The Widow of Wall Street, by Randy Susan Myers*****

thewidowofwallI was invited to read and review this title by Net Galley and Atria Books. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. What, Wall Street? What does that have to do with the real lives most of us lead? But when I noted that the story involves an enormous tumble off that golden pedestal, I was intrigued. I am really glad I accepted the offer to read, because it contains a feminist subtext that I had no idea would be here. This story will be available to the public April 11, 2017.

I had to read the reviews of others to learn that this is a fictionalized version of the Bernie Madoff scandal, but if you approach it as straight fiction it’s just as good. The premise is that Phoebe marries Jake when she is very young, and she’s grateful to him, because she’s in the early stages of pregnancy with a little gift planted in her by a college professor who groomed her, screwed her in the upstairs lounge at school, and then dumped her so he could move on to the next nubile young lady in her class. It’s a time in history when becoming a single mother was an absolute taboo for any Caucasian woman of the middle class. Perhaps you had to be there, but I am telling you it was simply unthinkable. Not only would she have lost friends; her entire family would have lost friends, and maybe relatives also. The social stain was one that did not wash out.

And while we are talking about the time period—starting in 1960—I need to point out that Myers has nailed, with brilliant yet discreetly woven detail, the settings of the time periods between then and now in a way that’s undeniable and that draws me further into the story. Some authors try to use shortcuts in writing historical fiction, and when they do it you can tell they don’t have a grasp of the period: they toss in the names of popular celebrities, clothing styles, and other prominent bits of pop culture that they could glean from a ten-minute web crawl. Myers does the opposite. She focuses on the story and character, character, character, but the time period comes out in the background, as it should, with every aspect from the slang of the period, to its social mores, to every aspect of daily living. This reviewer grew up during the 1960s and 1970s, and as the story progresses, I find myself thinking, “I remember that!” I highlighted a hundred references that won’t fit into this review just out of sheer admiration.

Those that just want a beach read can get this book and use it as such, but for those that want to peel off the layers and look for what’s underneath, the feminist message is one we can relate to today easily. The assumptions that are made about her as a wife, that she is an appendage, and the way her family treats her speak to me. In some ways, I find myself thinking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, in which a woman simply becomes part of the home environment; at one point Phoebe notes that her family doesn’t want to hear her talk, and they don’t even really want to share their own stories with her, but she’s like a lamp that should be present when desired for whatever purpose suits the moment.

In the end, when her husband goes to jail for having stolen every penny from his investors, Phoebe has a choice to make. She can stand by her man, trying to eke out a little stash for his prison account so that he can buy candy bars and stamps, or she can live her life without him. To some it might seem to be an obvious decision, but by the time he is jailed, she is past sixty; she has lived her entire adult life with this man, and the mind of a senior citizen is not as flexible as a younger one. The way she works through it is riveting.

Read it as a feminist folk tale or read it as a beach read; one way or the other, this novel is highly recommended. (less)

The Signal Flame, by Andrew Krivak*****

Happy release day to Andrew Krivak! This one is head and shoulders above the rest. If you are ready to get lost in a book, it’s for sale now.

Seattle Book Mama

thesignalflameThere are good writers, excellent writers, and of course, indifferent writers, but once in a rare while there’s a writer that makes me sit up straight and take notice, someone with that special spark of genius that no money can buy nor school can teach. Krivak’s work is exquisite, the product of both power and restraint. If you love historical fiction, you have to read this book, which comes out January 24, 2107.

I was lucky and read it free in exchange for an honest review, thanks to Scribner and Net Galley. If you read my last review of a DRC, you know I call them as I see them; I see this one as standing, at the end of 2017, as one of perhaps a dozen that will still shine after I’ve read between one and two hundred others.

Bo, our protagonist, is the grandson of Slovakian immigrants, and…

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The Signal Flame, by Andrew Krivak*****

thesignalflameThere are good writers, excellent writers, and of course, indifferent writers, but once in a rare while there’s a writer that makes me sit up straight and take notice, someone with that special spark of genius that no money can buy nor school can teach. Krivak’s work is exquisite, the product of both power and restraint. If you love historical fiction, you have to read this book, which comes out January 24, 2107.

I was lucky and read it free in exchange for an honest review, thanks to Scribner and Net Galley. If you read my last review of a DRC, you know I call them as I see them; I see this one as standing, at the end of 2017, as one of perhaps a dozen that will still shine after I’ve read between one and two hundred others.

Bo, our protagonist, is the grandson of Slovakian immigrants, and has been steeped in the tradition of those that came before him. His grandfather, Jozef, served in the trenches during World War I; Jozef’s son, Bo’s father, was imprisoned for desertion during World War II and then died in a hunting accident upon his return home. Bo’s grandparents and mother have raised him and his brother Sam, who is missing in action in Vietnam. When Jozef dies, Bo is the last man left to carry on the family business and the traditions with which he was raised.

The title of the book refers to the sign for which Agamemnon was to watch for news from Troy; the book is begun with the relevant quote from Aeschylus, an old friend in literature that I hadn’t visited in nearly 40 years. I tell you this not to intimidate you, because I think this text is accessible to most high school graduates that love good literature. No, I just want you to understand that this is a work of depth and quality…and also unending sorrow.

Hannah, Bo’s mother, has been writing to the Navy twice each month for updates about the status of her missing son. Without a body, she doesn’t feel free to mourn; without a notification of death, she holds on to a tiny filament of hope that Sam may come marching home and surprise them all, any day now. Foremost in everyone’s minds is that Sam must not also be considered a deserter.

Now President Nixon speaks of ending the war with honorable peace, but there can be no real peace for Hannah; the Navy sends the same response every time she writes, “informing her that Sam was still carried in a missing status. Like he’s in a box somewhere, she would say, and the marines just haven’t gotten around to opening it yet.”

Father Rovnavaha is their parish priest, but he is also an old, dear family friend, and as he lays to rest two generations of a local family that are killed in a terrible flood, he seeks to comfort those present, perhaps himself included, by speaking of a kingdom, but Hannah has trouble believing as she once did:

 

“Her faith was once that strong, but she doubted it now, doubted not that there was a promise but that the promise claimed was a gift to hold, a joy that could assuage all sadness. No, she had come to believe that the only thing one could be certain of was loss. The loss of others as one lived on.  Loss as the last thing one left behind.”

 

Bo’s inheritance takes him in directions no one could have foreseen, and so although Krivak’s novel is indeed full of loss, it also shows us that hope can come from a direction never anticipated.

The characters here are beautifully rendered, developed so subtly that we aren’t aware of it occurring until it’s accomplished. There are no heavy-handed devices such as diaries or extensive local gossip; we see who each person is by the things that they do, and just as in life, we know who they are not only by their words, but by their actions. Krivak never lets a stereotype embrace his characters or plot; the result is so genuine that I feel I am following a dear old friend through the narrative.

Highly recommended for those that love historical fiction, as well as for anyone that needs an excuse to sit down and have a good cry.

House of Silence, by Sarah Barthel**

houseofsilenceThe premise of this historical romance had me at the get-go: Isabelle Larkin is engaged to marry wealthy, powerful Gregory Gallagher, but she calls it off after she sees him commit murder. Her family doesn’t believe her, and embarrassed, they have her trucked off to a sanitarium, where she meets Mary Todd Lincoln. I thank Net Galley and Kensington Publishing for the invitation to read and review. This book becomes available for purchase December 27, 2016.

Barthel’s story has some nice moments. I love the bit where our protagonist ruminates about the impropriety of unlacing her boots in a place where they might be seen; let no one think her a loose woman!

However, there are also moments when the narrative hiccups in a way that startles me. Ultimately, this happens so frequently that the spell is broken, and instead of being transported to a different time and place in the way one is with strong literature, I am reminded all too often that this is a galley, and it’s one that needs a hands-on editor before it should see daylight.

Every writer of historical fiction has to make a choice. Are we going to use exactly the same forms of language and speech that were common to the time, or are we going to ease up just a little and use the book’s note to the reader to explain that this has been done intentionally for the purpose of creating a more accessible novel?  This of course doesn’t even include the extremely risky, though occasionally very successful choice to move an historical tale to the present setting; modern Romeo and Juliet stories immediately come to mind.

Barthel has chosen to play it straight and use the speech of the time, but every now and then, a phrase or sentence of twenty-first century casual speech flies in and lands mid-chapter, a bit like a flying saucer. Suddenly I see “As if I cared about sex at a time like this”, and “I hope you are all right with that.” There are a lot of these moments inserted into a page here or there of otherwise-Victorian prose, and they keep me from buying into the premise.

I hope that this story will be re-released somewhere up the road, and if so, I would be happy to reread it and possibly recommend it to the reader. It’s a shame to see such an excellent premise spoiled with what is essentially sloppy editing. But in its present form, I can’t recommend it to you.

Gone to Soldiers, by Marge Piercy*****

gonetosoldiersBrevity isn’t possible here. Settle in and get comfy. Here we go.

The word “epic” gets overused in the world of advertising, and so as a reviewer, I have learned to take the promise with a grain of salt. However, Piercy is renowned, an iconic presence for feminists and for anyone that approaches life from a class perspective. I read this book when it first came out in the 1980’s for no discount whatsoever, and I loved it. Books come and go at my house, since space on the bookshelf is itself a commodity, but Piercy has a permanent shelf all her own; when I saw that Open Road Media had released this book digitally, I jumped on it, even though the release date had passed and even though I already had the book, because I wanted to help promote it, and I was happy to read it again. I rate it 4.75 stars and of course, round it upward.

There are two myths that get told, are believed by others, and then they are retold about World War II. The most recent one is that told by Holocaust deniers, who say that the whole death camp thing was just a huge exaggeration. Yes, there were prisons; yes, guards were mean sometimes; yes, people died, because nobody was getting enough food in Poland and other non-German parts of Europe anyway. This is a lie, but as eyewitnesses grow old and die, it takes a certain vigilance to keep this damnable untruth from gaining a toehold. Piercy tells the truth, and she does it really well. More on that in a moment, but let’s deal with the other lie first.

The second myth, one that’s understandably popular as patriotism grasps the human heart and we wish that our rulers, past and present, were truly noble, is that the USA joined its allies in a quest to preserve democracy and save those poor Jews and other unfortunates tucked away in those hellish camps. Piercy approaches this palace of straw from many different angles and razes it to the ground.  Jews that wanted out faced tremendous obstacles, from nations—the USA included—that were extremely choosy about how many Jews they would take. The US and UK governments were more obstructive than helpful, and countless men, women, and children died because of these exclusions.

Piercy is a brilliant storyteller, and in her hands, the period and its people are so believable, nearly corporal, that I carry them with me still.

This story is told through the eyes of ten characters whose narratives are staggered. There are French characters, British, and Americans; men and women; straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual.  They hail from a variety of socio-economic circumstances and are affected by the war in different ways. It’s miraculous to see a writer develop even one of these characters as fully and thoroughly as Piercy does; how is it that she does so with a wide range of characters, yet has never been nominated for a prestigious award?

Those of us that are old and perhaps cynical may consider that the very political perspective that makes her prose so rich may be what kept her from landing on a short list. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Piercy is a scholar and she approaches this historical period with sources in hand. She doesn’t interpret loosely, and her note to the reader tells us in what instance she has taken liberties, for example not wanting to have a whole string of people that have the same first name. Always she is aware of the subtext, the stereotypes that women aviators faced, for example.

My most beloved characters were Jacqueline, a hero of the French resistance, along with her lover, Jeff, and her little sister Naomi, one of the fortunate few who’s sent to live with American relatives before it’s too late. I liked Louise’s moxie, and I loved what happened to Duvey. I also really enjoyed the unusual perspective that Daniel and his fellow code-breakers shared, becoming so familiar with the Japanese point of view that they bonded with the men whose communications they were deciphering.

As we discuss the Japanese, we come to the .25 that I deducted. I did this as a token objection to the use of the racist vernacular that I know was commonplace during the time. This reviewer grew up with a father that served during this war, and reminiscences among the guests he and my mother entertained were so frequent that I, in youthful ignorance, rolled my eyes and decided they were impossibly dull. And my mother taught me that the terms he and they used to speak of Germans, of Jews, of Japanese were never, ever to be used in my own conversations with anyone at any time. And so yes, racist references and ethnic slurs were common to this era.

But I note that whereas our author has had the good taste and the good sense not to repeat the ugly terms by which Jewish people were called, and seldom repeats the anti-German slurs, the “J” word is used dozens of times, usually by the character that fights in the Pacific. And I have to say, it really stings.

There were fewer Asian Americans during the period when Piercy wrote this than there are today, particularly in the author’s own New England home. For anyone writing this today, and for anyone less venerable and also less influential for me personally during my formative years, I would lop off at least a couple of stars from my rating. It’s ugly to repeat these epithets, and it’s particularly painful to me to read them. This is my husband we’re talking about; it’s my daughter, too. It’s my in-laws, one of whom fought, as good Japanese citizens were expected to, for the Japanese Imperial Army. So I would not care to see her go back and insert the horrible terms hurled at Jews and Germans for the sake of consistency; I’d just rather see the “J” word used less often. She could mention it in her introduction if she feels the reader needs to know that she’s made an adjustment.  That’s my viewpoint, and I’m sticking to it.

But it’s also true that when I was young and confused, Piercy was one of the bright feminist lights in literature to whom I looked for guidance. So I am moved not only by the excellence of this work, but also by the shining legacy she has provided for women during an uncertain time.

One further note: though I have a degree in history and have taught it, I have seldom seen much written—at least in English—about the French Resistance. This part is arguably the most deeply resonant part of this novel, and though I had read the book before, it’s amazing what one can forget over the course of twenty or thirty years. I don’t read many books twice because there are so many I haven’t read at all yet; and still this is one that I may read a third time, as I feel my recollection of the fine details already slipping away.

For those that treasure excellent literary fiction; that have the stamina for a novel of this length; that love outstanding historical fiction; that enjoy stories that are told from a feminist viewpoint and that recognize social classes and the way they affect us; this story is unparalleled. Get it and read it.

Orphans of the Carnival, by Carol Birch****

“Julia hated thinking about money. There’d always been enough. Other people provided, but she had to work. She could sweep and wash and light fires, or she could sing and dance and let them look. Singing and dancing won all, hands down.”  orphansofthecarnival

Thank you to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. The book comes out Tuesday, November 8.

Orphans of the Carnival is a fictionalized account of the life of Julia Pastrana, a Paiute woman born in Latin America in the nineteenth century, a time in history when people born with serious birth defects have no surgical alternatives, and are viewed by many as having been cursed by God; often they find themselves, as Julia does at one point, as traveling circus acts, with their physical difference providing them with a means of making a living, however degrading, during a time when there is no medical alternative and no government safety net.

Her early life is spent as a servant and nurse to an elderly relative after her mother abandons her. Given the chance to perform—and be stared at—for a wage with room, board, and transportation thrown in, she chucks her broom, chamber pot, and scrub brush and hits the road with a circus.

Part of the allure in Julia’s performance is that she begins it completely covered, with a dress, long sleeves, and a veil covering her face; she sings and dances, saving the  big moment when her veil is lifted for the end of the act. In order to make a living largely based on the need of the public to see what she looks like, she cannot go out in public or be seen outside of the show, which makes for a lonely existence. But over the course of time, her circumstances change once she places her career in the hands of a manager named Theo Lent.

There are few remaining records existing of Pastrana, and so when Birch tells this story, most of it is invented. On the one hand, she has little information to work with, but on the other hand, she is also not constricted in her storytelling by a long list of historical details to be attended to. I love the wry way in which she wraps the whole thing up, particularly with regard to Theo, who even the scant available data demonstrates was a real piece of work. I won’t give you any more than that, because there are twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and I don’t want to ruin it for you.

There’s also an alternate narrative that takes place in the present, involving a woman named Rose, a hoarder with a mysterious background. I think the story would work just as well and perhaps better without Rose, but this is a minor aspect of the overall story, and it also doesn’t detract much if at all from the main plot.

About halfway through the book I run a Google search for an image of Pastrana, and of course, Wikipedia doesn’t let me down. I am shocked, not by how horrible she looks, but by how normal she appears. She does have more body hair than most women, but there’s skin showing through; the appellate of “bear woman” is a tremendous exaggeration. She is born with an overly extended jaw line and a second row of teeth, two separate disorders; in addition, there’s another disorder that causes the excess body hair. But the response of the crowds seems overwrought, though it is undoubtedly what happened at the time; if the public, or a part of it, didn’t see Pastrana as truly unusual, she wouldn’t have made this her livelihood, because the crowds would not have come.

Why read this book? I was initially drawn by the cover, and then again by the unusual topic. In this troubled election period, I am more than ready to escape to a completely different time and place, and to be sure, Julia’s problems make others seem miniscule.

What keeps me interested once I commence is Birch’s writing. She knows how to drive a plot forward, and when to step back from the midway craziness and insert something wry and understated to make us smile slyly. I find myself wondering where she plans to take this or that aspect of the tale, and she never disappoints.

The Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg*****

 “Up on the hill, Lucille Beemer said, ‘Good morning, everybody.’

“Two hundred and three people just waking up answered, ‘Morning’.”

thewholetownstalking Fannie Flagg is legendary, and rightly so. In fact, at one point in my reading of this DRC, I reflected that someone with her power to move people has power indeed; how fortunate that she uses her gift to benefit the rest of us. I don’t know about you, but I am ready to read something that provides a level of reassurance that all has not gone sour in this world, and that everything passes, sooner or later.  I was  fortunate to read this free and in advance thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it’s one of the very few books for which I’d have paid full freight if it came down to it. It hits the shelves November 29 and is available for pre-order right now.

Our story begins with the first residents of what will become Elmwood Springs. Lordor Nordstrom arrives from Sweden, and after months of searching, finds the perfect place for his dairy farm in a pleasant spot in Missouri. The year is 1889. He puts up a house, buys some cows, and then, as a founding father, he decides he will donate a piece of land, because every town needs one thing for sure…a cemetery.

“Lordor guessed that preparing a place to spend eternity and trying to figure out how many places to set aside for himself was what made him think about his future.”

I went back and reread that sentence a couple of times; it begins our second chapter. Oh my but Flagg is droll. If one were to read this gem with half a mind on other things, nuggets like this might be missed.

The years go on, and with brief, colorful chapters, Flagg develops the town, introducing new residents that move in or are born here, and at first it seems as if the story is cotton candy, all fluff and sugar. But just as the impression is formed, it is vanquished, because our author is just warming up. Moments that are poignant, bittersweet, and darkly funny are sprinkled in lightly as we start, because after all, we are new to Elmwood Springs.

But the longer we stay there, the more intimately we become acquainted with its denizens and their peccadilloes, and then the more emotional aspects of the story unfold, almost as they might within your own large family or tightly knit community. Flagg convinces me that these people are my people, and her characters are so brilliantly developed, so utterly convincing that even when one of them does something surprising, I understand how that has come to pass.  And every time I think I see where she is headed with one thread or another, she surprises me.

About a fourth of the way in, someone dies and we find them interred, of course, at Still Meadows. But there’s an engaging twist to this aspect of Flagg’s story: the first person to pass wakes up when someone new arrives and greets them. They may be six feet under, but they can see what’s happening at the cemetery, along with everything that can be seen from the cemetery, just fine. And so the discussions that took place in life continue after death, and the dead look on avidly and wait for word of the loved ones they left behind.

As the story develops and characters’ lives are more deeply explored—always remaining more light than dark, and without a single word anywhere that isn’t needed—it occurrs to me that she just may have done it again.

Some people like to take gadgets apart to see what makes them work; I enjoy doing that with literature. And so I find myself looking back at my highlights and notes, looking for what, apart from a dry, accurate wit, makes this writer’s work so special. Some of it is an alchemy whose elements can never be described perfectly, taking ordinary Americans and spinning them into gold. But part of it is undoubtedly her deep respect for working people, and her readiness to see redeemable qualities in characters that upon first glance seem abrasive and unlovable:

“Ida had always been different. At school, when all the kids used to play church and one would be the preacher, another the preacher’s wife, a deacon…Ida said she wanted to be God, because she was the only one who knew how to do it.”

But later, once she was grown, “Someone else remarked, ‘By God, if Ida had been a man, she would have made general by now.”

She also acknowledges that once in awhile, someone comes along that no matter what heroic effort is made on their behalf, will never do anything good for anyone. Hey, it happens.

The comments that are made by various characters reflect both the character’s outlook and usually, the prevailing attitude of the time period as she rolls the town steadily forward to 2016.

And this leads to one cautionary note: as with all of Flagg’s work, it is essential to read the chapter and section headings, which provide context. This reviewer once taught a group of teenage honors students that were unable to make heads nor tails of Fried Green Tomatoes, and I discovered it was because they weren’t reading the chapter headings, and so they didn’t know what the time period was or whose point of view they were reading. Don’t let that happen to you!

Finally, I want to thank the author for the kindly manner in which she draws teachers.  Fannie Flagg, every teacher I know that talks about books, loves your work. We need the encouragement sometimes, and your friendly regard means a great deal.

Highly recommended to everyone.

The Girl from Venice, by Martin Cruz Smith*****

thegirlfromvMartin Cruz Smith is the best-selling author of Gorky Park and the Arkady Renko series. His new stand alone novel, The Girl from Venice, shows he hasn’t lost his magic, and it quickly became my favorite DRC once I began reading it. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley, from whom I received an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. You can get this book today.

Cenzo Vianello is a fisherman from the tiny village of Pellestrina, an ancient place steeped in tradition. He once had two brothers, but now has only one; Hugo died in Mussolini’s Africa campaign, and his remaining brother Giorgio is a movie star as well as an influential member of the Fascist government. Cenzo detests him for his politics, but even more for having stolen his wife Gina, who died when a bomb fell on the movie set to which Giorgio had escorted her.

All of this is background, complex and deliciously ambiguous in many aspects. It is within this context that Cenzo finds the girl, Giulia, floating like a corpse in the lagoon. To his surprise, he finds she is alive. She is Jewish, from a wealthy family and on the run. She figures that if the poet Byron could cross that lagoon, then so can she. Cenzo hates to spoil her dream, but he tells her this is a dangerous plan, and for many reasons. He develops a plan for her rescue, but later finds he is ambivalent about having turned her over to someone else. Is she safe? Does she remember him? Who can he trust, and who not?

One must, after all, be careful who one embraces.

“The trouble was the war. It should be over. Instead, the Americans were taking forever while Mussolini ruled a puppet state and the Germans, like decapitated ants, went on fighting.”

 When one fears defeat, one may become desperate; in some ways, the Fascists now have little to lose, and so their behavior becomes more extreme. There are partisans that oppose the Fascists, but it’s difficult to be sure who is sincere, and who is a double agent.

Part of the suspense inherent in successful spy novels is the feeling of looking over your shoulder, wary of everyone all the time. The relationship between Cenzo and Giorgio is particularly well developed and is intertwined with this aspect of the story; we never know whether one of them is going to kill the other, and when Giorgio says he will help Cenzo, we wonder whether he is helping lead him into a trap.

Although Giulia provides us with a premise and a scaffold for the story, not to mention a really beautiful book jacket, hers is not the character we see developed. The characters that are meaty and interesting are the brothers.

That being said, Smith should get credit for including an interesting female side character in Maria, the wife of the consul of Argentina, a woman with shadowy business and motive. Maria isn’t there to seduce anyone, not really; she’s also not a victim. In a field riddled with endemic sexism, I was happy to see this progressive element, and was fascinated by the brief, spectral appearance of her husband from his sickbed.

This story is a page-turner, an unmissable tale that will keep your light burning late and distract you from your daily pursuits until it’s over.  Don’t miss this one.

The Birthday Boys, by Beryl Bainbridge**

thebirthdayboysThe Birthday Boys is a fictionalized account of the Scott expedition’s travel to Antarctica in 1910. It’s told sequentially through the perspectives of five men that participate, each picking up where the last has left off and of course, also including some personal reflections and memories to make them more real to us. I was invited to read and review this novel based on my enjoyment of the book Ice Brothers, which was also a maritime tale (and is reviewed here: https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2015/01/03/ice-brothers-by-sloan-wilson/ ). Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Media, but this isn’t my book. I pushed myself all the way through it hoping for some redeeming aspect of it to pop up at the end, but it only gets worse as it goes, at least from my perspective.

Our story begins in Cardiff, and the men and The Owner (always capitalized) are eager to get started before the Antarctic winter sets in, so they pass their whaler off as a yacht in order to prevent safety regulations from slowing them down. They understand they are sailing across the world in a leaky tub, but one of them is too unprincipled to care, and the others are so darn young. In fact, wouldn’t reaching the destination on one’s twenty-first birthday be the best gift ever? Hence the title.

At the outset, I struggled a bit with some of the technical terms, looking up “plimsol line” and a couple of others, but by the 15% mark I had my legs under me, so to speak, and felt more confident. Soon thereafter, however, the nasty references to gender and race came into it. I looked back at the copyright; since this author, highly respected in the UK and winner of awards, was born in 1932, might this be a digital release of a very old book? But not so much: the original copyright date was 1991. Perhaps Dame Bainbridge felt that ugly racist terms might provide some flavor here. Likewise, the women included here, generally wives of the men involved that were tucked safely away at the base camp, were carping or hysterical, squabbled with one another, and Mrs. Scott, the only woman with any character at all according to the narrative, kept insisting that she hated women.

Whoa.

The plot is rugged and gruesome. If not for the issues just mentioned, I might compare the writing to that of Jack London, fascinating for those that love the adrenaline rush of life-or-death adventures, but too grisly for me. There’s some good work with figurative language and at times the scenes are tremendously visceral. Yet at times the pace actually plods along rather slowly for a book of its kind, and so I find myself wondering how this writer managed to be recognized by the queen; that is true, at least, until I find the following passage:

“It’s difficult for a man to know where he fits in any more. All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule. The validity of the class system, the motives of respectable, educated men are now as much under the scrutiny of the magnifying glass…”

Well, perish the thought!

If not for the racism and sexism I’d call this a three star read. If an Antarctic expedition thrills you and you have the stomach for the…never mind. I can’t finish that sentence without scrunching up my face and squinting, so let’s go with the bare truth: I don’t recommend this book to anybody.

Cakewalk, by Rita Mae Brown***

Dear heaven.

cakewalkBrown has had a long and auspicious writing career, and right about now she can do whatever she pleases. I came to this title thinking that it was a stand-alone novel; thank you, Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.  The book is available to the public October 18, 2016.

For awhile I wasn’t sure just what to make of it; there are some wonderfully wry moments, and then there are others. I’ve since learned that this is actually a continuation of a series that is chronologically placed, and so many readers will already be familiar with the characters and setting.  Fans of Brown’s Runnymede series will be delighted. For those that don’t know:

“In Runnymede everybody knew everybody. Nobody forgot a thing, not one blessed thing, especially if a whiff of scandal attended it.”

The time is 1920; the small town just mentioned straddles the Mason Dixon line, with the Southern half in Maryland and the Northern half in Pennsylvania.  Everyone that is important enough to make it into the story is Caucasian, and the wealthy, benevolent folk appear to outnumber the less fortunate, who work hard and are rewarded with grace and maternal affection by the local bourgeoisie.

This reviewer’s mother, long gone now, was born in the 1920’s in a different part of the American South, and I grew up hearing that welfare was simply not necessary, because in a small town, those with money always “took care of our poor”. Nobody starved, and nobody had money that came from the government, and everyone was fine, just fine. And after we’d heard this story a few dozen times, my sister, who was older than myself by many years and knew more about the small town in question than I did finally said gently, “No, Mother, you didn’t. I know that you did your best, but not all the poor were ‘taken care of’, and yes, some people there went hungry.” And I cannot help but wonder whether Brown has based her story on the same sort of flawed premise, of a benign but paternalistic system in which those in need receive from those that have extra to give, and nobody but nobody suffers.

You don’t want to know what remarks are tapped into my reader. Every time I realized that my inner snarky Marxist was taking over, I closed that particular book and went to read something else, and later came  back to read it afresh. And though I found some bright spots, I was never a gentle reader here.

I think I might have enjoyed this story more had I heeded the note at the story’s outset that this is not a plot driven book. I assumed that characters would be more important than the storyline, and in this I was correct, but I wasn’t prepared not to have a plot at all, apart from one thing that leads to another in a meandering sort of way. Brown has created an everyday life using the small town she has fictionally reconstructed based on stories told her by her older relatives, and so the reader needs to be ready to drop in, almost as if looking through someone else’s attic at the letters, photos and diaries of those that were once there.

To read this novel one would never make the association between this author and the one that wrote Rubyfruit Jungle, the bold, hilarious, fiery lesbian manifesto of the early 1980s. But there can only be one such book, and when I look back at various famous writers that published one smashing novel and then never published anything else, I realize that maybe this is why. When one has made a name for oneself by writing a novel that is legendary and can never be paralleled, the choice is to move on and write something else, or stop publishing fiction and take up a completely different occupation.

Feminists will find a few satisfying nuggets here, and other nuggets not as welcome. There is a doomed lesbian relationship, but oh how gently it goes into “that good night” (with my apologies to Dylan Thomas). The cheerier aspect of it is that most of the important characters are women—a breath of fresh air in a realm still dominated largely by men—and some of them wield significant power.

I was dismayed at an episode in which a teenage girl with large breasts is compared to a cow as part of a visual prank in a school-wide pageant, and the entire town laughs about it. To me, it looked an awful lot like body shaming, and I wondered what in the world it was doing there. What’s up with that, Rita Mae?

For me and for readers unfamiliar with the series, this really seems more like a 2.0 or 2.5, but faithful readers have been rating it about 4 stars, so I am shooting down the middle and calling it 3. For those that have read and enjoyed the other volumes in the Runnymede series, this book is recommended.