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

Where Coyotes Howl by Sandra Dallas

Sandra Dallas does a stellar job at evoking the historical West — in this case a small town on the prairies of Wyoming in the early 1900s. This is the story of two “ordinary” people of time — an imported schoolteacher and the cowboy she falls in love with. It’s a hard life and frankly that makes for a hard read. The tight friendships and support structure formed by the women who often live up to an hour by horse from each other can help but not quite overcome the relentless tragedies that occur — from weather, illness, starvation, and from (some) husbands that are just plain bad. Dallas never resorts to melodrama but then she doesn’t have to — the real life stories are (mostly) pretty awful. I’ve read every book that Dallas has written and will continue to do so, but I admit that this book left me pretty depressed — her depictions so vivid that (being the emotional sponge that I am) I couldn’t help but feel sad for all my new found fictional friends.

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 18th, 2022.

Cora’s Kitchen by Kimberly Garrett Brown (Historical / Literary / Multicultural Fiction)

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

In 1928, Harlem librarian Cora James writes a letter to Langston Hughes whose poetry has inspired her. In ongoing correspondence, he supports her confessed desire to write and offers advice and commentary on her writing attempts.

There are more story elements including a surprising friendship with a white woman and a dangerous encounter, but for me the real story is about Cora’s awakening to the concept of having her own dreams and desires — beyond the expectations of being a wife and mother, a Black woman, and a good Christian. I absolutely loved and was startled by her own recognition of the limitations placed on her by societal and familial norms that she hadn’t even been aware of herself.

As part of the story she reads literature — Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Miss Esale Fauset’s There is Confusion, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Nella Larsen’s Quicksand — and each informs her developing desire to express more than she knew she had in her to express. It is thoughtful, inspiring, and fascinating. Her reactions to works of literature are individual. She doesn’t like Amos and Andy or the characters in a prize winning Zora Neale Hurston story because she feels they make colored people look like fools. And she doesn’t want to write the standard colored woman story — growing up poor and oppressed in the South etc. She says, “We have been through so much as a people, but we have endured. I guess that’s why I think racism and oppression shouldn’t be our only focus. There are other stories to tell.” And in the end, when forced to choose, she makes what I found to be a surprising (and I was surprised that I was surprised by this) choice to identify more with the womanhood of her characters, rather than their Blackness). She explains it much better than I can, so I’ll let you read the story.

I loved this book and read it in a single sitting (OK — I was on a long plane flight BUT I had plenty of other books available on the kindle!).

Just a couple of quotes to let you see how Cora’s mind works:
“But most books written by colored authors are about race one way or another. And though I know it’s important to talk about, I’m tired of that being the focus all the time. There are other things in life that are just as important. Dreams. Desires. But maybe that’s too much to ask of a book.”

“But I wish Miss Larsen spent more time exploring Helga Crane’s desire for individuality and beauty, rather than her struggle as a mulatto woman trying to figure out where she belongs. Then maybe the novel would have spoken more to the workings of a colored woman’s mind.”

Thank you to Inanna Publications and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 20th, 2022.

A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley (Historical Fiction)

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

This was an odd book, though I did enjoy it. Monterey, CA in the 1850s. Eliza Ripple’s short and unhappy marriage is brought to an abrupt halt when her husband is shot in a bar brawl. Eliza takes up the oldest profession in the world, servicing 2-3 clients per evening at a nice brothel and finds her life more enjoyable than the one she had within the marriage her parents had arranged for her. She makes an interesting friend — a woman in a similar profession but aimed at ladies (was this a thing back then or a figment of the author’s imagination? I have no idea!). When the bodies of women — mostly prostitutes like themselves — turn up, they find local law enforcement (such as it is) uninterested, so they feel compelled to figure it out themselves.

This is more of a novel than a mystery, though obviously there is a mystery to be solved and our heroines are trying to solve it, both as a means of self-preservation and out of a sense of justice! Smiley does an excellent job of having Eliza describe her own life and feelings as she discovers them. Eliza is an unsophisticated person, having experienced very little in her life. She learns about geography and other places and foods from sailor clients; she reads the very few books she has access to, and her model of the world expands to encompass what she reads; she becomes observant of people — men in particular — learning what makes them tick and how to take care with assumptions. It’s quite difficult to create a character that has so little education in the ways of the world — removing everything you know in your own brain is so much more difficult than learning something new — and Smiley pulled this off well.

I have no idea how realistic the portrayal of a small town brothel is, but I liked the straightforward and utterly non-judgmental depiction. I’ve never understood why prostitution — which services a basic biological need — is so vilified even today in our society. I think we would all be much happier if prostitution were both legal and free of stigma for both the providers and the clients!

A little slow paced and with more (albeit well done) descriptions (of nature, weather, the state of the streets, facial characteristics, clothing, etc.) for my taste, I nevertheless found myself continuing to think about the life that was presented — an effective vehicle for putting myself in another person’s very different shoes.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 6th, 2022.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (Historical Fiction)

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

Renaissance Italy brought to life with stunningly sensual (as in all of the senses) language. 15-year old Lucrezia do Cosimo de Medici of Florence is given in marriage to the older (but handsome and charming) new Duke of Ferrara as a replacement for her recently deceased elder sister. An unusual and high spirited girl, we experience her removal to a new land where she must learn to navigate an unfamiliar court and language and meet the expectations of a changeable husband intent on begetting an heir. Lucrezia is a surprisingly talented artist with an artist’s way of viewing the world, and this — coupled with her youth — gives an unusual perspective to her first person descriptions of what she experiences. This individualized viewpoint was my favorite part of the book.

The writing is lush and almost too persuasive and richly drawn, as I found I didn’t want to experience her life quite that vividly. This was not a time period favorable to women, particularly women serving as pawns in the power machinations of Renaissance Italy.

The story is loosely based on a real person — the wikipedia entry is interesting, but don’t read it until after you’ve finished the book!

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 6th, 2022.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles (Historical Fiction)

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

I’m conflicted about this book — on the one hand a good, engrossing story with an array of interesting characters; but on the other hand I found it utterly depressing (in the last third of the book) and developed a real dislike for the main character (which I don’t think was the author’s goal!).

The story primarily takes place in Paris just before and during the Nazi occupation, with occasional interleaving chapters 40 years later in a small, Montana town. Odile is the young, naive, book loving girl in Paris who gets her dream job at the American Library in Paris with the formidable Miss Reeder. The library is full of wonderful characters — many of them real figures of history (such as Miss Reeder and Boris, the head librarian, in Paris having fled the Russian revolution).

Paris declares itself a “Quiet City” so that the Nazis are allowed to occupy without bloodshed. And as they occupy they plunder libraries (trying to “eradicate the cultures of certain countries, in a methodical confiscation of their works of science, literature, and philosophy”), arrest people for being enemy aliens (e.g. British), and begin the persecution of local Jews. It’s the same old story but this time the Parisians cooperate with the nasty “crow letters” — voluntary letters denouncing their neighbors for rule breaking — all of which the local constabulary is obligated to investigate. Shades of the French revolution, this made me feel sick.

In the Montana timeline, a young girl who loses her mother befriends an older Odile who is able to help Lily not make the same mistakes we slowly find out she made back in Paris. Structurally, the book is well-paced and there are good messages that come out of the story, but it took me (the emotional sponge that I am) a full day to get over feeling utterly depressed by the whole thing.

I will say that I appreciated that the book was not melodramatic — the times were full of drama and the story itself was dramatic enough without embellishment. I thought the book was well-written, and I did like the well-drawn characters — I just don’t feel the need to be this depressed about something I’ve already spent enough time being depressed about.

A few good quotes:
“Of course he knew something was wrong, he was a librarian — part psychologist, bartender, bouncer, and detective.”

“After three months of no rest, Eleanor yawned constantly, no longer a perky parakeet, but a plump pigeon that waddled from the crib to the rocking chair.”

“Books the fresh air breathed in to keep the heart beating, to keep the brain imagining, to keep hope alive.”

“The French language was a nasal bog that she had to wade through in the shops, the hairdressers, and the bakery.”

“The best thing about Paris? It’s a city of readers,” our neighbor said.

Switchboard Soldiers by Jennifer Chiaverini (Fictionalized History)

I absolutely loved this book — one of the best pieces of fictionalized history I’ve read in a long time. The subject is the recruitment of female Telephone Operators to manage the switchboards in France during WWI as part of the Signal Corps.

Few people alive today can remember a time when every single call made using a telephone had to go through an actual person to be connected. And physical lines had to be in place for any call to be connected. Now picture the war torn fields of France during WWI — physical lines had to be laid and relaid to remote and exposed pieces of war terrain, and operators had to be in place in multiple locations to connect calls to send out new orders, to get reports, to contact other units and allies. It is estimated that during the two years the 223 bilingual women were in place, they connected over 26 million calls.

In this book, the history IS the story, not the backdrop for a romance or a mystery, and the story is rich and full of historical, technical, and personal detail. Characters — both real and fictional — are true to the time as they reflect on their roles, worries, and hopes. We get all the details of their lives: training, required uniforms, wildly varying accommodations, gas mask training, the conditions of the locals, the camaraderie they develop, and the respect and appreciation they slowly earn from the initially skeptical men. Also, the strong patriotism each of them feels — true to the time, patriotism is not the dirty word it appears to have become today. This book is well researched (an excellent and long bibliography available at the back) and does not sink into melodrama — there are no broken hearts, gratuitous sobbing, or overwhelming romances. These women were competent, had an important purpose, and thrived in an environment of hard work, pressure, and real need. It wasn’t all rosy — after the war they were treated as volunteers and were discharged without proper veterans benefits. This was not rectified until 1977 when only 50 of the women were still alive.

The narrative follows three women (one real, two fictional) as they go through the process from recruitment shortly after the U.S. enters the war through the Versailles Peace Talks: Grace Banker of New Jersey (who later received the Distinguished Service Medal), Marie Miossec (a Frenchwoman and aspiring opera singer), and Belgian born Valerie DeSmedt (whose widowed mother ran a boarding house in Los Angeles).

Highly recommended.

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 19th, 2022.

The Librarian Spy by Madeline Martin (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 2.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5
The story of two brave women during WWII — Ava Harper, a Library of Congress rare book librarian, recruited to spy in Lisbon, and Helene Belanger, a determined member of the French Resistance in Lyon — conspire to make at least one happy ending in a world that is utterly falling apart.

There were some very interesting aspects of this book: I’m a sucker for stories about books, librarians, and the printed word — and these all figured prominently. The author included a lot of accurate details about the processes (think bureaucracy and visas), technologies (Roneo machines!), and cultural practices of the time and place. The focus on both the French Resistance and “neutral” Portugal covered aspects of WWII that I haven’t read much about previously and were interesting, accurate, and detailed.

On the other hand, this book is really perfect for the kind of person who loves drama and appreciates how well the horror of war is depicted in the suffering of individuals — and I am not that person! The characters definitely draw you in, and I found myself crying frequently throughout because it would be impossible not to. But in truth, I found this book to be overwrought, consistently cliched, and far more melodramatic than I like which is disappointing because I very much liked Martin’s previous novel The Last Bookshop in London. It’s almost as though it were written by another writer.

Some of the writing actually made me cringe — “The Nazis had hovered over Lyon since the occupation, but now their breath whispered hot and fetid at the neck of the Resistance network.” And Ava’s behavior — while exemplary — did not in any way earn the incredible accolades that were awarded to her, giving the book more of an unrealistic Romance kind of feel, rather than historical fiction with a serious theme.

Still — plenty of action and drama, and I’m sure there are those for whom it will be a good reading experience. Bring plenty of Kleenex, and park your sunny disposition in the closet. It won’t be needed.

Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on July 26th, 2022.

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence by R F Kuang (speculative / historical fiction)

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

An alternate / speculative history version of the British Empire in the 1830s where the wheels of commerce are driven by magic, imbued to bars of silver through the machinations of Translators. Robin Swift is plucked from Canton in the midst of a cholera epidemic by a Professor at the Royal Institute of Translation in Oxford. Robin’s gift of languages has made him valuable to the empire, and he goes from an impoverished childhood to one of plenty: plenty of material goods and plenty of work. I absolutely loved the first part of the book which built a world based on the impossibility of accurate and precise translation and the extractable magic embedded in the difference. The author is Oxford and Yale educated, specializing in Contemporary Chinese Studies and East Asian Languages, and I thoroughly enjoyed the linguistic forays and the consistency of the model she built.

From there — unfortunately from my perspective — the story veered into the politics of oppression, injustice, and racism. Robin and a group of (also foreign and dark skinned) classmates become enraged at the impending war Parliament is likely to launch on the Chinese who have declared Britain’s Opium contraband and burned the lot. Embracing violence — with all the complications that entails — comprises the plot of the rest of the book (in case you missed it, the subtitle is “On the necessity of violence.”) I didn’t like this part and was not convinced (at all) by the argument.

The story is very well-written, the characters have depth, and the history is accurate. While I said it was an “alternate” or “speculative” history, that only applied to the “magical” components — the rest followed real history accurately until the very end. I enjoyed the philosophical discussions of morality, ethical behavior, and fairness, though I wish she had not made the representatives of empire so absolutely nasty and clearly wrong (I always think there is more subtlety to any individual than is apportioned to novelistic portrayals).

Not surprisingly, I learned a few new words:

  • synecdoche — a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.
  • discursive — digressing from subject to subject (too many people write and talk this way!)
  • rhotic — of, relating to, or denoting a dialect or variety of English

Some quotes:

“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say.”

“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular.”

“Their minds, enriched with new sounds and words, were like sleek muscles waiting to be stretched.”

“The poet runs untrammeled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles.”

“It was like tunneling into the crevasses of his own mind, peeling things apart to see how they worked, and it both intrigued and unsettled him.”

“What was a word? What was the smallest possible unit of meaning, and why was that different from a word? Was a word different from a character? In what ways was Chinese speech different from Chinese writing?”

“Every language is complex in its own way. Latin just happens to work its complexity into the shape of the word. Its morphological richness is an asset, no an obstacle.”

“London had accumulated the lion’s share of both the world’s silver ore and the world’s languages, and the result was a city that was bigger, heavier, faster, and brighter than nature allowed.”

“Robin saw immediately that London was, like Canton, a city of contradictions and multitudes, as was any city that acted as a mouth to the world.”

Thank you to Avon and Harper Voyager and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 23rd, 2022.