Thursday, March 30, 2017

Unholy Alliance - a romantic suspense by Kathleen Rowland

Greetings, commies!

Every once in a while I like to challenge myself by reading work outside of my comfort zone. Being sarcastic and pessimistic, I don't generally read books that have "romantic" in the genre, because you know there is going to be steamy sex between consensual adults, pillow talk and some semblance of a happy ending. Nevertheless, every once in a while a review copy lands in my lap. Anything that has to do with the Irish mob is fascinating. The Irish mob does not get as much coverage in fiction. Kathleen Rowland's Unholy Alliance is a second book in the Donahue Cousins series. The first book Deadly Alliance is the first one in the series, and I haven't read it yet, but there is enough of a back story in the second book to set the scene. Given that Unholy Alliance is a romantic suspense, a genre piece, there is only so much latitude the author can allow herself. It means that the rough edges have to be smoothed over. The crime cannot be too seedy, and the sex cannot be too smutty or kinky (although, there are some rather explicit descriptions of various body parts fitting into each other). The novel's protagonist, Tori/Victoria, has a criminal past, but it has to be for a crime she did not commit. So Tori is not a sympathetic redemption seeker. She is, essentially, a damsel in distress with a veil of martyrdom around her. And the man who pulls her out of jail, Attorney Grady Fletcher, whose only blemish is being a divorced guilt-ridden dad, is her knight in shining armor. So if you take comfort in this particular genre, then Unholy Alliance will prove a very satisfying read.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Girl Like You - a Depression era mystery that reads like an escape fantasy

Greetings, commies!
There is no right or wrong way to interpret a great novel.  A well-written multilayered mystery is open to interpretation. Michelle Cox's debut A Girl Like You is one of such novels. When people feel disempowered and cornered, they often start fantasizing about other people's lives to get distracted from their own misery. They start concocting fanciful plots. It's one of the coping mechanisms with the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. This is why I wanted to share my personal interpretation of this novel as an escape fantasy that takes place in the head of a young woman who ends up with too much on her shoulders.

Henrietta Von Harmon works as a 26 girl at a corner bar on Chicago’s northwest side. It’s 1935, but things still aren’t looking up since the big crash and her father’s subsequent suicide, leaving Henrietta to care for her antagonistic mother and younger siblings. Henrietta is eventually persuaded to take a job as a taxi dancer at a local dance hall—and just when she’s beginning to enjoy herself, the floor matron turns up dead.

When aloof Inspector Clive Howard appears on the scene, Henrietta agrees to go undercover for him—and is plunged into Chicago’s grittier underworld. Meanwhile, she’s still busy playing mother hen to her younger siblings, as well as to pesky neighborhood boy Stanley, who believes himself in love with her and keeps popping up in the most unlikely places, determined to keep Henrietta safe—even from the Inspector, if need be. Despite his efforts, however, and his penchant for messing up the Inspector’s investigation, the lovely Henrietta and the impenetrable Inspector find themselves drawn to each other in most unsuitable ways.

My thoughts:
Michelle Cox's debut novel "A Girl Like You" reads like an escape fantasy. I am not sure if I am the first reader who got this impression, but I can almost see this entire story happening inside Henrietta's head. At nineteen, Henrietta finds herself with so many burdens upon her shoulders. The systemic economic depression that affects the whole country, the personal stigma of having a father who had committed suicide, the pressure from her guilt-tripping mother, the physical needs of her younger siblings who are much too young to be sympathetic. But the greatest burden of all, perhaps, is her beauty. She really hasn't figured out what to do with it, how to use to her advantage. So far, being beautiful has brought more trouble than gain. Committed as she is to helping her family survive, poor Henrietta cannot seem to keep a job. She is stuck in the vicious cycle of being assaulted by male coworkers and rowdy clients, and getting fired for sticking up for herself. She clings to her instinctive chastity and her principles, but is being chaste a luxury "a girl like her" cannot afford under the circumstances? So when Henrietta's life starts taking unexpected turns, veering off into the world of danger and mystery, as a reader, I could not help but wonder how much of it was real, and how much was imaginary. Perhaps, she never leaves the drudgery of her physical existence, and the thrilling murder mystery and her romance with Inspector Howard are mere figments of her frustrated imagination? Regardless of how you interpret Henrietta's adventures, "A Girl Like You" is an exciting read that combines gritty realism with mystery and romance.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Accidental Adulthood - proof that men have feelings too

Greetings, commies!

Relationship fiction has been dominated by female authors. Here is a refreshing change of pace. A humorous novel by a male author. It proves that yes, men have feelings, and they are just as prone to overnalyzing and overthinking as women. Today's guest is Jeff Gephart, author of Accidental Adulthood: One Man's Adventure with Dating and Other Friggin' Nonsense.

Mick's adult life is not turning out the way he'd hoped. His twenties are over, and instead of being the acclaimed novelist and family man he thought he'd be, Mick is stuck running a second-rate California motel and fumbling through an endless succession of hilarious dating misadventures. Most of his friends are married with children, and he feels they look down upon single people like him as being merely a fraction of a whole being. During his version of the modern single man's search for what completes him, Mick must contend with a cast of quirky and memorable characters that both frustrate and sustain him as he navigates his way toward having to make a momentous career decision that will affect all of their lives. Accidental Adulthood is a coming-of-age story for the Tinder generation. As Mick begins to face up to his own flaws and struggles to ascertain his place in the adult world, some universal truths are illuminated about family, ambition, responsibility, loyalty, and relationships.

My thoughts:
Despite the length, Gephart's Accidental Adulthood is a smooth, entertaining and effortless read. Effortless - but far from brainless.  Every chapter is bursting with grit, texture, flavor, references to pop culture, world history and dark humor. The author beats himself up with one hand and then strokes with another. It's a self-deprecating stream of consciousness, a celebration of Peter Pan inside every middle-aged man. It reads like a stand-up comedy skit worthy of Eric Bogosian.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Before and After Zachariah - Fern Kupfer's confessional memoir on raising a brain-damaged child

Greetings, commies!
As we celebrate March 8th, Women's Day, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the whole concept of women's solidarity and their treatment of each other. It's no secret that women can be each other's greatest allies, but they can also be each other's cruelest judges. Mommy Wars seem to have gotten more intense over the years. It's not just about working versus stay-at-home moms. It's about mothers of neurotypical children and special needs children. As a first (and only) time mother, I struggled with the new responsibility. My child was fairly healthy, and I continued working, but I had to make some adjustments to my schedule because of some transient medical needs that he had. Still, on those days when I was at home with a sick child, I felt incredibly isolated. I cannot even imagine what it feels like being stuck at home with a child who has serious medical or developmental issues. I'll be the first one to admit that I am NOT a super mom who thinks that "a special child is a special blessing". When I hear ultra religious people say those things, I cannot help but question their sincerity. Do they really fill this way? Have they convinced themselves that they were chosen by God to parent this un-parentable child? Or are they just ashamed to admit how they really feel? Do they regret having this child? Do they secretly wish the child would "go away"?

A woman from a parenting group I belong to recommended this book by Fern Kupfer, Before & After Zachariah. Even though Kupfer cites many confessional passages from other mothers who had severely handicapped children, she does not speak on behalf of all women. She gives every woman a voice, but she does not become a mouth piece. It's something I respect and appreciate. She does not put herself on the pedestal of martyrdom. Every experience is unique, and every mother's emotional bandwidth varies. Until it happens to you, you don't know your strong spots, and you don't know your fragile spots. Sometimes you break in places you did not expect to break.

Warning: this book uses the word "retarded", which has seems to fallen out of favor with the politically correct crowd. This book is also not for those from the "what doesn't break you makes you stronger" camp or from the "God won't give you more than you can handle."