Review: Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert

last night at the blue angel by rebecca rotertFormat read: ebook borrowed from the Library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Historical fiction
Length: 328 pages
Publisher: William Morrow
Date Released: July 1, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Set against the backdrop of the early 1960s Chicago jazz scene, a highly ambitious and stylish literary debut that combines the atmosphere and period detail of Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility with the emotional depth and drama of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, about a talented but troubled singer, her precocious ten-year-old daughter, and their heartbreaking relationship.

It is the early 1960s, and Chicago is a city of uneasy tensions—segregation, sexual experimentation, free love, the Cold War—but it is also home to one of the country’s most vibrant jazz scenes. Naomi Hill, a singer at the Blue Angel club, has been poised on the brink of stardom for nearly ten years. Finally, her big break arrives—the cover of Look magazine. But success has come at enormous personal cost. Beautiful and magnetic, Naomi is a fiercely ambitious yet extremely self-destructive woman whose charms are irresistible and dangerous for those around her. No one knows this better than Sophia, her clever ten-year-old daughter.

For Sophia, Naomi is the center of her universe. As the only child of a single, unconventional mother, growing up in an adult world, Sophia has seen things beyond her years and her understanding. Unsettled by her uncertain home life, she harbors the terrible fear that the world could end at any moment, and compulsively keeps a running list of practical objects she will need to reinvent once nuclear catastrophe strikes. Her one constant is Jim, the photographer who is her best friend, surrogate father, and protector. But Jim is deeply in love with Naomi—a situation that adds to Sophia’s anxiety.

Told from the alternating perspectives of Sophia and Naomi, their powerful and wrenching story unfolds in layers, revealing Sophia’s struggle for her mother’s love with Naomi’s desperate journey to stardom and the colorful cadre of close friends who shaped her along the way.

Sophisticated yet poignant, Last Night at the Blue Angel is an unforgettable tale about what happens when our passion for the life we want is at sharp odds with the life we have. It is a story ripe with surprising twists and revelations, and an ending that is bound to break your heart.

My Review:

There were points in this story when I wavered between the knowledge that it was centered around Naomi Hill’s very last night at the Blue Angel, and the unfolding story of what happened last night (and last week and last month) at the Blue Angel.

There’s a sense that every night brings the same set of crises and triumphs to Naomi’s life and career, at least as it is viewed from the perspective of her 11-year-old daughter Sophia.

While this is in Chicago in the mid-1960’s, it doesn’t feel like the wider world of the city. Admittedly, the early 60s were not the best time in the life of the city, but also, Naomi and Sophia’s world is a very insular one. It’s their small neighborhood around the club, and the collection of friends that they have turned into a family-of-choice.

The story in the present day is told through Sophia’s eyes. She is 11, but in the tight little world created around her mother’s career as a possibly has been but also wannabe famous jazz singer, Sophia is the only child in a world of adults. As all the adults around her enable Naomi, Sophia has become a little adult herself. Her knowledge of the outside world is a child’s knowledge, but her ability to manage her mother’s mood swings, drinking and general using of people becomes more adult by the day. It’s a survival mechanism that has turned her into a little adult much too early.

Interwoven with Sophia’s perspective of the weeks and months leading to Naomi’s last night and last performance at the Blue Angel, we see Naomi’s version of how things got to be the way that they are. It is Naomi’s story, and possibly the one she tells herself, of how she has gathered the collection of people who surround her in 1965. It’s how Naomi Hutnik of Soldier, Kansas became Naomi Hill of Chicago, and all the people she either dragged along with her or pulled into the gravity of her orbit along the way.

Some of it may be objectively true, but it feels as though it’s the way that Naomi has decided to remember her own story of country girl moves to the city to strike it big – even though it takes years, and everyone around her has nearly given up hope.

Sophia, on the other hand, is better off (for certain very unusual definitions of better off) when her mother is still struggling and needs her. When Naomi finally ascends to the stratosphere, she leaves her old life behind – including Sophia.

Even though it is the help and support of the circle she drew in, and casts aside, that finally allows her to become a star.

Escape Rating B+: It is easy to get caught up in Sophia’s story. On the one hand, not a lot happens, until it suddenly does, but at the same time, her young/old perspective reveals a lot about the way she lives, the way her mother is, and what life is like for a child in the years when fear of the bomb was still real.

Sophia lives an unpredictable life of ups and downs – of being the most important person in her mother’s world, and a burden that weighs Naomi down – sometimes in the same day. Everything in Naomi’s world serves Naomi’s art, which means that everyone revolves around attempting to keep Naomi stable and making sure that she gets to the club and sings her heart out.

It’s possible that Naomi doesn’t have much heart left.

It’s certain that the instability of her life makes Sophia fear that it can all disappear in an instant. She projects that fear into her fear of the bomb, but it’s more about the people she loves and the life she knows. That her mother regularly disappears in the emotional sense means that Sophia isn’t wrong to be afraid.

The fascinating part of the story revolves around Naomi’s origin story. Absolutely nothing is as it seems, and no one is quite who they present themselves to be. These truths are revealed slowly and carefully, as Naomi tells her story and constructs the world around her one person at a time. And it all comes together just at the same time it all falls apart.

This is a story about one woman who defied the expectations of her time and gender, but it is also about her equally unconventional daughter, who is already defying the very different social conventions of hers.

If this story sounds appealing, I think you might also enjoy 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie Helene Bertino. The time and place are different but the elements of a young girl telling the story of a jazz club feel similar. As I read Blue Angel I couldn’t stop thinking of the Cat’s Pajamas, both about little girls with big stories to tell.

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews.
***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Dialogues of a Crime by John K Manos + Giveaway

dialogues of a crime by john k manosFormat read: ebook provided by the author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genre: mystery
Length: 301 pages
Publisher: Amika Press
Date Released: December 22, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

1972. The Chicago Mob stands unchallenged, and college students with drugs provide fodder for political point-making. Michael Pollitz, a nineteen-year-old with connections to the Outfit, becomes one of those political pawns.

1994. Job-weary CPD Detective Larry Klinger becomes obsessed with a cold case from that pivotal moment twenty-two years ago. In the course of his investigation, he encounters questions of ethics, guilt, and justice that make him doubt certainties that have sustained him for decades.

Dialogues of a Crime examines guilt, innocence and the long-term ramifications of crime and punishment in a gray area where the personal lives of perpetrators, victims and law officers overlap.

My Review:

I was surprised at how absorbing this story was, even though it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be.

Obviously, based on the title, I thought it would be about a crime, and either someone would get away, it would turn out to be justified, or the perpetrator would suffer his or her due punishment.

Instead, we have a series of character portraits revolving around events in 1972. Yes, there was a crime, and yes, there were punishments, just not the way you expect.

We also have the story of the long twilight fall of the Chicago Mob, from a position of heavy-handed influence to death in the shadows.

In 1972, a kid is more-or-less railroaded into a plea deal that sends him to prison. It all seems like the worst coincidence of circumstances, but it turns out differently than expected because Michael Pollitz has connections, and because the Mob casts a long shadow.

There are two crimes; one is that Pollitz got caught up in the war on drugs and a politician’s need to be seen cleaning up the college campuses. All he did was show an undercover agent to a dorm room where he could buy drugs. It was the sort of thing that probably everyone knew and anyone would have done. The difference is that Pollitz is the only one of the college kids to do time, because his parents were too scared and too proud to take help from Michael’s best friend’s father, the head of the Chicago crime family.

When Michael is raped, beaten and brutalized in prison, the perpetrators are marked for death. Michael’s connection to the crime, and to the mob, come to light 20 years later, in the investigation by a cop who starts out thinking that murder is never justified, and ends up wondering who exactly was harmed in this particular crime.

We’re left with the same questions. Not just about “who dunnit”, but also who suffered for it and who deserved to. In the end, it doesn’t matter if Michael Pollitz committed the murders, requested them, or just celebrated afterwards.

He’s felt the sting of it all his life, both the crime committed against him and the ones that he might have influenced. It haunts him, and it haunts the reader.

Escape Rating B+: I was caught up in this from the moment that the rather late investigation starts, because the CPD cop, Larry Klinger, may not be the most sympathetic detective ever written, but he is dogged and he asks questions, both the right questions and the wrong ones. He wants the truth, but then isn’t sure what truth really is, or what it serves.

And he’s not quite as broken as Michael Pollitz, who seems to have lost all his emotions except anger at his own mistakes.

The story also describes the ways that the Chicago Mob held power, and then how it faded, as seen through the way that Michael’s friend’s family rises and eventually falls. Also in the way that the influence of the Mob bought restaurants, strip clubs, and prison guards.

I lived in the Chicago area in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and I could recognize some of the places described in the story. I drove some of the same roads that Pollitz does, and at the same time period. I almost felt like I recognized some of the restaurants, and maybe I did. In the newspaper and TV news of that area, the Mob was still a force, but fading. There were always stories of places that were owned, or people who went to school with the children of mobsters, just as Michael did.

The mystery, some of which remains a mystery, was compelling, and the Chicago felt right.

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews.


John is giving away a copy of Dialogues of a Crime to one lucky (US/CAN) commenter.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Leaping Leprechauns & Frolicking Fairies-The All Things Irish Blog Hop

Welcome to Leaping Leprechauns & Frolicking Fairies – The All Things Irish Blog Hop!

This hop is hosted by Gin’s Book Notes and Candace’s Book Blog, and is a celebration of all things Irish or Fairy-related. Today, Celtic myths are us!

I used to live in Chicago, and every St. Patrick’s Day the city dyes the Chicago River green! This year, the “greening of the river” happened on Saturday, March 15, so that the town could get started on their celebrating early.

green river 1It just feels wrong that St. Patrick’s Day is a Monday this year–this is a holiday that seems almost designed to be a weekend!

But maybe by the actual day you’ll be all celebrated out, and ready to curl up with a good book or two. Here’s where the hop comes in.

I’m giving away a $10 Gift Card from either Amazon or B&N, or for international hoppers, a book from Book Depository up to $10. The winner will be able to make their own little celebration. To enter my hop, just fill out the rafflecopter and tell us your favorite story about the Fae Folk or based on Celtic mythology.

Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks is still one of my favorites. Tell us yours!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

For more chances to win more prizes, just visit the other stops on the hop!

House hunting is not for sissies

Galen and I have moved 4 times in last 10 years.  This move will be our fifth.  And for anyone at the Evergreen Users Conference who has already heard a part of this saga, apologies in advance for the deja vu.  I’ll try to be funnier.

We have moved from Chicago to Anchorage to Tallahasse to Chicago to Gainesville and now, to Atlanta.  We keep saying this is an adventure.  Well, one classic definition of adventure usually involves something horrible and nasty happening to someone else, either long ago, far away, or both.  But it is an adventure.  The bad parts always make a great story–later.  Sometimes much, much later.

When you move to or from Alaska, you move by weight, not by volume.  I know it sounds like a bag of potato chips, but it’s true.  This is how I know we have nearly two tons of books, and we really need to get rid of some.  This is also how we decided, firmly and forever, that we hire movers to pack us.  Leaving Chicago, the first time out, we had a third floor walk up apartment.  Those movers earned their pay, getting all those books down those stairs.  The apartment was great, but getting stuff in and out was painful.

Anchorage was fantastic, but we learned a couple of lessons about living spaces that we’ve retained.  We really need a bath and a half if we can afford them.  And we learned not to share living space if we can afford not to.  The house was a two-flat, where the owner had split the house himself.  We lived on the main floor, and he and his wife lived below us.  They ran their dogs in the backyard.  The dogs served as an early warning system for the moose who used to come up from the creek, so we knew when to look out back to see the moose.  Very cool.  What was not cool was that we could hear their marriage break up.  Not doing that again.  When we moved out, we found boxes in the garage that we hadn’t unpacked from Chicago.  We mostly threw that stuff out, except for the huge jar of coins–that we went to dinner on.  We figured that if we hadn’t needed it in two and a half years, we didn’t.  We also learned that it’s a bad idea for us to have storage we can’t see.  We forget about it, and then it has babies or something.

When we moved from Anchorage to Tallahassee, we flew out of Anchorage with the cats, our suitcases, and nothing else.  We sold our car on the way out of Alaska because it cost 6 car payments to ship, and it just wasn’t worth it.  We hadn’t made a trip down to find a place, because there just wasn’t time.  Our stuff was six weeks behind us.  We stayed at a pet-friendly hotel, bought a car, and found a house to rent.  Then we camped out in our new house and waited for our stuff to arrive.  And waited.  And waited.  After a while, we got to like the minimalist lifestyle and were kind of hoping that the stuff would get permanently lost.

The second time around in Chicago we rented a coachhouse.  If you are not familiar with older city architorture, a coachhouse is what you get if you convert the garage into rental property.  So we had a little house behind the house.  What we didn’t have was a washer and dryer.  We shared with the house, which was a three-flat.  Four households sharing one washer and dryer does not happiness make.  So we’re not doing that again either.  But we love Chicago and miss the city.  Any chance to go back and visit is a good one.

In Gainesville we have a huge barn of a house.  We have more space than we need, because we rented the house to hold the books, and we still haven’t unpacked the end of the alphabet.  In, again, two point five years.

I spent a day and a half with an agent going around the northeast Atlanta suburbs searching for a 3 plus bedroom house with at least 1.5 baths that would willingly take us plus four cats.  The cats are usually the deal-breaker.  People don’t mind renting to two adults, even with two cats, but any number past two cats makes some landlords think we’ve lost our minds.  Which is possible, but that ship has already sailed.

House hunting is hard work, even if you are just renting.  I was dragged all over the place.  Half the houses that appeared to be available, were already under contract.  People didn’t call back.  Some looked okay in the picture, but were not okay in the “flesh”.  And it takes time, time, time.  Every place that didn’t pan out, I kept thinking “why isn’t this process more efficient”, but there’s no substitute for looking for yourself.  And, Murphy’s Law is in full force.  The house we made an offer on is the first one I looked at.  But I wouldn’t have known it was the best if I hadn’t seen second best, not to mention tenth best, which had the driveway leading up to Hades, and mustard yellow kitchen cabinets.