Westering Women by Sandra Dallas (Historical Fiction)

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

Another great novel of the Historical West by Sandra Dallas.

This story brings to life a “wagon train of spinsters” as they make their way from Chicago to California ostensibly seeking good, Christian men to marry. Under the leadership of two preachers, the motley crew of women tackle a five-month trip across prairies, mountain ranges, and deserts in a race to cross the Sierras before winter sets in.

Dallas excels at writing women — their lives, thoughts, and relationships with each other. Starting the journey as a disparate set of individuals — each with something they are anxious to escape — they become more of a family than most have ever had: a real “band of sisters.” The story is set in beautifully described natural scenes and is suffused with well-researched details of life in that time and place: what they ate, how they cooked, what they wore, how they washed clothes, and what they valued. Topics are introduced from multiple perspectives: Mormon polygamy, engagement with Indians, racial injustice, and even different “models” of Christianity. A lot of fairly horrifying men populate the stories, but quite a few wonderful men as well. While I find her action scenes a little terse, I was instantly absorbed by her characters and their journeys — both physically across the country and internally to become a tight community of strong, self-reliant, confident women.

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 January 7th, 2020.

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (Historical Fiction)

A slow-paced, deeply interior book about love, marriage, and faith. It follows a linear progression through the lives of four individuals, two marriages, and a forty-year shared ministry.

The real center of the book is the place of God in people’s lives. Each character has his or her own relationship (or lack thereof) with God: Charles knows absolutely that there is a God and that he has a calling to the ministry; his wife Lily is equally certain that there is no God and has no affinity with the tasks expected of a minister’s wife, preferring an academic life. Nan is a minister’s daughter and has never questioned her faith; James is not religious and has doubts about God, but feels the ministry would be a good platform for his drive towards social justice.

As each character grows into his or her life and faces difficulties both large and small, God is at the center of many thoughts and actions and is present on most pages. This was surprisingly non-repetitious, and the arguments, discussions, reflections, and historical references were balanced and intriguing, even to someone like myself who has no interest in religion.

The characters are all very earnest — even in their doubt and questioning, there is no cynicism (or any humor which I’m now realizing is often predicated on cynicism). It was somewhat refreshing and made me realize how very cynical the world feels today and how it wasn’t always that way.

The prose is beautiful, though at times over wrought. It is a philosophical and reflective look at life and marriage and documents the details of a healthy approach to personal growth — listening, discussing, reflecting, and resolution.

I was initially quite put off by the number of references to God and faith — it really isn’t my thing — but I found myself quite taken by the four individuals and their personal quests for understanding and a fulfilling life. I learned quite a bit more than I expected.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 13th, 2019.

The Night Visitors by Carol Goodman (Fiction)

Plot: 5 Characters: 4.5 Writing: 4

A taut thriller and (ultimately heart warming) family drama all in one.

Alice and 10-year old Oren are running away from an abusive man. A call to a hotline sends them to Delphi, NY where they are taken in by Mattie. Mattie is a spinster living in a decaying mansion who puts all of her time, energy, and money into The Sanctuary. Alice is highly suspicious of all do-gooders; Oren is a boy who seems to always know things he shouldn’t.

I’d forgotten how much I like Carol Goodman — she is a fantastic writer. The story is paced perfectly, with completely unpredictable twists and turns. No cliches or stereotypes (with one exception — see below)! The story of domestic abuse, the social structures and people who try to help, and the attitudes and interactions of the participants have depth and variety. I liked the balanced views — not all abusive relationships are the same, not all the male characters are scumbags, and not all the social workers are competent or effective.

Big themes are woven throughout — Justice; Vengeance; Forgiveness. Goodman has a Classics background and that figures in as well — Greek mythology keeps popping up, and I particularly liked the story of Orestes, Athena, and the Furies as the introduction of the concept of Justice replacing Vengeance in the scheme of human affairs. Lastly, the feeling of a ghostly presence lends an otherworldly quality to the story.

The only part of the book that didn’t quite work for me were the two nasty, abusive men. They are the only two characters whose behavior and dialogue felt like stereotypes rather than real people. I guess Ms. Goodman really didn’t want to be in their heads any longer than necessary. However, this was an issue in only a tiny fraction of the pages. This was one of those books that is almost impossible to put down (although due to the tense nature of the story I didn’t let myself read it too close to bedtime!)

Highly recommended!

Some quotes:
“I’m a woman on the wrong side of fifty, back where she started, with no way out but one.”

“Some people look up at the night sky and see random scatter, others read stories in the chaos. That’s what I do when I adjudicate a case. I make sense out of chaos.”

“She looks up when she reaches the shelter of the porch, and there’s so much anger and resentment in her eyes that I flinch, I’ve seen that look in abused women, that look that doesn’t just expect the next blow but says, I know I deserve it. But I’ve never gotten used to it, or liked how it made me feel, that little split-second flicker of Maybe you do.”

“But at some point I catch a satisfied smile on Oren’s face and realize that here is a child who takes on the weight of the emotions around him by playing the peacemaker.”

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal

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

A family drama steeped in a colorful Punjabi travelogue.

The three Shergill sisters reluctantly make a summer pilgrimage to India to fulfill their mother’s dying request. Plodding through an extensive and detailed itinerary, each is simultaneously dealing with a personal crisis she is unwilling to share with the others. Hyper-responsible Rajni is reeling from the discovery that her 18-year old son has vowed to marry a woman twice his age; Wild Jezmeen is suspended from her role as DisasterTube host due to an unfortunate interaction with a highly sensitive Arowana fish (the fish didn’t make it); and Shirina, who arranged her own marriage to a traditional Indian man and his controlling mother, has a particularly distressing secret mission for the trip.

Good writing with some interesting and topical social commentary. I consider it chick-lit — disasters are all successfully avoided and it willingly supplies the mandatory happy ending. The family is Sikh and there was some information on Sikh heritage, practices, and monuments, though not as much as I would have liked. It did spur a quick Wikipedia check which I found useful and interesting.

Many of the story threads address different issues faced by women in this region of India and traditional Sikh communities around the world. These affect the story in multiple ways, though primarily from the outside (our heroines are second generation British immigrants with little identification with their Indian heritage).

Overall an interesting read.

Chronicles of a Radical Hag by Lorna Landvik (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3 Characters: 4.5

When 81 year old columnist Haze Evans (the titular “Radical Hag”) slips into a coma, the local paper in Granite Creek, Minnesota decides to reprint selected columns from the last 50 years until she can start again. Always uncensored, these columns range in size and topic and bring history (both local and global) back to life in a personal way. The entire community relives events such as the Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma bombing, the Exxon Valdez spill as well as the meeting of her lifelong best friend, her short but loving marriage, the birth of local quadruplets, etc.

The characters in the novel are wonderful and run the gamut from newspaper publisher to RV salesman to nurse with assorted retirees and high school students thrown in. Each handling his/her own concerns while working towards his/her own definition of a good and decent life.

I loved the way the characters spent time *thinking* about what they were reading in the columns and engaged with those with differing opinions. One high school teacher instituted “Radical Hag Wednesdays” where students discussed column-instigated topics. In other conversations, the impact of #metoo style accusations on young boys, or love, divorce, and adultery were discussed — all with depth and a desire for understanding rather than condemnation. An artfully done blending of “homespun wisdom” with open minds.

I’ve been a fan of Lorna Landvik since her 1995 Patty Jane’s House of Curl. Her writing is simultaneously humorous and heartfelt, thought provoking and tolerant, touching on real people dealing with life in a real way.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes (Women’s Fiction)

A feel-good, heartwarming, story about the unlikely relationship between a woman whose husband died just as she was (literally) leaving him and a star Yankee pitcher who “loses his stuff” in a spectacularly public way.

Well-written with great banter, an array of likable characters, and plenty of humor. The premise is plausible enough and I enjoyed the social commentary and details of every day life in this small town on the mid-Coast of Maine. There is a lot more depth to the characters than is usual for a women’s fiction offering of this sort.

The author is the host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast — I haven’t heard of this (I’m not a big podcast person), but I like the title, and I can guess that this explains a lot about the great character interactions!) Interesting to note that in two of the primary families, it is the mother that left, leaving the father to raise the children alone. I’m noticing a trend of this kind of gender role swapping which is always interesting!

One small annoyance for me personally — a (pretty humorous) diatribe on the part of one character about a woman who was destroying their book club because she wanted people to actually read the books and didn’t accept that book clubs were just for socializing. I am that woman, and I stand by my demands!!

Great for fans of Kristan Higgins.

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 June 25th, 2019.

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (Historical Fiction)

The best thing about this novel is the way it brings the UK Women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s to life. Historical fiction at its best. Having grown up in the 60s in a family that wouldn’t dream of not encouraging their daughters, I sometimes forget how difficult it was for women to gain something as simple as the vote (as an aside, check out https://www.infoplease.com/us/gender-sexuality/womens-suffrage to see the order in which women got the vote across the globe).

Mattie Simpkin is the larger-than-life, brash heroine who has spent most of her life fighting for Women’s Equality. She was a leader of the Militant Suffragette Movement, and a fair portion of the book covers those experiences along with “where are they now” reunions of those women in the current time (1928, on the cusp of the Act that gave women electoral equality with men). Now Mattie has turned her attention to the young girls who don’t seem to appreciate their newly won rights or understand that the fight for equality isn’t anywhere near complete. She founds a Girls Club with the stated aim of training young girls for lives as “20th Century Women.”

The writing is exquisite — equal skill applied to descriptions of the environment, individuals and their opinions and motivations, and some spectacularly articulate and insightful arguments for women’s equality.  I loved the depth painted in each character — a panoply of realistic people of the time. Although the story is not a comedy, several lines had me laughing out loud (see samples below).

There was an additional plot line overlaid on the broader story that I frankly didn’t care for as much. This focused more on Mattie’s personal development with respect to her feelings towards friends and family and her inability to see clearly into a particular character because of her own history.  However, the bulk of the book is both enjoyable and informative so I am happy to recommend it.

Some great lines:
“People always stared. If one didn’t creep around, if one said what one thought, if one shouted for joy or roared with anger, if one tried to get things done, then seemingly there was no choice but to be noticeable”

“Moodiness had always baffled her — the way that it placed the onus on the other person to gauge which breeze of circumstance was the cause of this particular weathercock twirl. If one were cross about something, then one should simply say so; conversation should not be a guessing game”

“Whereas listening to Mr and Mrs Wimbourne on the topic of their grandchildren is akin to being chlorformed. And servants — do you have any idea of how much the average middle-class woman has to say on the subject of servants? Mrs Wimbourne, Mrs Holyroyd, Mrs Lumb — all ululating on the difficulty of keeping a housemaid.”

“A banshee chorus swelled monstrously and then died away and, for a moment, only the barking of every dog in Hampstead was audible.”

“Churchill had been giving a speech about the miners, his staccato delivery a gift to the astute heckler:”

“It seemed that people like him, people with easy lives, were always assuming things about her: she was stupid because she was a char; she was interesting because she was pretty; she’d be loyal because she was grateful. Nobody except Miss Lee asked her what she really thought.”

“There was a pause, presumably for Mr Wilkes to ensure that any remaining trace of anticipation had been sluiced from the room.”

“If she were a horse, one would advise blinkers”

“Mattie felt as if she were trying to sharpen an India rubber pencil”

“As a method of teaching it lacked variety, but it pummelled my intellect and meant that I dreamed no more during lessons.”

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.