Westering Women by Sandra Dallas (Historical Fiction)

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

Another great novel of the Historical West by Sandra Dallas.

This story brings to life a “wagon train of spinsters” as they make their way from Chicago to California ostensibly seeking good, Christian men to marry. Under the leadership of two preachers, the motley crew of women tackle a five-month trip across prairies, mountain ranges, and deserts in a race to cross the Sierras before winter sets in.

Dallas excels at writing women — their lives, thoughts, and relationships with each other. Starting the journey as a disparate set of individuals — each with something they are anxious to escape — they become more of a family than most have ever had: a real “band of sisters.” The story is set in beautifully described natural scenes and is suffused with well-researched details of life in that time and place: what they ate, how they cooked, what they wore, how they washed clothes, and what they valued. Topics are introduced from multiple perspectives: Mormon polygamy, engagement with Indians, racial injustice, and even different “models” of Christianity. A lot of fairly horrifying men populate the stories, but quite a few wonderful men as well. While I find her action scenes a little terse, I was instantly absorbed by her characters and their journeys — both physically across the country and internally to become a tight community of strong, self-reliant, confident women.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 7th, 2020.

This I Know by Eldonna Edwards (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5 Plot: 5 Characters: 5

I absolutely loved this book — just as I loved her latest book, Clover Blue. The author has such a luminous voice, and Grace — the 11-year old center of the story — completely captured my heart from the first page. There is something compelling about a young voice trying to make sense of the world. I think it must be the start from innocence — it feels fresher and unsullied.

Grace is born with a gift she calls “The Knowing.” She sometimes knows when something is going to happen, she can sense illness and sometimes heal, and she can always talk to her twin brother Isaac — who she remembers from the womb but who never made it into the world alive. Her father is a preacher who worries that Grace’s talents are the work of the devil, while Grace (and Isaac) believe it is a gift from God. And therein lies the context of this delicate and unique coming-of-age story set in rural Michigan in the 60s.

Gorgeous, exquisite, writing; perfect pacing; an array of characters that pull at your heartstrings; and a beautiful, beautiful, ending.

Some great quotes:
“My teachers call me a day-dreamer, but I’m not dreaming. The me who goes places in my head is a lot more awake than the bored me sitting at my desk.”

“I love the soft flesh of Mama’s warm palm against my own even though sometimes I feel a deep sorrow through her skin. Mama usually does a good job of hiding behind her preacher’s wife smile, but sometimes her crinkled forehead gives her away.”

“Daddy tends to leave a dent in soft things. Not just because he’s big, but because he means to. Everything about him is heavy, from his voice to the way his food lands on the floor. Sometimes just in the way he looks at you.”

“Not having Mama as part of our family is like having the thread slip from the needle. She pulled us all into this world and we need her to keep us sewn together.”

“It’s not what I was expecting. And no, I didn’t know that. Lately I feel like a chipped plate at a table set for company.”

“But I can feel him. I feel his loneliness and his sadness as if they were my own. Maybe they are mine. Maybe the reason we get along so well is because we know exactly how the other feels”

“Everyone is offered this gift, but most people turn away from it at a very young age. Truth frightens people. You’re one of the brave ones.”

The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (Historical Fiction)

A beautifully written, meticulously researched, fictionalized history of the Kindertransport effort which managed to rescue 10,000 children from Nazi occupied Europe in the nine months prior to the outbreak of WWII (relocating them to England which temporarily waived immigration requirements for the effort. A similar effort in the U.S. was quickly quashed by FDR himself.)

We follow two narratives that slowly weave together: one follows Geertruida Wijsmuller or “Tante Truus,” — the Dutch woman who drives the Kindertransport effort from the politicking at home to the many, many, individual rescues in Europe. The other follows children and their families in Vienna who will eventually become part of Tante Truus’ transport.

I loved the characters — particularly the Austrian children. Clayton succeeded in making these children so bright and so real, their pain and determination nuanced and completely beyond the brief words I can find to describe them. Stephan Neuman — a 16-year old, budding playwright — and his five-year old brother Walter. Theirs is a highly cultured family, and I loved the immersion in the rich cultural world that Stephan inhabited. Stephan’s friend Žofie-Helene Perger — a mathematical prodigy whose non-Jewish mother is a journalist who speaks out against the Nazis putting herself and her family at great risk. And how can you not love Tante Truus who literally can’t bear to think about a child getting left behind if there were anything at all she could do to prevent it.

The real brilliance of Clayton’s book lies in the meticulous portrayal of the many tiny details that comprise life at that time — the underground tunnels, the linotype machines, and mouthwatering descriptions of the chocolatier’s trade. Hovering like a black cloud over these small details, the progressive hardships and changing attitudes of neighbors and friends, the slow shame that creeps up on children who are suddenly treated as different, the insidious and constant fear, disbelief, and tension that inhabits every moment. At the same time, the macroscopic details of global policies — the committees, the bureaucracy, the movements, and the fear on the part of foreign populations and governments as they slowly turn their backs on what was happening to the Jews (and other undesirables) in Europe as the Nazis plow their way through the continent. The book is utterly gripping.

For me, this is the best of the recent spate of WWII / Holocaust books: it felt incredibly real, and I was surprised to learn new things about a topic in which I’m quite well-read. I appreciated that the ultimately uplifting story was focused on survival and rescue, rather than the horrors and despair of the camps. A surprising extra: enduring the frustration (with our characters) of watching countries closing their borders to such desperate need (even though Jewish societies had offered financial support to ensure that host countries would not bear the costs) gave me a new perspective on the refugee crises facing the world today.

Thank you to HarperCollins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke (Mystery)

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

Thank you to Mulholland Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

Race is always front and center in this second “Highway 59 Mystery” book following the work of black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. In this episode, he is investigating the disappearance of a 9-year old white boy whose father (now incarcerated) was big in the Aryan Brotherhood. At the outset, it seems likely that the boy will be following in his father’s footsteps based on his early and nasty harassment of his black and native American neighbors. Set in the time period of the Trump election, the plot tangles together potential hate crimes, peculiarities of East Texas geography, and convoluted connections to history, family, and communities whose borders are not always what they seem. The latter is where Locke really shines.

The writing is good, the characters have real depth (FYI the black characters are far more sympathetic than any of the white ones). Darren Matthews is a great lead — strong, competent, and human — driven from an intense moral core. I appreciated his constant struggles with the morality of his actions, coupled with an awareness of his own flaws.

I read an advance reader copy and did find the writing to be a little muddier and in need of editing than the first novel (which I thought was spectacular). This is a solid mystery — convoluted plot, deep characters, good writing — but it doesn’t achieve the literary level of book one in which I found many, many, lines of perfect craft and deep beauty (see my review of the prior novel — Bluebird, Bluebird  — at:https://bibliobloggityboo.com/2018/11/07/bluebird-bluebird-by-attica-locke/).

The Bloodletters Daughter by Linda Lafferty (Fictionalized History)

Yuck.

This is the *worst* kind of fictionalized history. I’m not a fan of fictionalized history to begin with — combining fact with imagination without clear separation is irritating. But in this case the author went one step further — she simply threw out any real history that didn’t support her story and added in a completely false story, using with real historical characters. If she wanted to write a melodrama and place it in an historical context, why not just pick a time and some fake characters and go from there? Instead, she uses a real King (Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Bohemia, and King of Hungary and Croatia from 1576 – 1612), his bastard son (Don Julius), and a rumor that the latter abused, killed, and disfigured the local barber’s daughter and turned it into a giant melodrama featuring a lunatic (Don Julius), a ravishing and determined “simple Bohemian bath girl” (the barber’s daughter), and an entire people who simultaneously lived in fear because the King was so powerful that Don Julius could do whatever he liked and yet forced the King to leave his throne at the end because they were so angry that Don Julius killed an innocent girl.

Honestly, the whole book was stupid from beginning to end. There were some poorly integrated sections referencing conflict between the Catholics, Protestants, and the Ottomans, and some others talking about Kepler, Galileo, and Brahe but they had absolutely nothing to do with the story.

Normally I would have stopped reading after the first references to the “azure eyes” and “russet hair” of the heroine — clear markers of a frivolous book — but this was a book club selection so I had to see it through to the end.

Circe by Madeline Miller (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5

A surprisingly engrossing page turner that brings to life the stories of antiquity in a new genre of fictionalized mythology. Circe is a sorceress featured in multiple classic texts including the well-known Homer’s Odyssey. Miller has woven together all references into a gripping narrative that embeds many well-known stories (Theseus and the Minotaur, Jason and the Golden Fleece, etc.) She is astonishingly accurate in her mythology — I was constantly checking some of the stories and always found them documented in some old text — but Miller has brought them to life with a more modern sensibility on the part of Circe herself.

At first I thought this was an “anti-man” book as there were so many scenes of men as raping, pillaging, murdering, beasts, but then I realized that most of the women were pretty awful too: power hungry, scheming, nasty, and cruel. This book will be a big hit with the Games of Thrones crowd. She embedded a different perspective on what had been considered “heroic” literature, allowing the characters (Circe, Penelope, and Telemachus in this case) to question what kind of man Odysseus really was and whether he should actually be considered heroic. All done without getting preachy or pushing an agenda. Also included was a philosophical discourse on the nature of mortality, change, and loneliness.

The writing is excellent — lyrical prose painting vivid mythological portraits of the gods with insight into their motivations and inner world. For example, when her father, Helios the sun god, leaves a place Circe thinks: “Of course he did not consider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.”

Good story, compelling writing, and food for thought all in one.

Some good lines:

“I have seen her do a thousand such tricks a thousand times. My father always fell for them. He believed the world’s natural order was to please him.”

“Yet they were both Titans and preferred each other’s company to those new-squeaking gods upon Olympus who had not seen the making of the world.”

“It made me dizzy to realize that this was but a fraction of a fraction of all the men the world had bred. How could such variation endure, such endless iteration of minds and faces? Did the earth not go mad?”

“The revulsion was plain on her face. Once when I was young I asked what mortals looked like. My father said, “You may say they are shaped like us, but only as the worm is shaped like the whale.” My mother had been simpler: like savage bags of rotten flesh.”

“This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters”

“The closest we come is weaving or smithing, but these things are skills and there is no drudgery to them since all the parts that might be unpleasant are taken away with power. The wool is dyed not with stinking vats and stirring spoons, but with a snap. There is no tedious mining, the ores leap willing from the mountain.”

“I had scarcely known true intelligence — I had spoken to Prometheus for only a moment, and in all the rest of Oceanos’ halls most of what passed for as cleverness was only archness and spite. Hermes’ mind was a thousand times sharper and more swift.”

“He did not thank Medea for her aid; he scarcely looked at her. As if a demigoddess saving him at every turn was only his due.”

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear (Mystery)

Writing: 3 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

The latest in Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series (#15) finds Maisie investigating the murder of Catherine Saxon — the irrepressible American journalist from a wealthy, politically connected, and a defiantly isolationist family.

This series never feels stale — each volume moves forward in time (the first took place in 1929 and we’re up to 1940 now) and is based on a factual piece of British History. In this case, the Blitz and the effort to get the U.S. to enter the war. Woven into the plot is Joseph Kennedy, the anti-Semitic and somewhat pro-Hitler, then American ambassador to England and the U.S. Organization America First. I’m sure it’s not an accident that she chose this particular topic for this year’s entry.

Always fun to read these — very little “filler,” a twisted plot, and Maisie’s character progresses as well.