The Secret Guests, by Benjamin Black****

It’s World War II, and the Blitz has begun. The Royals are torn, wanting to remain with their subjects and share their misery, but not wanting the risk the well beings of their daughters. It’s decided that the girls must be moved, but with the shipping lanes and skies fraught with peril, where can they go and be safe? Ah, a fine idea: they’ll send them to a cousin in Ireland.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

As historical fiction goes, this is lightweight material, based on almost no historical event other than the war itself. However, as general fiction goes it’s terrific, immensely entertaining and droll as heck. I figure it’s 3.5 stars for historical fiction, 4.5 stars as general fiction; thus my 4 star rating.

Our protagonist is Garda Strafford-With-An-R, a marginally competent Irish detective who resembles Stan Laurel, tasked with the security the estate where the girls will be housed. Secondary characters are Celia Nashe, a British cop equivalent to a Secret Service agent, who is assigned to serve as personal security for the princesses; an arrogant, sleazy ambassador named Laschelles; and Strafford’s boss Hegarty, who resembles Oliver Hardy. We also have clueless but entitled Sir William, the girls’ host; two bored princesses that get up to things when nobody’s looking; some household servants that know more than they are supposed to; and a few local people that also know too much.

The fact is that I’m entirely burned out on World War II fiction, and that fact nearly prevents me from requesting this galley. But the spin—Ireland, which remained neutral and flirted with taking the side of Germany, what with its enmity toward the British—proves irresistible. The greatest surprise is how much wit is employed and how fast the story moves. I have never read Black’s work before, and this guy is hilarious. He shifts the point of view often, always from the third person omniscient but varying several times within a single chapter, so we get snippets of the person that’s bored, the person that’s nosy, the person that’s confused and so forth. The word smithery is so original and clever that I cannot put my highlighter down. Highlighting is pointless when I highlight close to half of the text, but I can’t help myself. And best of all, the cliched ending that I think I can see a mile away isn’t happening.

Those of us in the States have a three day weekend right around the corner, and the weather will be too miserable to want to go anywhere. This novel might be just the ticket. If you’re lucky enough to be planning a vacation soon, this would also be a fine beach read. But the humor will be a terrific pick-me-up for those stranded indoors with a case of the grumps. I recommend this book to you, and I would read this author’s work again in a heartbeat.

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates****

By now, nearly everyone that loves reading has heard of this debut novel by one of the century’s most celebrated writers. Not every strong journalist can also write fiction, but Coates can. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House. It’s for sale now.

The concept is a strong one. Why have we seen so little historical fiction set during the period just before the American Civil War and from the point of view of a slave? In an earlier essay Coates has pointed out that African-Americans need to reclaim this time period, that shrinking back from studying it is in a way a concession that shouldn’t be given. That’s the perspective on which this novel is built. It isn’t an easy read by any means; readers need strong literacy skills and a cast iron gut. The level of pain and violence—especially at the outset—is wrenching, and it should be. I took a long time to read this book because I could only swallow it in small portions. You may not want it for mealtime or bedtime reading.

Our protagonist is Hiram Walker, and he is the progeny of an enslaved mother and the plantation’s owner. Hiram is strong, capable, and attractive. When his father pulls him from the “tasked” and brings him home, other slaves warn him to be on his guard; he will never be considered a full member of this family, and he’ll never be considered an equal with Maynard, his Caucasian half-brother whose work ethic, talent, and intelligence could fit together in a thimble with room to spare. Hiram is assigned to prevent Maynard from going off the rails; however, since the authority runs in the opposite direction, Hiram is ultimately unable to save Maynard, who drowns after overindulging.

Hiram has an unusual gift, a supernatural talent that lends interest to the story without becoming its central focus.

Ultimately our protagonist is going to have to run for his freedom. During the years just before the Civil War, owners of large plantations in Virginia and the Carolinas find themselves in desperate straits. The land has been badly over farmed, and both cotton and tobacco are demanding crops. The soil is used up; farmland that once produced bountifully is no longer productive. The solution that most of the large owners seize is to expand their holdings westward. Vast numbers of slaves are either sold and sent to the deep South “Natchez Way” or moved there to work for the same owner on different land. Those that go are treated severely, and their families are fragmented without a moment’s hesitation. While some slaves were able to negotiate for their own manumission in earlier years, this option is no longer on the table. Coates does a stellar job keeping this aspect of his story consistent with historical fact.

Hiram’s escape is ultimately successful after a number of nightmarish experiences, but he is persuaded to return and to assist in the Underground Railroad, and he does so partly with the goal of freeing those that mean the most to him. Along the way he meets Harriet Tubman, and the way Coates depicts her is credible and fascinating. But the thing I love most, apart from the story’s basis and the eloquent word-smithery that shines here and there, is the way Coates condemns the hypocrisy, the culture of the slaveowner that makes the most horrible men able to look at themselves in the mirror and like what they see:

For it is not simply that you are captured by slavery, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes. And at that moment of revelation, of understanding, running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.

My one concern is with the dialogue. This historical tale will spin along beautifully, but then one person will tell another, “Trust me on that,” or “Sounds like a piece of work to me,” and the effect this has on me as a reader is that the spell is broken, and I am no longer transported to the time and place of the story.  And to be sure, everyone that writes historical fiction has to decide how much language of the period to use, and when to use current grammar and sentence composition so that the modern reader can follow it. But this is something that jumps out at me at the beginning, in the middle, and even at the end. I tell myself to forget about it and I immerse myself in the story once more, but then there it is again. No other reviewers seem to have noted this, but a part of me thinks that the braver course would have been for Coates to write this story under a pseudonym, because I suspect that without the famous name attached to it, more genuine criticism about this single, pervasive glitch would have been forthcoming.

Be that as it may, this is one hell of a fine story, and it’s told just when readers need to see it most. I recommend it to you without reservation.

Best Overall Nonfiction of 2019: Say Nothing

Best Biography of 2019: Madame Fourcade's Secret War

The Broken Road, by Peggy Wallace Kennedy**

“I was perhaps Daddy’s most important legacy of all.”

Thanks go to Bloomsbury and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review.

I was a child during the Civil Rights era, and although I didn’t live in the American South, I recall news footage of Kennedy’s father, George Wallace, the man that the author rightly attributes as a harbinger of the Trump movement. Instead of “Make America Great Again,” Wallace urged his constituents—including the Klan, whom he openly welcomed to his campaign—to “Stand Up for America.” When the federal government signaled that it would enforce the segregation ban, Wallace made headlines around the world by literally standing in the door of the schoolhouse in order to turn the first Black student away from a public school in Alabama.  My own father was a redneck of the first order, but even he distanced himself from this extremist. Wallace ran for U.S. president but was defeated; upon returning to the governor’s mansion, he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. By that time Malcolm X was dead and could not have told us that this was a case of chickens coming home to roost, and yet it may well have been.

Although the book’s summary suggests that Kennedy is vastly different from her father politically, her prose indicates that her true, bitterest grievances all center on his philandering betrayal of her sainted mother and his failure to be a strong provider and dedicated family man. She tells us that even in the 1960s, she felt his racist rhetoric was wrong, and so I waited for what I thought must surely come next: the moment she either confronted him or simply moved out of the house to another part of the country to restart her life in saner surroundings. None of this happened, as it turns out. She stayed in the governor’s mansion, thrilled by the relative affluence and privilege she regarded as her due following a tumultuous, sometimes impoverished childhood.

The title is taken from a Hemingway quote, and in her own story designated the location of her maternal grandparents, whose simple, homespun nurturance provided relief to her mother and herself when her father went on the road politicking and didn’t send money home for them to live off of. At the beginning of the book she uses the expression often enough to beat it to death, but once her father becomes governor she rarely speaks of these kind, gentle people. Toward the end, she parenthetically notes that her grandmother died at some point back in the middle of the book.

It’s interesting that although Lurleen Wallace was elected governor in order to circumvent what was at the time a state law against successive terms for her husband, the author says nothing at all about her mother’s civil rights policies. We see that she won the governorship in a landslide and was loved by all, and yet if her policies diverged much from George’s, that would have created screaming headlines. It’s just one of the many inconsistencies within this memoir.

The last several chapters are devoted to her father’s redemption politically, or so she asserts. He never hated African-Americans, she tells us, but only did and said those things in order to gain office. Later in life, he asked a handful of Civil Rights leaders for forgiveness and spoke in Black churches about his error. She follows this up by pointing to the large numbers of Black voters that returned him to the Capitol.

I find myself wondering a lot of things, and foremost among them is why anyone would consider a candidate that makes the cold-blooded decision to promote violent racism for the sake of gaining office to be morally superior to one holding the genuine belief in the inferiority of other races and ethnicities. Wallace, she tells us, didn’t sign onto the Klan’s program because of his convictions, but because of what they could do for him. And while the parallels she draws with Nixon are apt ones, the rationalization of her late father’s destructive, ethically bankrupt lifetime is chilling in its own way, but she underplays this aspect of his career.

Her “daddy” lived long enough to appoint her 26-year-old attorney husband to the state bench.

The second star here is reluctantly provided because she does some very nice things at the outset with regard to her description of time and place in the life of poor white folks in mid-twentieth century rural Alabama.  If you’re looking for a silver lining to this wretched work, there it is. It’s all I can find.

I would place this book in the child-revenge category along with Christina Crawford, Patti (Reagan) Davis, and Carrie Fisher.  Read it if you want to wallow, but when you’re finished, you will likely want to shower and gargle.

According to Kate, by Chris Enss***

Kate Elder, better known as Big Nose Kate, was a colorful character in the mercurial Wild West. Together with her paramour—possibly her husband—Doc Holliday, she shot, swindled and burned her way through Kansas, New Mexico, Texas and other parts of the American Southwest. My thanks go to Net Galley and Two Dot Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Enss is a capable writer, and I enjoy seeing women about whom little has been written brought to the foreground. Enss amassed a fair amount of material on her subject, but some of it was contradictory, and the greatest contradictor of all was Kate herself, who decided to tell her own life story when she was too old to recall everything properly. Enss tells the reader in the title and introduction that she is telling Kate’s story from the subject’s point of view, and she adds numerous footnotes explaining  conflicting information throughout the narrative.

I read things I had never known before about this time and place, and general historical knowledge is where Enss shines best. For example, a ‘soiled dove’ was allowed to own real estate, whereas married women of the time were not. There were a number of financial advantages to owning a house of ill repute. Kate grew up in a middle class household and was not without choices, but she didn’t care to be married off in the way her family had proposed. In the end she was both a shrewd businesswoman and an adrenaline junkie, one that made a point of having at least one loaded gun handy when a situation called for it. I enjoyed reading about it.

Unfortunately there is a lot of conflicting information and the gaps in the story are numerous. Anytime I start seeing the words “might,” “must have, “ “likely” and so forth, I pull back from the narrative. I can’t get lost in a story when I have to mentally filter the things that are known to have happened from the things nobody knows for sure.  I think Enss has done as good a job as could be done with the documentation available, but Kate is a hard nut to crack.

What I would love to see is historical fiction written with Kate as the protagonist, viewed through the eyes of a feminist writer such as Enss. With historical fiction one can freely fill in the gaps, provide dialogue, and make notes at the end of the story letting the reader know what she has invented or changed.

Those with a special interest may want to read this biography, but I see it largely as a niche read.

Best Military History of 2019: Spearhead, by Adam Makos

Honorable mention:

Best Historical Fiction of 2019: Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts

Honorable Mentions:

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela*****

This magnificent collection took 10 years to organize, collecting Madiba’s letters from the many points where they were received, and from the prisons–where many of them were not mailed out, for various technical reasons that were a poor disguise for censorship. The preface suggests that most people will want to flip through it rather than reading it cover-to-cover, but I am a habitual cover-to-cover sort, and so I read the first 50 pages in sequence. And the book’s editor is correct. This is not a cover-to-cover read.

Nevertheless, I am struck immediately by the dignity with which Mandela communicates with his captors. Time and again he writes to them in a courteous, civilized, and highly educated hand about the various ways in which his rights under South African law are being violated and what he is requesting they do to remedy it. He is persistent. He forces them to treat him as a human being. Mandela was an attorney, but he was also possessed of social instincts that nobody can teach anyone. And although I never met him, everything I have read–which is a good deal, where this man is concerned–convinces me that he was also a very nice person.

This is a tome, and it’s a treasure. I am glad I was denied a galley because this is the sort of volume I want as a physical copy. In the end my son purchased it for me for my birthday, and so I thank Benjamin. What a treasure.

If you are looking for just one book about Mandela’s life, read his hefty autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. However, if you are a collector of books about South Africa, or about civil rights in general, or of course, about Nelson Mandela, go out and get this book now.

Conversations with RBG, by Jeffrey Rosen*****

This is the RBG book I’ve been waiting for. My huge thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers for the review copy. This book will be publicly available November 5, 2019.

Justice Ginsburg wants us to know that the sky is not falling. Though progressive thinkers see great cause for concern, primarily within the executive branch of the federal government, the U.S. Constitution hasn’t changed, and the Supreme Court, she insists, is made up entirely of strong legal minds that revere it. Precedents are still the basis of future rulings; the overturn of precedent is rare and unusual. But for activists—and she loves us—she also points out that public opinion is what alters the course of the law. Congress makes laws based on what their constituency desires. So she isn’t suggesting we put away our pussy hats and our picket signs; she just wants us to know that our advocacy works, and she appreciates everything we do to further women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights.

Twice previously I read other books about RBG; one is a popular biography that I enjoyed, but that didn’t go deeply enough into Ginsburg’s legal ideas, and the second is just dross, minutiae gathered from her high school year book and whatnot. Whereas part of me just wants her to write an autobiography, I have to recognize that she is very elderly, has faced health challenges lately, and to stand a chance of writing any sort of memoir, she’d probably have to resign from the Court. And goodness knows, I want her to stay there, ideally forever. Instead, Rosen’s series of interviews with this feminist icon serves nicely.

Rosen has been friends with Justice Ginsberg for many years; they were drawn together initially through elevator discussions of opera. His chapters are brief but meaty, organized around key rulings and topical interviews. Rosen explains succinctly at the outset how this friendship formed and grew, but he doesn’t get windy or use the opportunity to aggrandize himself. He keeps the focus strictly on his subject. The interviews flow in an agreeable manner that is literate without being verbose or Byzantine.

We live in politically polarized times, and so even when I am reading about a political figure that I admire, I generally expect my blood pressure to rise a little, perhaps in passionate agreement. But if anyone in this nation has the long view of history and the key domestic issues that have unfolded, particularly with regard to the rights of women, it is RBG. And although I am not as senior a citizen as Justice Ginsburg, many of the changes she mentions that have occurred over the decades are ones that I can also attest to, though I hadn’t thought of them in years. For example, when I came of age in the 1970s, it was still not unusual to try to enter a bar or club only to be barred at the doorway because women weren’t allowed inside. (“Gentlemen only, Ma’am. Sorry.”) I had forgotten about these things; as her recollections unspool I see that she is right. Change happens, but lasting change happens slowly. We are getting there, at least with regard to women’s rights and gay rights. Issues of race and class are something else entirely, and she points up specific instances where justice has not progressed and change is imperative. I could say more, but none of it would be as wise or as articulate as when Ginsburg says it. If you’ve read this far in my review, you should go ahead and order this excellent book now. I highly recommend it to all that are interested in social justice, both formal and informal.