Vera by Carol Edgarian (Historical Fiction)

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

A wild coming-of-age story — Vera is the daughter of the Barbary Coast’s most successful (and infamous) Madam (Rose) and is raised by a “proper” Swedish widow (Morie) who lives on that income. At 15 Vera is a “scrawny and sharp-tongued girl” seething with a fervent desire for more: more time with her real mother, more options, more life. And then the 1906 San Francisco quake hits.

With a cast of unforgettable characters deployed across unforgettable scenes, we follow Vera through adventures during and after the quake and resulting fire (which burned 28,000 buildings and 500 city blocks). From Rose’s “gold house” on Lafayette Square to Chinatown to the many encampments for the suddenly homeless (400,000 people), the novel depicts the new mixtures of uppercrusters, corrupt politicians, wandering orphans, and the military with their overrun field hospitals — all adhering to their own sense of morality, loyalty, and their survival instinct.

Real life personalities Alma Spreckles, Abe Ruef, Caruso, and Mayor Eugene Schmitz (the quake occurring on the eve of his arrest on corruption charges) all play parts. The writing is full of details such as the ingredients in Dills cough medicine (chloroform and a heroin derivative). Completely brings to life the time and the place for a variety of characters with different backgrounds. Could not put it down.

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 2nd, 2021.

China by Edward Rutherfurd (Historical Fiction)

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

A sweeping novel of China from 1839 – 1900, from the Opium Wars through China’s Century of Humiliation to the suppression of the Boxer rebellion. It’s the story of the conflicts surrounding the forced opening of China to Western trade, customs, and religion. The story is told through a variety of characters who span cultures, classes, backgrounds, and professions (including plenty of women characters with different roles, abilities and agendas). Multiple generations of characters such as a young English merchant trying to make his fortune (through opium), an upright Mandarin charged with enforcing the emperor’s ban of opium, a palace eunuch, a peasant girl, a mercenary pirate, a missionary, a Manchu bannerman, the emperor and various concubines and princes, and some craftsmen. The characters have depth, too. They reflect on what is happening, how they feel about their own role, and how to achieve their goals while maintaining their values (or how to shift their values to attain their goals).

I love that history itself is the protagonist in this novel, rather than the background setting for individual stories. Everything is told through the personal stories of the characters — either through participation in the action or through conversations between neighbors, colleagues, and family members. Even past history is exemplified in ritual and description of the origin of individual morality. This approach brings to the fore what it was like to live through these times with only direct observations and rumors as sources of information. And how very different that information was depending on your location, background, profession, culture and connections. Additionally, there were so many fascinating descriptions of various ways of life — all told in a style that was interesting because someone was learning it (e.g. a craft) or going through it — so always real and never dry. This was a long book, and I literally had trouble putting it down. (As a warning, one of these “fascinating” descriptions was about foot binding, and I skimmed through trying not to read that at all. Of all the atrocities visited upon humans, this is the one I find most horrific and barbaric (yes, even more than female circumcision which comes in a close second).

This is my first Rutherfurd and I’m now going back to read more. Meticulously researched, personal and accurate — a kind of modern day Michener for those old enough to remember classics like Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii, The Source, or Caravans. After reading this, I have a far more in-depth understanding about the relationship between China and the West and of life in the 19th century.

Thank you to Doubleday Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 11th, 2021.

The Half-Orphan’s Handbook by Joan F Smith (Young Adult)

A well-written book about a young girl going through the grief of her father’s recent suicide. Lila is 16 and has been reluctantly cajoled into attending a grief camp for the summer. This is the story of her slow journey towards healing, including a healthy amount of new friends, a budding love interest, and that irreverent teen style that helps makes the unbearable, bearable.

The author, who went through a similar experience, does an excellent job at describing the confusion of competing feelings, the different ways grief hits you at different times, and the eventual return to the three Ls: laughing, loving, and living without guilt. I really liked all the characters, and I want to emphasize that this was not at all a depressing book — there was a lot of honest reflection, observation, and fun. Plenty of racial and sexual diversity as well as discussions of addiction, suicide, and first love.

Thank you to Children’s Publishing Group 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.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Literary Fiction)

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

The sweeping story of a daring aviatrix (Marian Graves) who is determined to be the first to fly around the globe longitudinally and the self-destructive actress (Hadley Baxter) who will play her in a movie 60 years later. Their somewhat parallel stories (orphaned young, raised by benignly neglectful uncles) and innate curiosity help Hadley delve into the character more than the screen-writer had.

This book was interesting on so many levels. Stunning descriptions of gorgeous locales — Montana, Alaska, and Antarctica between 1920 and 1950 — spread throughout. In-depth discussions of aviation and art, as well as philosophical dives into isolation, the lure of solitude, the impact of war, and the evolution of personal identity are also ubiquitous. Shipstead really gets inside a subject, presenting it not as a separate entity but through the character’s perception of it. We see Antarctica not as a dry description of mountains and snow, but through Marian’s perspective, and it feels as though her soul is exposed through the beautiful language of what she sees and feels. Similarly, while aviation has no appeal for me, Shipstead describes Marian’s intellectual and emotional engagement with it, and I can feel the (unnatural for me) attraction. It’s a rare author who can transmute a dry topic into fascination through the mind of an obsessed character. Even the Hollywood bits feel real through character insight, rather than splashy opulence and name dropping.

Plenty of historical context is introduced via short tidbits from the news (flights from other aviatrices, difficulties for women in trying to achieve in male-dominated worlds, etc.). As always, I like the fact that the author just wrote the story, with realistic reactions and approaches of her characters and didn’t spend time pontificating on the obvious. Yes, life was much harder for women who wanted to pursue the unorthodox, but this story is about what they did anyhow, not what they were prevented from doing. Her writing style is also not overly dramatic — no heart wrenching prose — though the tale abounds with angsty opportunities.

I’d forgotten that I’d read one of Shipstead’s earlier works — Astonish Me —about ballet dancing and defection. She reminds me of Jennifer Egan a bit (I’m a big Egan fan) in the way she can bring clarity to complex topics in a variety of subjects.

A quick warning — I found the first two chapters a little dry — it gets much, much, better. Highly recommended.

Some good quotes:

“…how best to squeeze Marian’s completely unknowable existence into a neat pellet of entertainment…”

“…and out over the loose northern jigsaw of spring ice that the planet wears like a skullcap, …”

“There should be an Antiques Roadshow for memories, and I would sit behind a desk and explain that while your memory might be lovely and have tremendous sentimental value, it was worth nothing to anyone but you.”

“The landscape is secretive and harsh and impossibly immense, and she borrows some of its inscrutability for herself, its disinterest in human goings-on. Unfriendliness is another form of camouflage.”

“Mountain everywhere: monstrous, ice-choked cousins of the forested peaks that had encircled her as she looped and spun over Missoula.”

“Was this what her father had done after he left Missoula? Slung his skills over his shoulder and set out?”

“Does that mean I wish to die? I don’t think I do. But the pure and absolute solitude in which we leave the world exerts a pull.”

“She thinks he means that no matter what earnest promises of peace are made, what fragments are hauled up and glued back together, the dead will not return. A return to the world as it was is impossible; the only choice is to make a new world. But making a new world seems dreary and exhausting.”

Thank you to Knopf and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 4th, 2021.

The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly (Historical Fiction)

A story you can slide right in to, The Last Garden in England brings to life three generations of women whose lives cross the spectacular gardens at Highbury House in Warwickshire. Mixing their voices in a collection of chapters slotted into each season of a single year, we witness the progression of their lives in the contexts of radically different times and accompanying social mores.

In 1907, Edwardian garden designer Venetia Smith designs the gardens. In 1944, recently widowed Diana Symonds is the Lady of Highbury House, now repurposed as a convalescent hospital; Stella Adderton, head cook, is caring for her orphaned nephew; and Elizabeth Pedley is a Land Girl on the adjacent farm. In 2021, Emma Lovett is trying to restore the gardens, struggling to unearth information on their original state.

The writing and story remind me of Kate Morton (I’m a fan) — deep characters and easily absorbed writing with a plot that that is equally character and story driven. I love the way each character makes her way through the constraints of her time period following the dictates of her own values on vocation, family, love, and internal worth. They were all different! Some were naturally maternal, some not; some were pulled towards a life of great achievement (despite difficulties), some not; some were willing to compromise for love, some not. I loved the lack of stereotypes and the matter-of-fact descriptions of social context for women in each time period and the way they got on with it. Included interesting insight into the process of garden design (both creation and restoration).

A real joy to read with that lovely combination that keeps both the heart and the mind engaged.

Thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 12th, 2021.

The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin (Fiction)

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

A heartwarming story of three lost souls who come together in a small farming community (Hood River, Oregon) to find their place in life — one with purpose and people to care about. Alice Holtzman has worked in the County Planning Office for twenty years but her passion is beekeeping and the dream of one day running her own orchard. Jake Stevenson is eighteen and trapped in a wheelchair after a stupid stunt at a high school party. His proudest achievement? The world’s tallest Mohawk (at 16.5 inches). Other than hair maintenance, however, he is just killing time and soaking in regret. Harry Stokes is a “passenger in his own life” — desperate for a job with a criminal history and a now-condemned trailer as a living space.

I loved the main characters and the manner in which the author describes the way they each find each other and a solid, “feels right” path moving forward. There is a relatively simplistic overlay plot concerning the evil Supragro company that is pushing a toxic pesticide spray that is lethal to bees — and how the community comes together to successfully fight it. The “bad” guys are fairly two-dimensional — stereotypical greedy, powerful, and corrupt men — but I did like the way social media and video was used to expose what was happening. I also very much enjoyed the descriptions of Hood River and rural life.

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

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 2nd, 2021.

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

Crime novelists keep turning up dead in this second Harbinder Kaur novel by Elly Griffiths. The first to go is Peggy Smith — resident of Seaview Court in Shoreham and murder consultant to the literary stars. While our 35-year old lesbian, Sikh, still-living-at-home detective grumbles her way through the case, she is aided (against her will) by a beautiful Ukranian carer with a history of cybercrime, an ancient BBC producer, and an ex-monk turned coffee shop owner, shyly looking for a woman with quirks.

Griffiths’ books always grow on me — they can start off kind of klunky, but I always get involved and want to finish. I like the characters, and although these are definitely cozies with a capital C, there are enough surprises to keep me going.

I do prefer the Ruth Galloway series — this book felt like it was written a little more quickly, had more filler, and was slower paced than some of her previous books. On the other hand, I’ve had many Galloway books which see the characters fully develop, and I am personally more interested in the details of forensic archeology than I am with literary murder writers. There are a lot of fun crime fiction references (both book and film) that I enjoyed.

War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan (Non-fiction History)

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 6th, 2020.

This is a surprisingly engaging study of War as a human activity throughout history — rather than the more commonplace in-depth study of a particular conflict. With tight (read non-meandering, non-dry, non-dull) prose, MacMillan studies War from its evolution across the ages: how the ability to make war and changes in human society progress inextricably; the evolution of war across changes in society and technical advancement; the shift from King and Country to nationalism and our view of warriors; what induces people to fight, the role of civilians, and the efforts to control and regulate something as completely uncontrollable as the license to slaughter other human beings. Drawing on a wide variety of examples — from the Peloppenesian and Punic wars to more modern conflicts and everything in between — she brings this uniquely human activity into a sobering perspective.

Like most historians, MacMillan provides an impressive array of sources at the end — what I particularly appreciated is that a significant portion of those referred to individual accounts — diaries, letters, etc. This gave her narrative the perspective of the individual as well as the big picture trends. Her attention to detail pervades from the high-level machinations of governments, kings, and rebels down to the experiences of individual foot soldiers, civilians, prisoners, and diplomats.

Here are some parts that stuck with me for a variety of reasons:

• For much of history the records were made and kept by that minority who could read and write. WWI was groundbreaking in that the majority of combatants were literate.
• We have an antipathy to war that makes us avoid its study and understanding.
• A paradox of war: growing state power and the emergence of larger states are the result of war but can also then bring peace. A strong state keeps a monopoly on force and violence but keeps things peaceful within. For example, Tito kept Yugoslavia together — once he toppled all the ethnic groups within started killing each other. Similarly, the Chinese Qin empire in 221 BC was run by a ruthless tyrant but was remembered with gratitude as the ruler who brought peace and order to China.
• After Waterloo, the British proudly wore dentures made from battlefield dead and used their skeletons as fertilizer.
• Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to — many came to war to avoid shame, not for glory or duty.
• People at home hate the enemy more than the fighters do. The fighters have pity for each other and understand how similar they are. Those at home see the enemy as one anonymous “they”.
• The longer or costlier the siege, the worse the treatment of the citizens afterwards.
• In WWII, Germany followed International prisoner protocols as long as they considered the prisoners their racial equals — the French and British, not the Poles or Russians.
• The state of the British soldiers during the Boer war was so poor that society started a whole program to improve health of citizenry in order to have more fit soldiers.

While I thought I preferred her deep-dive books to this thematic one, I’ve found these concepts keep coming back into my brain. I’m realizing that it has shifted my way of thinking on the topic — which is exactly what happened to me with her book The War That Ended Peace (highly recommended — all about what led up to WWI). She has an ability to get to the heart of subjects, and her examples are illuminating because while I was aware of some before, I had not been aware of how they exemplified the theme.

Reading this book was both fascinating and depressing, though not in an emotionally wrenching way. While I was aware of all the conflicts she mentioned, the aggregation of violence and mass destruction through the ages makes it harder to ignore. Her concluding point is that we must keep thinking about War, despite our innate abhorrence of the topic, because it has reached a point (Total War, Modern War, high-tech weaponry) where we are threatening all of humanity.

A single quote: “War is a mystery both to those who fight and those of us who are on the sidelines. And it is a troubling and unsettling mystery. It should be abhorrent, but it is so often alluring and its values seductive. It promises glory and offers suffering and death. We who are non-combatants may fear the warriors, but we also admire, even love, them. And we cannot pretend we are not party of the same family, with the same potential for fighting.”

Bryant & May: Oranges and Lemons (Mystery)

Number 17 in the ever enlightening, ever entertaining Bryant & May series. In this episode, the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) — finally tipped over the brink of being shut down permanently — is “temporarily” reinstated to solve a series of high profile murders that appear to be following the verses of the age old children’s nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons.”

As always, the writing has me in stitches as well as completely gripped by the story. We have an intriguing new character — Sydney — who when queried about whether or not she is “on the spectrum” responds that she prefers to think of herself as “over the rainbow.” When accused of being offended by something, she responds “It’s the millennials who take offense. I’m Generation Z.” I love her. Each of the misfits of the PCU is bursting with an off-canter personality of some sort, especially Arthur Bryant who dwells happily in the arcana of existential English history and alternate forms of knowledge.

And also as always, I never saw the end coming until it smacked me in the face.

This is a unique mystery series — I’ve never read another one quite like it.

Thank you to Ballantine Bantam and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on NovDecember 8th, 2020.

 

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Mystery)

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

Ex-editor / publisher Susan Ryeland is living in a not-so-glorious involuntary retirement in Crete after the events of Horowitz’ Magpie Murders in which her primary author (Alan Conway) was murdered and her publishing company offices burned to the ground. Now she is approached by a pair of distraught parents who want to help find Cecily Treherne, their missing daughter. Why Susan? Because just before she went missing Cecily had called them to say that upon rereading Conway’s Atticus Pund Takes the Case, she realized that the wrong person had been jailed eight years ago for a murder taking place in the Treherne hotel. I love British murder mysteries but I am constantly amazed that anyone is left alive in the country!!

This is a murder mystery steeped in literary detection. Right in the middle of the novel we are treated to the entire text of Atticus Pünd Takes the Case to try to decipher what Cecily read. I didn’t figure it out and neither will you (let me know if I’m wrong — I’d love to hear!). The literary “clues” are deeply embedded in the book and we need the main character to unpack them for us. Luckily there are also a lot of un-literary clues that follow more traditional murder mystery lines.

Lots of fun to read, though I admit to having had a hard time keeping track of the initial characters once the book-within-a-book began (it is not short). Horowitz is an adaptable writer — he does a great job of writing in the style of another (his Sherlock Holmes stories are a case in point). The embedded Atticus Pünd book is in the style of Agatha Christie and Pünd himself is a thinly disguised Poirot (I literally just finished watching the entire David Suchet series so it was easy to spot).

Possibly a little long — especially the embedded book. I like the Horowitz style of writing better than the Agatha Christie-like writing so that also added to the feeling of wanting to get back to the main story a little faster. As always, though, the plot twists were just the right amount of convoluted and surprising. Worth reading.

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 November 10th, 2020.