The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle, by Jennifer Ryan***

Jennifer Ryan has created a niche for herself as a novelist that writes stories for and about women during World War II, set in England. In this one, a group of villagers form a club for the purpose of recycling and reusing wedding gowns, which are otherwise impossible to procure due to war rationing. We have three main characters and a manageable number of side characters. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

I experienced an odd mix of reactions to this novel, at various points. At the outset, it’s an information dump tied together by story components. That’s okay; I’ve seen it before. We get it over with so that we can go forward knowing the relevant facts.

Our main characters are Cressida Wescott, a London fashion designer driven back to the manse of her birth when both her home and business are struck by Nazi bombs; Grace Carlisle, an underconfident vicar’s daughter who’s about to enter a marriage of convenience to a much older man of the cloth; and Violet Wescott, niece of Cressida, who is desperately in search of an appropriate Royal peer to marry, because she deserves nothing less. Through circumstances, the three become close friends. Using Cressida’s professional experience and the generous donations of women in the village, and eventually beyond it, they are able to create lovely dresses for themselves and others, with the understanding that each dress must be passed on to another bride once the first user’s nuptials are over.

By the 40% mark, my notes say that although this story is becoming a bit predictable, I am so in love with these three women that I don’t mind at all. There are some bumps along the way, to be sure. For example, Violet is aghast when she is called up by the British government to serve her time doing war work. On the one hand, I had never known that (many) British women were drafted during this conflict to serve in noncombatant roles, so this is interesting; on the other hand, it takes about ten pages for Violet to transition from the world’s most obnoxious snob, to a positively egalitarian one-of-the-girls. There’s no process, no development; it’s as if Houdini has appeared suddenly, drawn his cape over her, whisked it away, and presto, she’s a different person. At this stage, however, I make a note to myself and then resolve to enjoy the rest of the story.

At the same time, I am becoming uncomfortably aware, having read three of Ryan’s four novels, that these books follow the same formula: different women are thrown together during the war in order to solve a problem of some sort; we have a character from the lower income bracket; another character is a wealthy woman; and there’s a complete brat that will nevertheless be transformed and redeemed by the story’s end. Group hug.

There’s another concern here, too; Violet is assigned to drive a brash American officer around London. Every time she does so, the guy hits on her, and not subtly, either. He stalks her, he harasses her, and so she falls for him. Better make her a dress.

Have we not progressed beyond this hazardous trope?

The story has a hurried quality to it. At first, as I note that every time someone is happy, they grin—never smiling, smirking, chuckling, guffawing, or giggling, they grin, grin, and grin some more—I chastise myself for picking at a perfectly lovely story and I move on. But it gets worse, and by the end, I run a quick search, thanks to my digital galley and my reading app’s features—and discover the word has been used 51 times.

Editor?

By the time we reach the conclusion, everything seems so obvious that I wonder if someone’s AI did most of the work here. And yes, of course that is hyperbole, but it’s also a disappointment.

Those that haven’t read anything by this author and that love historical romances may enjoy this book, but by the merciful end, I confess that I no longer did.

The Matchmaker’s Gift, by Lynda Cohen Loigman*****

“The heart is big enough to hold both grief and love.”

I read Loigman’s debut novel, The Two-Family House, followed by The Wartime Sisters, and I loved them both, so when Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press invited me to read and review The Matchmaker’s Gift, I leapt. Once again, Loigman has me at hello. This outstanding historical novel is for sale now, and you should get it and read it.

The story is told from the point of view of two protagonists, a woman and her grandmother; they were close, but Sara the grandmother has died, so her story is told in the past, beginning in 1910, when she arrives in the U.S. as a child, along with her family. Abby is her granddaughter; her story begins in 1994. Their stories are told alternately, but both are in the third person omniscient and told in a linear time frame, so I am free to lean back, relax, and get lost in their stories, without any confusion or doubling back to check things.

Sara was a matchmaker, although she initially had to be very careful, because Jewish tradition dictated that matchmakers be married men, and she was still just a girl. But she was gifted with visions of a sort, and could tell who belonged together. And so she was forced to create matches “in secret, pairing people together like a rogue puppeteer.” She never missed. And upon her passing, she leaves a cryptic message indicating that upon her death, Abby will inherit her special talent.

Abby is nonplussed by this, and even as she grieves her beloved grandmother’s death, she is confused as to what she should do. She’s a divorce lawyer, for heaven’s sake! Is she to toss her education and become a modern day yenta? She hasn’t even found a man for herself yet, let alone for others.

It’s always a joy to find a story that diverges from the well-worn path, and novels involving Jewish matchmakers—or any others, for that matter—are thin on the ground. But that is only a small part of this novel’s appeal. I love Sara and Abby; I almost feel they are my friends. I feel their sorrows and admire their courage and integrity. When either of them meets with unfair opposition, I want to smack their detractor with my cane.

But there’s something extra that’s infused into Loigman’s stories, an intangible but unmissable warmth. Nobody can teach anyone this. I can count on one hand the number of authors that can write heartwarming stories that don’t follow formulas or insult the reader’s intelligence. Loigman is one, and this makes her golden.

When I was halfway finished reading this glorious novel, I saw that an audio galley was available. I was a bit cautious, because I had already developed a firm sense of how these women sounded in my head, and I was afraid I might not like the narrators’ interpretations, but my concern was unfounded. I had a road trip ahead of me, and I listened to the next forty percent as I drove, and there wasn’t a single moment that I didn’t love. Narrators Eva Kaminsky and Gabra Zackman do a lovely job, and I have never had such a seamless transition from the digital galley, to the audio, and back again.

Highly recommended, and bound to be one of the year’s best loved books.

Mecca, by Susan Straight*****

Susan Straight is a force to be reckoned with. I knew this after I finished reading I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots after it came out in 1992, and after I sought out, bought, and read everything else she’d written that was available. When I discovered that her new novel, Mecca, was available on Net Galley, I leapt on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and to Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Mecca, an ironic title if ever there was one, is a story of race, class, and gender, and the way that they play into the “Justice” system in California. Add a generous seasoning of climate change and its horrific effects in dry, dry Southern California, and a fistful of opioid addiction, and you have a heady mix indeed. But these are all well worn ground at this point, and this book is exceptional, not because it examines complex current events, but because of Straight’s facility in building visceral characters we care about, and launching them into this maelstrom in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

We begin with Johnny Frias, an American citizen of Latino heritage. As a rookie and while off duty, he kills a man that is raping and about to murder a woman named Bunny. He panics and gets rid of the body without reporting what’s happened. Frias is on the highway patrol, and he takes all sorts of racist crap all day every day. But his family relies on him, and when push comes to shove, he loves his home and takes pride in keeping it safe.

Ximena works as a maid at a hotel for women that have had plastic surgery. One day she is cleaning a room and finds a baby! What to do? She can’t call the authorities; she’d be blamed, jailed, deported, or who knows what. She does the best thing she can think of, and of course, there’s blowback anyway.

And when a young Black man, a good student with loads of promise that has never been in any trouble at school, or with the law, is killed because the cops see his phone fall out of the car and decide it’s a gun…?

I find this story interesting from the beginning, but it really kicks into gear in a big way at roughly the forty percent mark. From that point forward, it owns me.

As should be evident from what I’ve said so far, this story is loaded with triggers. You know what you can read, and what you can’t. For those of us that can: Straight’s gift is in her ability to tell these stories naturally, and to develop these characters so completely that they almost feel like family. It is through caring about her characters that we are drawn into the events that take place around them, and the things that happen to them.

This is a complex novel with many moving parts and connections. I read part of this using the audio version, which I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons. But whereas the narrators do a fine job, I find it easier to keep track of the characters and threads when I can see it in print. If you are someone that can’t understand a story well until you’ve heard it, go for the audio, or best of all, get both.

Highly recommended.

When the Stars Go Dark, by Paula McClain***-****

I have never read Paula McClain’s work before, but a number of Goodreads friends expressed enthusiasm about her novels, so I decided to see what the excitement was about. I came away a little underwhelmed, but nevertheless, thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Anna Hart, and she’s a missing persons detective in San Francisco. A tragedy has sent her running off to lick her wounds, and the bulk of the story is dark and brooding in tone. Then a missing persons case appears that bears striking similarity to one she was confronted with many years ago, and she becomes a dog on the hunt. There’s a bit of magical realism sprinkled in, things she “just knows” that help her solve the case.

Here is a note I wrote during the first half of the book, and it effectively sums up how I felt for most of the story:

“This is one of those stories where the first person narrator bobs and weaves, trying to tell us a few things while withholding all sorts of important, motivating events in her past. It’s getting tiresome, and I want her to just fucking spit it out so that we can move on.”

I suspect that if McClain had used a lighter hand with the veiled references, mentioning them less frequently and then returning to them later, I might have had a more charitable viewpoint.

As it stands, I wouldn’t call this a bad novel, just not a great one. If you are a fan of her earlier work, you may love this book just as much. But if you haven’t read McClain before and are about to lay down your money for just one book within this genre, I advise you to choose something else.

Fox Creek, by William Kent Krueger*****

I’d been in a reading slump, with most of my reading carrying an element of obligation; I love reviewing except when I don’t. Something had poked a hole in my reservoir of joyful discovery, and all the juice was leaking out. William Kent Krueger’s new entry in the Cork O’Connor series, Fox Creek, put a stop to all that. I found myself looking for extra openings in my day, craving the chance to bury myself in this absorbing mystery. I haven’t felt this great about a galley since last winter.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review.

The story is set way up north in Minnesota, near the Canadian border, in the tiny community of Aurora. Cork, our protagonist, has left law enforcement and instead runs a diner, hiring himself out as a private investigator when the opportunity arises, which doesn’t happen often. When a man comes to the diner and asks Cork to help find his wife, Cork says he’ll think about it. Meanwhile, Dolores, the wife in question, is engaging in a sweat ritual out in the woods where the ancient and very wise Ojibwe healer Henry Meloux lives. It turns out that Cork’s would-be client is not her husband, and she doesn’t know him at all. He’s got a hidden agenda, alrighty, and he’s brought some rented thugs along to make his chore easier. Now there are two tasks: the first is to hide Dolores, and the second is to find out who these guys are and why they want her so much. Meanwhile, Cork’s wife, Rainy, guides Dolores deep into the woods near the Boundary Waters; Henry joins them. What follows is one of the most suspenseful stories I’ve read recently. I have a hunch that Cork will be okay, since killing him would also kill the series, but the others—Henry, Rainy, and Dolores—might make it out, or they might not.

I was about to say that this is character-based fiction, so well rounded are the main characters, but the setting is resonant and important to the characters and the plot. All told, this is the way a novel is supposed to work, with strong characters and settings that make the plot believable and urgent. And as always happens when I read Krueger, I also learn some things about the setting, and about Ojibwe culture and history. (His depiction of the art of disappearing and eluding pursuers reminds me a little bit of Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield series, but that’s all the two series have in common, apart from genre.)

This is the 18th book in the series. Can you dive in, right here right now?  Emphatically, yes! I began with the prequel to the series, which came out last year, and I loved it so much that I went to the library to check out the first book in the series—and then, I found it disappointing, because over the course of this long series, Krueger’s skill has increased, so the first book, Iron Lake, is decent, but nowhere near as brilliant as his more recent work. Now I look forward to more of this series, but always going forward, never back.

This riveting novel will be available to the public on August 23, 2022. If you love this genre, you should get this book and read it—or better still, preorder it right now. You won’t be sorry.

Memphis, by Tara M. Stringfellow****

Stringfellow’s debut novel, Memphis, has drawn accolades far and near. This is a family saga that features three generations of women, a story told with warmth and subtlety. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The story commences with Miriam planning to leave her abusive husband. She gets a few things and herds her daughters, Joan and Mya, out of the house. They’re headed to live with Miriam’s sister, August, in Memphis.

The family’s story follows them across time and points of view, but always from the point of view of one of the women. About a third of the way through we find an additional point of view from a character we haven’t met yet, and since we’ve heard from Miriam and August as well as Miriam’s girls, I’m expecting Hazel to be the daughter of either Joan or Mya, granddaughter to Miriam, but that’s not the case. Hazel is Miriam and August’s mother, and the time is the 1930s, a dark time indeed for African-Americans. I like this little surprise. I also love that the narrative embraces only women, across three generations.

As with all good historical fiction, there’s a hidden history lesson here as we follow the Norths across time. On the one hand, I didn’t learn anything new, but I am a history teacher. What I appreciate is the lack of reliance on cheap pop cultural references, and also the lack of revisionism. Stringfellow writes about the past as it was, rather than as she wishes it was. The characters are resonant and believable; my favorite is August. I love the ending.

The story arc is a mighty shallow one, and I’d be hard-pressed to identify the climax. This is my only real criticism.

Because I was a bit behind, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the narrators, Karen Murray and Adenrele Ojo, do a superb job.

Recommended to those that love historical fiction—especially surrounding Civil Rights—and to those that enjoy stories about multiple generations of families.

Cold Fear, by Webb and Mann*****

“Christmas is special here. In Reykjavik, nothing bad ever happens at Christmas.”

Cold Fear is the second in the Finn thriller series. Last year authors Webb and Mann launched the first, Steel Fear, to widespread acclaim, and I loved it, too.  My thanks go to Random House Ballantine and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist, Finn, is a singular fellow. A Navy Seal (like one of our authors,) he is currently on the run, being sought for questioning regarding war crimes that took place in Yemen. He doesn’t think he is guilty, but he isn’t sure; a large chunk of his memory of that time has vanished, leaving him—and us—slightly off balance. But Finn is a survivor, and now, in Iceland, three members of his own team are here too; he thinks they may have the information that he needs to fill in the gaps he can’t access. There’s another more worrisome person, an assassin, looking for him as well.

Meanwhile, a woman has been found dead, face up under the ice. Suicide has been suggested, but that notion quickly falls apart. When her body disappears from the morgue, the police kick into overdrive. Iceland has almost no crime of any kind, let alone murder, and so immediately, they begin eyeing the Americans in their midst, including Finn.

Finn is a memorable character. He’s funny looking, like a cross between a Gecko and E.T., and yet, thanks to his training, he can merge seamlessly into a crowd and be invisible. His traumatic childhood haunts him, but the authors don’t beat us to death with this aspect of his personality. To my delight, he is burdened with none of the overused tropes used by lesser authors such as alcoholism. He is not on a mission to avenge the deaths of people in his personal life, and he doesn’t get kidnapped and thrown in the trunk of a car or van. Bad guys don’t try to harm his family—of which there is none, in any case—or his pets. He doesn’t get neurotic and bite his lip till he tastes blood, or bunch his fists up so tightly that he cuts his palms with his own fingernails. Feel me? I have quite a list of things I never want to see in a novel again. This happens, once one reads over a thousand novels in this genre, and for awhile I quit the genre entirely, thinking that there was nothing new left to read. Webb and Mann have proven me wrong, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

One last word about setting. Though Finn is a resonant protagonist, the setting is more important here than in most thrillers; that was the case in Steel Fear, which was set on the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, and it’s true here, as well. The descriptions are resonant, but they don’t slow us down. This is a true thriller, with a pace that never flags.

I’m in this series for the duration. I also urge other women to ignore the promotions that boast that this is Alpha Male material. Last time I looked, I was an old lady school teacher, and I am all in. If you love a good thriller, I highly recommend both Finn books to you.

When the Summer Was Ours, by Roxanne Veletzos***-****

3.5 stars, rounded upward. I had proclaimed myself to be over and done with World War II fiction; there’s been a glut of it in the publishing world, and I have well and truly had my fill. My soft spot, however, is for any book written by an author whose work I have read and enjoyed. I reviewed Veletzos’s charming debut, The Girl They Left Behind, in 2018, and so when the opportunity came up, I agreed to read and review this one, too. It was a good decision.

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

Eva Cesar, daughter of the well-to-do but terribly strict local bourgeois, falls in love when Aleandro, a Romani artist stops in her tiny town in Hungary. He is a painter and a fiddler, raising his younger brothers alone following the deaths of their parents. Eva’s father knows nothing of this romance, and it’s a darned good thing. Not only is her father a Nazi sympathizer and bigot, but she is already engaged to marry Eduard, a dedicated Red Cross physician whom she also loves.

The story follows all three of them over the years, shifting points of view. All three are likable characters; Aleandro is obsessive enough that he seems a little creepy at the outset, but as the story develops, that’s no longer the case. Eduard is a stable, likable human being, but he is the one that is least developed. Eva often makes passive decisions, which I find grating, yet these are the early 1940s, and women don’t yet know they’re entitled to be decisionmakers, at least in many regards. The plot seems to go all over the place, but it comes together quite nicely at the end.

There are two related developments I would have liked to see handled differently. First—and I’m telling you this because it occurs early—Eva becomes pregnant after just one night of passion with Aleandro. Picture me sticking two fingers down my throat. Gag, spit, gag some more; what an overused trope. But then it gets worse. Eva heads to a clinic where abortions are performed quietly, since the procedure isn’t legal; the facility is filthy, and the staff are rude; we briefly meet the doctor, who virtually has horns and a spiky tail, and dines regularly on the flesh of aborted embryos and fetuses. More or less, anyway. And with women’s rights to choose our own reproductive decisions under attack, this is the very worst possible time to put such vile propaganda into a novel. She flees, of course, and has the baby, of course. In fact, as I write this, I question my choice to knock off only half a star from my rating. I’m growing madder by the minute, just writing about it.

Moving on!

The most difficult aspect of a complex story like this one is deciding how to end it. I come back around when I see how tastefully and realistically this is achieved. The ending is both credible and sweet.

There it is; you decide.  

Joan, by Katherine J. Chen****

“Once you lift a sword, it is hard to put down again.”

I’ve been curious about Joan of Arc for a long time. I love military history, and as a feminist, I also love that Joan was responsible for leading French victories centuries before women were permitted to serve in the military of any major power. When I saw that Katherine J. Chen had written a “secular reimagining of the epic life of Joan of Arc…a feminist celebration of one remarkable—and remarkably real—woman who left an indelible mark on history,” I was all in.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

In her end notes, Chen tells us that Joan’s biographers tend to leave out her difficult home life, with a violent, angry father that hates Joan from the moment she draws breath; he has wagered heavily on her being male, and she’s failed him. Chen sees it as a major factor in Joan’s development as a warrior.

When Joan leaves home, after her beloved uncle leaves and her elder sister, her one true friend within the family, commits suicide after she is raped by English soldiers, she expects to labor for her bread, which is nothing new to her. But ultimately, she wants to get word to the Dauphin, the heir to the throne, who is in hiding: she knows how to win this war.

I absolutely love the version of Joan that Chen develops, and my only frustration is in not knowing what aspects of Joan’s life she has had to invent, and which are historically accepted as truth. She tells us that Joan’s biographers would have her praying constantly, and that they depict Joan as little more than a totem that they carry to battle, a sort of human version of a lucky rabbit’s foot. And then I wonder even more: what facts are undisputed? Of course the Church would depict Joan as hugely religious, given that she has been beautified as a saint. Did she actually influence the battle plans? This part is frustrating to me. Had more information been provided, this would be a five star review.

In any case, the battle scenes are riveting, and Joan’s character is unforgettable. I look forward to seeing what Chen writes next.

Recommended to all that love the genre.

The World Cannot Give, by Tara Isabella Burton**

Four years ago, I read Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature, a novel that was one of my favorites that year. I said it was “full of sass and swagger…genius pacing…a novel that should take all of us by storm…the makings of a cult classic.” Did I love it? Yes I did. So imagine my excitement when I saw that she had a new one coming out. Sad to say, The World Cannot Give doesn’t reach the same level. It’s dull, and it takes itself far too seriously.

Nevertheless, my thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Laura Stearns arrives at St. Dunstan’s Academy; she is inspired by a novel written by a long-ago alum named Sebastian Webster. Laura yearns to find the “shipwreck of the soul” she finds in Webster’s book. Indeed, Webster has an enthusiastic band of followers at St. Dunstan’s, and so in a sense, Laura has come to the right place.

So we have these elements: a private boarding school—and this setting is in danger of being overused lately, but nothing that excellent writing cannot overcome, although that doesn’t happen here. We also have a slavish clique and hyper-religious students; and we have a whole lot of navel gazing. Or, as the synopsis tells us, “The World Cannot Give is a shocking meditation on the power, and danger, of wanting more from the world.”

If anything here makes your pulse quicken, by all means, go get this book. As for me, I tried. I did. When I couldn’t push myself through my digital copy after multiple tries, I checked out the audio version from the library; if anything, it was more pretentious and obnoxious than the written version. Yikes. I stuck with the audio version through the first two torturous hours, and then I threw in the towel.

This shipwreck is available to the public now.