the fearful yet curious whispers of civilians which begin to tell of places with strange names where unknown things are happening. It culminates into an all-encompassing experience of the fathomless grief of the time. The sheer emotional turmoil hangs like a dense fog over the story, and it too becomes shaped by the author’s attention; it, too, becomes a tribute. But despite the intense sadness of so much of this history, at the core of the novel is a celebration of heroism and a tribute to the unique, inseparable bonds of sisterhood. The Nightingale is a very brave, heartfelt novel, earnest in its determination to sway its reader fully into the chaotic rhythm of its history. The collective efforts – of the author, of the characters, who seem too lifelike to be fictitious, of the haunting memories that the atmosphere plants into the heart of the reader – is a true and admirable triumph of hope in an age of devastation.
John Heldt, author of the Northwest Passage stories, is back with the first in a new time-travel series that touches on love, mystery, and family dynaJohn Heldt, author of the Northwest Passage stories, is back with the first in a new time-travel series that touches on love, mystery, and family dynamics.
September Sky chronicles the story of a father and son trying to recover their common ground, one a man on a path to redemption and the other a lost soul on a journey to rediscover his passion. When recent unemployed journalist Chuck Townsend convinces his son, recent college dropout Justin, to join him on a much-needed cruise holiday, Mexico is the only exotic destination they expects to visit. Instead, Chuck and Justin find their paths crossing with Professor Bell, a veritable Willy Wonka whose chocolate factory of choice is, in fact, a time-travel portal in one of Los Angeles’ remaining Painted Ladies. In cahoots with the professor, Chuck and Justin arm themselves with history and return to 1900 Galvaston, Texas, where a distant relative is about to be sent to the gallows for a murder he didn’t commit and an monumental hurricane is about to devastate an unsuspecting island. While working to clear the name of their ancestor and change the history of a history-making storm, Chuck and Justin will both find love, sorrow, and plenty of surprises in Victorian Texas.
With a well-loved series of five books under his belt, author John Heldt is a near veteran of time-travel fiction in the vein of Back to the Future, and he brings his learnings from the Northwest Passage series to his newest endeavor, the American Journey series. September Sky is a worthy beginning, bringing together Heldt’s comprehensive research and smart storytelling chops alike. While his books maintain a similar undercurrent – one that spotlights strong moral characters, timeless romance, and smart, entertaining history thrills – Heldt has a way of rendering each story in a slightly different color, allowing his work to appeal as a veritable rainbow of all the great things we look for in novels. September Sky is no exception; the characters, from classic heroes and villains to unexpected allies and adversaries, harbor an essence of familiarity within the layers of complexity that make them so interesting. Charlotte and Emily, the Victorian-era librarians who catch the eyes of the world weary time-travelers, are both wonderful examples of the timeless female spirit that has existed throughout history. Charlotte, a sensitive widow, finds courage in her love for Chuck while Emily, fiercely independent and ahead-of-her-time, discovers new depth of feeling in handsome young Justin. The dual love stories, along with the touching relationship between father and son, fill the pages with passion and heart.
Heldt turns his attention from the Pacific Northwest to the south of Texas with aplomb, utilizing the monumental hurricane of Galvaston in September 1900 as both a storytelling arc and a tribute to the history his stories bring to life. The devastating storm retains its devastation across the pages, but the hurricane becomes one of many facets of Victorian Texas that come to life for the reader. As Chuck and Justin work to uncover the real murderer and clear their ancestor’s name, they find themselves met with some of the civil – not to mention technological – injustices of the time, coming face-to-face with the sort of personalities who both helped and hindered the progression of turn-of-the-century America. Through the scenery of the era, whether the style of dress or the manner of speaking or the pastimes enjoyed, September Sky takes the reader back with its two charming protagonists to a time both inherently simpler and surprisingly more complex than we can imagine.
Sassy, spunky private eye Gen Delacourt is back in a new mystery from Molly Greene that finds the amateur detective up to her ears in secrets, lies –Sassy, spunky private eye Gen Delacourt is back in a new mystery from Molly Greene that finds the amateur detective up to her ears in secrets, lies – and wine.
Molly Greene’s Gen Delacourt mysteries have been among my favorites since the series began several years ago. Over the course of four novels readers have followed Gen on her adventures in San Francisco as she works to uncover truths, catch bad guys, and keep herself alive in the process. In her fifth outing, Swindle Town, Gen is hired to track a series of disappearing empty wine bottles that ultimately leads her into the employment – or maybe the clutches – of a secret high-society wine club where membership fees are in the thousands and a good vintage may be worth killing over. Working the case becomes complicated for Gen when she uncovers connections that hit close to home for her boyfriend, SFPD detective Mack Hackett. Charged with keeping her investigation a secret, she’ll have to put her all into unraveling a mysterious series of threats on the wine club’s owner before things escalate and one of her many, many suspects decides to make their final move.
Swindle Town is a fabulous addition to a dependably entertaining series, brimming with all the wit, intrigue, and adventure readers have come to expect from Gen Delacourt and company. With her growing knack for spinning a grand mystery, author Molly Greene keeps the reader guessing until the novel’s conclusion. The intricacies of California’s wine culture create a fascinating backdrop for Gen’s latest case. It’s a show in which the private eye, fond as she is of life’s simpler pleasures, feels utterly miscast, but her resourcefulness pulls her through and she learns about the pastime of thousand-dollar vintages alongside the reader. Greene’s research of wine collecting contributes to the uniquely interesting undercurrent that drives Gen’s unpredictable plight. On her journey toward identifying a dangerous blackmailer, Gen comes face-to-face with wealthy would-be connoisseurs and all manner of characters, cluing her in on the wild and crazy world of the secretive rich. And as she skirts along the fragility of her new friendships, surprising revelations abound that will test her trust.
Greene has always filled her novels with memorable supporting characters, particularly Gen’s swoon-worthy love interest, Mack Hackett; in Swindle Town, there are familiar faces and new appearances alike. Cambria Butler, Gen’s good friend and the subject of Book #2, The Last Fairytale, uses her resources to help Gen on the case, while Mack’s childhood friend Shiloh James comes on the scene for the first time (and, hopefully, not the last). With every new character she creates, Greene always manages to add another colorful layer to the enchanting world of her novels. Combined with her expert twisty-turny sense for mystery and the lighting-like chemistry she creates between Gen and Mack, Greene delivers yet another delightful novel with Swindle Town.
In Mistress Firebrand, author Donna Thorland continues her Renegades of the American Revolution series with a story full of rich history and pulsatingIn Mistress Firebrand, author Donna Thorland continues her Renegades of the American Revolution series with a story full of rich history and pulsating romance.
America is deep in the throes of its search for independence from Britain in 1777, and to Jennifer Leighton it seems there are turncoats, spies, and dangers at every corner. An aspiring playwright determined to make her way to London and high success on Drury Lane, Jenny is in pursuit of a patron to support her as did her Aunt Frances, known to all as the iconic star of the stage, The Divine Miss Fanny. Together, Jenny and Frances are plotting to catch the attentions of a British general who could be the makings of Jenny’s career. Instead, Jenny finds herself embroiled in trouble, and the only man who can help her is an American-born British soldier, the charming – and, rumor has it, decidedly lethal – Severin Devere. Scorned by his father for his bastard beginnings, Severin has lived his life in a constant attempt to deny the Indian heritage that looks back at him in the mirror. He has always thrown himself fully into whatever work has been dealt him, which usually requires him to dirty his hands where his superiors will not; but that work, and even his allegiance to the crown, may be tested when his path crosses with that of the beautiful, strong-willed Jennfier Leighton.
Donna Thorland lays the workings for a superbly entertaining romance in Mistress Firebrand while her dedicated research and keen insight deliver a powerful historical atmosphere. Her attention to detail layers itself into the story to create a fascinating representation of a remarkable time in American history. Thorland works with every facet of the history, stitching together a patchwork of details to create a beautiful backdrop; her narrative tells of the specifics of dress and food, the nuances of custom, and the minutiae of life for both women and men on either side of the Revolution. When Jenny’s immersion into the American side of the fight brings her face-to-face with none other than General Washington, Thorland brings the reader so fully into the scene as to affect time-travel by the turn of a page. She folds the richness of her research into her narrative with skill, layering it piecemeal with a story of rebellion, identity, and enduring love that takes the reader across genres and through time.
As the narrative perspective switches throughout the novel to follow both Jenny and Severin, the reader is given vast insight into two characters seemingly plucked from history. Through Jenny’s eyes, the story unfolds of a young woman desperate to practice her creative art in a time when the arts were quite in turmoil, not to mention a time when women were expected – or allowed – to do very little on their own. She’s a stalwart character with abundant grit and compassion, sure only of her own capabilities as she tests the waters of the Rebellion and tries to determine in whom she can lay her trust as well as her life. Severin, meanwhile, is not only a study of a British soldier faltering to find his own identity, but of a Brit whose veins run with Indian blood, one foot planted on two very different lands. His attempts to come to terms with his heritage and determine where his loyalties lie make him a particularly unique and fascinating character. Together, Jenny and Severin share explosive chemistry, quick-witted conversation, and myriad ideas about the war and what it might mean for the future of America. Through this, and many other elements, Mistress Firebrand sets the reader up for a memorable love story and a suspenseful thrill ride through history.