The Night Tiger, by Yangtze Choo****

Choo is a force to be reckoned with. Her dazzling second novel, The Night Tiger, crosses genres from historical fiction, to literary fiction, to mystery, to romance, to magical realism; it’s deeply absorbing and unlike anything else being published right now. My thanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy. It’s hot off the presses; get yours before they sell out.

We have two protagonists, Ji Lin, whose widowed mother has married a tin ore dealer, and Ren, an eleven-year-old orphan that works as a houseboy. The story takes place in 1931 in Ipoh, Malaya, which was the name of Malaysia when it was still occupied, part of the British Empire. As the story commences, Ren’s master, Dr. McFarlane, has died of malaria, and his last words instructed Ren to go to Dr. William Acton, find McFarlane’s amputated finger and return it to McFarlane’s grave. He has 49 days, and the clock is ticking. Go.

So powerful is Choo’s storytelling voice that I was most of the way through the book before it occurred to me to wonder: who puts that kind of responsibility on a little kid, especially since the task involves traveling alone to a different town? But Ren loved his master, and he’s a loyal kiddo. Despite an offer by his former master’s housekeeper to take him in, he forges forward, determined to do as bidden.

Ji Lin has a different set of problems. She recently reached marriageable age, but the only man she’d have considered desirable is engaged to someone else. Her stepfather is looking for candidates so he can be rid of her, and Ji Lin doesn’t like the same men her stepfather prefers for her. And in 1931, there are very few respectable alternatives for women to support themselves. She might like to train as a teacher, but she needs money right this minute, before her stepdad finds out about her mother’s Mahjongg debt. That man beats her mother savagely over much smaller things, and this gambling debt is potentially ruinous. Ji Lin takes an apprenticeship with a dressmaker, but secretly makes a lot more money as a dance instructor, a risky job that can lead to assault, a ruined reputation, or both. One night on the dance floor, as she skillfully parries a handsy salesman trying to make a move on her, her hand brushes his pocket and a little glass tube rolls out. She pockets it so she can check it out later, and oh hey, there’s a finger in there!

Ji Lin’s stepbrother, Shin is an intern at the local hospital, and that place is seriously messed up: “There’s a secret, white and yeasty maggot, which threatens to undermine the neat and orderly life of the hospital.” Just for starters, what happened to all the amputated fingers that are supposed to be in the storeroom with the other medical specimens?

At the same time, an unusual number of deaths have occurred lately, and there’s concern that it’s a weretiger that’s behind them. A weretiger is like a werewolf in reverse: instead of originally being a human that changes to a monstrous sort of wolf when the moon is full, a weretiger actually is a tiger that can at times become human.

Choo is masterly at weaving a complex plot, developing characters, and using imagery and possibly allegory as well; the river is a symbol that has been around as long as literature. But her greatest contribution here is in the way she uses all these things to create suspense. Once the possibility of the weretiger is raised in more than a passing way, I find myself examining every secondary character—and some fairly important ones—whose whereabouts are unknown at about the same time a corpse is discovered with tiger tracks nearby. Could that person be a weretiger? Could this one? No. Well, maybe. We learn that a weretiger is distinguished by a limp or otherwise deformed back foot, and so then I am eyeing anybody with a hurt foot or a limp or a wheelchair.

There are a number of threads that weave in and out of the story: troubled dreams are shared by Ren and Ji Lin, who have never met, and Ren’s dead twin, Yin, speaks to him. Ren’s “cat sense” guides him away from trouble and toward the finger. I often struggle with magical realism, because I’ll be trying to solve the story’s main problem using real world information, but then someone will do something people cannot do, and I yelp with frustration. But Choo sells me on the notion that there’s a weretiger, because now I know that a dead twin that magically communicates here; who’s to say there can’t be a magical tiger monster that’s killing the local folk too? Somebody sure as heck keeps leaving tiger tracks, and I know it’s not me.

The author provides information about Chinese folklore, including the weretiger, in notes following the story, and about halfway through the book I read the author’s notes before finishing the story.

The only part of this book that I don’t like is the romance that pops up between Ji Lin and her stepbrother. Ew, ew! Why does Choo find this necessary? It doesn’t add interest so much as distraction. When their mother goes bonkers and tells them to stay the hell away from each other, I’m right there in her corner. You tell them, honey. Hit them again. You can borrow my umbrella. Let them have it! Sick little bastards. The author goes to pains to stress that they aren’t biologically related and that Shin’s father never legally adopted Ji Lin, but who the hell cares? The incest taboo has nothing to do with biology; it’s a social construct. We don’t screw the siblings we grow up with, period. This aspect of the story is just plain tasteless, and if I were her editor, I would cut it clean out of there, making Shin the fantastic brother that he had been when they were younger and nothing else.

That said, I nearly went for a five star rating anyway, because it is so gratifying to see a well written story about any part of Asia during the colonial period that is not written from the point of view of the colonists and whose main characters are native residents rather than the occupiers. By showing the ignorant, patronizing way that local Brits—many of whom are expatriates because they aren’t decent enough people to be accepted socially back home—Choo exposes the true nature of colonialism, and for this alone, I could stand up and cheer.

With the single caveat emphatically mentioned, I recommend this story to you.

Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts*****

“Don’t let anybody steal your marbles.”

Maud Gage Baum is one of a kind. The godchild of Susan B. Anthony, child of first-wave feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage and an indulgent, progressively inclined father, she is unhampered by many of the traditional expectations that shackled women born during the American Civil War. But though her parents encourage her to develop her mind and talents, they have little prepared her for the wider world that greets her, and when she arrives at the women’s dormitory at Cornell University, she is considered peculiar by her classmates. She is a lonely young woman, until her roommate sets her up with Frank, an eccentric, clever man whose whimsy equals her own. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the galley, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. It will be available to the public tomorrow, February 12, just in time to be wrapped in red paper and given to the bookworm you adore.

Maud’s story comes to us from two different time periods, one of which starts in 1871 during her childhood and moves forward in linear fashion, and the other in 1939, when she comes to the set where The Wizard of Oz is being filmed to fulfill her beloved Frank’s dying wish; he has asked her to look after Dorothy.  And though it initially means gaining access to the studio through duplicitous means, Maude befriends the unhappy but massively talented Judy Garland, and advocates for the intention behind her character, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

I love this book hard. It has an unusual appeal, not a thriller nor a grab-you-by-the-hair page turner, but rather a strangely comforting novel, one that offers us the chance to follow Maud to another time and another place. I read several books at a time, and this one became my bribe to myself, the reward I could look forward to after completing increments of other books that I wouldn’t abandon, yet didn’t love as I did this one.

How many times have I reviewed a book favorably yet with the caveat that it isn’t bedtime reading, and maybe not good for mealtime either? Listen up. This one is good for both. It will make you appreciate your meal as you move through the hungry years of the Depression, and as you read about poor Judy being starved with lettuce and cottage cheese, her penalty for reaching puberty when the studio wanted her to look like a scrawny waif. And at bedtime, even the sorrowful passages are wonderfully hypnotic.

The love story between Maud and Frank is one for the ages, and without Letts, who would have guessed? Midway through the story I felt the need to know how closely the author kept to the truth, and I skipped to the notes at the end. I am delighted to say that this writer did a great deal of research, and she tells the reader specifically where and when she departs from historical fact for the sake of the story.  The way that the character of Dorothy is invented, based on a string of actual events from the Baums’ lives, is riveting, and in fact had the author not told us otherwise, I would have assumed that much of it was made up, because it’s almost too cool to be true.

Letts develops her characters subtly, with never a caricature or stereotype. Though her settings are well drawn, this is a character based book if ever I read one, and it must truly have been a labor of love. I’ve read a dozen books between this one and the present, yet this is the title that makes me smile.

This beautifully crafted story is bound to rank high among the year’s best historical novels. Sweet, soothing, and highly recommended.

Spearhead, by Adam Makos*****

I read this historical gem free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; it’s among the top ten percent of the military histories I have read, and it’s one of the few that I have recommended to friends and relatives. Makos’s introduction tells us what he has done to lay his groundwork, and it’s impressive:



We traversed the battlefields of the Third Reich—with the men who made history…In 2013. Clarence Smoyer and three other veterans traveled to Germany and allowed us to tag along, to interview them on the grounds where they had once fought. We recorded their stories. We recorded what they remembered saying and hearing others say. Then we verified their accounts with deep research. We drew from four archives in America and one in England. We even traveled to the German Bundesarchiv in the Black Forest in search of answers. And what we found was staggering. Original orders. Rare interviews between our heroes and war reporters, conducted while the battle was raging. Radio logs of our tank commanders’ chatter, allowing us to time their actions to the minute… Is the world ready for a book about tanks? There’s one way to find out. Shut the hatches. Tighten your chin strap. It’s time to roll out.


Spearhead is equal parts memoir and history, and Makos is known for using a “You are there” writing style, though he is new to me. He writes about the most riveting parts of their service there, and though each of these four men starts the war in a different place, at the end they are joined together when they reach Cologne. 

The congenial narrative is enhanced with photographs of the men then and now, along with pictures of other men they served with, some of whom made it out alive as well as many that didn’t, or who survived the war but emerged crippled. There is a great deal of comfort, when reading a tale that must include so much carnage, in knowing from the get-go that Clarence Smoyers, Buck Marsh, Gustav Schaefer, Chuck Miller, and Frank Audifred will survive. There are a lot of names and faces, and here I was grateful to be reading digitally on Kindle, because I could use the “search book” feature to quickly regain the identity of participants I couldn’t recall when they came up again. 

There are some poignant moments; after all, they were really just kids. Sometimes they made it through battle because their commanders made wise decisions; sometimes they lived on in spite of incompetent or negligent commanders; and sometimes they found themselves in command. 

I never knew much about how tanks are operated. I believed that the guy whose head sometimes pokes up out of the hatch was the driver; that’s not so. And I had never given any thought to where the tankers sleep at night, or where they go to the bathroom. And the scandalous lack of safety for the men in Sherman tanks wasn’t clear to me till I read that the British called the Sherman as the “Tommy cooker,” the free Poles named it a “burning grave,” and Americans called it a “crematorium on wheels.” Ultimately this made it into the press when journalist Ann Stringer reprinted the comment that “Our tanks are not worth a drop of water on a hot stove.” The Pershing tank would be a tremendous improvement, and would be largely responsible for keeping our veterans alive to tell about it. 

There are some amazing high-tech photographs and diagrams that were unavailable during this conflict; I went back to them several times as I became more acquainted with the lives of the men inside them. The maps could be better, but then you can’t have everything. 

For those interested in World War II military history, or for those that read war memoirs, Spearhead is hard to beat. You can also visit the author’s website at AdamMakos.com. This book will be available to the public February 12, 2019. Highly recommended.

The Winter of the Witch, by Katherine Arden****

The stirring, much-anticipated conclusion to Arden’s Winternight Trilogy is here. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now. 

The scene opens on a charred palace. The Tatars have attacked the Russians and been driven off; an attempt to dethrone Grand Prince Dmitrii has been averted, but all that is left to defend stands in ruin in the late winter snow. Arden is one of the deftest word smiths to emerge this century, and the tableau laid before us is stark and resonant; at the same time, the suspense is palpable, because readers aren’t that deeply concerned about the Grand Prince. We want to know where Varya is. 

Varya—Vasilisa Petrovna– is a badass warrior that communes with the chyerti, which are Russian folk spirits; these specialize in particular realms, with some guarding the home, others the forest, the river, and so forth. All of these are presented with historical accuracy, according to the author’s note (as well as my occasional perfunctory Google search.) 

Speaking of which: those that have read the first two volumes, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, know that there are a tremendous number of specialized terms in Arden’s writing. There are words for types of clothing, domiciles, spirits, and all sorts of things. Although there is a serviceable glossary at the back of the book, I found it very useful to read digitally, because definitions, images and so forth could be called up literally at the touch of my fingertips. If you read the first two volumes in paper and found yourself either skipping a lot of words—which you can do, but your mental movie won’t be as rich—or flipping around in the book looking for things, consider shifting to the digital version for the last volume. 

This begs the question: can we read this book as a stand-alone novel? 

No. No you cannot. 

Moving on, characters we know are gradually reintroduced like a slow drum roll, and then finally, here she is! I love this character. Vasya is unforgettable, and she defies every stinking stereotype. So many authors feel the need to compensate for creating a strong female character by making her tiny, or physically beautiful, or both. Vasya is neither. Her nose is long, her mouth is wide, and as if these features weren’t sufficient, she gets burned, beaten and starved in the course of her adventures. When she chooses to masquerade as a male, she can pass. 

I grew so attached to this character during the first two volumes that I held my breath—would it be possible to see her all the way through all three volumes without having her fall in love or have a roll in the hay? And so here, I am a wee bit disappointed, because the answer is no, but almost. Nevertheless, her romantic life is never allowed to define her or alter the course of her plans, which is a considerable consolation. 

Tragically, Vasya’s magnificent horse, Solovey, is killed early in the story, and I had to wonder about this; I decided that it had to happen to show us that Vasya is able to do great things without her horse to swoop in and save her, but that theory is shot to hell in the second half of the book. 

On the other hand, new characters are introduced, and although I love Ded Grib, the mushroom spirit, and I find the Bear vastly amusing, my favorite is Vasya’s great-grandmother. 

Vasya’s mission is to save Rus’ from the Tatars, and to persuade its leaders that Christianity and chyerti can coexist. The book (and the trilogy) ends with the Battle of Kulikovo, which happened in real life. The ending is beautifully rendered, moving, and deeply satisfying. 

A surprising amount of this engaging story has historical basis, and Arden gives a concise but specific explanation at the end. 

Those that have waited for the conclusion to this excellent series need wait no longer; those that haven’t read it yet should get the entire trilogy. It’s a wonderful place to get lost, providing the ultimate in escapist fiction. 

Recommended to feminists, and to all that love excellent historical fiction.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah*****

You could say I am late to the party, and you would be right. I had a chance to read a galley, but I read the synopsis and then scrolled past it. More World War II fiction? Ho hum. But the most well-worn subject matter can be made brand new in the most capable hands, and Hannah has done that. I thank the Goodreads friends that insisted I should read this book, and Seattle Bibliocommons for providing me with a copy. 

Our two protagonists are French sisters whose mother has died. Vianne, the elder sister, marries and leaves; Isabelle is sent to one boarding school after another by her grieving papa, who has nothing to give his daughters emotionally. The Nazi threat is far away and of little concern to the people of Paris—until they come closer, and then they’re here.

The Nazis sweep through Papa’s bookstore. They trash the shelves and confiscate all of his Marx, all of his Trotsky. They say these are terrorist materials. And then—they put him on their payroll.

Isabelle leaves yet another boarding school and goes home to her Papa, determined to remain at home. She receives a cold and unwelcoming return; then the Germans pierce the Maginot Line, once believed to be impenetrable, and Paris is no longer safe. Papa sends a bitter Isabelle to live with her sister, but she is traveling in the car of neighbors, and they are forced to abandon their vehicle. Isabelle is on her own.

Vianne, meanwhile, is tending to hearth and home. For years she miscarried one baby after another, late miscarriages at that, and the love her sister might have expected has instead turned to grief for the tiny people buried in a family plot in Vianne’s yard. Her husband has been conscripted, and she is alone with the one child she was able to bear. Vianne is not a risk taker, because she has too much to lose. Everything she does is in the interest of her daughter, Sophie, and her husband. Isabelle arrives and almost immediately begins making waves, behaving provocatively toward the occupying German forces, and Vianne is horrified. Isabelle has to go.

Over the course of the story both sisters are developed in a way that is so natural, so believable that I can sometimes predict what they will do, not because the writing is formulaic—it isn’t—but because I feel I know them so well now. I want to speak to the characters directly, so visceral is my reaction to them. Isabelle, who at the outset is reactive and reckless, joins the Resistance and becomes a disciplined patriot, code-named “The Nightingale”. She is still courageous, but she learns to weigh her actions against the benefits and risks to her cause. Vianne, who at the outset is conservative, becomes more willing to take risks on behalf of the Jewish children in her small community, children that are likely to either starve or be killed if they are not smuggled into safe homes.  All along, I am murmuring advice to them: “Do it! Do it!” and “Don’t you dare.”

A particularly interesting and unexpected development is the change in Papa; the drunken, abusive, uncaring lout has a side that nobody suspects, and he becomes a flawed yet heroic side character.

Once I realized that Hannah is a force in today’s literary world, I read the galley of her next novel, The Great Alone (reviewed by me also.) It was good, but nothing close to what this story is, and so I am glad I read them in this order, saving the better story as a tasty dessert.  If you haven’t read this book yet, do it now. Trust me.

The Wartime Sisters, by Lynda Cohen Loigman*****

Sometimes I feel sorry for writers that hit it big the first time they publish a novel, because then the expectations are raised for everything they write thereafter, and so I wondered whether Loigman, the author of A Two Family House, would be able to match the standard she has set for herself. I needn’t have worried, because if anything, The Wartime Sisters is even more absorbing. I was invited to read and review, and my thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. This excellent novel will be available to the public January 22, 2019.

The setting is an armory not far from where the author grew up, one that was an important manufacturing site during World War II. The characters are what drive the story, but Loigman’s intimate understanding of the period’s social mores and the economic impact the war had on women on the home front make it far more resonant. Rather than rely on pop-cultural references to set the tone, she conveys unmistakably what American women were expected to do—and to never do–in this unusual yet unliberated time period.

Ruth and Millie are sisters, and yet in some ways they don’t really know each other. Each has built up a personal narrative full of grievances and assumptions about the other over the course of their lives; they are estranged, with Millie back home in Brooklyn and Ruth in Springfield, Massachusetts. Both are married, and both of their husbands have decided to enlist, but otherwise their circumstances are vastly different. Ruth has married well, but when Millie’s husband Lenny is gone and their parents are dead, she has no one to turn to. She has a small child to consider, and during this time period it was unusual for a mother to leave a young child in the care of others. Men worked; women stayed home. And so although she dreads doing it, Millie writes to her older sister Ruth; Ruth doesn’t want to take Millie in, but she does.

Both sisters carry a lot of guilt, and each is holding onto a terrible secret.

The story alternates time periods and points of view, and the reader will want to pay close attention to the chapter headings, which tell us not only which woman’s perspective is featured, but also what year it is. At the outset we have the present time alternating with their childhoods, and gradually the two time periods are brought together.

 In addition, we see the viewpoints of two other women that are introduced later in the story. One is Lillian, the wife of a commanding officer; she befriends Ruth and later, Millie. The second is Arietta, the cook that feeds the armory personnel and also sings for them. Although these women’s backgrounds are provided as separate narratives, their main role is to provide the reader with an objective view of Ruth and Millie.

I generally have several books going at a time, but I paused my other reading for this one, because I felt a personal obligation to Ruth and to Millie. Family is family, and while I read this story, they were my sisters. You can’t just walk away.

Loigman joins women’s fiction and World War II historical fiction masterfully, and if this work reminds me of any other writer, it would be the great Marge Piercy. This book is highly recommended to those that cherish excellent writing.

A Bound Woman Is A Dangerous Thing, by DaMaris B. Hill*****

This compact but potent collection of poetry is so good that it hurts. DeMaris B. Hill spills America’s historical shame across the printed page with the articulate rage and power of the generations she writes about. My thanks go to Bloomsbury and Net Galley for the review copy. This collection becomes available to the public January 15. 2019. 

The keys to reading Hill’s poetry are in the introduction, and in additional brief introductions at the beginning of each poem. These are broken down into five sections that depict the different ways in which women of color have been bound over the centuries, and Hill points out that Black resistance didn’t start with Black Lives Matter, and it didn’t start with Dr. King and Rosa Parks either. American Black folk have been fighting for their rights for centuries, but some periods have been better publicized and more widely recognized than others. 

The introduction is not long by most standards, but I found myself impatient to read poetry, so halfway through it I skipped to the poetry; read the collection; and then I went back to reread the introduction from the beginning. After that I went back over the poems a second time, lingering over my favorites. The review copy was a rough one, and it’s hard to read poetry if the spacing is whack. Your copy is almost guaranteed to be cleaner, but you may choose to read these more than once anyway. Strong poetry will do that to you. 

Each poem is devoted to an African-American woman that has fought in one way or another, and the conclusion is written for Hill’s son. The book is billed as a collection that takes us from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland, which it does, and both of these poems are resonant and in the case of Bland, achingly sorrowful. My own favorites were those written about Eartha Kitt, who was familiar to me, and Ruby McCollum, who wasn’t. The poem about Alice Clifton made me wish I could unread it, because it is harsh and horrible, but in case it wasn’t clear from the get go: Hill isn’t writing to spare our tender feelings. She’s pissed, and she’s right to be. 

These poems contain some of the finest figurative language I have read anywhere.

Highly recommended for those that seek social justice and that love excellent poetry. 

Best Novels of 2018

If I had prize money to bestow, I would divide it between the authors of these two matchless works of fiction, which in my eyes are the best of 2018. Interestingly, both feature strong women as main characters, and both are Southern fiction. If you haven’t read them yet, do it now.


The War Before the War, by Andrew Delbanco****

You may not have had the grades or the money to attend Columbia University, but you can read Professor Delbanco’s book anyway. It’s meaty and interesting, and it clears up some longstanding myths about slavery in the USA. My thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Random House for the review copy; this book is for sale now. 

At the outset I find this work a little on the slow side, and I wonder if I am in for five hundred pages of drone. Not to worry. By the five percent mark the whole thing wakes up. Slavery from the time of the early European immigrants to the American Civil War is mapped out, and I found myself wishing I had read it before I taught social studies instead of during retirement. Sacred cows are slain and there’s plenty of information that is new to me. For example, I did not know that the number of runaway slaves was always a fairly small, economically of little consequence but powerful in its example. I didn’t know that Caucasian people were retaliated against sometimes by sending them into slavery; since one couldn’t tell a person with a tiny amount of African-American heritage from a white person, it was possible to lie about someone whose roots were entirely European and send them down south. And although I understood that the great Frederick Douglass was hugely influential, I hadn’t understood the power of the slave narrative as a genre: 

“When [slave narratives] were first published, they were weapons in a war just begun. Today they belong to a vast literature devoted to every aspect of the slave system–proof, in one sense, of how far we have come, but evidence, too, of the impassable gulf between the antebellum readers whom they shocked by revealing a hidden world .and current readers, for whom they are archival records of a world long gone. Consigned to college reading lists, the slave narratives, which were once urgent calls to action, now furnish occasions for competitive grieving in the safety of retrospect.”

It is painful to envision a roomful of young people flipping through their phones or napping during a lecture or discussion about this damning aspect of U.S. history that haunts us even today; and yet I know it happens, because I have seen it among the teenagers I have taught. I want to roar, “Where’s your sense of outrage?” And yet it’s there; but many that are activists against cop violence and other modern civil rights issues haven’t yet made the connection between the present and our national origins. So I feel this guy’s pain. 

For the interested reader of history, the narrative flows well and the documentation is thorough and beyond reproach. Delbanco has a sharp, perceptive sense of humor and this keeps the reader further engaged. 

I recommend this book as an essential addition to the home or classroom library of every history teacher and reader.