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).

The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson (Historical Fiction)

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

This is a fictionalized history of the Bethnal Green (at the time) unfinished tube stop in East London during WWII.  This book focuses on the library that was moved to the station when the above ground version was bombed, but there was a veritable city created in the stop and (unused) tunnels, with triple bunks for 5,000 people, a nursery, cafe, and the as-always top notch administration by locals.  I don’t like reading books about war, but I’m always drawn to books about how civilians create on the fly systems to help them survive.  The addendum explains the actual history more fully, making clear what part of the book was fiction vs fact, though I found that pretty obvious anyway.

It’s March 1944. Clara Button is the 25-year old childless widow who is “temporarily” put in charge of the library, with the help of the irrepressible library assistant Ruby Munro.  A well-detailed set of characters ranging across age and socio-economic levels populate the library, all with inspiring and heart-breaking stories.  Thompson does a good job of bringing these characters to life.  An engaging story — I could pick apart aspects of the plot if I were in a snippy mood, but overall I quite enjoyed it.  It spoke well to the value of books and reading in all circumstances which means that it spoke very well to me!

This book would make a great movie — I hope it gets optioned!  

Thank you to Forever Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 21st, 2023

The Trackers by Charles Frazier (Literary Historical Fiction)

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

Works Progress Administration (WPA) painter, Val Welch, heads West for an enviable New Deal commission in small town Dawes, Wyoming. His remit: to paint a mural in the town Post Office that represents the region. His chosen topic: “The Energy of America or the natural and human history of this place.” He is offered free lodgings at the ranch of the wealthy John Long and his wife, Eve, a former honky tonk singer with her own troubled past. Faro, a rather iconic tough cowboy (and complete horse whisperer) is one of those mysterious characters who draws you in against your conscious inclination.

When Eve runs off, Val takes a break from painting to moonlight as a tracker, criss-crossing the Depression riddled country in search of her. It’s a rich narrative, teeming with individual stories and told from a young (and somewhat embittered) painter’s eye. His search takes him from Wyoming to Seattle to San Francisco to Florida — each location suffering from the Depression in its own Hellish way. Each character — from the four leads to the many supporting — is both an individual and an obvious product of his or her history in these troubled times. We are treated to Val’s narrative commentary on the way, ranging from his own hopes and desires to his surprises to his inner rantings on subjects of government, greed, and some (previously unknown to me) dispiriting Supreme Court Decisions.

The deep dives (scattered throughout the story) on how the mural was conceived and executed were engrossing. It was to be done in “roughly the ancient way” and I enjoyed learning about how to make, tint, and use tempera paint, build scaffolding, and simply look at the world in a different (artistic) way.


The story is bold, expansive, and yet also intricately detailed. Excellent writing — see some of my favorite quotes below. I liked the balance between action and introspection, and I loved the description of the physical surroundings integrated with internal landscape of Val’s thoughts.

Highly recommended.

Some great quotes:
“Looking now, the missing element — and it was down in a deep crater — was the violence of the West. Not so much the physical geography, but the violence inherent in the concept of the West, the politically and culturally and religiously ordained rapacity smearing blood all over the fresh beauty.”

“Traveling the country, town by town, I felt a heady drift of grief and sometimes a breakthrough of optimism from the long Depression.”

“So the mural’s main argument, however it was shaped, was that this particular place held importance and was not forgotten after all.”

“The look seemed inhuman until I realized that just because I might never have felt or thought whatever passed through Faro’s mind and body in that flicker of time did not mean it wasn’t human.”

“Which struck me, a childless man with the first number in his age still two, as a better position on childrearing if you meant it metaphorically and if the floor wasn’t rock-hard hexagonal tile laid over a slab of concrete.”

“The higher the elevation, the more I felt like I was being rendered transparent by X-rays or gamma rays or whatever.”

“After all, the ultimate expression of Capitalism is not democracy. It’s a dictatorship not of individual men but of corporations with interchangeable leaders. I wasn’t sure if the Depression was straining the structural limits of our Constitution or simply revealing that its fundamental idea were faulty.”

“After Florida — a state equivalent to a hotel towel from somebody else’s bath flung sopping across your face — Wyoming felt clean and brittle, the light fragile as a flake of mica, the high air rare enough to be measured in the lungs and appreciated in its thinness, it’s lack of substance.”

Thank you to Ecco and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 11th, 2023

A Most Intriguing Lady by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5
Not at all my typical read but I confess I did find it entertaining. A “Novel of the Victorian era,” it reads like a (much) steamier Jane Austen style novel (and yes, I know that Austen was Georgian period, not Victorian, but it still has lifestyle similarities in my mind). In Ferguson’s novel, there is a stronger (and more interesting) theme of well-born women wanting more from their life than obedience to husband, mother to children, and gardening. They want to be useful. At least our heroine, Lady Mary Montagu Douglas Scott, daughter of Queen Victoria’s good friends, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, wants that and wants it very much indeed. Intelligent and determined, she becomes a kind of (unpaid) lady detective, focussing on issues that call for a knowledge of society and utter discretion. There is also a non-traditional romance fluttering through the pages as Lady Mary struggles to integrate her strong attraction (both physical and mental) to a Darcy-style Colonel Trefusis with her desires to have a full life that does not involve subservience to another being.

Most of the characters in the novel were real people and the authors (in small print it does say “with Marguerite Kaye”) go into the historical detail about their real lives as well as the history of women detectives which I found quite interesting. One expects that by her rank and previous membership in the Royal Family, Ferguson has a kind of “in” when it comes to the kind of house parties, hunts, and what not that populate a novel of this sort. I can’t verify any of it but I enjoyed reading it and am now extra thankful that a) I live in an era where being a woman did not limit me in any way and b) that I do not ever have to attend any of what appears to be the most tedious gatherings on Earth!

I enjoyed the more modern take on an historic period. While the time period is not necessarily known (to me) for women empowerment or feminist leanings, Lady Mary’s feelings and worries did not feel at all anachronistic, and I could readily identify with her. I liked the balance between the description of time and place, the types of mysteries, the romance, and Lady Mary’s inner thoughts and motivations. Again, not my typical book but I did quite enjoy it!

Thank you to Avon and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 7th, 2023

The Vanishing of Margaret Small by Neil Alexander (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5
Margaret Small is not your typical protagonist. Seven year-old Margaret was “Vanished” (her words) in 1947 — left at St. Mary’s Hospital in Canterbury by her grandmother who never saw her again. St. Mary’s was an institution for people who were unwanted — those with disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome, polio, or “moral imbecility.” Though we never get a stated diagnosis for Margaret, she appears to have been “slow” or “simple minded.” When we meet her in 2015 at the age of 75, she is (still) unable to read or write.

In a dual timeline, the 75-year old Margaret recalls her past in a set of chunks: the sudden drop off at seven — scared, and confused; a confusing sexual experience when she is 22; sudden (scary) freedom at 32 when she is told she can leave the hospital and live in a small group home with the help of a Social worker / carer. As her social worker helps her come to terms with her life, he draws an analogy between people with disabilities and people who are gay 50 years before when that was illegal. There are several long lectures about how people with disabilities were seen as having illnesses (like being gay) and how they were put away for that reason.

While the end is ultimately uplifting, I found the (longish) story somewhat depressing and a little simplistic in terms of how her life could have easily been much better. The story did highlight how people were shunted to these institutions with no hope of “release” and no effort made to help them overcome whatever difficulties they had. While the story is not new to me, it was particularly upsetting to lump in people who literally could not care for themselves (severe mental retardation or extreme physical disabilities) with people who simply did not confirm to social norms at the time (usually due to some kind of sexual preference or action that upset someone else).

Thank you to Embla Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Nov 16th, 2022

The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
Elinor White has been trained to be a predator rather than prey which served her well during WWI when her home in Brussels was occupied by Nazis. It also served her well during WWII as she worked to protect her adopted country (England). But exercising those skills left their mark, and she finds herself torn between protecting those who can’t protect themselves and letting go of the violence that continues to haunt her.

A standalone (or possible new series beginning?) from the author of the Maisie Dobbs series, this book is kind of a mix between an historical novel and a mystery, with an emphasis on the former. It had a bit of a slow start but I was drawn in and found myself caring very much about the characters. I’m a big Winspear / Maisie Dobbs fan. I wouldn’t mind finding out more about Elinor White if this turns into a series…

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 21st, 2023

The Bohemians by Jazmin Darznik (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5
This is ostensibly a fictionalized history of Dorothea Lange — world renowned photographer known for her Depression era work (see photo below). It primarily focuses on her early years in San Francisco from from her penniless arrival in 1918 through to her success as a photographer. It incorporates much of the interesting cultural history of the time — immigration policies and fears, polio, the 1918 flu, the aftermath and impact of the San Francisco earthquake, Orientalist fever, human trafficking, the Mission home for girls, and the group of Bohemian artists living inexpensively in the Monkey Block (an iconic SF building on Montgomery). Except for Lange’s feelings during the events in the story, everything described is documented history (and vividly portrayed).

The real story in the book has only a tenuous link to reality. It is the colorful fiction built around Lange’s Chinese assistant known in history as “Ah Yee” or “the Chinese Girl.” Nothing but these thin labels has been documented, but in Darznik’s book, Caroline Lee (the real name of Ah Yee) is fully fleshed out in a way that takes an historical footnote and blossoms it into a full, vibrant, and essential human being. Lee’s backstory, her talent for fashion and design, and the intolerance she faces (from minimal snubs to outright violence) is the real story here. Oddly enough, the elements of Lange’s story — her volatile marriage to artist Maynard Dixon, the photographic topics she eventually took on, and her backstory (replete with childhood difficulties such as polio) is nowhere near as fleshed out as the story of her relationship with Caroline Lee, allowing the book to make a larger social justice statement.

Excellent descriptions of San Francisco as it was — both physically and culturally — with plenty of small details to remind us of elemental differences (such as having to take the ferry to Oakland because there was no bridge!). Solid Historical Fiction.

Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
Five women find each other amidst the oppressive dictatorship in Uruguay in the 1970s. Together they manage to find and buy a small shack in a lonely coastal town where they can be themselves without fear, where they can blossom into themselves. They are “cantoras” or “women who sing” — a euphemism in this case for women who prefer women. Flaca, a relatively masculine butcher’s daughter; Romina, a Jewish refugee from Ukraine; Anita, renamed “La Venus,” a housewife who can no longer bear the standard life she is expected to lead; Malena, a schoolteacher with a hidden past; and Paz, the youngest at 16.


Following the individual and collective stories of these women through the long dictatorship and through the first years of recovery was far more captivating that I had expected. Based (I believe) on many interviews with people who had lived through this time period, the author really captured the experiences, feelings, and reactions of individuals without going overboard on the drama. I’m always appreciative of an author who recognizes that the subject can speak for itself when properly depicted without resorting to melodramatic finger pointing. Woven together in the narrative is the general persecution of people during an oppressive regime as well as the more generic persecution of homosexuals (in truth this persecution seemed to be more cultural and not actually related to the dictatorship, though the book jacket links the two together). The writing was full and descriptive, doing an excellent job of depicting the sensuality of the lesbian relationships and the pervasive tumult of feelings — fear, joy, worry, exultation — resulting from living through the period. I liked the reflection of each character as she considered her life and the larger situation into which she had been born. And her decision as to how she would participate — enjoy what she has? Take chances by working with those willing to rebel? Hide — either physically or culturally?


I learned a lot about Uruguay — I’m probably not alone in simply being unaware of this aspect of Uruguayan history. While not mentioned in the story, the all-knowing Wikipedia claims the 1973 coup that brought in the military was backed by the U.S. (I’m guessing to stop the perceived Community insurgency). Separately, the gradual opening of the culture to homosexuality, culminating in the 2013 right to same-sex marriage (the third country to do so in the Americas after Canada and Argentina), was also depicted through the stories of these women. The narrative brought together these two concurrent themes well — the book felt quite real.

A few good quotes:
“Histories tend to grow richer with time, gathering details as they pour down generations.”
“That the silence of dictatorship, the silence of the closet, as we call it now—all of that is layered and layered like blankets that muffle you until you cannot breathe. For many people it is too much. In Paraguay we have seen it. And so, here, none of you should carry the blame.”
“Furniture gave slow birth to itself: a table started as a plank on four stacks of bricks, then became a slab of swirled driftwood, found on the beach and dragged back home, cut, placed over the bricks at first until the attempt began to hammer on legs and to sand the knots and whorls on the top into a more even surface.”

Hang the Moon by Jeanette Walls (Literary / Historical Fiction)

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

Sallie Kincaid — a larger than life heroine if I’ve ever read one — comes of age in hillbilly country during Prohibition. Daughter of “the Duke,” who runs the county, she eventually inherits all that was his — the power and the immense responsibility. Unwilling to marry (having seen how badly women fare in the imbalance between the sexes), she is going it alone.

Inspired by the Tudor dynasty, specifically Elizabeth I, this story is a fascinating and seamless transposition of that singular journey — a female growing from child banishment to the leadership of a patriarchal empire — from the Elizabethan Era (late 1500s) to the Prohibition Era (1920s). With outstanding writing, Walls brings to life a set of utterly believable characters with bold depictions of their inner and outer lives. Character interactions bring out both the individual striving and the (usually invisible) impact across other lives. Plenty of every day philosophy and thinking. Impossible to put down.

Some great quotes:
“I don’t for one second forget that what we are doing is illegal, but legal and illegal and right and wrong don’t always line up. Ask a former slave. Plenty of them still around. Sometimes the so-called law is nothing but the haves telling the have-nots to stay in their place.”

“This man whose approval I so craved. He loved being loved, but he never truly loved anyone back. He took what he wanted from people, then once he got it, cast them aside.”

(She got what she deserved…) “That’s what some people said when Mama was killed. It is what you tell yourself sometimes, a way to make sense of things, a way to make you feel safer, that people who get hurt bring it on themselves. But it’s such a lie. Lots of folks don’t deserve what they get.”

“I’m not sure if I’m remembering what happened or just finally understanding it, but all these years, I’ve been hearing stories about Mama as told by others, and now, I finally understand the story as Mama would have told it.”

“What else are you going to do? You can get married or you can become a schoolteacher or a nurse. Other than that, it’s slim pickings — a nun or a whore or a spinster peeling potatoes in the corner of some relation’s kitchen.”

“If a woman wants to get ahead in this world, she marries well and mark my words, Sallie, no man worth the clothes on his back is going to let a woman outshine him.”

“A handout. You think you’re being all generous, but what you’re also saying is you got what the other person doesn’t — so much of it you’re giving it away.”

“It’s when the boss asks you to do something you know to be wrong and you do it anyways. That sort of work whittles away at the soul.”

“There are two kinds of brave people in this world, it hits me, those who fight and those who protect the ones who can’t fight.”

“I thought being in charge meant I was beholden to no one. What it truly means is that I am beholden to everyone.”

“He’s going on about how, back in Scotland, we Kincaids fought the highlanders who tried to rustle our cattle and the English who tried to take our land, then we fought the Irish when they wouldn’t let us take theirs, and when we came to Virginia, we fought the Indians for the same reason, then the English again with a lot of talk about defending freedom, then the Yankees with a lot of talk about defending slavery. When we were defeated, we still declared victory but we also swore revenge. I wish I could say we were always on the side of right, but that would be a lie. We fought people for doing to us exactly what we did to others, fought for them wanting the same rights we had.”

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 28th, 2023.

The Invincible Miss Cust by Penny Haw (Fictionalized History)

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

This is the fictionalized story of Miss Aleen Cust, a minor English aristocratic in the 1880s who desperately wanted to be a veterinary surgeon at a time when that (and many other things) were forbidden to women (particularly of her class). She did, in fact, become the first female vet in Britain, and the description of the process was well documented and engaging. The story features great characters who were either those who encouraged and helped her along the way as well as those who did everything in their power to stop her (this category included most of her family who were aghast at the thought of a woman wanting to work!). I loved the details about the work itself and the arguments made by those horrified at the thought of a woman vet. Many felt that a woman castrating bulls was immoral. Not that it would be difficult or off putting, but immoral! That gave me pause as I considered a definition of morality that was so focused on women not having any exposure to (and definitely no enjoyment of) sex.

The story was interesting enough on its own, and I was pleased that the author didn’t add a lot of melodrama where it wasn’t needed. It followed the facts pretty well — I looked them up on Wikipedia earlier than I should have — don’t do that as it spoils the story when you know what is coming! The author is very clear on the few places where she allowed her imagination to fill in information that was based on unverified rumor. I will say that I personally did not feel those were the best parts of the story. I’m not generally a fan of fictionalized history — where the story of real people is fictionalized (as opposed to historical fiction where fictional characters are placed into real historical contexts). It seems somehow unfair to assign thoughts and words and actions to a person who doesn’t get to correct or object, but I did very much enjoy this subject, this characterization, and this book.

Thank you to Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 4th, 2022