KAROLINA’S TWINS by Ronald H. Balson

September 6, 2016
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Attorney Catherine Lockhart and private investigator Liam Taggart are back in Balson’s third novel, this time with a new client, Lena Woodward, an elderly Holocaust survivor. Lena’s son doesn’t want them looking into anything, and forces a competency hearing in hopes of having himself appointed her guardian.

Meanwhile, Lena spends days telling Catherine about her childhood in Poland, the Nazi takeover of her town, her job as a seamstress that saved her from the first wave of Jews sent to concentration camps, her time with the resistance, her eventual trip to a camp, and her life since the war. Along the way, her childhood best friend, Karolina, is present, and the two girls try and save her twin babies during the war.

Lena has no idea what happened to the babies but if they survived, they would be 70 years old and she is determined to find them. The search takes Liam (and the author) to Poland, Israel and Germany, but it is Lena’s story that is so riveting.

In a departure from Balson’s previous novels, much of the story is told in the first person, befitting a book inspired by a Holocaust survivor’s true story. Readers who crave more books like Once We Were Brothers and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah will be enthralled by Karolina’s Twins.

Copyright ©2016 Booklist, a division of the American Library Association.

9/16 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

KAROLINA’S TWINS by Ronald H. Balson. St. Martin’s Press (September 6, 2016).  ISBN 978-1250098375. 320p.

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THE ONE MAN by Andrew Gross

August 24, 2016
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Andrew Gross has written probably the most moving novel that I have read.

To say that it is an emotional roller coaster is the truth, but does not do it the justice it deserves. The book involves a lengthy look at the real horrors of a Nazi concentration camp and the daily struggle of the people trapped there just to somehow survive.

I am a fan of Mr. Gross, and in my opinion this novel is far and away the best work among many good works that he has given us.

In 1944, Alfred Mendl is taken away from his family in Poland, and along with many others is sent to a men’s concentration camp. His notes and papers on his work are taken from him and destroyed. The Nazis have no idea that they confiscated work that only one other person in the world has, and which when combined with work done by other scientists could start a war – or win one.

Nathan Blum, a Polish Jew who has successfully escaped from Poland but was forced to leave his family behind to be slaughtered, has certain requisite qualities that make him the ideal man for a scheme to rescue Mendl from the camp. He is Semitic in appearance, speaks both Polish and German. He is assigned to desk work for the U.S. army in Washington but desperately wants to do something more important for the war effort. The plan to rescue Mendl involves actually breaking into the camp he is at, and bringing him out to be sent to the United States to work with the scientists currently at work attempting to build a nuclear weapon. To be successful there must be an almost impossible combination of events that occur.

There is not one single way to put down the book without finishing it, and the reader arrives at a surprising end literally drained of emotion. Vivid descriptions of the horrors prevalent in the camp cannot fail to stir any reader who has only experienced the Holocaust through reading history. Andrew Gross brings us there and creates an ambience that will stay for quite a while.

8/16 Paul Lane

THE ONE MAN by Andrew Gross. Minotaur Books (August 23, 2016).  ISBN 978-1250079503.  432p.

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THE NIGHT, THE DAY by Andrew Kane

April 8, 2015
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This is the third novel from author Andrew Kane, and it is another Jewish themed book. This time it is what I think of as a contemporary Holocaust story, which seems to be something of a trend with Kristin Hannah’s terrific The Nightingale, Susan Wigg’s The Beekeepers Ball, Once We Were Brothers by Ron Balson, Moving Day by Jonathan Stone and others.

Jacques Benoît is a wealthy hotel tycoon so when he attempts suicide, his wife just can’t understand it. The hospital refers him to Dr. Marty Rosen, a renowned psychologist, for continued therapy. Rosen does not find his new patient entirely forthcoming or even truthful, but continues to work with him.

Rosen has a lot going on in his own life. He has been widowed for a couple of years, and is picked up in his favorite bar by a stunning woman with a British accent. He falls hard for her, but when he visits her home he is struck with an uneasy feeling. As a psychologist, he tends to listen to his gut feelings but he can’t quite put his finger on what is wrong.

Some of the other subplots deal with the Vichy government in France during WWII, and the modern day Mossad, but the crux of the story is slowly revealed as Kane weaves a complex and interesting tale with a rather shocking ending.

4/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

The Night, the Day by Andrew Kane. Berwick Court Publishing (March 31, 2015). ISBN 978-0990951520. 338p.

 


Guest Blogger: Jacob Rubin

March 17, 2015
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Win a copy of Jacob Rubin’s caffeinated and wildly comic debut novel, which was recently selected a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick for spring 2015 and named a one of Huffington Post’s 2015 Books We Can’t Wait to Read.

In the same vein as George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte, THE POSER chronicles the hijinks and crises of Giovanni Bernini, the World’s Greatest Impressionist—a man whose bizarre compulsion and ability to imitate anyone he meets catapults him from small-town obscurity to widespread fame. As he describes it, “No one disguise is perfect. There is in every person, no matter how graceful, a seam, a thread curling out of them. . . .  When pulled by the right hands, it will unravel the person entire.”

Honed by his theatrical mother at a young age, his talent eventually takes him from his hometown to the nightclubs of the City and eventually the sound stages of Fantasma Falls, the glamorous, west coast city similar to Hollywood. As Giovanni’s fame grows, he encounters a cast of provocative characters—including an exuberant manager, a mysterious chanteuse, an enigmatic psychoanalyst, and a deaf obsessive compulsive—and becomes increasingly trapped inside many personas. When his bizarre talent comes to define him, Giovanni is forced to assume the one identity he has never been able to master: his own.

At its heart, the novel speaks to the power of performance, impersonation, acting, and what it means to find and understand the essence of someone, and of yourself. I think author Sam Lipsyte nails it when he says Rubin “is a great hope for comic fiction in the 21st century.” Though THE POSER is his debut, it certainly announces the arrival of a new and unmistakable voice in American fiction.

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Q&A with Jacob Rubin, author of THE POSER

Giovanni Bernini, The Poser’s protagonist, is known as the World’s Greatest Impressionist. He’s born with the uncanny ability to imitate anyone he meets instantaneously. Throughout the literary spectrum, plenty of stories have been written about performers or performing, but not impressionists specifically. How did you conjure up such an interesting character?

The Poser began, oddly enough, in the trash. Years ago I was working on a not very good short story about a man who wakes up in a woman’s apartment after a one-night stand. Remembering little of the night before, he begins to root around in her garbage for clues. One of the items he finds was, to my surprise, a black-and-white photo of a famed impressionist, a man who could famously imitate anyone he met. As I soon discovered, I was much more interested in this unexpected performer than I was in the guy who discovered him. I scrapped the story right then and wrote another one, very quickly, about this character Giovanni Bernini. After many years, it became The Poser.

You have experience as a performer—both as a juggler for hire and as the lead rapper of the hip-hop group Witness Protection Program, opening for groups like Jurassic Five and Blackalicious, to name a few. How has your background as a performer influenced the creation of Giovanni Bernini?

I can’t seem to get away from performance, in life or in writing. Personae, masks, fraudulence, disguise—all have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I think a lot about that Picasso line: that art is a “lie that tells the truth.” It seems to me this paradox can obtain in life, too. Like, I once read an article in the Times about a survivor of 9/11, a woman who had been in the south tower when the planes hit. After the tragedy, she organized these legendary support groups. They were these deeply cathartic events, arranged with great thought and care. Survivors and relatives of victims depended on her entirely, so strong was her empathy. Only later did it come out that this woman hadn’t been in the towers at all—she made the whole thing up. I find such behavior deeply disturbing, of course, but fascinating, too. The lie, for this woman at least, clearly felt like an emotional truth.

I did stand-up comedy for a little while, and I think the status of the stand-up comedian reflects a similar paradox: instead of a lie that tells the truth, maybe a stand-up states a truth so serious it has to be packaged as a joke. The stage offers a kind of loophole, a free zone in which what would otherwise be punishably inappropriate can be aired with impunity, even to applause. It’s what performance offers in general, I think: this magical, cordoned-off space where people can lie, hurl abuse, decompensate, and the crowd hoorahs! In The Poser, I wanted to explore a character who finds that his previously outrageous behavior is celebrated simply because it’s put on the stage.

A man with a million personas, Giovanni seemingly can be anyone except himself and at one point in the story undergoes psychoanalysis. Coming from a family of psychiatrists yourself, you must have some insight into analysis and some rather interesting stories, to boot. Will you talk briefly about growing up among psychoanalysts and how that may have shaped Giovanni as a character and the story as a whole?

My grandfather, Theodore Isaac Rubin, was a very famous psychiatrist in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. He appeared regularly on the Phil Donoghue show and wrote many bestselling novels and self-help books, one of which was turned into an Oscar-nominated movie, David and Lisa. Largely because of his influence, my father, aunt, and uncle all went on to become shrinks. Suffice it to say, there is no dearth of introspection at our family get-togethers. (Somewhat notoriously, I informed a classmate of mine in the third grade that he was “projecting”; I am still living this down.) And yet I also wanted to show how beneficial therapy can be. I think portrayals of analysis in books and movies are often pretty lazy, framing it as this ridiculous or masturbatory exercise. I wanted to show that there is true empathy in it – a kind of warm detachment – that can really help people.

The Poser is told from Giovanni’s perspective, at a point in his life where he’s looking back at everything that’s befallen him. What compelled you to use first-person confession as the mode for telling the story?

The enjoinder to “show don’t tell” is important for every young writer to hear, and yet so many of my favorite books wholly disregard it. Notes from the Underground, for instance, or Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, the novels of Robertson Davies and Stanley Elkin. Everyone knows novels can’t compete with movies or video games for sheer sensory onslaught, but books, for my money, capture better than any other media the interiority of experience, the “music of someone’s intelligence,” as Richard Ford once put it. My favorite books promise just this kind of intimate—and for that reason, often scandalous—experience. Like, Lolita or Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son. You open those books, and you’re encountering this presence, this personality talking about something it shouldn’t have done in a voice unlike any you’ve ever heard. My favorite books, probably for that reason, feel like a secret, and you feel slightly cheated when you find out someone else read it. You’re like, “Hands off. She told that to me and no one else.”

Thematically, I thought the first-person narrative was necessary for The Poser as it’s about a man struggling to find himself, which he does, in the end, by telling the story. I also liked the tension of having someone act a certain way, as a performer or fraud, while narrating his often discordant internal experience. He says one thing, but thinks another. This is something I think fiction can do particularly well.

Giovanni’s world is noir-ish, vaudevillian, even a bit surreal. The story is set in an imaginary country that somewhat resembles America of the 1950s and 60s. What was your thought process in setting the story in a parallel, fable-like world?  Did you do any research to flesh out its wonderful detail?

I knew I was taking a risk in setting the book in an imaginary place, a parallel America of the 50s and 60s, and yet it felt necessary for the kind of book I was hoping to write. The Poser, as I see it, is about Giovanni’s attempt to become a real person; it felt right that the landscape, too, might strain to be real, flickering between the evoked and the shadowy. I did do research about the corresponding time in America. Stuff about clothes, some slang, etc. I used as models for the noir prose style novels by favorites like Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler.

I can’t seem to escape the surreal. In visual art, it’s always been my favorite: Giacometti’s sculptures, for instance, or the paintings of Paul Klee. I think I’ve always aspired to whatever the prose equivalent of such a way of seeing would be. For me, it is rare that when meeting a person I note what color nail polish she’s wearing or which kind of ankle boot (this can be very embarrassing, mind you, for someone meant to be observant). Encountering a person can be a pretty damn surreal experience, much more like meeting a Giacometti or a Klee. I think the same is true of places. Just walking around and seeing people yammering on their cellphones or driving around in these motorized chrome bubbles—we live in a sci-fi movie! My agent, Jin Auh, once relayed a line the author George Garrett had about Fellini’s movies. He called them “science fiction set in the past.” I loved that. I think that’s what I’m trying to write.

Bestselling author Sam Lipsyte praised you as “a great hope for comic fiction in the 21st century.” Did you set out to write a humorous book? Were there any books or authors—comedic or otherwise—who inspired you while writing The Poser?

Sam Lipsyte has made me laugh so many times, so I was on cloud nine when I found out he enjoyed the book. I certainly hope the novel’s funny. My old teacher Barry Hannah used to say that books should offer “deep entertainment”; the unkillable ham in me can’t seem to let go of the second word. All of my favorite contemporary writers make me laugh: Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, Barry. Even very dark, supposedly depressing, classics are secretly knee-slappers. I’m thinking of writers like Knut Hamsun, Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett, and Herman Melville. I read Paul Auster’s introduction to Hunger, in which Auster talks about how dark and miserable the book is (all of which is true, of course), but I also thought, it’s hilarious! The truly tragic is the funniest stuff there is! The fact that we live on a spinning ball in an endless void, or that we possess a seemingly infinite consciousness but will all die. It’s just so absurd. I think laugher is the sound of someone accepting their powerlessness and through that acceptance briefly somehow transcending it. And it shouldn’t ever be explained. And I now ruined it forever.

Besides working as a novelist, a magician, and a rapper, you also write screenplays. In fact, Times Square, a script you co-wrote with Taylor Materne, was recently optioned by Focus Features. In your opinion, what’s the biggest difference between writing a novel and a script, and do you prefer writing one form over the other?

I’ve found the two to be very different. In film, structure is king, so you really have to work out the entire plot as much as you can before setting off to write. It helps a lot to work with someone else to figure out what needs to happen when.  Of course, you often end up changing nearly everything anyway, but it’s almost more like assembling a watch or engine, some device that has to meet company-mandated specs. Fiction writing, for me, is a much more unwieldy, inefficient, foolhardy, and reliably meaningful experience. That said, I’ve always enjoyed writing dialogue, and the script stuff is a fun opportunity to pen snappy exchanges. In movie writing, you get to put down things like, “NO WAY OUT. The green creature on his heels, he GRABS the duffel bag and – screw it – LEAPS OFF the roof over the sea wall to the CHURNING WATERS of the GULF of MEXICO.”

The Poser is your debut novel. Is there a second in the works? If so, could you talk a bit about it? If not, would you mind divulging what other creative projects you’re currently working on?

There is a lengthy word file in my laptop that I hesitate to call a second novel, but perhaps it will be one day! It is too early to talk about it, but I hope it will be funny.

To win your own copy, please send an email to contest@gmail.com with “WIN POSER” as the subject.

You must include your snail mail address in your email.

All entries must be received by March 31, 2015. Two (2) names will be drawn from all qualified entries and notified via email. This contest is open to all adults over 18 years of age in the United States only. Your book will be sent by the publisher, Viking Press.

One entry per email address. Subscribers to the monthly newsletter earn an extra entry into every contest. Follow this blog to earn another entry into every contest. Winners may win only one time per year (365 days) for contests with prizes of more than one book. Your email address will not be shared or sold to anyone.

3/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE POSER by Jacob Rubin. Viking (March 17, 2015). ISBN 978-0670016761. 256p.


Win THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah

February 3, 2015

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I loved this book so much that I want one lucky reader to get a free copy! Read on for my review and how you can enter to win.

This was quite a departure for Hannah, who typically writes really good stories about contemporary women’s lives. This time she starts out that way, but quickly goes back in time to 1939 France as the war is getting underway.

Sisters Isabelle and Viann have lost their mother, and their father, damaged from World War I, can’t deal with his loss and his daughters so he sends them away. Isabelle is rebellious and gets kicked out of one boarding school after another, until she’s sent to live with her older sister Viann and her husband. Things don’t work out there and the sisters part ways. But when Viann’s husband goes off to war, eighteen year old Isabelle is sent back to stay with her sister again.

Isabelle wants to be involved in the war effort, but not in a typical-of-the-time way of rolling bandages. When she meets Gäetan, a partisan rebel, she falls in love and wants to go off with him to fight, but he sneaks away, leaving her angry, frustrated and heartbroken. As the Nazis move in to France, the country is divided in two, the Nazi occupied territory, and the Free Zone under Vichy government. The sisters’ small town is taken over by Nazis, and one is billeted in their home.

Isabelle joins the Resistance movement at great personal risk. Her exploits become legendary as eventually she leads downed British and American airmen out of France, walking them across the mountains into Spain and freedom. She becomes known as the Nightingale.

Meanwhile, back at home, Viann’s best friend Rachel is Jewish, and we all know what happens there. She begs Viann to take her baby boy, and as dangerous as it is, Viann acquiesces. Then another Jewish friend is being taken away, and leaves her son as well. Viann knows she can’t keep another Jewish child, so she approaches the Mother Superior at the local convent orphanage, and they take the child. They decide there will be more Jewish children to be saved, and eventually Viann saves several more.

The story moves occasionally back to contemporary times, when one of the sisters is being moved to a nursing home by her son, a doctor, who knows nothing of his mother and her sister’s past – and, in a brilliant stroke on Hannah’s part, we don’t know which sister she is.

This was a completely mesmerizing story, a female side of the war that isn’t often explored. I was totally immersed in their world, and often brought to tears. It is a difficult subject, and the brutality and violence is not whitewashed at all, but is necessary to the story. I have read a lot of Holocaust fiction and this was one of the more interesting, unusual and compelling books on the subject. This strong, well written feminist historical fiction is simply not to be missed. It is sure to make my favorite list for 2015.

To win your own copy, please send an email to contest@gmail.com with “WIN NIGHTINGALE” as the subject.

You must include your snail mail address in your email.

All entries must be received by February 20, 2015. One (1) name will be drawn from all qualified entries and notified via email. This contest is open to all adults over 18 years of age in the United States only. Your book will be sent by the publisher, St. Martins Press.

One entry per email address. Subscribers to the monthly newsletter earn an extra entry into every contest. Follow this blog to earn another entry into every contest. Winners may win only one time per year (365 days) for contests with prizes of more than one book. Your email address will not be shared or sold to anyone.

1/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah. St. Martin’s Press (February 3, 2015). ISBN 978-0312577223. 448p.


THE APPLE ORCHARD by Susan Wiggs

August 22, 2014

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Bella Vista Chronicles, Book 1

This series is set at the Bella Vista apple orchard in Sonoma County, California, in the small town of Archangel. I read these out of order, starting with book 2, The Beekeeper’s Ball, which I liked so much that I immediately ran out and got this book. They don’t have to be read in order, but probably is better to do so.

This story centers around Tess Delaney, an antiques appraiser working for a prestigious California auction house like Sotheby’s. She grew up in Dublin with a single mom who travelled a great deal, so really her grandmother raised her.  The grandmother had an antiques store and Tess loved being there with her, and learned a great deal that helped her in her career. Her mother told her that her father was a one night stand and she didn’t even know his name.

Tess is on the verge of a big promotion and move to New York when Dominic Rossi enters her life. She originally believes he’s come to her for an appraisal, but is shocked to discover that he’s there to deliver some bad news. Her grandfather, Magnus,  has taken a tumble and is in a coma. The news would be devastating to anyone, but the real shocker is that Tess never knew she even had a grandfather. Then she comes to find out that she also has a half-sister.

Dominic is divorced with two kids and dogs and is the executor of Magnus’s estate, and tells Tess that the two granddaughters are equal heirs. Stunned to learn she stands to inherit an estate, Tess decides she had better go meet her half sister, Isabel, and find out more. Along the way she falls in love with the area, and with Dominic, but the estate is on the verge of bankruptcy. Dominic works for the bank that holds the mortgages, but try as he might, the conglomerate that owns the bank won’t budge – until Tess ferrets out a rare antique that is worth millions.

The backstory here is a complicated family one, with some really interesting flashbacks to World War II in Copenhagen, and the Danish resistance. A very fast read with characters that come alive on the pages, and I truly hope there are more books to follow.

8/14 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE BEEKEEPER’S BALL by Susan Wiggs. Harlequin MIRA; Reprint edition (April 29, 2014). ISBN 978-0778314967. 448p.


THE BEEKEEPER’S BALL by Susan Wiggs

August 20, 2014

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Bella Vista Chronicles

This was the first book I’ve read by Susan Wiggs, and as soon as I realized it was the second book of a series, I went and got the first – this is the sequel to The Apple Orchard . Hopefully, there will be more to come.

This story is set at Bella Vista farm in Sonoma County, California, in the small town of Archangel. Isabel Johanson is a culinary school dropout but a gifted chef, and she is converting the large hacienda where she grew up into a farm-to-table cooking school. She is also busy helping her half sister Tess plan her wedding, which will be held at the recently converted barn on the property.

Bella Vista is home to a small apiary, and Isabel is determined to expand it. She leaves a message for a local beekeeper and is waiting for some help, but her bees have minds of their own and start swarming, looking for a new home. As she tries to capture the swarm, a young man stops, who she assumes to be Jamie, the beekeeper. But he knows even less than she does about bees, and gets stung, triggering a life threatening allergic reaction.

Turns out he is Cormac O’Neill, a famous journalist who is on his way to Bella Vista to work on a book about Isabel’s grandfather, Magnus, who worked with the Danish resistance during World War II. This is a family with a lot of secrets, and having the writer there helps them all come out.

There is obvious chemistry between Cormac and Isabel, but she is hesitant about getting involved. She had a bad experience in culinary school and hasn’t really come to terms with everything that happened, but she is forced to when her ex shows up in town to open a restaurant.

There are a lot of threads to this story, and Wiggs masterly weaves them all together seamlessly, creating an engaging page turner with historical significance – I learned a lot about about Denmark’s role during the Holocaust. Her characters are skillfully brought to life, and the setting becomes another character here. There are a few honey based recipes included as well, and I’m dying to try the Bee Sting Cake, a sort of breakfast sweet bread.

If you liked The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult, try The Beekeeper’s Ball – I liked it even more.

8/14 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE BEEKEEPER’S BALL by Susan Wiggs. Harlequin MIRA; First Edition edition (June 24, 2014). ISBN 978-0778314486. 368p.