Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd*****

Nobody writes better than Jess Kidd.

Bridget Devine—you may call her Bridie—is an investigator for hire. She’s small of stature, with green eyes and a mane of auburn hair. She smokes a pipe, keeps a dagger strapped to her ankle and poison darts in her boot heels, and wears “the ugliest bonnet in Christendom.” The year is 1863; the place is Britain. Bridie has been hired to find a kidnapped child. A dead pugilist named Ruby has volunteered his assistance; he had a soft spot for her while he lived, and now that he’s deceased, his affection for her lives on.

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

The subject of her inquiries is an extraordinary girl named Christabel. Christabel has unusual qualities; it is said that she is a merrow, a mermaid-like being that loves snails and salamanders can tell what others are thinking, has teeth like a pike that she uses freely against those that displease her, and can drown humans on dry land. Bridie is having none of it. “Christabel is a child. She is not a merrow because they are legendary beasts that do not exist in real life, only in fables.” So what if hundreds of snails appear everywhere the child has turned up?

The search for Christabel takes Bridie and her assistants all over Victorian London. Kidd is a champ with regard to time and place, taking us deep into the past. In particular, we visit the charlatans that collect and sometimes experiment with people born with disabilities or distinctions, as a form of sordid entertainment for those with prurient interests. There are some passages here that won’t work well for the squeamish.

The side characters are magnificent. We have Cora Butters, the housemaid that accompanies Bridie. Cora is seven feet tall and has muttonchop whiskers. Her huge hands make her a formidable defender when the going gets rough. There are others, but some of the most entertaining are the critters: a sarcastic parrot and a sage python are among them.

Those that have read Kidd’s first novel, Himself and her second, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (in UK it was titled The Hoarder) will be delighted once again to find Kidd’s distinctive voice and brilliant word smithery in full flower once more. There are differences as well; there’s more of a story arc, and along with that we see the best figurative language and the wickedest humor after about the sixty percent mark. At the heart of it all is the same disdain for pretense, and the same deep respect for the working class.

My records show that I’ve reviewed over 1,300 titles over the past few years, and of the review copies I’ve received, I’ve chosen to read fewer than 10 of them a second time. This book will be one of them.

Aren’t we done here? Get a copy of this book and read it soon so that you can buy another copy to wrap up for Valentine’s Day. Because Jess Kidd’s books are peerless, and you should only give the very best.

The Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan****

Sometimes what I really need is a feel-good story. Had I ascertained that this was that sort of book, I would have had it read by the publication date. I read the beginning twice, decided it was going to fall into the grim duty category since I had accepted a review copy, and I set it aside. My apologies go to Net Galley, Crown Books, and the author for my lateness; my heartfelt thanks go to Jayne Entwistle, the reader for the audio version of this lovely tale, for rekindling my interest. I procured the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened to it while I rode my stationary bike and prepared dinner in the evenings. I began listening to it because I owed a review, but soon I found that I preferred this novel to the other good book I had been listening to just for pleasure.

Our story begins with Mrs. Braithwaite feeling injured and put upon. Her husband is divorcing her, and the women in the local charity club have banded together and ousted her from her treasured position of leadership. She is miserable. Betty, her only child, has run off to London, intent upon aiding her country now that the second World War is upon them, and she isn’t answering her calls. Mrs. Braithwaite decides to visit her, but upon arrival, she discovers that Betty is missing. The story flows from her effort to find her daughter and also herself.

Those seeking an espionage thriller won’t find it here; the story is character based, and in this Ryan succeeds richly. Mrs. Braithwaite enlists the reluctant assistance of Mr. Norris, Betty’s milquetoast landlord, and it is these two characters that are wonderfully developed. None of this would have been achieved without the spot-on cultural insights regarding the World War II generation. The shallower pop-cultural references to music are well and good, but Ryan goes deeper. The fact that the character is known only by her formal title, with the salutary “Mrs.” in place of a first name, speaks not only to the protagonist’s dignified, somewhat cold façade, but also to the practices of the time. Use of first names was considered an intimacy among the elders of this time period; women addressed their peers by it unless they were close friends or family members. Even the way that the plot develops is reminiscent of the fiction and movies of that generation. As in most good historical fiction, the setting mingles with the characters to move the plot forward.

I am not much of a cozy mystery fan, but I think this story would please cozy readers. At the same time, I appreciate the careful balance the author uses; the touching moments are deftly handled, never becoming cloying or maudlin. At other times there’s a playful, spoofing quality to it, as Mrs. Braithwaite and Betty search for each other, each fearing the other is in danger and thus placing herself in it.

I recommend this book to cozy readers, fans of historical fiction, and anyone in need of a boost in morale. It’s for sale now.

Marley, by Jon Clinch**-***

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy of Marley, a retelling of the Dickens classic told from a different point of view. This book is for sale now.

This work of historical fiction took off with a bang, and then fizzled.

I have not read any of Clinch’s earlier work, and at the outset of this novel, I am electrified by his prose. I love a good word smith, and Clinch’s facility with figurative language is impressive as hell. I was ready for a good Christmas book, and the October release date was right on the money. I snuggled beneath my favorite fleece blanket and immersed myself, savoring the clever phrasing and rereading parts of it before moving on.

There are two aspects of this work that hold it back; one is a quibble, but one worth mentioning, and the other is more significant. The quibble is that so much of the story isn’t about Marley. We know about Scrooge. If the author wants to write about Scrooge from a different angle, then the book’s title should reflect it. Instead, Marley’s effort at winning Scrooge’s sister Fan pulls us back into the Scrooge family, and there we stay for long stretches of the book. I echo other reviewers in asking, “But what about Marley?”

My larger objection, one that took awhile to gel as I read and ultimately prevents my recommending this book, is that the entire premise, the sacred message imparted by Dickens, is ground beneath Clinch’s authorly heel as he reframes Marley as a forger, smuggler, and criminal of the highest order. Dickens, in writing the original story, took pains to demonstrate that it is possible to be a “sound man of business,” to function entirely within the letter of the law, and still be morally bankrupt. A Christmas Carol was written to let readers know that those that succeed in legally building fortunes may nevertheless be damned if they are unwilling to extend themselves, whether through private charity or humane governmental programs. Scrooge made a point of telling his nephew that he pays his taxes, after all, and that’s the end of it.

In painting Marley as a man that brings money into the partnership through a multitude of illegal practices, Clinch not only ignores Dickens’s timeless moral and social message, but torches it, leaving only so much ash and cinder.

The chains that bind Marley in the afterlife reflect the chains of human bondage in his corporal one, as he invests the assets of Scrooge and Marley in slave ships, is a lovely literary device. I wish the author had found a way to use it without laying waste to the heart and soul of a timeless classic whose message is needed more today than ever.

Not recommended.

This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger*****

“God is a tornado.”

Odie and Albert are orphans, the only two Caucasian children at the hellish Lincoln School in Minnesota, which is primarily a boarding school for American Indian children. The year is 1932, and the Depression is in full swing. As things unravel, the two brothers sneak away, together with a mute Indian friend and a small girl whose parents have recently perished during a storm; the odyssey on which they embark raises questions for all of them about what they believe about themselves and the natures of God and man. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This is the first of this author’s work that I have seen, and it’s clear that he is one gifted individual. At the same time, however, this is not easy to read. The first fifteen to twenty percent is brutal. There are triggers all over the place including sexual assault, child abuse, and both put together. I read only a few pages at a time because more would have wrecked my head, and I never let it be the last printed material my eyes saw before bed. Those that soldier through the beginning can be assured that the worst is over, although there are many other passages in which Odie, Albert and friends are tried severely. For me, though, it was worth it.

The get-away trip takes them down the mighty rivers of the North American interior. There’s a lot of rich historical detail along the way, and it will be especially interesting for those unaware of the culture that existed before anyone in America had food stamps, or subsidized housing, or a social worker, or compulsory education.  There was no safety net of any kind; people existed at each other’s mercy. The travelers meet all sorts of interesting people, but when others get too close or ask too many questions, they leave rather than be identified. Albert points out that others are often untrustworthy, and that those we love are often taken from us; he says that if God is a shepherd, He must be the sort that eats his flock. But a man that hires them to do farm labor says that God is in the land, the air, the trees, and in each person.

Ultimately the journey is a search for home, for family, and for a role in the world. The original destination is St. Louis, Missouri, where Odie and Albert’s families live, but as they make their way toward it, they find out that there is more than one kind of family, and more than one kind of home.

Highly recommended to those that love the genre and have robust literacy skills.

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 Historical Fiction of 2019: Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts

Honorable Mentions:

Today We Go Home, by Kelli Estes**-***

I expected to love this book, and I wanted it to be great. The premise is terrific: Larkin, a wounded warrior home after falling apart while on tour in Afghanistan, finds the diary of Emily, a woman that fought in the American Civil War (albeit in drag.) It’s a cool idea, and between the feminist moxie and my enthusiasm for local writers, I was ready to be wowed. It didn’t work out that way, but my thanks still go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the review copy.

The contemporary component is the part I found strongest and most appealing. I haven’t seen a lot of novels featuring women in uniform (or freshly out of one,) whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, and the pain that Lark carries for her best friend, Sarah, is visceral and in places, haunting. Sarah served with Lark and died in an ambush that Lark believes she could have prevented. Lark sees her die, and then has flashbacks and nightmares that make my gut roil. Lark’s mama is dreadful, and I am heartily weary of seeing mothers take it on the chin in fiction, but I like the relationship between Lark and her grandmother and the way it is developed.

I had hopes for the second thread, the one about Emily fighting alongside her brother in the Civil War, but this part is unfortunately plagued by historical revisionism and too much convenient coincidence. For a woman to be as forward-thinking as the politically correct Emily—and this is the first time I have ever used this term in a negative way, leaning much farther to the left than your average American—would have been very unusual indeed, and for Emily to have slipped beneath the social radar in other regards would have been nearly impossible. Emily thinks at one point that her brother David is gay, for example, but she worries only for his safety, because she herself is sure that gay people are just made that way by God. And while this is a lovely sentiment, a researcher could turn under every historical rock and go through every collection of Civil War diaries and letters, and she would probably not find this sentiment in any of them. And in another case, Emily is sympathetic toward a runaway slave, not only in the sense that slavery is wrong or that the runaway is toast if his pursuers find him; she views him as her social equal. Aside from the late and admirable John Brown, and possibly his sons, it would be a hard thing indeed to find such a Caucasian person in the early 1860s, North or South. Many that fought against slavery assumed that former slaves would be deported to Africa; nearly nobody is on record during that period suggesting that Black folks were equal to whites, or that they could become friends and neighbors on equal footing.

I imagined Ta-Nehisi Coates reading this novel and howling with laughter at its naiveté.

To round it out, Emily virtually trips over another woman-disguised-as-a-male soldier, and given the vast numbers of men fighting in the Civil War, even the most generous estimate of women that served covertly makes this unlikely enough to be ludicrous.

I am not sure whether the pacing of the novel is also slow, apart from these inaccuracies and inconsistencies, or whether it was slowed by them, that sad moment akin to one in which Toto has pulled the curtain aside and revealed that Great and Powerful Oz is actually just a little dumpy bald guy talking into a microphone. All I know is that by the thirty percent mark, I was forcing myself to continue reading because I had a review copy and an obligation. I actually like having one galley with a sedate pace that I can read before I turn out the light, but my frustration with the issues noted above prevented me from reading it and then dropping off into peaceful slumber. At the sixty percent mark, I let myself off the hook. I took a quick look at the denouement to check for mitigating developments at the end, and then closed the book.

Estes is a talented writer, but I believe she has tried to do too much here. A simpler novel focusing exclusively on Lark would likely have been stronger. However, she is a writer to watch, and I believe she will do fine work in the future.

This book is for sale now.

Inland, by Tea Obreht*****

This memorable novel is my introduction to Tea Obreht, and I read it free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House. The combination of word smithery and whimsy creates the purest literary magic, and I recommend it to anyone that has a high vocabulary level and stamina. It is for sale now.

The tale takes place just after the American Civil War, and the narrative is divided between two characters, Lurie and Nora. Lurie begins his life in Arkansas; he is orphaned early and the man that takes him in is a grave robber that uses Lurie and other boys to assist him in his nightly plundering. Lurie grows up hard, fast, and mean; he wishes that he did not see and feel the dead, but he does, and most of all he senses their cravings.  I am immediately drawn by his second person narrative as he relates his memories to someone named Burke. You don’t see many writers use the second person, and I am curious as to who Burke is. When I find out, I am even more fascinated.

Nora is one of the early (Caucasian) Western settlers, and here Obreht uses the third person omniscient. Nora is unlike any Western protagonist I have ever read, and it is delightful to see the way this author turns stereotypes and caricatures squarely upside down. Nora has her hands full, trying to care for the aged, wheelchair bound Gramma; fighting a political battle in the press that is run by her husband and sons, none of whom she has seen lately; and carrying on a running dialogue with the ghost of her daughter Evelyn, who died in infancy. To add insult to injury she is saddled with Josie, a relative Emmett insisted they must take in. Nora is carrying a heavy emotional load, but the slow revelation of the secrets that weigh her down and the way that these impact the decisions she makes and the way she solves problems is completely convincing.  Whereas Lurie’s narrative is mostly about setting, Nora’s is about character. Both are rendered brilliantly.

I initially rated this novel 4.5 stars because of a few small areas where historical revisionism has crept in, but ultimately it is too fine a work to deny all five stars. I am reluctant to say more because the surprises start early, so to relate details that occur even twenty percent of the way in feels like a disservice both to the reader and the writer. 

One feature that is present throughout both of the narratives is thirst, and it’s related so well that I found myself downing extra water in sympathy and thanking my lucky stars that I live in Seattle rather than somewhere dusty and drought-stricken. In fact, there are places in Nora’s narrative where she is busy with other tasks or discussions of an urgent nature and I find myself telling Nora to just go ahead and ask the person she’s talking to for a sip of water. Nora won’t do it because she is proud and self-reliant, and the fact that I am already talking to the character instead of the author tells you how convincing the story is.

The reader is also advised that it’s a violent, gritty tale, particularly in the beginning but in other places also, and it’s loaded with triggers. To tell it otherwise would be to deny history, but if you are a mealtime reader or avoiding harsh prose for other reasons, it’s worth knowing. But I also think that the whimsy is all the sweeter for it.

Perhaps one of every ten novels I read becomes that book, the one that I can’t stop talking about. My spouse understands that to pass through a room when I am reading it is to guarantee he will be hijacked, at least momentarily, because I am either  going to paraphrase an interesting tidbit or read a particularly arresting passage out loud. This works well for me, though, because I find myself with more uninterrupted reading time. Inland is that sort of book.  Highly recommended.

The Women of the Copper Country, by Mary Doria Russell*****

Annie Clements is a badass union warrior, nearly six feet tall with fiery red hair and a voice that carries.  When the men that work the Quincy mine strike for better wages, an eight hour day, and an end to the treacherous one man drill, Big Annie leads the women’s auxiliary, and her role makes headlines around the world. This magnificent novel, which holds closely to events as they unfurled, came to me free and early, thanks to Atria Books and Net Galley. It’s for sale right now.

The Quincy mine is owned by Calumet and Hecla, and it is one of the deepest underground—and therefore one of the most dangerous—in the US.  It’s on the upper peninsula of Michigan, an isolated location closer to Canada than to other states or even the rest of Michigan; the winters are fierce. The only thing crueler than winter there is the heart of the general manager, James McNaughton, a vicious, vindictive man, who vows that “Grass will grow in the streets of Calumet before C&H recognizes the Western Federation of Miners.”

Charlie Miller is our union organizer, traveling from camp to camp, gathering support from working families. He intends to attack the smaller, more outlying mining companies first and save the huge, wealthy ones like Calumet for after inroads have been made around them. But miners are angry about the one man drill, a recent change that saves the company on wages, but leaves a single miner at risk of being injured or buried without a second miner present to help get him out of there. The company won’t send workers in after the injured, so working in pairs is a critical part of what little safety exists. Too many have gone home dead or maimed, and emotion is high. The women’s auxiliary organizes the wives and other family members of miners, and the women are rising up as well. Miller doesn’t see a strike as winnable right now, but if the union doesn’t get behind them soon, it may well become a wild cat strike, one in which the workers strike without union backing; that would embarrass the WFM.

Russell combines beautifully woven prose with careful attention to historical detail; not much has been changed here, but in her end notes she explains what has been altered and why. Where possible she uses direct quotes, and this is above and beyond what most novelists will do.

Although the story is about Big Annie Clements, my favorite part is when Mother Jones comes to Calumet. (Those interested in labor history should also read Mother Jones’s autobiography, which is shorter and better than what any biographer has done for her.)

This is the first time I have read Russell’s work, but it won’t be the last. A measure of how much I love a book can be found in how much I read, quote, and carry on about it right here at home. My husband could scarcely enter a room without my demanding whether we have any other materials about the copper strikers, and does he know about (this, that, the other thing)? I was reading ten different books, but he was hearing about only one of them. My own grandfather was a miner and died of Black Lung many years ago, but I felt him beside me as I read; I find myself hungry for pasties, the recipe preserved from my Finnish great aunt. But I digress.

Finally, readers should also know that this is a tragic read, positively miserable in places. There are dead and dying children, and the ending isn’t heartwarming. Yet it contains elements—an unlikely romance, and in James McNaughton, a villain of monstrous proportions—that could not be written into a purely fictional tale because nobody would believe them; and yet, these are aspects that stick closely to historical reality.

For those that love excellent historical fiction, this is a must read. For those that love both historical fiction and labor history, it provides the sweetest of crossroads. Highly recommended.