Posted in 20th Century, Family Saga, Historical Fiction

The Ice Palace Waltz by Barbara L. Baer

Publication Info: Published February 2, 2020 by Open Books. I read the Kindle edition courtesy of the publisher.

Summary: In the late 1800’s, two German Jewish immigrants marry and settle in Leadville, Colorado. Their life wasn’t easy in the rough mining town. As their children grew, some stayed in Leadville, while others moved to find the comforts of big city life in Denver. A few didn’t survive, leaving their families emotionally scarred and in near poverty, while others lived in comfort.

Immigrants continued to arrive, intermarrying with the previous settlers. Some of them blossomed, while others had debilitating health problems due to the high altitude. Some chose to move further away, to seek — and claim — their fortunes in cities like Chicago and New York.

Comments: The Ice Palace Waltz takes its name from a folly built in Leadville in 1895. When the town’s fortunes started to die along with the silver boom, Leadville tried to turn itself into a tourist destination by building an enormous replica of a Norman castle out of wood framing and ice. The palace included a ballroom, skating rink, a restaurant, a carousel and other marvels. Tourists did flock to see it, but it melted within three months after an unusually warm winter. The feat was never attempted again.

The Ice Palace Waltz describes the Jewish American experience of a couple extended families from the late 19th century until the beginning of the Second World War. It is richly detailed with historical facts, like the stock market crash of 1929, and real people, such as the Guggenheims. In the author’s acknowledgments, she mentions that the story is strongly drawn from her own family’s experiences. As I read the novel, I could tell the author was fully invested in the story. This final note gave me more insight into her motivation for writing this family saga.

Recommended for readers of Historical Fiction and Family Sagas, especially those interested in the history of Colorado or the early 20th century.

My Rating: 4 STARS

Posted in Family Saga, Gothic, Thrillers, Uncategorized

House of Brides by Jane Cockram

Publication Info: Expected publication date Oct 22, 2019 by Harper. Pre-Pub Kindle edition courtesy of Eidelweiss + by Above the Treeline.

Summary: Miranda Courteney’s life fell apart when she made one very public mistake. Her frenzied life as a social media health and lifestyle influencer came crashing to a halt after she handed out some particularly unscientific and potentially dangerous advice. Now she’s back living with her father and facing low level employment in a job he secured for her. Miranda doesn’t want to take the job and is restless and unhappy.

While flipping through the household mail, dreading to find more letters from the lawyer’s office, Miranda finds a letter addressed to her mother, Tessa Summers. Her mother has been dead for years. The letter is from Barnsley House in England, where her mother lived before moving to Australia, well before Miranda was born. The letter is a cry for help from a young girl, Sophia, to her aunt Tessa, saying something was wrong with her own mother, Tessa’s sister, Daphne. Sophia apparently was never told her aunt passed away.

Miranda decides to escape to England — to Barnsley house — to help her cousin and find out more about her mother and her maternal family. All Miranda knows about her Summers relatives is in a book that her mother wrote, titled House of Brides. As Miranda recklessly heads to England after stealing money from her father, she doesn’t realize she may be putting herself in mortal danger.

Comments: House of Brides falls just short of my idea of a good gothic mystery. The elements are there — an old house, mysterious deaths, family secrets, possible ghosts — but somehow the atmosphere just didn’t come together for me. I got a bit confused by all of the characters and sub-plots, some of which seemed to exist just to mislead the reader. There is an unexpected twist at the end, which I enjoyed.

Genres: Thriller, Gothic-Mystery, Family Saga

My Rating: 3 STARS

Posted in Best Sellers, Family Saga, General Fiction, Literary Fiction

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Publication Info: Published Sept 24, 2019 by Harper. Hardback edition courtesy of my local library. Other editions available.

Summary: Two siblings, Maeve and Danny live with their father in a monstrosity of a house in a town outside of Philadelphia. The time is shortly after the end of the Second World War. Their mother disappeared when Danny was a toddler. Maeve remembers her, but Danny doesn’t.

Their father, Cyril Conroy, is a lost soul. He takes care of his children’s physical needs via his household help, the cook and housekeeper. While they are both kind and attentive, it is no substitute for a parent. Maeve grows up too quickly, taking on the parenting role for her younger brother.

Into this house of gaudily expressed wealth and brooding portraits of past owners, walks a woman who is what Cyril’s wife wasn’t— appreciative of him and his albatross of a house. Over time she worms her way into their lives as his new wife, dragging her two daughters with her. Cyril’s son and daughter are slowly pushed out of the house until suddenly, the door is slammed against them after their father’s unexpected demise.

Adrift, they cling to each other in ways that are necessary for their survival, as they are now nearly penniless. As they struggle to overcome their drastic change of circumstances, they learn lessons about what it means to love and forgive.

Comments: The Dutch House is engrossing and accessible Literary Fiction. The writing seems effortless — and yet I know it had to be anything but — and draws the reader in as thoroughly as a nail-biting thriller.

As I read this book, something kept feeling familiar. I initially put it down to my childhood tours and fantasies of the mansions in Newport, RI. It wasn’t until I started writing this review that I realized what made this book seem so personal. My own mother was raised in much the same way as the children in this book. While their house was on a much smaller scale and lacked the gaudy touches, she was raised by a housekeeper while her parents were busy being self-indulgent. Her older sister provided some of the love she craved. My mother’s childhood scarred her for the rest of her life, ultimately damaging her relationship with me.

So, while The Dutch House may be a work of fiction, it is not fantasy by any means. It is an intimate portrait of a dysfunctional family — that was to me — all too real.

Highly recommended for readers of Literary Fiction, Family Sagas/Stories, Best Sellers and General Fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS.

Posted in Family Saga, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

The Year of the Return by Nathaniel Popkin

Publication Info: Published Aug 1, 2019 by Open Books. Kindle edition courtesy of their Book Glow reviewers program.

Summary: The setting is Philadelphia, 1976, just before the country’s Bicentennial. The country is still reeling from the effects of the Viet Nam war. Mayor Frank Rizzo is throwing his weight around, doing his best to foment racial uprisings, just so he can quell them with force.

In the midst of this stew are two families, the Silks and the Johnsons. They met and connected a few years previously when Paul Silk married Charlene Johnson. As the story begins, Paul has just returned to Philadelphia from Denver, about a year after Charlene died of cancer.

The Russian Jewish Silk family’s patriarch, Sam, owns Silk Industries, a textile and clothing manufacturing business, which has been in the family for a couple of generations. His two sons, one of whom is Paul, don’t want to go into the family business. Paul is a newspaper editor/reporter and his brother, Alan, is an insurance executive.

The African-American Johnson family make their way wherever they can. Charlene’s father, Charles, works as a delivery driver. Charlene’s sister is a dental office assistant and her brother, Monte, is an unemployed Vietnam War veteran.

Besides the marriage that bound these two families together, they are also connected by changing times and racial prejudice. They are living in an era and a city that is experiencing growth and turmoil in its population, neighborhoods and political climate. Each family also faces challenges from within their own members. And each family has secrets, one of which is dangerous enough to threaten the stability of both families.

Comments: The Year of the Return is a literary snapshot of a period in Philadephia’s history. By focusing on two families whose jobs are widely spread throughout the city, –including a mobile and observant reporter–the author brought me right into that city with the Silks and Johnsons. I visited Philadelphia twice just a few years prior to this book, and I grew up in a suburb of Baltimore, so I have some personal experience of the era and place to add to Popkins descriptions.

It took me a while to get into the book as it is written in a sometimes poetic stream of consciousness style. The voices, other than Monte’s utterly unique one, tended to sound much alike in my head. This was helped by the clearly named chapters so the reader would know who was speaking.

I found myself thinking about this book long after I finished reading it. 1976 was just a few years before the digital age exploded in the country. In one scene in the book, Charlene and Paul are arrested for kissing by a passing cop because they are an interracial couple Forty three years later, with a backlash political climate, ubiquitous cameras, cell phones and social media, the situation for non-whites not only hasn’t improved, it’s gotten worse.

The Year of the Return is about more than two families in one year, in one city: it is a tale about our shared past and and an arrow pointing to our troubled future.

Recommended for readers of Literary Fiction, Family Sagas and Historical Fiction.

My rating: 4 STARS

Purchase this book directly through Open Books The Year of the Return.

Posted in 20th Century, Family Saga, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized

Bethlehem by Karen Kelly

Publication Info: Expected publication date: July 9th 2019 by St. Martin’s Press. Kindle pre-pub edition courtesy of NetGalley

Bethlehem

Summary: Joanna Collier recently moved into her husband’s family home in Pennsylvania with her two young children, Charlie and Daisy. Frank Collier moved them there to help his aging mother after his father died. With her husband working and traveling most of the time, Joanna is feeling at loose ends, not quite sure of her place in the Collier family’s overly-large house or her relationship with her aloof mother-in-law, Susanna.

On a walk with her children, Joanna meets Doe, one of the caretakers of the local cemetery. Doe is a charming, if someone fey woman, who gives Joanna a much warmer welcome than she feels at home. Doe’s grandson, Daniel, is also on the premises. Joanna is drawn to the laconic, gentle man, who listens to her far more than her husband does.

Loneliness drives Joanna to make a serious mistake that could potentially destroy her marriage. But she finds an unexpected ally in her mother-in-law, who has secrets of her own.

Comments: This novel takes place in two time periods, the 20’s and 60’s. Joanna’s is the more current story, but the more compelling, complex tale is the older one–that of two families whose lives are entwined for generations. I found the novel interesting and enjoyable, but not riveting. I did like the setting, having grown up on the east coast and experiencing the boom and bust of the steel industry.

Recommended for readers of General Fiction and those who enjoy family sagas.

Posted in Europe, Family Saga, Historical Fiction, Multi-Cultural Fiction, World War I

House of Gold by Natasha Solomons

Publication Information: Pre-Pub Kindle edition, October 23, 2018 by G.P. Putnam sons. Pre-pub courtesy of First to Read. Originally published by Cornerstone Books, May 3, 2018.

Summary: Nicknamed the House of Gold, the Goldbaum’s Palace in Vienna, Austria in the early 20th century is an extraordinary display of wealth. The white limestone edifice trimmed in gold gilt, inside and out, gleams in the sunlight. At night, electric lights, a fairly new innovation, shine through the windows like beacons. The Goldbaums eat the finest foods and throw opulent parties. Beggars and street urchins feed themselves from the Goldbaums’ scraps.

The Goldbaums are a family of powerful bankers. With offices in the major cities in Europe, they hold enormous power and wealth. Governments come to them for loans. And yet, they are not completely trusted by other powerful banking families. The Goldbaums are outsiders because they are Jewish.House of Gold

The patriarch of the Vienna family needs an heir to continue the family name and tradition. He has two children; a son, Otto, and a daughter, Greta. Otto is expected to learn and take over the business. Greta is expected to provide the heir. An arrangement is made for her to marry Albert Goldbaum, a distant cousin.

Greta chafes at this. An impetuous, impish free spirit from early girlhood, Greta refuses to fit the mold of societal expectations. Albert, much more conservative, doesn’t know what to do with his wife and simply ignores her with barely concealed distaste.

As the world starts changing around them and the foundations of the old ways of life begin cracking and shifting, Greta and Albert begin to find common ground.  But war breaks out and they are once again pulled apart, their lives irrevocably changed.

Comments: House of Gold is a gentle, genteel family saga with memorable, fully-realized characters. It also drives home the harsh realities of poverty, war and anti-Semitism. I became increasingly emotionally involved in the book as I read—much more than I expected at its beginning.

Highly recommended for readers of historical fiction and family sagas. I think this book would also make a great period piece film or a Masterpiece-style mini-series.