Love and Other Consolation Prizes, by Jamie Ford****

“‘We all have things we don’t talk about, Ernest thought. ‘Even though, more often than not, these are the things that make us who we are.'”loveandotherconsolation

Ford is the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is one of my favorite novels, and so I was thrilled when I saw he had written another historical novel set in Seattle. Thanks go to Net Galley and Ballantine Books for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Ernest is a small child when his mother, who is dying, wrenches herself away from him and puts him on a boat to the USA. He attends a charity boarding school and then is raffled off, a free orphan to a good home, by the Children’s Home Society at the Alaskan Pacific World’s Expo. It is Flora, the madam of a Seattle brothel, that claims him and brings him to the city. There he is essentially a house boy, and he forms a warm friendship with two young women employed there, Fahn and Maisie.

The narrative is divided between two time periods, the first following Ernest as he leaves China and arrives in the USA at the dawn of the twentieth century, and the second in the early 1960s when he is elderly and his wife, Gracie, is suffering from dementia. There’s an element of suspense that is artfully played as we follow both narratives, trying to untangle whether the woman that becomes “Gracie” is Maisie, Fahn, or some third person.

But Ford’s greatest strength is in bringing historical Seattle home to us. The characters are competently turned, but it’s setting that drives this book, just as it did his last one. Ernest lands in the city’s most notorious area at the time, a place just south of downtown known as the Tenderloin:

He had never once been near the mysterious part of Seattle that lay south of Yesler Way, a street better known as the Deadline. His teachers had talked for years about sewer rats that plagued the area, and rattlesnakes, and about the wolves that prowled the White Chapel District, waiting to sink their teeth into the good people of Seattle, which a local song had dubbed the Peerless City. Ernest had imagined lanky, sinuous creatures with sharp claws and tangles of mangy fur, but as he looked out at the avenue, all he saw were signs for dance halls and saloons.


Ernest’s years at the brothel prove to be the best of his young life, primarily because the rest of it was so much worse. Every time a rosy glow starts to form around the brothel and the condition of the women that work there, Ford injects an incident that is stark and horrible to remind us that trafficking in human beings and their most intimate acts is criminal and should never be condoned. Miss Flora is a relatively benign madam because it is better for business, not because of any sentimentality toward the women she employs. This comes to us all the more starkly when her own daughter’s virginity is raffled off to the highest bidder.

All told, this is good fiction, poignant, warm, and moving. Two things give me pause: the ending seems a little far-fetched, and the depiction of the suffragists, who are some of my greatest heroes, is so hostile that it borders on the misogynistic. However, the latter is peripheral to the main story, winking in and out briefly, and overall this novel is an appealing read. It will particularly appeal to Seattleites and to Asian-Americans.

I recommend this book to you, with the above caveats, and it for sale to the public today. 

Before the Rain Falls, by Camille Di Maio***

beforetherainfallsThose looking for a sweet, light romance will find it here and come away happy. It was just published, and you can get it now. Thanks go to Net Galley and Lake Union Publishing for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

The story is divided between three protagonists, and the narrative alternates to include each of their points of view. Two of the characters are Della Lee, a very elderly woman recently paroled from a life term in prison for the murder of her sister, and Paloma Vega, a young doctor that’s returned to her hometown on the Texas border to take care of family business.

One thing that drew me to the title is that the most important characters are both women, and it is they that prove to be the most dynamic. Our third character, Mick Anders, is a journalist seeking Della’s story. He is changed by it, and yet really his character exists as a foil for the two women. So far, so good.

Because the premise starts with the woman who’s spent her entire adult life in prison, I was expecting something grittier. Women in prison haven’t really made it into a lot of fiction, and so my interest was piqued. I was also hoping for a social justice angle, and to be fair, the teaser promises no such thing, and so to an extent, this disappointment is one I brought on myself. Though Della’s reminiscences as she unspools her memories for Anders recount some of what she went through, it really isn’t a prison story, but the story of Della’s own life and the sacrifice she has made.
The parallels between Della’s life and Paloma’s intrigued me and I was hoping the novel would veer in the direction of literary fiction, some allegory perhaps; something subtle and open to the reader’s interpretation. This isn’t that either. Soon the parallels feed into a tidy package, and the coincidences are just too many. I had reconciled myself to the likelihood that this really would, in fact, be a straight up historical romance, and if the end had been crafted in a more nuanced way I could have given it four stars, but instead it is predictable, and when that happens there can’t be magic, because the Great-And-Powerful-Wizard’s curtain has been pulled away by the unlikeliness of the story. Toto has the curtain in his mouth, and instead of looking at Della, at Paloma, and Nick I am looking Di Maio and saying, Oh come on. Seriously?

Some of the better moments in the story are the side elements, the interaction between Paloma and her sister Mercedes, an adolescent smarting from Paloma’s abandonment when she moved away. Paloma is wooing her back into a sisterly relationship, and her clumsy missteps and the ways in which she corrects herself are resonant and absolutely believable.

Although Della’s back story feels over-the-top to me, her present, the return to her home after seven decades away, the changes in the home and the strangeness of being back in the world and at liberty are also well done. The author does a nice job in crafting Della’s present-day setting and wedding it to her story.

Those looking for a traditional romance, something to pack for a vacation that will leave a warm, fuzzy afterglow will enjoy this novel, and to them I recommend it.

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…

View original post 578 more words

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.

Point of No Return, by Martha Gellhorn*****

pointofnoreturn.jpgI want to give a shout-out to Open Road Media for the way they value the First Amendment. Every now and then I review something they’ve given me and rate it with one or two stars, and each time I wonder whether my outspoken criticism will get me knocked off their list of auto-approved readers. It’s never happened. It gives me a little extra joy, therefore, when I’m asked to read and review a book that is straight-up excellent, because everyone will know my five star rating is the real deal. Thanks, Open Road…and happy holidays to you, and to my faithful readers, too.

This exceptionally strong World War II story was a New York Times best seller when it was first published in 1948. Open Road Media has brought it back to us digitally, and I read it free in exchange for this honest review. I thank Open Road and Net Galley for inviting me to do so. Martha Gellhorn was at Dachau a week after its liberation, and her experience frames part of the narrative, the fictional tale of Jacob Levy, US soldier in Europe. This excellent war story is available to the public Tuesday, December 20, 2016.

It’s hard to miss the irony: Levy answers the call to duty, but his commanding officer is unhappy to discover that a member of his personal staff, his driver, is Jewish. He’s never had a Jew in his outfit before and doesn’t want one now; still, there’s nothing much he can do about it, so he forges grimly onward.

Levy, on the other hand, has heard stories and eventually sees situations in which nearly nobody gets out of a wildly dangerous situation alive except for his boss. He decides—as soldiers sometimes do—that his commander is lucky, and therefore the closer to that officer a man is, the likelier he is to share in that luck. He serves so faithfully and dependably that his commander eventually changes his mind and decides he likes Levy, without Levy ever learning that he’d been unwanted.

Our story starts when Levy joins the army in the United States, but quickly shifts to Europe. The most poignant scenes are those in Luxembourg, where the shell-shocked troops are astonished to find a semblance of normal life. There are houses that have people in them, food cooking, and glass in the windows. It is here that Jacob meets Kathe, and although there is no common language spoken between them, they fall in love anyway. For the rest of his part of this war, he will hold dear to the notion of a little home in the Smoky Mountains where he and Kathe can raise a family together.

I had sworn off Holocaust stories, telling myself that I already know about it; I no longer have students to whom to impart the information; from now on, I will only read what I want to read. But I appear to have landed on a list of reviewers that read this sort of book, and once I was invited, I decided I could read just one more. And I am so glad that I did.

The reader should know that the Holocaust is nothing more than rumor for 80 percent of the book. We aren’t looking at 300 pages of horror. There are battle scenes that are vivid and raw; Jacob participates in the Battle of the Bulge. People die; nobody can write about World War II accurately without imparting the fear, the grief, and the alienation that its participants and witnesses endured. But most of it is about Jacob as a person, what he thinks and feels. In other words, this is more the story of one soldier’s life than it is military history.

Technically this story isn’t historical fiction, because it wasn’t written 50 years or more after the events it describes. However, it will impact the reader as if it is, because the World War II was a very long time ago. So I recommend this book to those that love first rate historical fiction; that like to read about the European theater of World War II; or that like a good romance.

The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jeffries****

theteaplanterswifeGwendolyn is 19 years old when she marries Laurence Hooper, the owner of a tea plantation in Ceylon, an island nation south of India now named Sri Lanka. Jeffries provides a compelling, sometimes painful glimpse of the mores and assumptions of the heirs of the UK Empire at the outset of the peasants’ rebellion led by Ghandi. Though a few small glitches occasionally distract, this is a strong piece of fiction that fulfilled the writer’s mission admirably. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House-Crown Publishing for the DRC, which I received free in return for an honest review. The book is on sale today.

The protagonist is not a sympathetic one, and those that need a main character they can love should stop even considering this book right now. But some of literature’s most interesting characters are flawed ones, and the development of this one within the constraints of what Caucasians in the UK expected their lives to resemble at this time, and within the even greater constraints of material self-interest, is fascinating. I found myself wanting to haul this character out to the cheese room and tell her that all other women are not her enemies. She has almost nothing required of her by the easy life into which she has married, and as a local gossip points out, Gwen has “never had to fight for anything”.

Gwen has a passel of problems, however, some real, some imagined. She sees her sister-in-law as a rival not only for her husband’s affections and loyalty, but also for his fortune. She sees his wealthy former girlfriend and business associate, Christina, trying to pull him back into a relationship. What about MacGregor, the surly foreman of the laborers? What about Savi Ravasinghe? By the time the book was halfway done, I found myself alternately scolding her for making enemies everywhere and then, a heartbeat later, screeching at her to beware.

Ultimately I didn’t think I was impressed by this story until I looked back on my notes. I had highlighted nearly every warning bell and red herring and made little notations like, “Noooo!” Obviously this story engaged me all the way through. At times I was frustrated, but that was the author’s intention. At no time was I bored. And given the level of suspense and a certain amount of mystery, I realized that one genre tag had gone missing. I added this title to my “mystery” shelf, because there is so much unknown information that will keep the reader up late as well as any whodunit.

The author makes a few missteps that break the spell of time and place momentarily. At one point there is an argument between two of the characters about Ravasinghe, and one accuses the other of race prejudice, while the other responds that it “has nothing to do with the color of his skin!” This is either ignorance or revisionism. In the 1920s and 1930s racism was at a fever pitch. Colonialists based their system of rule partially on paternalism, which overtly declared that the “lesser” races needed the great white fathers to look after them, employ them, house and feed them. In the USA, Jim Crow and the Klan were at their all time most powerful; African-Americans were afraid to walk on the same sidewalks in the South, and in the North they nevertheless kept to their own neighborhoods to the greatest degree possible. Biracial marriage was an invitation to ostracism or even death, and less than one percent of the Caucasian population in any English speaking nation would even pretend that such ostracism wasn’t about race.

In fact, US President William Howard Taft declared that the day would dawn when the United States flag would fly at “equidistant points” that would include North America, South America, and Central America in fact rather than merely economically, and he told the American people that God had willed this due to the moral and racial superiority of Americans—by which he meant Caucasian Americans. In the East, look what the peasantry went through just to get the vote!  No, no white folks in the British Empire or USA were going to defend themselves against charges of racism; racism was assumed to be the will of God.

There’s another “oopsie” moment when the roof of a large building catches fire and the fire is put out with a garden hose and pots of water. No.

But all of this is mitigated by the expert manner in which the author describes the setting, having had a family member that lived on such a plantation, or a similar one. Part of the reason I wanted to read this DRC is the fact that it was set in Ceylon, and here Jeffries does not disappoint.  I was afraid the ending would either be saccharine or unspeakably brutal, but she deftly avoids both extremes and comes up with a surprising and believable alternative.

So in the end, I recommend this book to you. It’s not always easy for some of us to look in the mirror, or at the mirror of one’s ancestors, but everyone comes from somewhere, and the playing field still isn’t level. Nobody can fix what’s wrong today without knowing where the trouble came from. The Tea Planter’s Wife is a historical treasure in this regard; Jeffries is to be congratulated.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave*****

everyonebraveisforgivenThis is one of those rare novels that I have passed by multiple times despite all the buzz it has generated, because it looked as if it was out of my wheelhouse. A socialite. Pssh. A British officer. Sure. But eventually the enormous buzz among readers and booksellers made me curious. The last time I had this experience, the novel was The Goldfinch, and once I had begun it I gasped almost audibly at what I had almost let slip away from me. And so it is with Cleave’s brilliant novel, historical fiction mixed with more than a dash of romance.  I was lucky enough to get the DRC free of charge in exchange for an honest review; thank you Simon and Schuster and also Net Galley. This luminous novel is available to the public Tuesday, May 3, and you have to read it. It is destined to become a classic.

Our protagonists are Mary North and Alistair Heath; she is dating his best friend, and he is dating hers.  The night before he is to leave to serve in the British armed forces, a moment flashes between them in which they know they want to be together; when he leaves, each grapples with issues of personal loyalty when thinking of the other.

If talent were a mountain, then Cleave would be Everest. If talent were an island, Cleave would not be Malta, but rather all of Britain. And Cleave’s use of word play, first to show how undaunted British youth were by the challenges ahead, and later in a sharper way as the characters learn terrible things and develop a new definition of what courage looks like, is bafflingly brilliant, the rare sort that makes lesser writers hang their heads and understand—this will never be you.

My primary reservation about this novel was that it dealt with the social elite, and my first thought was oh heavens no.  That poor rich girl is going to have to suck it up like everybody else. But I underestimated Cleave and what he was about to take on; Mary, Alistair, and the secondary characters around them begin with a set of assumptions that under his unerring pen seem not only reasonable, but the sort of normal to which their entire lives have accustomed them. Their cavalier approach to the war, from those that serve from those like Tom who at the outset, believe they will “give it a miss”, is the entitlement that has cradled and preserved them from the realities of the greater world all their lives.

And it’s about to change.

 

Any other city would be chewing its knuckles and digging a hole to hide in.    Alistair    wanted to yell at people: The bullets actually work, you know! What they did not understand was that the city could be extinguished. That every eligible person could die with the same baffled expression that he had seen on the first dead of the war, in those earliest shocking days before the men had learned to expect it. I’m so sorry—I think I’m actually hit.

 

In turns amusing, poignant, tender, and heartbreaking, this is a novel you will want to reserve hours of your most private moments to read. You may find yourself taking an unexpected sick day so that you can finish it. Based on the overall story of the author’s grandfather with changes, added details, and embellishments, all of which the protagonists would agree are first rate, Everyone Brave is Forgiven is an unforgettable story of love, war, and innocence lost.