House of the Patriarch by Barbara Hambly (Historical Fiction / Mystery)

Another meticulously researched and vivid historical fiction / mystery in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. January is a free man of color in New Orleans, 1840. He is also a musician and a surgeon (certified in Paris). He wants to save everybody and is painfully aware of how few he can actually help.

In this episode, he heads to New York City to help find a young (white) woman who disappeared without a trace. In order to find her, he must slip into the Children of the Light — a religious community in upstate New York run by the charismatic abolitionist Reverend Broadaxe.

Bursting with historical detail, Hambly brings to life the social and political climate of the day — the various religious communities, the occult (and associated scams), the “blackbirders” who catch escaped slaves (or anyone they can) in the North for return to the South, the presence and use of opiates, etc. Real-life characters PT Barnum and David Ruggles play an integral and plausible role in the proceedings.

Plenty of action for those who enjoy action — personally I was far more interested in the history which was detailed and full of dialog, characters, and the rich inner world of January’s thoughts. The portrait of the time and place is full of comprehensive perceptions from a variety of perspectives — the sights, sounds, smells, and the ever present tumult of conflicting ideas.

No need to read previous books — I’ve probably read four out of the seventeen and had no problem understanding the context.

Thank you to Severn House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 5th, 2021.

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Unusual family drama (with an element of mystery) that takes place before, during, and after the big San Francisco Quake of 1906. Irish immigrant Sophie Whalen answers an ad for a mail order bride. The husband? A handsome widower with a young, motherless, daughter. Things are not as they appear, however, and one morning when her husband is away, a knock on the door changes everything. And then … the big one hits.

Decent writing, likable though somewhat two-dimensional characters, and some interesting surprises in the plot. The best part is the detailed, historically accurate descriptions of San Francisco and the Bay Area (eg San Mateo) during and after the quake.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 2nd, 2021.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Soloman (Speculative Fiction)

World building: 3/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Writing: 4/5

This is a decently written speculative fiction novel that “explores structural racism and generation ships.” Aster is a brilliant neuro-divergent female living on the lower decks of the spaceship Matilda — three centuries into a voyage away from a dying planet. The ship is run by a ruthless sovereign and populated with cruel guards who keep the lower levels of the deck system (a mirror of racial lines) in order. While suffering constant persecution, Aster manages to untangle the secrets of her dead mother’s coded journals to discover a massive secret that impacts the lives of everyone on board.

The story was engaging but overall unsatisfying. The tropes of oppression and persecution are well expressed but quite two-dimensional. There was a lot of action, but very few surprises, and the end lacked clarity. I did find the main characters to be an interesting collection of stereotypes: Aster — the brilliant scientist who insistently pursues her goals despite beatings and directed torment; Giselle — the angry black woman who finds herself so enraged she is destructive towards everyone, including those she loves most; Melusine — the caretaker figure who favors stability and caution over outright rebellion; and Theo — the privileged and talented mixed race man who is driven by guilt and a strong desire to do the right thing and yet cannot bring himself to the violence necessitated by the situation.

The story and characters are a real mishmash of “unheard voices.” Plenty of gender noncomformity, intense class and race clashes, and religion-based oppression. Lots of things didn’t quite make sense — a generation ship capable of traveling for centuries would have a large population and yet the same people seem to consistently run into each other, and the sovereign has a particular hatred for a low-born slave. The scientific explanations for plot points were also weak and understated.

Overall, a decent adventure story but an unsatisfying exploration of her themes of oppression because everything was so heavy-handed.

The Survivors by Jane Harper (Mystery)

A small town on the Tasmanian coast. An intense storm 12 years ago that led to two deaths and a disappearance. And now — the inexplicable murder of a young, well-liked, visiting artist that is somehow connected to events of the past. With Harper’s expert pacing and character development, we witness small town life through two lenses: one where everyone seems an irreproachable member of a tight-knit community and the other where each feels like a reasonable suspect. Through a maelstrom of online community postings, we see how the anonymous amplification of suspicions and accusations can bring a community to its knees. As with all Harper’s books, it is just about impossible to put down.

Thank you to Flatiron Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 2nd, 2021.

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (Mystery)

Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 2/5 Writing: 4/5

Number 16 from Penny’s ever-popular Inspector Gamache series. Gamache has served in a number of senior roles (including short spells of retirement) in the Surete — the provincial police force for Quebec. In this book, we are transported to Paris where his two adult children are living with their families. While visiting his family, Gamache also meets with his (never before mentioned) godfather — German-born billionaire Stephen Horowitz. Within hours of their meeting, Horowitz is intentionally hit by a speeding car and left for dead. What follows is a multi-layer intrigue concerning a gigantic multi-national engineering firm, corrupt government officials, and a whole set of characters whose allegiance is suspect and highly confusing — all sprinkled liberally with Gamache family scenes filled with love, hurt feelings, old resentments, etc.

As with all Penny books, you literally can’t put it down once you’ve started. Her plot twists are captivating even when (as in this case) they are in fact kind of stupid — both the engineering and finance details on which her plot rests are completely ridiculous. I had to keep resisting irritation and just suspend disbelief and go for the story. Unfortunately, that isn’t the worst of it. What originally drew me (and I believe many others) to these books were her wonderful characters. They were intelligent, warm, humorous, capable, and had strong moral compasses. In short: potential best friends for me! But over the past 5-6 books, Penny’s characters — once so alluring — have become completely two dimensional. They are suffused with sorrow and explicitly radiate love and kindness in return. They are constantly saying “I love you” to each other and maintaining inner dialogs about how much they care. New characters are always larger than life — they are billionaires, or the best in their field, or can call the head of the Louvre for a small favor. No longer the quirky and interesting denizens of Three Pines. Even the evil corporation is a two-dimensional character — happy to let people die to make a buck. There is even a surprise twist at the end — with no impact on the plot whatsoever — which is sanctimonious, sorrowful, and completely unnecessary IMHO.

Penny’s much loved husband died four years ago of dementia. I can’t help but tie the shift in her writing style to what was and still is a sorrowful time in her own life. She gets to write whatever she wants, and I respect that! However, in its current form I don’t find the insight that might be gathered from her experiences. Instead I have a kind of mixed experience reading these part crime / part “the world is full of sorrow but we must love each other and be kind” drama. The crime part is fast-paced, engaging (if technically full of beans), and impossible to put down; and the second part a little too Hallmarky for me.