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.

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.


Round Midnight, by Laura McBride****-*****

RoundMidnightWhat an unusual story! McBride cleverly links the lives of four women, and we follow their individual journeys over the course of fifty years; near the end, we see how they are connected. My thanks go to Net Galley and Touchstone for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

June comes of age in 1960. She marries Del, and they move to the newly emerging city of Las Vegas, where property can be had cheaply; they purchase a casino, and their entertainers perform in “The Midnight Room.”

McBride uses setting like a pro, placing us within the context of the time period without resorting to the overuse of distracting pop cultural references that would tempt a less subtle writer. We see just enough of the ‘60s to remind us that women didn’t have the same range of choices that we have now; we see just enough of the Civil Rights movement— a glimpse—to remind us how awful life could be for mixed race families. The first section ends on something of a cliff hanger, and then we find ourselves reading about someone else.

The other three women are Honorata, Coral, and Graciela. The section dealing with Honorata’s life is a hard read at the outset, gritty and full of horrors: a mail-order bridal arrangement that is more like human trafficking, and the reader has to be prepared to read some upsetting passages involving sexual assault. Honorata is so powerless in all of this, and what’s more, she knows it, and I want to sit down and cry for her. Just at the point when I start to wonder whether it’s worth it or if maybe I should abandon this thing since we’re not having any fun here, everything changes, and in the end, Honorata is the character I love most.

How often do we see well written fiction in which all of the main characters are women, and the male characters only exist as scaffolding for them? This was a super cool book. I picked it up after the publication date after it was recommended to me, and I am so glad I did. I would read this author again in a heartbeat.

The one character I don’t entirely believe is Jimbo; toward the end of the story, I get new information that is meant to surprise me and it does, but I am shaking my head and not entirely believing it. However, Jimbo isn’t a main character. The four women that comprise this epic story are nearly corporeal, and I believe them absolutely.

Highly recommended to feminists, and to those that relish good historical fiction.

The Girl They Left Behind, by Roxanne Veletzos****

TheGirlTheyLeftBehindI was ready for something that was a little different, and then an online friend recommended this historical fiction for review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC. It’s for sale today.

The story stems from the Bucharest Pogrom of 1941, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. And to show you how much I knew about this particular event before I read this book—my ignorance was so painful—I called to my spouse and said, “Honey?  Isn’t Bucharest in Hungary?”

The world-traveled, multilingual expatriate responded, “That’s Budapest. Bucharest is in Romania.”

Ahem. So this corner of my historical education was severely in need of help, and this was a good start for me.  If I were to rate this story solely on its merit as a novel,  I’d call it 3.5 because of some unevenness in the quality of writing, but the educational aspect of it is undeniable, and it makes a big difference.

The story centers on Natalia, a child that is abandoned during the pogrom when her parents flee from what they believe may be their death; they expect to be caught and killed. She is much loved, but her father persuades her mother that the only way the girl will make it out alive is if they leave her in the lobby of their apartment building with a note. She is adopted by a very wealthy couple that lavishes her with every possible comfort, until the regime falls and Romania comes inside of the Soviet orbit. After the coup, the conspicuously wealthy become government targets, and their assets—down to literally the clothes on their backs in some cases—are nationalized. Over the course of time, Natalia learns of her adoption and the parents to whom she was born.

The story uses the author’s family history as a framework, and notes at the end explain what aspects are autobiographical in nature, and which have been altered for the sake of the story.  There are family photos at the back of the book.

The voice is distinctly Eastern European, and that works in the author’s favor because it transports the reader to this time and place all the more effectively than a purely American-sounding voice would do. However, there are occasional lapses where clichés drop in, and it spoils the magic for awhile. The worst, perhaps, is “The walls have ears.”

The first forty percent of the novel is the most engaging, and I love the development of parents Despina and Anton, and little Natalia. The last half of the novel, however, is too busy and at times seems overwrought.

And then we are back to what I said at the outset: there is so much to learn here.  Historical detail is inextricably woven into the story, and our attachment to the characters, particularly at the start, makes the facts themselves more memorable. So when it comes down to it, I do recommend this book to you. If you can find a better work of historical fiction featuring the Bucharest Pogrom, then I may change my mind, but right now I would say Veletzos has cornered that market for those of us that read in the English language.

This book is one of a kind. Don’t miss it.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Morton***

TheClockmakersDaughterKate Morton is queen of the British historical mystery, and so I leapt at the chance to read and review The Clockmaker’s Daughter. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books. This book will be available October 9, 2018.

This story starts strong with a spellbinding first person narrative told by the woman whose spirit resides eternally at Birchwood Manor. She came here with Edward, a wellborn cad that “could make the very devil pray”, one that called her his muse. Edward seduced her, yes, but he would never have married her.

Elodie Winslow is an archivist in present-day London.  In the course of her duties, she runs across two pictures in a leather satchel. One is a photograph, quite old, and the other is a sketch of a house that seems familiar to her somehow. And so of course, faithful readers are cued right away to watch for a connection between Elodie, and the people, setting, and events that are introduced at the book’s beginning.

Find me a writer that can create more resonant settings in a British historical mystery; I dare you. For the first quarter of this novel, I was in it, steeping in the escapist paradise Morton provides, drinking in the several characters and narratives. But at the thirty percent mark, when yet another new thread, another new character—or is it an old character pretending to be a new character—is introduced, I find myself searching for a nice brick wall to smack my forehead against. It’s hard to get to know any of these characters with so many new ones added.

Usually with Morton’s books, the details and subsections are worth the reader’s careful attention because it all comes together so well at the end. Here, there’s excellent setting and a lot of secrets but not enough plot or character development, and so before the story is even halfway done I find myself eyeing the page numbers. How much longer…?

I also find myself wondering what story elements are classic, and which are simply overused. The old house with the secret doors?  I will never get tired of this element, especially when the writer is as capable as Morton. But bullies at a boarding school—meh. I am ready to be done with that one. And the sack of kittens to be drowned? I gave myself permission to skip a page, because it is. Not. Worth. It.

Many of Morton’s faithful fans will be pleased; her trademark style is unmistakable, and if that’s what you want, here it is. But a story this complex needs more legs to go with it, and less reliance on stale devices.

Am I done reading Morton? Not by a long shot. Every author has a story or two that isn’t magical. But when a story requires this much effort on the part of the reader, the payoff needs to be greater than it is here.

Recommended to diehard Kate Morton fans; even so, get it free or cheap, but don’t pay full jacket price this time.

Across the Great Lake, by Lee Zacharias***

AcrosstheGreatLakeI received this book free from Net Galley and University of Wisconsin Press in exchange for this honest review. It will be available for purchase on September 18, 2018.

Conceptually this story has great promise.  The Great Lakes are where important American naval battles have taken place, and yet very little fiction is set there. This reviewer lived near Lake Erie for most of the 1980s, and I thought this novel would be a sure fire winner.

An elderly woman is looking back at her life, and the story starts with her earliest memories, when her parents separate and her father, a sea captain, takes her from her unstable mother and the girl goes to sea with him. Sailors mutter dark things. There’s a ghost ship that the crew speaks of ominously.

Zacharias nails Fern’s developmental stages, which is critical for anyone writing about a child, particularly if that child is going to voice some of the narrative. Failing to do so breaks the spell entirely, and I am cheered when I see it done correctly. There’s also a great deal of painstaking historical and nautical detail here. As a history teacher I appreciate it, and I learned some things.

Sadly, the character feels weighted down by the setting instead of developed by it. I never feel as if I know the protagonist, but rather as though the author has a great deal of research done and is going to use as much of it as is humanly possible. I pushed my way through it until just before the halfway mark, and then I abandoned ship.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens*****

wherethecrawdadsKya Clark lives with her family in a shack deep in a North Carolina marsh.  The year is 1969. They are miserably poor, but Kya’s mother tells her it will be alright, as long as the women of the family stick together. But then one day, she leaves. Older brother Jodie tells Kya that Ma will be back, because it isn’t in a mother to leave her children, but Kya isn’t so sure. Ma is wearing her alligator heels, and she doesn’t turn midway and wave like she always has. And one by one, everyone in her family leaves, and they don’t return. Kya is not even old enough to enter first grade, and she is alone.

This haunting novel is the best surprise of the summer, and it’s for sale today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy.

Owens is a wildlife scientist of some renown; here she changes lanes with her debut novel. She uses her knowledge base to create an evocative setting that is real and immediate, but she never adds scientific information at the expense of pacing. Instead, the setting is used to reinforce Kya’s character; this is unusual in a researcher turning toward fiction writing. Professors and other specialists tend to shoehorn in every fact that they think the reader ought to know regardless of what it does to the flow of the narrative. Instead, Owens blends setting and character seamlessly, spooling Kya’s life before us with the patience and discipline of the finest master storyteller.

Kya barely survives, digging mussels to eat and selling them at a waterside convenience store owned by an African-American entrepreneur known as Jumpin’.  Little by little, Jumpin’ comes to realize exactly how dire this child’s situation is, and he and his “good sized” wife, Mabel, contrive to provide her with a few of life’s necessities without frightening her or hurting her pride. I would have preferred to see these resonant characters voiced without the written dialect, but there are no stereotypes in this book.

Tate is an older boy that has been a family friend since she was tiny, but she doesn’t remember him, and thinks she is meeting him for the first time after he begins leaving her beautiful bird feathers on a stump in the swamp. It is he that teaches Kya to read, and he becomes her first love.

The narrative shifts between Kya’s life and an investigation of a murder. Chase Andrews, a local football hero and the son of a local bigwig, is found dead at the base of a nearby water tower. Kya, who is poorly groomed, impoverished, and has no family to protect her becomes the focus of the investigation. Townspeople have long considered her to be “swamp trash,” and this discrimination is age old; Kya can remember her mother telling her that she must never run when she goes into town, because if she does someone will say that she stole something.

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is that the mystery of Chase’s death never eclipses the main story. The book isn’t about Chase or his demise; it’s about Kya in the marsh, and as she becomes an official suspect, we only want what is best for her.

I read several stories at a time, now that I am retired, but this is the one that occupied my thoughts when I was doing other things. I kept thinking about that poor little girl out there. I can almost always put a book down; it’s what I do, after all. This one is exceptional.

Those that love excellent literary fiction; Southern fiction; or romance need to get this book and read it, even If you have to pay full jacket price.