Bessie by Linda Kass (Fictionalized History)

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

This is the fictionalized story of Bess Myerson — the first Jewish Miss America, winning the prize in 1945. The author chose to focus the book on her early life — her upbringing, experiences in the Bronx (where the family had moved from the Lower East side for the trees, parks, and fresh air!), and her moral development. The book follows her story in a primarily linear fashion, culminating in an appearance at Carnegie Hall at the end of her year as Miss America. The epilogue goes on to summarize the rest of her professional life on TV and in public government and her personal life (I’ll let you read that in the epilogue so I don’t spoil the story).

What I loved in the book was the description of the Jewish community life in the Sholom Aleichem Housing complex (open to Jews when most were not). Her entire extended family lived in the 200 apartments across 15 buildings. The community was full of musicians and artists and though her family was by no means well-off, she was given piano lessons from an early age and as pushed to excel. That is the Jewish culture in which I was raised — not one of religion but of art, music, and study! — and I love reading biographies and stories that percolated out of Jewish New York City in that time period (check out any Marx Brother biography for an even wilder, but somewhat similar, ride).

What I didn’t love about the book was the level of fictionalization. I’m not a fan of fictionalizing real people when dialog and thoughts are created when none actually occur. The author does a good job of summarizing what she made up vs what was real at the end of the book, but for my taste she made up too much — she added in scenes that she felt could have happened based on her deep understanding of the character and that is her prerogative, but I really like to keep my fact and fiction separated. I can honestly say that I doubt this will bother anybody else — I seem to be the only person who likes to keep the line between fact and fiction solid and thick!

Thank you to She Writes Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 12th, 2023

The Lady from Burma by Allison Montclair (Historical Mystery)

This is book five of the historical mystery series starring Iris Sparks (with a possible dangerous past) and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (an aristocratic war widow with a young son who is fighting for her rights in Lunacy Court!). Together they run the Right Sort Marriage Bureau in post WWII London, but they simultaneously seem to be in just the right place to solve murders, much to the chagrin (and eventual admiration) of the local police.

While this is book five in the series, it’s book one for me. I was able to keep up just fine but I do feel a lot must have happened in the previous books. I can’t tell how much progress was made in the personal situations for both women before this story — may be better to start at book one!

In this book, they get an unusual client. A woman dying of cancer comes in to line up a wife for her husband after her passing. Unfortunately, that passing happens more quickly than expected. Simultaneously, the very conservator who has been holding Mrs. Bainbridge hostage during her fight with the Lunacy Court has also turned up dead. The body count steadily increasing only seems to stimulate the interest of the two women.

The plot kept my interest, and I enjoyed learning about various procedures / processes in that (still rather unfriendly to women) time period. The writing was a little stilted for my taste, but overall I enjoyed it.

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 25th, 2023

Orchid Child by Victoria Costello (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 plot: 4.5/5 characters 3.5/5

Kate is a neuroscientist, on her way to a new position in Ballymore, Ireland having been fired from her prestigious New York City based position after an ill-advised affair with her married boss. Ballymore has an historically high rate of schizophrenia, and she has been hired to work on a new followup study on the descendants of the original 1970 work. She brings along her newly adopted nephew, Teague, who is suffering from schizophrenic symptoms and whose therapeutic care is part of the new job package.

What ensues is a tangled, multi generational story (the narrative follows two timelines — Kate’s story in 2002 and the history of her family from 1920 through 1974). Between the two, we are exposed to Irish folklore, long term feuds based in the Irish “Troubles,” druids, and (most interesting to me) multiple approaches to treating and supporting schizophrenics. These approaches include support from therapists following real (I checked) research results, recommendations from “Mad Pride” activists who avoid medical intervention for mental illness, and the consideration that those who claim to hear the voices of their dead ancestors, really can.

There were enough interesting (and new to me) concepts to keep me reading to the end — I really wanted to know what happened. I thought the writing could use some editing — it was messy with a lot of rambling details and I found the dialog a bit stilted. I liked some of the characters more than others and definitely found the different attitudes towards schizophrenia fascinating. I didn’t personally like the main character, although I know I’m supposed to! Of course, I’ve never walked in her shoes (and the author’s bio suggests that she has), so I can’t really judge. My favorite part was reading about treatment modalities based on new (around the 2002 timeframe) research in neuro-epigenetics and the Orchid Child hypothesis (google it). The focus was primarily on the help people need and mostly avoided any discussion of the very real danger some mentally ill people could be to others when not adequately supervised / managed — I always wish reports and stories could be more balanced in this regard.

Some quotes, which reflect more of the plot than the writing style:

“In the parlance of researchers, they were the orchids, prone to dysfunction. When faced with the stressful choice of which lever to push to get their next drink of syrupy water, orchids sat and trembled with indecision. Their luckier peers, her control group, born with a longer form of the same gene, were hardy like dandelions — a group with which she wholly identified.”

“The Celts called it second sight. In our profession, we throw it all under the label of psychosis. Or we assigned patients different positions on a spectrum of abnormality.”

“You all suffer from the same wound, which festers as each generation fails to face it head on.”

“Let’s say you re-enter your body with the intention of telling the story of what happened to you today in whatever medium you choose. You can be sure that one of your ancestors is seeing and feeling that story in his on time as a powerful premonition.”

Thank you to Between the Lines Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be publlished on June 13th, 2023

The Bookbinder by Pip Williams (Historical Fiction)

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

Another book by Pip Williams — author of The Dictionary of Lost Words — about an element of The Oxford University Press (aka Clarendon Press) during the early 1900s. While Dictionary focused on those working to compile the OED, Bookbinder focuses on those working in the physical production of the books.

The eponymous bookbinder is Peggy Jones — a young woman who is working in the “Bindery” — the all-female component of the Press, which focussed on folding and preparing the pages of books. There is an absolutely fascinating 1925 silent video titled “Oxford University Press and the Making of a Book” which really helped me visualize Peggy’s work.

Peggy has been working at the Press with her neurodivergent (my term, not the way it is described in the book) twin sister since the age of 12 (they are now ~22). She has always wanted more — she longs for an education, longs to read and have opinions on the books she is folding — but feels that is impossible for someone of her background. She reads bits as she folds (watch the video — you’ll see how difficult that is), and the canal boat they live in is literally papered with scraps of books that did not meet quality requirements, but certainly meet hers.

The time period covered spans WWI — from 1914 to 1918 — with Peggy’s quest for “more” tied in with opportunities at the Press, the fight for women’s suffrage, and her volunteering with recuperating soldiers and Belgian refugees — all arisising from the upheaval of everyday life. Williams did an excellent job of bringing this time period to life, I was able to feel all the complex emotions of that insane time in a manner that felt very time appropriate.

I found the beginning a little muddy and confusing, but once I got into it, I very much enjoyed the story — particularly the vibrant and believable characters: the twin sister, some of the refugees, the canal community, and various suffragists, librarians, and female students. Every one was drawn deeply and was a person I would want to know. I also loved the details of how the Press was run, women’s colleges (which at the time were not allowed to confer degrees), access to libraries, and classical study. And of course, the ultimately successful effort of a woman from the “wrong side of the tracks” to attain an education and make more of herself.

Two interesting quotes:
“When we bound these books, I thought, they were identical. But I realised they couldn’t stay that way. As soon as someone cracks the spine, a book develops a character all its own. What impresses or concerns one reader is never the same as what impresses or concerns all others. So, each book, once read, will fall open at a different place.”

“The words used to describe us define our value to society and determine our capacity to contribute. They also … tell others how to feel about us, how to judge us.”

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 1st, 2023

The Golden Gate by Amy Chua (Historical Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 5/5

An extremely convoluted ( in a delightful way) murder mystery set against an intricately detailed history of the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1930s and 40s. Walker Wilkinson — a rich industrialist and possible presidential candidate — is shot in his room at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley. Mixed race Detective Al Sullivan lands the case which offers him suspects and witnesses that range from the very rich to the poor and dispossessed — from political figures to steel workers to Chinese / Black / Mexican / Japanese workers. Chua — an historian, this is her first novel — weaves in famous figures such as Madame Chiang Kai Shek, Julia Morgan, Dr. Margaret Chung, and August Vollmer with perfect integrity and context. Background history is delivered in a more or less integrated way ranging from laws and policies to the history of crime labs, the threat of Communism, the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Kaiser shipyards (before it was just a medical plan!), and even the geology of the state. I was aware of some of the historical references — e.g. the Chinese Exclusion Act — but not some of the others such as the Mexican Expulsion of 1931 and the Mann Act (aka the White Slaves act) which was often used against those in interracial marriages. Chua’s non-fiction books focus on “the disparate impact of capitalism on different ethnic and immigrant groups” and that theme is front and center of this well-written and engaging historical mystery.

Some random quotes:
“In California, we have county coroners, and they’re elected, which is not exactly a recipe for competence.“

“That depends on your view of relevance. Yours, Mr. Doogan, appears to be quite cramped.”

“You can’t trust newspapers, but there’s one subject they’re good at — hate. First they whip it up, then they report on it.“

“There’s a suspicion line in every society, Miriam, and you’re either above it or below it. The people above that line, they never even think about it. They walk the streets like they own them. They take for granted that the law is there to protect them because it is.”

Emily Dickinson, but quoted in the book and I love it: “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on September 19th, 2023

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 5/5

Powerful historical fiction around the women involved in Bletchley Park (the British code breaking center during WWII). Absolutely gripping and completely brought to life the absolute intensity of the time, environment, and activities of the place that many have credited with shortening the war by 2-4 years.

Quinn used three female characters to tell the story: Osla Kendall, an intelligent socialite who constantly fights against the label of “Dizzy Deb”; 6-foot tall Mab Churt, a working class girl from Shoreditch who strove to make a better life for herself; and Beth Finch, a complete mouse of a girl who had been told she was stupid her whole life, but who became one of the leading cryptanalysts at Bletchley. All three find that the work they end up doing is not only essential to the country and the war effort, but essential to their own sense of self and worth.

The story is told in a dual timeline: In 1940, each of the three finds herself at Bletchley and an entirely new world of code breaking, secrecy, independence and intense pressure opens up to them. In 1947 — two years after the war ended — the three women are not speaking to each other, one of them has been involuntarily committed to an institution, the Royal Wedding is afoot, and there is a dangerous traitor from the Bletchley time that has never been caught. I was fascinated by every part of the 1940 timeline though it ran me through the wringer in terms of emotion, stress, and an all too real depiction of life during wartime. Quinn did a fantastic job of illustrating all the different work in Bletchley from breaking the codes, to running the (massive and complicated) machinery, to simply administrating the communication needs of a bustling, yet intensely secretive, organization. It’s a good reminder of what life was like before computers and smart phones! I loved the detail, both of the mechanisms and how the women coped with challenges they had never been expected to face before. Plenty of sexism, as one might expect, but also plenty of opportunity for women to shine due to both the need and the utter unorthodoxy of the place, teeming, as it was, with “weirdos” and “nerds” who had the right kind of brains for this odd work. In her afterward, Quinn describes the real-life models for her characters and for the events and plot points she included. Although I found some of the story to be more dramatic than I like, she convinced me that everything included could and did happen. Make sure you read the afterword!

Kunstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine (Literary Fiction / Audio book)

Twenty-something Julian Kunstler — somewhat ineffective in his attempt at adulting — is sent to care for his ninety-something grandmother Mamie and her elderly dogsbody of unknown origin, Agatha, during Covid. Venice, California is a lovely place to wait out a pandemic — almost too lovely as Julian feels guilt at his own safety while others dwell in fear and panic. They pass the time with Mamie’s stories — of her own times of isolation, fear, and survivor guilt as an 11-year old Jewish emigre from Vienna who lucked into safety through the intense efforts of Hollywood’s artistic community to extract as many Jews as possible from Germany in 1939.
This was truly a wonderful book — full of stories suffused with reality and a painstakingly reconstructed sense of time and place. We hear the stories as well as the inner thoughts / reactions of both of them, giving an evolving insight into two distinct characters with wildly different contexts taking in the same information. Spectacularly presented.
With these stories, Schine manages to evoke not just the physical space of Venice Beach / Hollywood in the 40s, but the mental and cultural space as well. Music, language, philosophy, meaning, existence, and the nature of memory pervade conversations and thoughts. Music in particular suffused everything — Mamie came from the most cultured of Viennese Jews, her father a composer and mother a writer. She supported herself as a violinist, and I loved the way she took up violin as a youngster because she found the piano an oppressive instrument — as it missed all the notes in between while the violin could get them all. Many Hollywood stars of that era (mostly emigres like Mamie) feature in the stories: Greta Garbo, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, and others. Her discussions with Schoenberg are priceless — they discuss the “emancipation of the dissonance.” (I can’t stand dissonance in my music but I sure enjoyed reading about the Schoenberg’s thoughts on the subject!). There are parallels between Mamie and Julian — the guilt of being safe while their friends and family are decidedly not, the isolation, the feeling that the world they know is collapsing — and Mamie wants to help Julian make spiritual and ethical progress in his life. To understand the need for joy and to be able to live fully.
Listening to the audio book while walking I had to stop every five minutes to write something down — I was so afraid of losing it (unfortunately, I have a crap memory). I felt like every page had a life lesson available to anyone who wanted to catch it. I would have had a lot of quotes, but could not capture them in time with the audio format. I did manage to remember one: “ Ones trauma becomes banal when it is trotted out too many times.”
Hard to believe I hadn’t heard of Catherine Schine before this. I read so much that I am literally shocked to find such an excellent writer with plenty of previous work that I don’t know. I listened to this on audio and loved it. The reader did an excellent job of portraying the voices — I sometimes found the “elderly” voice she used for Mamie to be a bit difficult to hear but I adapted.

A Traitor in Whitehall by Julia Kelly (Historical Mystery)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Enjoyment: 5/5

The start of a new mystery series (and her first stab at the mystery genre, no pun intended) by one of my favorite historical fiction writers — Julia Kelly. WWII – London – 1940. There is a body, there is a mole in Whitehall, and there is a smart, sharp heroine who insists on equal billing with the agent assigned to ferret out the answers. Best of all — the action takes place in the Churchill War Rooms with a detailed and accurate (as far as my two fascinating visits to the place informs) depiction of the environment and activities within. As always, she really brings it all to life! A nice complicated plot, characters with good backstories, and of course, a time period and place that is rife with opportunities for mystery.

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 3rd, 2023

Murder at Midnight by Katharine Schellman

Number four in the Lily Adler series, it is the first I have read, and I quite enjoyed it! I was looking for a nice palette cleansing non-stressful mystery, and this fit the bill beautifully. A regency era (1816) mystery starring the widow, Lily Adler. A snowstorm (according to the author’s note, based on the historical “Year Without a Summer” resulting from the eruption of Mount Tambora) forces a number of Christmas Ball attendees to stay the night. The next morning, one of the party is discovered — quite dead — in the chicken coops.

Regency manners, the impact of scandal on women, the greater (unspoken) freedoms allowed a widow over an unmarried woman and two (!) hints of lesbianism pepper a narrative surprisingly free of filler and with some Upstairs / Downstairs thrown in. Lily Adler is smart, self assured, and takes charge of cases without having to beg, look demure, or manipulate — bravo! The plot is clever, twisted, and not obvious (though I did figure it out before the end), and I liked the characters. There were tiny bits of romance tossed in, but of a more Austenian style — there are bodices but they are never, ever, ripped.

I’ll probably go back to check out volumes one to three as I am always happy to discover a nice, reliable, series.

Thank you to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 19th, 2023

On Sarpy Creek by Ira S Nelson (Historical Fiction)

A hidden gem, this book was a bit of an adult Little House on the Prarie for me, following a tiny farming community in Montana from ~1920 to 1932 — through droughts, bank failures, and the ever present vicissitudes of rural life.  I loved the clean style — everything was so real and so matter of fact — there was no need for inserted drama or pointed narrative.  Instead , we are treated to the details of every day life with a window into the values, sense of duty, and struggles of individual characters.

Written in 1938 (and reprinted in 2003), there are none of our modern sensibilities subtly (perhaps unintentionally?) inserted into the sense these people had about their own lives.  It brought out for me the stark difference between life then and now — with absolutely no safety net outside of what your (few) neighbors might be able to provide.  Local Indians feature in the story and the engagement is nothing like the stereotypes I grew up with, nor are they like the updated pictures we like to paint today. We see different relationships created and evolving and once again the interactions between men and women don’t exactly follow stereotypes either past or present, but we are privy to people’s thoughts and reactions. Every person and interaction is both realistic and individual. 

I found it hard to put down (except when the smaller print drove me to rest my eyes).