Little Souls by Sandra Dallas (Historical Fiction)

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

Little Souls takes place in Denver, 1918. The Influenza has hit the population badly, and the men are still away at war. At 19, Lutie Hite is a carefree artist working in advertising for the local department store; her older, more careworn, sister Helen is a nurse. Through an interesting set of events they become responsible for Dorothy, the ten-year old daughter of their now deceased tenant. From these beginnings follows a fairly wild, often heartbreaking, but ultimately heartwarming ride.

I’m a big Sandra Dallas fan. Dallas writes Western historical fiction about strong women making it through adversity with fortitude, intelligence, and the help of their community. She always brings in the small details of life in that particular time and place to make everything ring true.

Her stories tend to the dramatic, but never go over the top and feel quite realistic for their time. She is even-handed about how people thought and behaved at the time — different characters have different opinions on everything from mask-wearing (ha!) to personal morality, and no opinion is presented as obviously better than the others. Religious feeling and participation was a big part of life in that place and time, and I liked how she treated it. While this in no way dominates the book, there were some beautiful passages about how individual characters felt about God that moved me, despite my not being religious myself.

This is a real page-turner — I’m afraid I annoyed my husband by reading on into the night…

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 April 26th, 2022.

A Necessary Evil by Abir Muhkerjee (Historical Mystery)

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

Book two in the Captain Sam Wyndham series. Sam is a white Scotland Yard Calcutta police import with a pesky Opium habit. In this book he investigates the murder of the forward thinking heir of Sambalpore — one of the Indian “native states” not formally part of British India. Accompanied by his trusty (and well-educated and far more sympathetic character) sidekick Surrender-not, they unravel the knots of displeasure that might have led to this murder (and a few others as well).

These books always include a lot of interesting history and culture focussed on lesser known parts of what after all is a huge and populous country. It’s always just enough to get me to look up additional detail. Most interesting to me in this one — the whole concept of the “native states” and the Council of Princes the Viceroy was trying to put together; Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu; and the use of elephants as a means of execution. There are also many references to the spoken and unspoken rules regarding the roles and interactions between different castes, ethnicities, and colors.

The writing is good — very crisp and clear — and I like the characters. My only complaint might be that I honestly don’t see the point of his even having an opium addiction. It doesn’t really play into the stories at all, and he doesn’t (thankfully) make stupid mistakes because of it. I believe it is to make him more human but really the story would be exactly the same without it.

The Ghost Dancers by Adrian C Louis (Literary / Multi-cultural Fiction)

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

A posthumous publication by the author of Skins, this is a raw story of Indian life in late 80s / early 90s. Bean Wilson is an educated Indian — a well known poet and journalist. Born and raised a Paiute in Nevada, he now lives and works with Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. The events in the book follow Bean, his son Quanah, and his girlfriend’s son Toby. Wilson’s interior and verbalized rants permeate the pages on topics ranging from Indians (and himself in particular) being their own worst enemies to harangues on White oppression. While he tries to honor the old ways, he grapples with alcoholism and his womanizing tendencies. The writing depicts his internal struggles and the male culture in which those are common and even respected traits. This is extremely well done. It’s often crude, but feels real and does an excellent job of fleshing out each of the primary male characters — their experiences, their interactions with friends, family, and those who are “other” and the impact on their personal development. Oddly enough, while plenty of bad things happen, I didn’t find it depressing the way I do most Louise Erdrich books (for example). The tone is not as emotional, or maybe it is just more angry and less hopeless. Perhaps this is because the real focus is on men? The women characters have depth, but the real magnifying glass is on the men.

I have no insight into why this was not published when it was written — probably in the late 80s or early 90s according to the Forward. That was the only frustrating bit — the world was so well-depicted and I have no clue how things may or may not have changed since then.

The writing is powerful, insightful, and supports the complexity required of any real story. Some quotes below demonstrate both the writing and some of the rants. I loved the first line (which is also the first quote) — somehow it just completely grabbed me.

“The Cancerous burrito of Los Angeles summer seemed to have no effect upon the rambunctious innocence of yelling Chicano kids.”

“Bean looked from the two warriors in the painting to the two Pine Ridgers and repressed an urge toward epiphany.”

“America was a cannibalistic society. There was no true freedom in America. The White man thought he was free. The Black man thought he had been freed. The Indian knew he had been corn-holed.”

“…that garish monument to White greed, carved out of the mother earth, gouged out of the sacred Black Hills, and stolen from the Indians despite the treaties promising no intrusion.” (About Mount Rushmore)

“He despised the rhetoric of contrition that AA and its kindred organizations espoused. He despised the self-righteous reformed drunks who made their various programs for alcoholics a large industry on the Pine Ridge reservation.”

“It’s depressing to the max around here. I hate to say it, but you Sioux live like Black people in ghettos. No pride. No hope. Just booze, drugs, and violence. Pregnant teenagers and commodity cheese.”

“And as educated Indians, we know who our worst enemies are. Some of the worst are our own people. They must be re-educated, those that are the rip-offs. And the other bad enemy is the White liberal who lives on the reservation and purports to help our people. They are bloodsuckers. But that is a different matter.”

Thank you to University of Nevada Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 14th, 2021.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (Literary / Historical Fiction)

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

On the one hand, a wild adventure story. It is 1954 and 18-year old Emmet Watson is driven back to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile detention facility where he has served 15 months for involuntary manslaughter. His mother left years ago, and his father just died; the bank is preparing to foreclose on the farm and all their belongings. He is now the guardian of his 8-year old brother, Billy. While they plan to drive to California to start a new life, two stowaways (Duchess and Woolly) from the facility have a different idea. And so it goes…

The writing is — of course — excellent. The narration alternates between Emmett, Duchess, and Woolly, with occasional chapters from a few others. Each character has a distinctive voice as they describe both events and their inner thought processes during the ten days covered. Billy is my favorite character — never a narrator he somehow becomes a focal point for all of the stories. He is earnest, innocent, smart as a whip, and somewhat beatific. Billy doesn’t go anywhere without his large red book — Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and Other Intrepid Travelers. This book — which mixes mythical with real-life heroes (all male by the way) in its A to Z collection — serves as a kind of Greek chorus for the action as Billy pores over the pages offering its inspiration to those he meets.

There are many layers to this book, and I don’t claim to understand them all. Well articulated moral themes as interpreted and internalized by our different players. I loved Sister Agnes’ Chains of Wrong doing lecture (which I include in the quotes below) — this book will keep book club discussions going forever. Interesting note: I loved Rules of Civility and yet tried twice to read A Gentleman of Moscow and could not get past about page 50. Lincoln Highway was impossible to put down. One more interesting note: I did find this book a little stressful which says more about me than about the book. It reminded me of the nightmares I sometimes have where I need to get to the airport but things keep happening and then while trying to address those things, other things keep happening, etc. There is an element of that in the pages that stressed me while I tried (in my head) to get our protagonists back on track. My advice for reading — just let it go and enjoy the ride.

A few good quotes:

“Rather, the comfort of knowing one’s sense of right and wrong was shared by another, and thus was somehow more true.”

“Some evidence of that one desire so delectable, so insatiable that it overshadowed all others, eclipsing even the desires for a home, a family, or a sense of human dignity.”

“From a man’s point of view, the one thing that’s needful is that you sit at his feet and listen to what he has to say, no matter how long it takes for him to say it, or how often he’s said it before.”

“One of her favorite lessons was something she referred to as the Chains of Wrongdoing. Boys, she would begin in her motherly way, in your time you shall do wrong unto others and others shall do wrong unto you. And these opposing wrongs will become your chains. The wrongs you have done unto others will be bound to you in the form of guilt, and the wrongs that other have done unto you in the form of indignation. The teachings of Jesus Christ Our Savior are there to free you from both. To free you from your guilt through atonement and from your indignation through forgiveness. Only once you have freed yourself from both of these chains may you begin to live your life with love in your heart and serenity in your step.

“Let’s simply say that my academy was the thoroughfare, my primer experience, and my instructor the fickle finger of fate.”

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

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

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

A new mystery series for me! Post WWI, Scotland Yard’s Captain Sam Wyndham finds himself in Calcutta, heading up a new post in the police force. A senior British official has been found dead in an unsavory part of town, and he is immediately plunged into the nexus of politics, policing, and racial tensions that are near the breaking point.

In this first person narrative, Sam is a remarkably self aware Englishman who is constantly noting the inequities that constitute the British Empire in India. He works to tease apart the agendas, morals, and corruption of those around him with the aid of the bitter Digby — ten years in the Imperial Police Force and passed over for promotion — and the Indian sergeant Surindher Bannerjee known as “Surrender-not” by the English speaking officers who can’t manage his name.

Lots of interesting history, wry humor, and individual philosophy. I was particularly interested in the depiction of the different cultures within India — most specifically the Bengali personality within Calcutta. Very engaging.

The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey (Historical mystery)

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

The Bombay Prince is the third title in the Perveen Mistry series. 1920s India — Perveen is Bombay’s first female solicitor. With prestigious legal training from Oxford, as a woman she is not eligible for a degree. This particular story takes place during the 1921-22 Indian visit of Edward VIII, the Prince of Wales. With Gandhi’s call for a hartal (boycott) and others anxious to show loyalty to the crown, a great deal of violence and turmoil ensures. And in the middle of this, the body of a young female student is found on the missionary college grounds.

While the pacing is a little slow for me, the writing is good and the characters and historical situation are well described and embroidered with detail. I learned a lot from the descriptions of different religious groups, practices, and attitudes towards independence, toward the British, and toward women. Individual characters representing foreign journalists, businessmen, servants, and others were all well-done and enlightening. I’ll plan to go back and read the first two.

Thank you to Soho Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 1st, 2021.

The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5
An unusual (and engaging) book — the narrative felt so real I had to remind myself it was fiction, not memoir.

Filipino-American writer Christina Klein (Ting) travels back to the Philippines — ostensibly to write a book about an episode in Filipino history featuring a headhunter tribe’s role in Coney Island’s “human zoo.” A short year after the election of a dictatorial leader, Ting experiences the new Manila superimposed on the remembered culture and practices of her youth, which in turn are layered on stories and experiences from a more distant past as told through her historical research and the stories of her many elderly Titas and Titos.

The writing is fluid and provides fascinating linkages over time and class — her interactions span people with varied backgrounds, living conditions, and political opinions, from her aristocratic family to earnest socialists to those in the current circles of power. The dialog perfectly distills different perspectives and her ongoing reflection gives us insight into her personal journey to understand and evolve her sense of morality in a situation where nothing at all is perfectly clear. It’s masterfully done, IMHO.

As an aside, I learned a lot about Philippine history, although it is a backdrop to the story rather than a comprehensive presentation — 7,000 islands and 182 non mutually intelligible languages!

Some good quotes:

“Morality is the spine of fiction, even if it is most often twisted and deformed.” <— my fav

“They liked microphones and Spam. America’s streets and classrooms had instilled in many a sense of inferiority and in some a seething resentment at being brown in a white world. The Fil-Ams suffered from the shame of otherness, while Filipinos born and educated in the Philippines struggled with disdain for gauche American culture. In the States, we were all seen as being of the same tribe, but it was, at times, a flawed taxonomy.”

“This was to illustrate the colorful ways of the backward Filipinos and justify American’s occupation of the islands. Why exterminate all the brutes when you could display them and make a profit?”

“Inchoy watched me watching the children, and I felt my perspective slowly shift from mine to his: from my joy at the beauty of the children to Inchoy’s perception of forced child labor. He flicked his eyebrows at me to drive home the point.”

“Tita Rosa’s ambush resolved itself quickly: this was Manila and duty presented itself in clear, direct ways. Resignation was the backbone of survival here. Resistance only created anxiety.”

“The results of Gumboc’s presidency are that the poor live in fear for their lives and with reason. Gumboc’s army of assassins operates in a price per head economy and there is no due process. These people are murdered for money as part of a government-sanctioned program.”

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 10th, 2021.

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker (Literary / Speculative Fiction)

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

The Hidden Palace is a sequel to one of my favorite books: The Golem and the Jinni. Taking up where the G&J left off, we follow the two as they continue their inhuman lives amidst the sea of humanity that is New York City in the early1900s.

The story ranges over fifteen years encompassing WWI, the sinking of the Lusitania, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and the disaster of the Titanic and takes place in New York City and parts of Syria. Including most of the characters from the first book, we also meet a Jinniyeh (a female Jinni) who is impervious to iron; an orphaned, ultra orthodox young girl who had helped her rabbi father create a golem to fight the pogroms in Russia; and Yosselle, the new golem himself.

I enjoyed many aspects of this book — the portrayal of the characters and their interactions were fascinating — especially between the young girl and “her” golem. The continuing themes of “otherness” and immigration continued from book one with additional examples through various human and inhuman characters. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t captivated in the way I was by the first book — for me there was too much time spent evoking the time and place through description when I prefer character interaction. Also, the overall tone felt more sorrowful than I remember book one, which is perhaps more realistic, but less satisfying. While book one brought multiple cultures together through these (non-human) representatives, this book felt more like the follow up on a couple in love but with such different essences that they were heading for an inevitable divorce (my impression — not what actually happens). For those who haven’t read the first book, she does a decent summary of the important background and events in the first few chapters.

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 June 8th, 2021.

Radar Girls by Sara Ackerman (Historical Fiction)

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

1941, Oahu: Daisy Wilder — high school drop out, gifted horse trainer, and sole support for her widowed and non-functioning mother — is out diving for supper when the world changes. It’s December 7th and it’s Pearl Harbor. She feels the vibration of hundreds of Japanese planes in the sea.

This book is an ode to female friendship, love, and … learning the intricacies of the then brand new weapon — RADAR. Daisy becomes a newly minted WARD (Women’s Air Raid Defense) and dives into learning everything there is to know to be able to support the war effort in this capacity. While there is romance, what I liked about this book is that it really follows Daisy’s growth and development through multiple facets in her life. Fully half of the book is focused on her war work — what she learns, what she experiences, what gets in her way and how she overcomes obstacles. Often in a romance the heroine has a kind of pretend career with no depth while she goes after her personal hunk. In this book she tackles everything you should be tackling in your twenties — meaningful work, good friends, and a life partner. I was impressed by the (not dull, not dry, not boring) descriptions of the organization and implementation of the war work — using radar to spot planes and ships, vectoring in pilots in trouble, and traffic filtering. Really pretty fascinating and not at all typical women’s fiction fare.

To be honest the writing was OK but not great. There are a lot of cliches, some characters are extremely shallow (the “bad” guys), and some of the action was choppy. However, the story was engrossing, I liked the portrayal of most characters, and I really enjoyed myself while reading it!

Thank you to Harlequin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.

Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Loved this book! Motherless Esme grows up in the Scriptorium — OED prime editor James Murray’s repurposed garden shed — playing under the table as her father and other lexicographers labor over entries for the decades long effort that will result in the magnificent Oxford English Dictionary.

As she grows older and becomes more involved in the work, Esme begins to notice patterns in the words that are excluded and the definitions that lean away from certain interpretations. She begins to collect words — women’s words, bawdy words, words spoken but never written from the poor and illiterate. Her awakening to the world around her via the medium of the constituent pieces of the English is simultaneously subtle and stunning. Spanning and encompassing the women’s suffrage movement and World War I, it is a phenomenal coming-of-age story with intellectual and emotional growth circumscribed on the story.

Excellent writing with detailed and fascinating descriptions of the process of compiling a dictionary from scratch including solicitation, editing, typesetting, and printing. Wonderful characters including Esme, her Da, the individual lexicographers, her Godmother Edith (also a contributor / editor), and the Murray’s maid Lizzie who serves as a kind of mother figure. While Esme is fictional, many of the other named characters are not, and Williams does a skilled job at weaving Esme and her ideas into an historically accurate narrative.

Highly recommended.

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 April 6th, 2021.