Wednesday, June 29, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Ingenue -- Jillian Larkin

Like Jillian Larkin, I'm a strong fan of the 1920's flappers and the Jazz Era. I read her debut novel, Vixen with a good deal of interest.

And frankly, I was somewhat tepid:

"This is an interesting read and a very light taste of the times. If you really want to read about the Roaring Twenties, read F. Scott Fitzgerald and other writers of the time. Vixen is; however, a fun beach, or in this case, stuck at home during a snowstorm, read."

I will still recommend Fitzgerald, because he lived during the period rather than researched it, I was much more pleased with Ingenue. It's always good to see when a writer really begins to shine.

Here's the Amazon review with some additions:

takes up a few weeks after Vixen left off. The original cast of narrators has moved from Al Capone's Chicago to New York City with a new addition. Vera Johnson, the eighteen-year-old African-American sister of jazz pianist Jerome Johnson, has discovered her brother is on a mob hitlist and she's coming to New York to warn him. She's joined by Evan, the horn player in Jerome's band.

Meanwhile, Gloria Carmody, the runaway deb, is hiding from the mob in New York City with her African American lover, Jerome. The formerly wealthy young woman has to resort to stealing food in order to survive and in the racially-embroiled climate of the 1920's, she and Jerome are hiding their love. Both still have hopes of finding a career in jazz, but they've quickly discovered the Mob's blacklisted them.

Gloria's former best friend, Lorraine, is managing a Mob-run speakeasy called The Opera House. She's angry at what she believes was Gloria's betrayal and working under direction of a mobster who wants vengeance on the couple.

Finally, Clara, Gloria's cousin, is in New York with her new beau, Marcus. She's moved to Brooklyn to avoid her former 'Queen Sheba of the Flappers' image and a lurid past.

These four young women are caught up in a web of gangland machinations during a very turbulent period in our country's history. The jazz was hot, the liquor and pleasures forbidden, and the people were trying to get past the devastation of World War 1 and the flu pandemic that happened before.

The narrative is much faster-paced than the original novel. I actually read Ingenue in one sitting, where I left Vixen several times. Ms. Larkin opened both stories with a bang, but didn't quite carry the pace on the first try. Of course, this time Larkin's got a bigger buy-in when, Bastien, a skeevy character from the previous book, is killed in front of Vera. Right up front, you know that Gloria and Jerome are at risk and perhaps the others as well.

The characterization is deeper achieving a stronger balance between plot and people. This is definitely an improvement, I initially was more interested in the plot than the people. This is not a good thing for someone who is primarily a character reader like me.

I believe Ms. Larkin has had a chance to get to know the three original characters (Gloria, Lorraine, and Clara) and she's conveying their needs and wishes much more strongly.

In the first book, Gloria read more like a 'paper doll' to me. She's now much more real, strong, and committed to the path she's chosen.

Lorraine is still Lorraine. She's spiteful and doesn't think things through. I'm actually looking forward to seeing what Ms. Larkin does with her in the final book. Not every character grows at the same pace as her 'sisters' and she may come out a heroine in the end.

Clara's been my favorite from the beginning. She's obviously not the privileged deb that Gloria and Lorraine are and she's doing her best to fit in to society while hiding her past. In Ingenue, the struggles deepen, as she tries to learn who and what she really wants to be.

Vera Johnson makes an excellent addition to the cast enabling Larkin to further explain the racial tensions of the period. She's a bolder, girl-of-the-street than the other three and she adds some authentic sass to the crew. I have a feeling that like me, Ms. Larkin was fascinated with the glimpses of Vera she gave us in the first book and wanted to add her story to the other girls'.

There's not really a serious parental warning on this book. Sex (which is a word I would not use in an Amazon review because it may well automatically throw the darn thing out) occurs offstage. The language is less than young adult girls would hear on television or the playground. There's drinking, but Prohibition defines the era.

As with every series, I feel like it's a reviewer's responsibility to comment on whether you should read the first book to understand those subsequent. In this case, the first book Vixen does explain why the characters are in their particular predicaments. If you are fascinated with the period, I would read Vixen first. It is possible to read between the lines and pick up the issues reasonably well in the sequel, kudos to Ms. Larkin for making the 'middle child' stand on its own.

I'm excited about the new branch of historical fiction coming into the young adult genre. History's a weak subject in the school system and books like these can engender love of the often under-appreciated topic in youth. Additionally, people like me who are fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald get a chance to read more about a favorite period in history. I'm definitely looking forward to the third book, Diva, which will be available in 2012.

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