Tag Archives: female protagonists

Vintage Clothes

Astor Place Vintage: A Novel by Stephanie Lehmann (Touchstone, $16.00, 396 pages)

The theme of Astor Place Vintage is familiar — vintage clothes, an old apartment and mysterious experiences provide a marvelous link to the past. It’s as if The Secret Lives of Dresses melded with Her Fearful Symmetry and The Secret Keeper. Alternating chapters, from 2007 and 1907, make for engaging reading. The issues faced by women who choose to be on their own, but a century apart, are similar and yet not.

Astor Place Vintage

This is a multi-generational tale about women; however, it is clearly not chic lit. Author Stephanie Lehmann has invested serious time and effort researching very early 1900s New York City. The restaurants, stores, street names and events portrayed (such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire) are real. Numerous excellently-reproduced photographs allow the reader to have a glimpse into the working world of women of that era. Department stores and garment factories were their primary employers.

In 2007, Astor Place Vintage shop owner, Amanda Rosenbloom, who is nearing 40, wishes she could convince her lover of many years, Jeff, to leave his wife. Jeff has been subsidizing the shop and the apartment upstairs; in other words, Amanda is a kept woman. Her livelihood is in peril when she receives a notice to vacate the store. Relocating is unrealistic as shop rents have become astronomical.

In 1907 upper middle class 20-year-old Olive Westcott moves to NYC with her widower father who manages a Woolworth’s store. She yearns to be on her own. Be careful what you wish for! Olive’s life takes a sharp turn and the tale begins in earnest.

A very elderly woman, Jane Kelly, who is 98, is the living link between the clothes worn by Olive and Amanda’s shop. Although the book is a novel, the lives of the characters naturally lead to intrigue and prompt the reader to speculate how the story lines will converge.

This is Stephanie Lehmann’s fifth novel, and while it is the first of hers that this reviewer has read, it won’t be the only one. Ms. Lehmann’s smooth writing style, excellent dialogue and meticulous research efforts prove to be an unbeatable combination.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Insightful, charming and wholly entertaining.” Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.

Astor Place Vintage will be released on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

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Weight of the World

The Life You’ve Imagined: A Novel by Kristina Riggle (Avon; $13.99; 334 pages)

“…I’m thinking of making a change myself.”   She gapes up at me, searching my face as if she’s not sure who I am.   I know the feeling.

If you love the novels of Elizabeth Berg, and especially The Last Time I Saw You, you’re likely to feel a great sense of fondness for this book by Kristina Riggle.   As with Berg, she hits the sweet spot of human emotion in telling the stories of women who’ve arrived at the point in life where they must either evolve or accept their failure in life.   In the words of Bob Dylan, Riggle’s characters are either busy being born or they are busy dying.

Like Berg’s The Last Time, this is an ensemble piece…  The Life is about four women, three still relatively young and one clearly not, who are united by circumstances in the town of Haven, Michigan.   Haven is not to be mistaken with Heaven.

Anna Geneva is the high-powered Chicago attorney who returns home after being rattled by the death of an older male colleague and mentor.   Here she must deal with her mother Maeve, whose mom-and-pop convenience store is failing.   Morever, Maeve holds out hope of being reunited with the man who long ago abandoned her and Anna.   Anna will also encounter two of her best female friends from high school – Cami Drayton, who has come back to live with a monster of a father, and Amy Rickart, the now slender and beautiful bride-to-be who used to be overweight and socially ostracized.

Only Amy lives a life to be envied as she prepares to marry the loving and considerate man of her dreams.   But her husband-to-be’s career will place him in conflict with Anna and Maeve and Cami and she will soon come to wonder about his values in life.   She will even come to wonder if he loves her at all after he announces that their wedding must be postponed.

About three-quarters to four-fifths of the way through the telling of this tale, you – the reader – will figure out exactly what the resolution will be.   Except that Riggle has other ideas and soon you’re following unexpected twists and turns as you near the end.   In this fashion, it’s like real life which is never quite what we imagined it would be.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “A richly woven story laced with unforgettable characters…”   Therese Walsh, author of The Last Will of Moira Leahy

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Teach Your Children

Night Road by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press; $27.99; 400 pages)

For a mother, life comes down to a series of choices.   To hold on…  To let go…  To forget…  To forgive…   Which road will you take?

In a compelling novel of love, loss, hope and understanding, author Kristin Hannah redefines the pluses and minuses – challenges, tenderness and empowerment – of motherhood.

Jude Farrady has everything.   She lives the ideal life; a loving husband, a custom-built home, friends that support and love her, and twins that have an extraordinarily close relationship.   Her life revolves around her twins, ensuring that they have everything they need to be happy and successful.

Lexi Baill has nothing.   The orphan of a drug addict, she has grown up living in multiple foster homes, without a family, abandoned and alone.   With a heart of gold she selflessly carries hope that someday things will turn out differently.

When Lexi befriends Jude’s daughter Mia on their first day of high school, their lives are forever changed.   Lexi brings out the best in the shy sister of the most popular boy in town.   The bond between the twins and Lexi encourages the Farraday’s to treat Lexi like one of their own.   Finally finding a permanent home with the aunt she never knew she had combined with the love she is shown from the Farraday’s, Lexi feels she has finally found the life she has always dreamed of.

Yet tragedy finds a way into the lives of even those with the most fortunate of circumstances.   The resulting loss forces everyone to reevaluate the future of their relationships and life beyond the boundaries of the predictable.

Author Hannah presents an endearing and engaging story that uncovers a path of unpredictable events…  Events that will leave you laughing, crying, wishing and hoping but above all feeling fully appreciative of the love, devotion and trials that come with the territory of being a mother.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Night Road was released on March 22, 2011.   “Longtime fans will love this rich, multilayered reading experience, and it’s an easy recommendation for book clubs.”   Library Journal

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More Than This

The Postmistress: A Novel by Sarah Blake (Berkley Trade; $15.00; 384 pages)

The time is the years 1940 and 1941 and Americans are attempting to stay out of the conflict in Europe.   President Franklin Roosevelt has pledged to keep American boys from dying in a new world war, but most Americans are well aware that he’s stalling for time.   Hitler’s armies are invading countries throughout Europe and something is happening to hundreds of thousands of Jews.   This is the setting for The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

Blake tells the story of three women – three very different individuals with different personalities and needs.   Iris is the postmistress of the title, a woman who is thorough and organized in everything she does.   Iris takes pride in her discipline and in her preparation for all things.   Although she’s lacking a suitor, she travels to Boston to see a doctor who will certify her virginity; she’s sure that some man will one day find this to be a factor in her favor.

Emma is a transplant to the east coast, a small and frail woman who lost her parents early in life.   She wishes to have a new stable life with her physician-husband.   But Emma’s husband feels the call to go to help the victims of the German bombing of London.

Frankie is the tough and ambitious radio reporter stationed in Europe working with Edward R. Murrow.   She’s frustrated and wants to travel to find the “real story” of what is happening to the Jews.   She wants to be the voice of truth, a human alarm bell.

Something happens to each of these characters in The Postmistress.   Iris eventually wonders if she has placed duty to her job above simple human kindness.   Letters and telegrams bearing bad news travel through her hands.   Will the point come when she should show some mercy by withholding horrible news?   Would it make a difference?   Or would it place her in a position of arrogantly playing God?

Emma feels that she may lose everything, including a child on the way, if her husband places the needs of those in England above hers.   It’s not America’s war, right?   But then she may be powerless in the face of her husband’s desire to serve his fellow human beings.

Frankie becomes tired and devastated over what she observes in war-torn Europe.   Hitler’s armies are on the march and the people in the U.S. who listen to her radio show seem to refuse to accept the truth – the truth that war is inevitable.   Who else but American boys and men will save the world?

Whatever is coming does not just come…  It is helped by people wilfully looking away.   People who develop the habit of swallowing lies rather than the truth.

This novel tells us that stories get told when they need to be told – not before and not after.   There’s not a good time or bad time, simply the time.   Blake does a marvelous job of transporting the reader back to the early 40s in polite, calm and reasoned language.   Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to The Postmistress is to say that when you read it, you will place yourself in that time and place.   You will also ask yourself what you would have done in that time and under those circumstances.

Would you have sought delay as an isolationist (“It’s not our war.”)?   Or would you have been one of those who said, “We’re going to have to go at some point, so why not now?”   A simple question, perhaps, but the fate of the world – of freedom – literally depended on the answer.

Sarah Blake displays an intelligence in the telling of the story that is, sadly, all too rare these days.   In the end, this is an important story about normal people occupying a larger-than-life stage.   Blake tells it impressively and beautifully.   The Postmistress is a story that you will be thinking about weeks and months later.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Postmistress was released in trade paperback form on February 1, 2011.

The Postmistress made me homesick for a time before I was even born.   What’s remarkable, however, is how relevant the story is to our present day times.   A beautifully written, thought-provoking novel that I’m tellling everyone I know to read.   Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help.

 

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The Sins of a Family

The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers (St. Martin’s Griffin; $14.99; 320 pages)

murderer's daughters amazon

First-time novelist Randy Susan Meyers certainly knows how to draw a reader into her story while creating empathy for her characters.   Young sisters Lulu and Merry become orphans in July of 1971 when their jealous father stabs their mother to death.   The novel chronicles their major life events and experiences beginning with that fateful day in 1971 to December 2003.

The murder and the ensuing hardships shape the girls’ lives; however, Lulu and Merry are resilient and spunky kids who won’t succumb to being victims.   The first quarter of the book is nearly overwhelming with sadness.   Thankfully, the remainder of the book is rich with texture and emotion that are more easily processed.

murderers-daughters-back

Meyers gives the reader each sister’s perspective on what happens to them as they grow up via the chapter titles identifying whose narrative is being read.   This device is well employed and is not the least bit gimmicky.   The characters who factor prominently in shaping Lulu and Merry’s lives are their father, grandparents on both sides of the family and classmates.   Their relatives exhibit the characteristics we can all recognize as being either frustrating or endearing.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Do Not Enter

Based Upon Availability: A Novel by Alix Strauss (Harper Paperbacks, 340 pages, $13.99)

“Living with a ghost is easier than living alone.”

If the idea of reading about the fictional lives of eight highly dysfunctional and miserable women makes you giddy with excitement, you might like Based Upon Availability.   This novel by Alix Strauss (The Joy of Funerals, Death Becomes Them) allows one to wallow in misery.   The chief protagonist Morgan, the manager at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, would seem to have it made.   But she’s never gotten over the loss of her younger sister, so she does some very strange things – like having sex with the lowest paid males who work for her and entering the rooms of guests while they’re away.

Oh, yes, we meet the other women – all of whom have big troubles – when Morgan goes inside their room.   That’s the signal that another sad story is about to play out.   It is actually quite a shame because Strauss can write well, “Bernie sounds like a beagle that never comes when you call…  (a man) wearing a golf hat who plays cards with his cronies in Florida.”   But the sex scenes are beyond redemption.   Morgan whispers to her latest conquest so that she can pretend “like (she’s) in a porn video.”

All in all, this is a sad collection of stories which portray life as nothing more than simple torture.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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A Tale of Two Cities

Silent Scream by Karen Rose (Grand Central Publishing)

Justice in June by Barbara Levenson (Oceanview Publishing)

Justice in June and Silent Scream have more in common than alliterative titles.   Each is a mystery/thriller set in a major U.S. city with a female protagonist that is devoted to her profession but has difficulty committing to a permanent relationship.   The cities where the action takes place are Miami, Florida and Minneapolis, Minnesota, respectively.   Both women are well-respected members of their communities.

Mary Magruder Katz is a criminal defense attorney in Miami who briefly struggles with her revulsion at representing a man who is being characterized as a terrorist.   Her current boyfriend is Carlos Martin, a wealthy real estate developer with an excitable Latin-American temperament.  

Detective Olivia Sutherland, over in Minneapolis, is the only female member of the city’s elite homicide squad.   Olivia and her partner are assigned to a construction fire when the charred remains of a teenage girl are found among the ashes.   To complicate matters, Olivia must work with fireman David Hunter while investigating this and similar subsequent fires with murder victims.   David is not just any fireman; he’s a genuine hero who works tirelessly on behalf of battered women and he had a weekend encounter with Olivia that still troubles her after two and a half years.

Here is where the authors’ styles set these books apart.   Barbara Levinson, author of Justice in June, is a member of the judiciary in Miami.   This is her second novel.   The crisp, spare descriptions of the characters and location provide more information about the local weather and scenery than they reveal about the feelings that Mary and Carlos have for each other.   Mary’s lack of true trepidation following an attack and a break-in at her house are confusing.   Levinson’s writing seems to derive from the transcription of a journal or legal case notes.  

The story is engaging from a legal perspective.   It is a book that would make a good selection for a young person who is entertaining thoughts of pursuing a legal career.   However, there are moral challenges to the justice system in this tale that are guaranteed to disillusion the most starry-eyed future attorney or judge.   This reviewer was amazed that a story set in steamy Miami is so dry and passionless.

Karen Rose, the author of Silent Scream, has penned 10 prior novels.   Rose, like Levinson, is a resident of Miami; yet she has elected to write about Minneapolis, a city that to this reviewer seems short on passion with a surplus of lakes.   Rose’s history as a writer goes back to her childhood when she was an avid reader and began writing for her own enjoyment.  

Rose has a well-developed writing style that is lush and highly descriptive.   Her novels are labeled as “romantic suspense.”   I was a bit skeptical about just how romantic the story would be.   Bodice rippers are plentiful but a well-written story is another matter.   This is clearly a book for mature audiences; although, given the sex on TV shows and in movies that teens are now daily exposed to, it is relatively tame.   What’s unexpected is the meticulous character development.   Heroes and villains alike are given ample background, motivation and feelings.

Knowing there are 10 prior books by Karen Rose to read while waiting for her next effort makes the waiting all the better.   Sorry Judge Levinson, this reviewer needs more than just the facts, ma’am.

Take Away:   Silent Scream, in paperback, is the one to read this summer.   Recommended.      

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   Book copies were provided by the publishers.   

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