The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, by Andrea Bobotis*****

“We will choose what we take with us.”

This thunderous debut by Andrea Bobotis bears a small resemblance to the work of Elizabeth Strout and the late Harper Lee. Issues of race and menacing family secrets simmer beneath the surface of this narrative like some otherworldly being biding its time in the swamp, till at last it rises and we must look at it.

As the story commences, Judith, who is quite elderly, is ready to take inventory. Her family home, all six thousand square feet of it, is jammed full of heirlooms, and each is fraught with history. The year is 1989, but as Judith examines one heirloom and then another, she takes us back to the period just before the stock market crashes, back when she was young and her parents and brother were still alive.

I have to confess that the first time I picked up this story—free to me, thanks to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark—I thought, Huh. A boring old lady and her stuff. Pub date’s a ways off, so let’s put this one on the bottom of the pile. Of course, I picked it up again later. I read a bit farther this time and found I was acutely uncomfortable; I told myself I had to read it because I had requested the galley, but then I didn’t for awhile.

But like Judith, I pride myself on being reliable, so toward the end of June I squared my shoulders and opened the book. An hour later my jaw was on the floor and my husband was avoiding me, because he knew if he got too close I would start reading out loud. If you were to show up right now I’d do the same to you. I genuinely believe this novel and the characters and social issues they’re steeped in is one for our time.

Judith is the eldest of the Kratt children; her companion, Olva, lives with her, but her status is undetermined and remains that way far into the book. Part of the time she appears to be a live-in servant, hopping up whenever Judith wants a cup of tea or a blanket; at other times the two of them sit on the porch together and watch the world go by as if they were sisters or good friends. We know that they grew up together and share a history as well as the trauma of growing up with the vicious, unpredictable Daddy Kratt, the wealthiest man in Bound at the time.

As layer after layer is peeled back, using the household treasures that are inventoried as a framework of sorts, we see the gratuitous cruelty that was part of both women’s daily existence as children. Kratt can be generous at times, and yet at others—with increasing frequency—he is vicious and sadistic. We see the responses his unpredictable fury brings out of Judith as a child, her younger brother Quincy, who’s a chip off the old block, and their younger sister, Rosemarie. Kratt can ruin someone’s entire life purely on whim and never feel the slightest regret. He likes to watch. The entire town fears him.

Now he’s gone, and here we are. Judith acknowledges that her social skills are stunted, and she never knows what to say or do to smooth a difficult situation. She was never a pretty girl, and she has never married.  We can also see that she is solipsistic, insensitive to the feelings of others, and at times just straight-up mean, but she doesn’t see herself that way, because she measures herself against her late parents.  Judith is nowhere near as nasty as her daddy was; she has never permitted herself to be broken by him, as her mother was.  So Judith tends to let herself off the hook lightly. As she remembers back over the years the cataclysmic events that have taken place around her—or in some cases, because of her—her overall tone is self-congratulatory.

But her little sister, who is also an old lady now, returns to the family manse, and that overturns the apple cart in a big way.  How dare Rosemarie run out and leave Judith to contend with that awful man but now come back to claim her birthright?  Isn’t that right, Olva?

Olva just smiles.

In fact, this story is every bit as much about Olva as it is about Judith. . Every single one of these women is sitting on secrets; every one of them has a different story to tell. Every new revelation brings additional questions to mind, so that although this is not a mystery or a thriller, I cannot stand to put it down. I generally like to flop on my bed at night and read before I go to sleep, but I can’t do that with this book. I’d climb under the covers; open the book; read a little ways and then sit bolt upright. Eventually I realized that this cannot be the bedtime story. (It occurs to me just now that retelling one or another portion of this story in the voice of one of the characters not heard from would make a great creative writing assignment related to point of view.)

What Bobotis has done here is masterful. She begins with an old, wealthy white woman and yet develops her, and I cannot think of even a dozen books where that has been accomplished in a believable way in literature; once we get old, that’s pretty much who we are going to be. But the elderly Judith at the story’s end is a better person than the elderly Judith at the outset. And as if that weren’t enough, she also develops Olva, the dark-skinned elderly companion that seems to us, at the beginning, to be a live-in servant or nurse of some sort. But however circumspect Olva has been—a prerequisite for an African-American that wants to stay alive in the American South in the past and at times, maybe the present—Olva does in fact have some things to say. It is Rosemarie’s return that makes this possible.

This isn’t necessarily a fun novel to read, and yet the skill with which it is rendered is a beautiful thing in and of itself. I believed every one of these characters, those within this pathologically corrupt family and those around it. I suspect that the formidably talented Bobotis could pluck any one of these characters and create a sequel just as remarkable. This writer is going to be around for a long, long time, and as for me? I’m ready to read whatever she comes up with next.

Highly recommended.

Make Me a City, by Jonathan Carr***

I am always on the lookout for something different, and so I leapt at the chance to read this publication free and early. Thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt. It’s for sale now.

The story is set in and around Chicago, back when the city was first born. It tells a tale of shifting alliances and double crosses; yet in other ways it is an old story, one in which a Caucasian interloper cannot bear to see a Black man rise to a position of wealth and influence. It’s not an easy read.

Conceptually the story is strong, but the author tries to do too much at once. Shifting points of view; development of disparate characters; and an old time dialect that is challenging all by itself serve to render the story muddy and confusing. Too much is lost, and at the halfway point, I gave it up and commenced skimming.

Despite this, I believe Carr is a talented writer and I like his ideas. I would read his work again.

Call Your Daughter Home, by Deb Spera*****

Deb Spera is a force; small wonder that Call Your Daughter Home is the book that bloggers have been talking about. This barn burner of a debut goes on sale today.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Harlequin for the review copy.  It curled its fingers around me on page one, and by page ten I knew it wouldn’t let me go till it was done with me. It ended as powerfully as it began.

The year is 1924. Gertrude Pardee lives with her four little girls in a shack in the swamp in Third World conditions; they are nearly feral. A storm is coming, but Gert has a job to do. Her brutal ass hat of a husband lies dead in the swamp, dispatched by the bullet she blasted into his brainpan. As the storm bears down, she peels off her only dress and strides naked into the muck to deal with his corpse:

“Alligators feed once a week, and sometimes, if the prey is big enough, they don’t need to eat for almost a year. But I don’t know how long it takes a gator to eat big prey. Daddy never said nothing ‘bout that and I never asked.”

Our other two main characters are Retta, the first free woman in her family, and Annie, Retta’s employer. Retta cares for Mary, Gert’s youngest, when Gert is too sick and injured from the broken face she sustained the last time Alvin beat her; Retta’s husband Odell and her neighbors all tell her that it’s trouble to bring a white child into Shake Rag. “Don’t get messed up with that white family. No good can come of it,” and she knows it’s true. What if the girl dies? But Gert coaxed her into it, telling her it would be the Christian thing to do, and Retta is moved by this sick, helpless five year old. She assures everyone it’s just for three days.

Miss Annie is a Caucasian small businesswoman and wife of a farmer, yet she has trouble of her own; there’s some dark family baggage she’s been avoiding for a good, long while. As the storm bears down, evidence comes to light and she is forced to see it. Not one of us would want to be Miss Annie; believe it.

Spera weaves a captivating tale, and we see the world from the disparate points of view of all three women, each of them told alternately in a first person narrative, and we’re also told how they see each other. The setting is dead accurate, brooding and thick with dread, and it scaffolds the development of each character more capably than anything I have read recently.

It is Retta that tells us that as we give birth, we must call out to our child so that “whichever soul is at the gate will come through.” She called out to her girl as she birthed her, but now she is gone. In fact, each of these three women has lost a daughter, and this provides the central theme of the story.

Feminists and those that love Southern fiction have to get this book and read it. There’s nothing like it. Do it.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson***-****

3.5 rounded up.

Cussy Mary Carter delivers books to the rural poor folk of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky during the Great Depression. I read this quixotic tale free and early, thanks to Sourcebooks and Net Galley; it’s available for purchase now.

Cussy is the daughter of a miner; her mother is dead, and her father is dying slowly of Black Lung, known to them locally as “the miner’s sickness.” She has no siblings. The government pays her to follow every possible winding path to reach out-of-the-way homes, loaning books, magazines, and the scrapbooks assembled of odds and ends by the librarians themselves. It provides a bright spot in an otherwise grim little town.

I like Cussy Mary, but I have to admit that I am more attached to Junia, her mule—and if you read this book, you’ll see why. Everything Cussy does is fraught with peril, and though I seldom do this, I cheat and look ahead because although I can tolerate any fate for the human characters here, I need to know whether anything will happen to Junia. Junia serves as Cussy’s transportation, watchdog (watch mule?) and best friend. Ordinarily I am no more attached to hoofed animals than any other city dweller, but this plucky critter has me at hello.

One of the best single moments in historical fiction occurs when Cussy Mary is confronted by a rattlesnake on a path. A shot rings out, and a neighbor woman steps out of the trees holding a gun and yells, “Back. That’s my supper.”

The story’s greatest strengths all have to do with setting and historical detail. Cussy Mary and her father are among a relatively rare racial group that no longer exists, people possessed of blueberry-blue skin. They were often shunned by those they lived among, some of whom regarded them as “colored” (as did local law), and others of whom feared they carried a curse. I had never known about the “blues” before reading this novel, and this is historical fiction at its best, that which educates us and makes us like it.

I would have liked to see more subtlety and ambiguity in the development of Cussy Mary and the lesser characters. Everyone here is either a good person or a bad one. Richardson’s good people never have bad moments or vice versa. I understand when Cussy Mary turns down offers of food even though she is hungry; part of it is the pride that is an inherent part of the culture, and she also fears that those making the offer may be giving up their only food of the day. I understand this the first time she tells us, and the second, and the third…but by the time I see it again (and again, and..) I am rolling my eyes and wishing fervently that once, just once she will say thank you and scarf down the biscuit, or the apple, or the whatever. On the rare occasion she accepts food, she takes it to someone else, and then she goes home and eats thistles. It makes it difficult to believe her character, because nobody is that saintly every minute of every day.

Nonetheless, I recommend this book to you, because there’s nothing else like it. If there were a body of fictional literature widely available regarding this time, place, and its people, I might say differently, but as far I can see, this is it, and the setting is strong enough to just about stand on its own. Those that enjoy the genre will want this book.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman*****

This quixotic little book had me at hello. Set in Australia in the 1960s, it tells a story of love, loss, and redemption in a way that I’ve never seen anywhere from anybody. I’ve finished reading other books since I finished this one, and yet I am still thinking about Tom Hope.

Huge thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy. It will be available to the public April 9, 2019.

At the outset, Tom’s last name seems cruelly ironic, because the guy can’t seem to catch a break. Trudy, his perpetually dissatisfied wife, up and leaves him with no warning and no discussion. Just takes off. Tom is heartsick, but a ranch is still a ranch, and so he woodenly goes through all of the tasks—milk the cow, herd the woolies—that must be done. He is such a sad fellow, and he berates himself for not having done more to make that woman happy and comfortable. The ranch is not long on frills; an indoor shower would be nice, and a big old bathtub would be even better.

He actually makes lists.

 But then one day Trudy comes back. She’s been gone for a whole year, and now she’s pregnant. Say what?

When Tom takes her back, I look at the things he has said and done and wonder whether he is maybe a little on the simple side. But just as the question takes hold in my mind, we hear people in town talking about him. One of them tells another that after all, Tom Hope is not a stupid man. And so again I wonder why he lets her back in the house. But he does. He welcomes her. Sssh, he says to her self-recriminations, don’t worry about it. You’re back now.

Trudy has the baby, and then Jesus calls her and she leaves again—without the baby. So there’s Tom. You can see what I mean about that last name. Hope? What good has hope done for him so far? He’s stuck raising an infant while he runs a ranch, and it’s exhausting, nearly impossible, but he adores this little boy that isn’t his, just loves him for years, right up until the time Trudy decides that Jesus has called Peter to come to the religious compound with her.

So when the flamboyant Hannah, a woman older than himself, a Hungarian immigrant, comes to town and decides she likes the looks of Tom, all I can think is, thank goodness. Let the poor man have a life post-Trudy and post-Peter. There’s nothing like a fresh start.  But Hannah comes with baggage of her own, a refugee who’s experienced the horror of Auschwitz.

Before I requested access to this novel, the Holocaust reference in the description very nearly kept me away. Younger readers less familiar with this historical war crime need to know about it. The survivors are mostly dead and gone, and there are revisionists trying to deny it, or to say that stories of it are greatly exaggerated. So yes, there’s a need for its inclusion in new literature, and yet I feel as if I have had my fill. But the other piece of it—Tom, the ranch, the child, the romance—won the day, and I am so glad I decided to go for it. And indeed, it’s not a Holocaust story; instead, we see how the horror through which Hannah has lived informs her present day choices.

So yes, Hannah is an interesting character, and the bookshop is hers, but the story is really about Tom. One heartache after another comes his way, and he deals with every single one uncomplainingly, telling those that love him that he’s fine. Really. At times I want to push my way into the pages to say to him, what the hell? Go ahead and throw some dishes or something. You are entitled to your anger. But instead, he forges stolidly on, not because he is free of pain—we can tell that he isn’t—but because there’s no use in burdening others as well. And as one violent act after another works its way into his experience, the story builds, and builds some more, and we have to wonder when he will draw the line and say, that’s it. Enough. And the way Tom develops from the outset to the end is so resonant, so believable.

This novel is one of the warmest, most affectionately told stories that I have read in a long time. It’s never mawkish or overly sentimental; Hillman strikes the perfect balance. I would read more of his work in a heartbeat, and I highly recommend it to you. If you can find it at a discount, that’s great, but if you have to pay full cover price, you won’t be disappointed.

The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag****

Quote


“From a collection of parts all individually worthless, a clockwork is formed that functions anew.”

This guy can write. Many thanks go to Atria Books for the two invitations to read and review as well as the gorgeous hardcover book for review. Happy publication day; this book is available to the public now.

We find ourselves in Stockholm at the end of the eighteenth century; it’s a tense time, with a political backlash resulting from the French Revolution and the fears it excites among those in power. The poor lead miserable lives, and life itself is cheap. There are very few protections in place for the vulnerable.

Mickel Cardell, the one-armed watchman, pulls a corpse—or what’s left of it–out of the Larder Lake. He sends the children that found it to get a cop. One thing leads to another, and then the chief of police, Johan Gustaf Norlin, sends for Cecil Winge.  The two men know one another well.

Winge is the most tragic hero I’ve seen in a long time. He’s dying of consumption (typhus), and he has left his wife because he doesn’t want her to have to watch him die; also, he’s impotent, and it’s painful to walk in on her with another man. Not that he blames her; he’d just prefer not to watch or hear it. He’s an attorney and has all the money he needs, but this is one time that money doesn’t help all that much. His illness prevents him from sleeping well, and he’s inclined to seek a challenge here or there when he can in order to distract himself from his own condition. Norlin has a distraction for him now. Winge reminds him that the last time he helped him with a case, Norlin had promised not to ask again; but Norlin is asking anyway.

The title comes into it when Winge interviews the textile merchant that recognizes the distinctive shroud in which the body was wrapped. The merchant is financially ruined and plans to climb aboard the ship bound for his home and then jump off into cold deep water and die. Before he boards, he points out that man is a lupine hunter, and that Winge himself is well on the way:

“No one can run with the wolf pack without accepting its terms. You have both the fangs and the glint of the predator in your eye…one day your teeth will be stained red and then you’ll know with certainty how right I was. Your bite will be deep. Maybe you will prove the better wolf, Mr. Winge, and on that note I bid you good night.”

The historical setting and characters here are beautifully drawn; for some reason, I like the moments when a character reaches up and yanks his wig off because it’s itchy and it’s driving him nuts. A number of characters are resonant, but Winge—who is perfect for the reader that needs an excuse to just sit down and cry—and Cardell, who holds his own in a fight surprisingly well, even with one arm—are my favorites. It is they, imperfect individually, that together make up the clockwork that functions anew.

Those of us that read a lot of books within the mystery genre (and its many offshoots) see a lot of the same settings and plots almost often enough to create a mystery story using MadLibs. Just fill in the blanks. In contrast, the unique setting, well-developed characters, and bad ass word smithery in this one are a potent combination.

And now I have to admit that for me, it is too potent. There is a great deal of detail about the corpse’s mutilation, and once I pushed my way past it, it came up again and again, because it’s right at the center of the case they are solving. So although for some this mystery will be, as the promotional blurb promises, “deliciously dark,” for me it is far too dark. In fact, I cannot remember ever using the word “shocking” as a descriptor within a review, but I’ll use it now. There are some things that cannot be unread once you have read them. I haven’t had my gut turn over in this way in several years, and I don’t ever want to go there again.

But that’s me. My daughter is not as easily horrified as I am; she may love this book.

Those contemplating purchasing this well-scribed novel should do one thing, and that is to carefully read the promotional description. It does warn the reader. The first time I saw it, I read that blurb and decided not to read it; then I was invited to read and review, and I accepted the widget but declined to sign up for a blog tour in case I couldn’t stand it; but then I was offered a hard copy, and I saw that other reviewers loved it, and my resistance worn down, I caved. Once I had it, I felt like I had to read it even when it was beyond the point of not being a fun read. But if you can read that blurb and are still game, then by all means you should get it, because all of the technical skills that make up an award winning novel are here in spades and the urgency never lets up. Highly recommended for those that are not even a tiny bit squeamish and have strong literacy skills.

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.

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.