House of the Patriarch by Barbara Hambly (Historical Fiction / Mystery)

Another meticulously researched and vivid historical fiction / mystery in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. January is a free man of color in New Orleans, 1840. He is also a musician and a surgeon (certified in Paris). He wants to save everybody and is painfully aware of how few he can actually help.

In this episode, he heads to New York City to help find a young (white) woman who disappeared without a trace. In order to find her, he must slip into the Children of the Light — a religious community in upstate New York run by the charismatic abolitionist Reverend Broadaxe.

Bursting with historical detail, Hambly brings to life the social and political climate of the day — the various religious communities, the occult (and associated scams), the “blackbirders” who catch escaped slaves (or anyone they can) in the North for return to the South, the presence and use of opiates, etc. Real-life characters PT Barnum and David Ruggles play an integral and plausible role in the proceedings.

Plenty of action for those who enjoy action — personally I was far more interested in the history which was detailed and full of dialog, characters, and the rich inner world of January’s thoughts. The portrait of the time and place is full of comprehensive perceptions from a variety of perspectives — the sights, sounds, smells, and the ever present tumult of conflicting ideas.

No need to read previous books — I’ve probably read four out of the seventeen and had no problem understanding the context.

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

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Unusual family drama (with an element of mystery) that takes place before, during, and after the big San Francisco Quake of 1906. Irish immigrant Sophie Whalen answers an ad for a mail order bride. The husband? A handsome widower with a young, motherless, daughter. Things are not as they appear, however, and one morning when her husband is away, a knock on the door changes everything. And then … the big one hits.

Decent writing, likable though somewhat two-dimensional characters, and some interesting surprises in the plot. The best part is the detailed, historically accurate descriptions of San Francisco and the Bay Area (eg San Mateo) during and after the quake.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 2nd, 2021.

The White Mirror by Elsa Hart (Mystery/Historical Fiction)

The second book in the series and (sadly) the last one for me to read. Another exquisitely written mystery fully evoking the rhythms, culture, and political machinations of early 18th century China (1708 to be exact). In this book, our scholar and prior Imperial librarian Li Du, has stopped in a small valley on the way to Lhasa where his caravan discovers the dead body of a monk with a small white mirror painted on his chest. Thus begins a journey into artistry, beautiful descriptions of relationships of all kinds, and Tulkus — reincarnated lineages, the most powerful of which is the Dalai Lama.

I’m going to miss this series and I hope the author’s latest book (which takes place in London in 1703) does not mean that she has given up on Li Du forever!

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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

Homegoing is a collection of vignettes following two half-sisters in Fanteland (Ghana) — each unaware of the other’s existence — and their descendants through seven generations. One is captured and sold into slavery; the other is sold off to the white Governor of the Cape Coast Castle and serves as his “wench” or native wife. The writing is excellent and the structure — while often confusing — does an impressive and subtle job of weaving together the cross-generational stories. Each story captures the essence or main turning point of one person’s life, but the closure on that life isn’t delivered until the next generation’s story where the impact of the generations before is felt and details recalled.

The family tree in the front pages is essential — if you’re reading an ebook, find the tree online, print it, and refer to it often. Because Gyasi alternates between the descendants of the two half-sisters, generation by generation, it is sometimes difficult to hold to the previous story of one line by the time you get to the next. Similarly, it can be difficult to know what time period you’ve come to — some stories mention a date, others mention an event whose date can be retrieved, others involve more math (it had been 16 years since my mother died).

I have mixed feelings about this book. It is well-written, the characters full of depth, the individual stories emotionally gripping. However, it reads like one long compendium of tragedy. Every storied individual — on each side of the sisterly divide — suffers the atrocities of that generation: from abduction to the slave ships to the hopelessness and cruelty of slavery and the futility of escape attempts. Later generations on the American side suffer from the Fugitive Slave Act, broken families, drug addiction, the loss of family who can pass for white. The African side suffers as well from the impacts of colonization, “well-meaning” missionaries, internecine struggles, and the guilt of their own role in slavery. It is a relentless history lesson which highlights only the troubles and oppression and little of the gains or joys. While it is at times heavy handed, it does not descend into emotional manipulation for which I was grateful.

Definitely worth reading, but keep in mind the larger context — humans of every race and ethnicity have done abhorrent things to each other since the dawn of time — as a species I like to think that we are continually working to tame ourselves and make things better for everyone, albeit not as quickly as anyone would like. While none of the white people mentioned in the book were particularly “good,” she did a good job of not casting blame on whole groups of people for what takes place in these pages.

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart (Mystery / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
I am loving these Chinese mysteries by Elsa Hart. They go far beyond genre fiction with beautiful language that brings China in the early 18th century to life — detailed descriptions of history and culture embedded in the story rather than a dry droning.

Li Du was a scholar and a librarian in the Forbidden City before events five years past saw him exiled for his friendship with a man found to be a traitor. In his new life as a “scholar recluse,” Du finds himself in the far corner of China near the Tibetan planes just before the Emperor is due to arrive to predict a solar eclipse and strengthen his divine hold on this remote region. When a Jesuit priest turns up dead, Du feels compelled to learn the truth. The story progresses through the six days preceding the eclipse.

That’s the description, but the story is so much more. I was completely drawn to Li Du — a thoughtful, deliberate and highly moral man with a drive for the truth. I was also drawn to the idea of his quiet scholar’s life with quiet, beautiful physical books, and few people. Hart’s powers of description made me slow down and pay attention (I’m not a description person — I usually skim description in favor of dialog, action, or reflection).

This is the first of a three book series — I’ve already read (and loved) the third. I’m sad that I have just the second to go. I really think the BBC should do a mini-series!

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett (Literary / Historical Fiction)

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel immersed in antiquarian book lovers, collectors and sellers. It is full of details on literary research, history, and techniques for binding, conserving and protecting — all seamlessly woven into a novel about love, passion, fascination, and … finding the holy grail of Shakespeare studies — proof of authorship.

The narrative alternates between three timelines: the “present” (1995) where antiquarian bookseller Peter Byerly is trying pull his life back together after the untimely death of his wife; 1983 when Peter is first drawn into the heady world of rare books and meets his wife-to-be; and lastly, a progression from 1592 through the late 1800s following the path of the particular book that may be all Peter has ever hoped to find.

A warning — around page 200 the book suddenly spews up a murder for which Peter appears to be being framed — I almost stopped reading right then. I worried that the entire book would devolve into a Da Vinci Code wanna be (not a compliment!) thriller protesting our hero’s innocence. Luckily — not so. It went back to the literary mysteries with the (somehow less important) murder mystery until the loose ends all tied up and everything was solved. I can see why the murder had to happen, but not why Peter had to be “framed.” Lovett gets dinged for that.

Great levels of depth and sophistication, intricate details about the rare book trade that are somehow never dry or dull, impressive insertion of academic mysteries into story — again not a boggy moment to be found. Lovett has a brand new book about to come out, and I am signing up to read it now!

Atomic Love by Jennie Fields (Historical Fiction / Romance)

Writing: 2/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

Historical fiction in the post WWII era — espionage, a love triangle, a strong and imtelligent female lead. The author endorsements are impressive — Ann Patchett, Delia Owens, Rebecca Wells, B.A. Shapiro … I was drawn in because our heroine — Rosalind Porter — is a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project with Enrico Fermi himself.

In truth, this book is a Romance. The characters are tropes — strong powerful tropes that appeal to a lot of people — but with no fresh insights or depth. A strong, capable, heroine who has doubts about her capabilities because she has been betrayed by the man she loved, torn between the now contrite betrayer and another man who is damaged both physically and emotionally by his war experiences and yet who is capable of a great love that only she can supply. Add in a national emergency and evil Russians. Stir. It’s exciting but not new.

I found the writing to be heavy handed and a little trashy. The male / female stereotypes annoyed me. This is one of those historical fiction novels where the characters — especially the women — have modern sensibilities even while struggling with historical problems. And Rosalind’s constant “love of science” doesn’t actually get a lot of airplay — we don’t hear much about her previous work or what scientific puzzle is appealing to her now.

If you love romantic historical thrillers, this book is for you! If you are looking for in-depth characters and some insightful commentary about strong women who were able to achieve something in a difficult time — meh.

Thank you to Penguin Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 18th, 2020.

Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin

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

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 5th, 2020.

The story of a lifelong friendship between two women who first meet at Lovegood College in 1958. Feron comes from a terrible, dark, background and has trouble connecting with people in any meaningful way; complacent and composed, Merry comes from a happy background and yet suffers a tragedy that forces her to withdraw from school after only one semester. Both develop literary interests and talents which feature in the story.

It’s an odd (to me) friendship and an odder narrative. After bonding immediately as freshman roommates, their next contact isn’t for ten years and remains sporadic after that. The narrative plays off this strange relationship by leaping from contact to contact and filling in the (event rich) intervening years via memories and asides. Thus whole marriages are relegated to a sad memory summarized in a couple of lines.

In some ways the book is written well — the language is good, the characters interesting, the dialog decent. However, it was difficult to get invested in the characters and this central relationship when there was so little to it. The author does convey the closeness each feels to the other, in spite of the fact that neither seems to make much effort to connect more often. It’s possible that these are just not people or modes of interaction that would work for me — I didn’t particularly like either of the main characters. I could not manage to find empathy for Feron, despite knowing her background and being privy to her inner thoughts. Merry was less well developed and while likable, she was far too passive for my taste. I feel like a real friendship would have brought out more in the other — the fact that these two felt close, despite rarely seeing or talking to each other, wasn’t much of a story.

While there was a lot in the book I liked — the (very different) literary aspirations, motivations, and processes for the two; the full depictions of Merry’s tobacco farm, Feron’s New York City life, Lovegood college, and the other characters — overall I found it rather depressing. Nobody in the book has a particularly happy life, and while the tone is not overly dramatic (the action is removed since it’s all in history), I felt dragged into an emotional pall. While each character seemed to have found some happiness or sense of accomplishment in their life, we don’t get to experience that directly. Overall I found the book mildly interesting from an intellectual perspective and mildly depressing from the emotional.

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd (Historical Fiction)

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

A dramatic and fiercely feminist bit of historical fiction. Sue Monk Kidd inserts a remarkable character into the life of Jesus Christ — a wife named Ana. This is Ana’s story, however, not his. From childhood, the secret longing of this determined and deeply intelligent girl has been to have a Voice. Beginning with writing the stories of the matriarchs of the bible, she continues throughout her life to document the stories of forgotten and neglected women everywhere.

I was completely pulled in to the story. The historical context is rich with detail and insight into both the lives of individuals and the social and political currents of the time. Full sensory descriptions of Ana’s writing — the scrolls, inks and pens; the libraries and codices; the requisite hiding places; and the rare and tenuous gift that she had been allowed, as a woman, to learn to read and write at all. As we go through her life, we experience the inspiration for her writings and read samples as well. I was fascinated to learn that one such sample — Thunder: Perfect Mind — was an actual text unearthed from the 1942 Nag Hammadi excavation and dated to the time of the story.

There is plenty of drama — Ana’s father Matthias is the chief scribe and advisor to Herod Antipas; her adopted brother is Judas; and she meets and marries Jesus — but the actual story was far more political than spiritual … and I appreciated the historical depiction unencumbered by later religious trappings. As an aside, I loved the description of life in Therapeutae — an actual community of Jewish philosophers in Alexandria.

While Sue Monk Kidd’s style is often a little too emotional for me, I was completely drawn into this story of a strong woman insisting on her own voice — in some ways relegating the “greatest story ever told” to a mere influence. This book managed to completely shift my perspective on a period of time I knew little about.

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 April 21st, 2020.

 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (Literary Fiction)

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

Brit Bennett’s second novel is just as good, if not better than, her first (which I already loved).

Identical twin sisters grow up in the 1950s in Mallard: a small Southern town that doesn’t even make it onto a map. Mallard is “colorstruck” — a town inhabited by colored people, all obsessed with lightness.

The twins leave Mallard, each for her own reasons. One disappears overnight — “passing” into the white world; the other rebels, marrying a well-educated, sweet-talking, and very dark man . From these beginnings emerge a narrative that spans the 50s through the 80s, extends across the U.S., and incorporates expanding family and friends. It’s an exploration of characters who aren’t completely comfortable in their own skin: a colored woman passing as white; a transgender man in a time predating legal surgical options; a dark child shunned in a negro community valuing lightness above all else.

What I loved about this book was that any dramatic events (e.g. domestic abuse, lynching, cruelty in many forms) were tied to individual characters — how they felt, how they reacted, how their personality was modified — shifting how they made decisions, protected themselves, and made the most of their lives. The point was not the drama of the acts themselves, but how they impacted the characters. The author also embedded the impact of societal trends of the time as well — feminism, civil rights, and many blunt and subtle inequities. I so appreciated that each character was a true individual — no stereotypes — and that no single group was demonized. Each character was both interesting and likable (to me) and I loved watching them develop, learning about their own strengths, disappointments, and fears. The ending was quite realistic — no pat finish artificially tying up all the loose ends — but lives continuing with some aspects resolved and some ongoing.

Incredibly skilled writing — the stories emerge and twine together as each character develops and builds / evolves relationships with others. I didn’t find a lot of quotable sentences in this book as I did with the first — but it’s quite possible this is because I was devouring the book too quickly.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Penguin Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 2nd, 2020.