Some quickie reviews: Comfort women in space, rumors of a squirrel conspiracy, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

I’ve let these sit too long and just want to get some quick comments up before I forget everything! It’s one speculative, one cozy mystery, and a historical, so a mix of all the things!

The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis

r/suggestmeabook: I’d like a trip to the future where humanity is split into two battling factions and there are horrors in either group.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 351

Publisher: Skybound Publishing

Series: The First Sister Trilogy

ARC provided by NetGalley

Dystopic future scifi

From the publisher: This epic space opera filled with “lush prose” (Publishers Weekly) follows a comfort woman as she claims her agency, a soldier questioning his allegiances, and a non-binary hero out to save the solar system.

Voiceless women who fight each other for position, a disgraced soldier unjustly charged with losing a battle, and a missing son of the elite: these are the protagonists in Linden A. Lewis’s gripping drama placed centuries in the future. Each character is distinct and has a fascinating character arc, and the plot moves at the perfect place, with unexpected twists which are earned by Lewis’s ability to lay the groundwork.

Humanity has split into two groups. The Geans, on Earth and Mars, are ruled, at least in a large part, by the Sisterhood, a religious group which gives some women power by serving up their sisters as confessors and prostitutes to the military. The Icarii split away from Earth, no longer wanting to be involved in an endless war, and settled on Mercury and Venus (yes, there’s a magic element found on one of the planets that explains how that’s possible). The former are considered militant; the latter are technocrats who have manipulated their genes to survive, creating a separate species of humanity.

As is so often the case in the best science fiction, the postulated world reveals insights into our own, showing how both theocracies and technocracies can go wrong, showing how they impact the lives of the powerless. If that doesn’t appeal to you, it’s a great story as well, and I strongly recommend checking out this amazing book.


War of the Squirrels by Kristen Weiss

r/suggestmeabook: I want to watch an amateur sleuth figure out a murder while sorting out alien enthusiasts, retired spies, and rich kids.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 224

Publisher: Misterio Press

Series: Wits’ End Cozy Mystery

ARC provided by GoddessFish

Contemporary cozy mystery

From the publisher: All Susan wants is to get through this visit from her controlling parents without tumbling down a black hole of despair. But galactic forces are colliding at her whimsical B&B, Wits’ End, and her parents have plans of their own.

The silly pun of the name gives you a feel for what’s to come. Kirsten Weiss does a nice job of creating tension in a small town which has a disproportionate number of murders, and gives some really clear descriptions—to the point that I remember little scenes vividly six months after I finished the book (told you I was behind!). The traveling corpse is pretty cute, and the murder victim is appropriately dislikable. However, the tale stretches credulity, and the squirrels, well, they’re more or less in the background to create the pun and some silly shenanigans to keep the alien enthusiast motif. The earlier book(s) appear to play into the story more than I’d like for picking up one mid-series, as there are constant references to a prior event, but that’s on me for starting with the fourth book in the series (although I usually ask if prior books are required reading before picking up mid-thread).

Easy, quick read when you’re in the mood for something light.


Fiery Girls by Heather Wardell

r/suggestmeabook: I’m in the mood to watch immigrant girls overcome their differences for the common good.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 273

Publisher: Self

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Progressive era working women

From the publisher: In 1909, shy sixteen-year-old Rosie Lehrer is sent to New York City to earn money for her family’s emigration from Russia. She will, but she also longs to make her mark on the world before her parents arrive and marry her to a suitable Jewish man. Maria Cirrito, spoiled and confident at sixteen, lands at Ellis Island a few weeks later. She’s supposed to spend four years earning American wages then return home to Italy with her new-found wealth to make her family’s lives better. But the boy she loves has promised, with only a little coaxing, to follow her to America and marry her. 

This well-researched book occasionally falls a little flat. The transformations of the two protagonists, particularly Maria, feel a bit rushed, although the overall pace of the book is a little slow. It’s at its best when highlighting the efforts of the girls to unionize; the purely imagined parts are where it begins to flag a little. If you’re not familiar with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, it’s a pretty good introduction to the tragedy and the women whose lives were radically changed by it.

Spotlight on: The Fey and the Factory Girl by Nadine Galinsky Feldman

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of The Factory Girl and the Fey by Nadine Galinsky Feldman! The giveaway is open to US addresses only and ends on October 28th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

Pages: 360

Publisher: Self

Publication date: October 14, 2021

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

19th century Scottish Fantasy

From the publisher: Jane Thorburn straddles two worlds: her life as a “factory girl” in Scotland’s mills, and her birthright as fairy royalty. Abandoned by her parents as an infant, and uncertain about the true motives of the Fey, she learns to depend only on herself. All she wants is to be a great weaver and to maintain her independence.

The Fair Folk, fighting for their very survival, have other plans for her, as does the handsome and charismatic Robert Stein. What life will she choose? And will she even have a choice?

A historical fantasy inspired by the author’s ancestors, The Factory Girl and the Fey is an affectionate tribute to the women who helped fuel Scotland’s Industrial Age, from the workers to the poets…and to the Fey who remind us that magic is real when we believe in it.

Excerpt

Beitris continued to heat the poker. In the calm voice of one who spent many, many years calming nervous young mothers, she said, “This is nae yer bairn. This is a changeling. Whit ye’ll see will look strange, cruel even, but you must trust me. Set it in the cradle noo.” 

Still doubtful, Elizabeth placed the changeling in Jane’s cradle with the same care she would have given her own child. Stepping back to give the old howdiewife room was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. 

Beitris grabbed the now-hot poker in both hands, wielding it like a sword between her weathered arms as she moved toward the cradle.

“Dinna hurt her!” Elizabeth cried. 

Ellen grabbed hold of Elizabeth. “This isnae Jane, remember. Beitris will bring the real Jane back.” 

As she held on to Elizabeth, Ellen squeezed her eyes shut in anticipation of disaster. This was all her fault. She had caused this to happen, back on the day of the baptism. Until now she had managed to shut away the memories, but now they rushed forward to taunt her. 

That day dawned bright with sun and promise. Ellen arrived early to help. They dressed wee Jane in a white lace gown that had once been Elizabeth’s. Jane, tiny as a doll, swam in the dress, her head nearly disappearing amidst the layers of fabric. Ellen wished for more time to alter it, as Elizabeth was too fatigued and sad to do it herself. This would have to do, though. The town would likely gossip about the child’s ill-fitting gown, but that mattered less than giving her God’s protection as soon as possible.

Tradition called for someone to offer a gift of bread and cheese to the first person she met on the path to the church. Ellen volunteered, honored to play a role in this special ritual. Carrying Jane in one arm, light as a cloud, and the basket with the food offerings in the other, Ellen headed toward the kirk, with Elizabeth and Robert to follow a few minutes later. 

Ellen didn’t have to wait long before an old man, listing to the right and hunched over a too-short walking stick, ambled toward her. His clothes were rumpled and torn, and they hung on his gaunt frame. Poor man, she thought. Apoplexy had robbed him of his dignity. As she neared him, his face twisted in a grimace. Perhaps the news of a new, precious babe would help to cheer him.

Holding the basket out toward him she said, “Good sir, we offer ye a gift from this new bairn.” 

He stopped without speaking, looked at her, then at the baby, his face twisting even further into a sneer. “Pah!” He spat on the ground and walked away, leaving her standing with the basket still outstretched. Jane started to whimper and squirm. 

“Sir?” Ellen pleaded to his back. “Please, sir, dinna curse the bairn this way.” 

Yet he kept moving, ignoring her completely.  

“Whit shall we do?” she asked Jane, her knees shaking from the encounter. Jane responded only with sleepy sucking sounds. “Well, I see ye dinna want tae help me. I’ll have tae fix this myself.”  

Normally the streets bustled with activity as townspeople prepared for morning service, but today they were oddly empty. Ellen continued to murmur loving words to Jane as they walked, praying for someone else to cross their path. She walked to within a block of the kirk when a young couple appeared. The woman, not more than eighteen, was ripe with her own child. 

Ellen nearly dropped to her knees in gratitude and relief. Holding out the food offering with trembling hands, she said, “Good folks, this is a gift from a new bairn that we offer ye.” She hoped she didn’t look too desperate.

“Aye, of course,” the young woman said, patting her own belly. “May I see the lass?”

Ellen held Jane up and the woman drew in a sharp breath, her eyes alight with the sight of the young beauty. Her mouth twisted and turned, not in bitterness, but rather in protection. To express a child’s beauty aloud would invite evil influences.

“Thank ye,” the woman said. “We would be honored.” 

Her husband, who stood next to his wife, silent until now, accepted the basket of food, then tipped his hat and bowed to Jane. “Welcome tae the world, lass,” he said. Then the young couple continued on their way.

The baptism occurred as planned, and Ellen breathed easier, telling herself that no harm would come from tucking away the unfortunate details of the first encounter. Surely the goodwill of the young couple would render the old man’s bitterness moot and bring good fortune to the child. They would put the incident behind them, and no one needed to know. 

Yet the scene unfolding in front of Ellen in the tiny flat, with a new mother numb with fright and a howdiewife wielding a hot poker, was no mere bad dream. She moved her mouth in prayer, begging for forgiveness and hoping Beitris could bring Jane back home. Then she remembered her children were present, stunned silent but wide-eyed and open-mouthed. “Go back tae the flat,” she said. “We will protect wee Jane.”

About the Author

Nadine Galinsky Feldman is an author of women’s and historical fiction. Her novel What She Knew was a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book awards. The Foreign Language of Friends was a finalist in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Chick Lit category. It was also named a Gold Medal Winner, Women’s Issues, in the 2011 eLit Book Awards.

As an editor, Nadine produced Patchwork and Ornament: A Woman’s Journey of Life, Love, and Art by Jeanette Feldman, which won the 2010 Indie Excellence Award for Best Memoir.

Her first book, When a Grandchild Dies: What to Do, What to Say, How to Cope, provided grief support to an underserved population.

When not working on her many writing projects, Nadine loves traveling, gardening, genealogy, and yoga. She lives in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York state.


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Ginger Rogers’s less famous cousin

The Limits of Limelight by Margaret Porter

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Giveaway

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away some fabulous prizes!

Grand Prize Winner: Choice of an autographed paperback or an ebook or an audiobook, plus an acrylic 16-oz sippy “go” cup with straw.

2nd and 3rd Prize Winners: Choice of an autographed paperback or an ebook or an audiobook.

Runners-up (5): Reproduction vintage Ginger Rogers & Fred Astaire postcard, plus author-autographed bookplate.

The giveaway is open internationally and ends on October 6th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher: Pretty Oklahoma teenager Helen Nichols accepts an invitation from her cousin, rising movie actress Ginger Rogers, and her Aunt Lela, to try her luck in motion pictures. Her relatives, convinced that her looks and personality will ensure success, provide her with a new name and help her land a contract with RKO. As Phyllis Fraser, she swiftly discovers that Depression-era Hollywood’s surface glamour and glitter obscure the ceaseless struggle of the hopeful starlet.

Lela Rogers, intensely devoted to her daughter and her niece, outwardly accepting of her stage mother label, is nonetheless determined to establish her reputation as screenwriter, stage director, and studio talent scout. For Phyllis, she’s an inspiring model of grit and persistence in an industry run by men.

While Ginger soars to the heights of stardom in musicals with Fred Astaire, Phyllis is tempted by a career more fulfilling than the one she was thrust into. Should she continue working in films, or devote herself to the profession she’s dreamed about since childhood? And which choice might lead her to the lasting love that seems so elusive?

Excerpt

“We’ve been studying our fellow passengers,” Ginger explained to her mother. “There’s one lady who wears a monocle and carries a tiny dog and speaks with a veddy, veddy affected accent. We’re convinced she’s pretending to be English.”

She plopped onto the narrow sofa that opened into a bed, clutching pen and paper, and crooked a finger. “Come here. I’ve got a present for you, but not one I can put in a ribbon-wrapped box. You’re getting a new name. To use professionally.”

Helen cast a questioning look at Lela.

“There’s nothing wrong with Helen Nichols,” her aunt declared. “It’s elegant and refi ned, and easy to pronounce. Four syllables, like Ginger Rogers.” With a smile for Helen, she added, “That nickname you gave her when you were a tot turned out to be perfect for show business. Spicy and strong, that’s my girl.”

With a twitch of her auburn head, Ginger opined, “Helen is pretty enough, but not unique or memorable. If she dislikes what I came up with, I’ll keep thinking.”

“What is it?” Helen wanted to know.

“Phyllis. Fraser—with an ‘s.” Ginger handed over the paper. “It has alliteration. You’re an English scholar, you know what that means. I think it suits you. We’ll try it out when I introduce you to people at RKO-Pathé. When you go home, you can be Helen again. Write it out. An actress has to practice her autograph.”

She followed instructions. Dissatisfied with the plain P and F, she tried a more graceful, fl owing version. “How’s this?”

“Perfect!” Ginger placed a beautifully manicured finger on the paper. “Write it again. And again. I want that whole sheet covered—front and back—before we get to Salt Lake City.” With a glance at her mother, she added, “We’re calling her Phyllis from now on, so she’ll get used to it.”

That night when she settled into her bunk, the new name echoed in her mind, keeping time with the steel wheels pounding the steel rails. 

Phyl-lis Fras-er. Phyl-lis Fras-er. Phyl-lis Fras-er.

About the Author

MARGARET PORTER is the author of more than a dozen works of historical fiction, including The Limits of Limelight (September 2021) and the award-winning Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr. Her critically acclaimed novels have been translated into several foreign languages. Other writing credits include nonfiction, newspaper and magazine articles, and poetry. She studied British history in the U.K. and afterwards worked professionally in theatre, film and television. Margaret and her husband live in New England with their dog, dividing their time between a book-filled house in a small city and a waterfront cottage located on one of the region’s largest lakes. When not writing, she keeps busy reading, tending her extensive rose gardens, or playing the mandolin.

More information is available on her website and blog. You can also connect with her on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Goodreads.


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Nurses, spies, romance, and the Sinai and Palestine campaign

Windswept by Annabelle McCormack

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a romance between an endearingly plucky nurse and a man who could ruin her set in Palestine and Egypt during WWI.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 440

Publisher: Self

Series: Windswept Saga

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

WWI British Middle East Romance

From the publisher: May, 1917. Ginger Whitman left a life of wealth and privilege in England to train as a battlefield nurse and serve in the Great War. Working on the brutal frontlines in Palestine, she finds a wounded soldier hiding in her camp. The soldier claims to carry intelligence unmasking a secret plot against the British—and that traitors within British intelligence are searching for him. Desperate and dying, the soldier entrusts a coded message to her care.

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of Windswept by Annabelle McCormack! The giveaway is open to US addresses only and ends on October 22nd. You must be 18 or older to enter.


This action-packed romance set among British troops in Palestine and Egypt is a ripping tale. The well-bred lady becoming a nurse is fairly common, but Ginger’s ambition to be a doctor, the Middle Eastern setting, and the addition of the spy world makes this anything but a run-of-the-mill WWI romance.

Rules for good reasons. Rules that, when broken, incurred a father’s wrath for dismissing a wealthy “well-matched” marriage proposal in favor of a doctor who couldn’t help bolster her family’s estate. Rules that stopped her from entertaining thoughts of the London School of Medicine for Women in favor of a much more “sensible” nursing education.

Annabelle McCormack, Windswept

The characters are vivid and likable or hate-able (shouldn’t that be a word?) as applies. My only quibble is that the heroine, Ginger Whitman, despite both being described as and demonstrating intelligence and independence, manages to not figure out whom to distrust for a good portion of the book, even though it’s obvious to the reader about 15% into the story. Usually that uncharacteristic obliviousness drives me nuts, but Ginger is charming enough that it didn’t bother me as much.

Death made equals of cowards and heroes, friend or foe.

Annabelle McCormack, Windswept

Ginger’s inability to see what is evident to readers is explained, to some extent, by the facts of her upbringing: privileged, denied any opportunity to assert herself until the war gave her the option of nursing, and conditioned to put The Family over all. She’s often unnecessarily consumed by guilt, but that’s really not uncommon for women raised in a role of subservience (or anyone in a patriarchy).

The bleak horror of her work had numbed her to the idea of a merciful God. Why would he listen to prayers for the mundane and ignore the cries of humanity slaughtering itself?

Annabelle McCormack, Windswept

As for the looming British Mandate (1918-1948) issues, Annabelle McCormack lets the facts stand without the patriotic protagonists doing much but some questions and a sense of duty to country. After all, the conflict was a result of the Ottoman Empire’s actions, right? However, McCormack does hint at the trouble in the future as the mentioned, but not actually in the book, T.E. Lawrence is making promises to the Arabs he’s courting while the British are simultaneously making the same kinds of promises to the Zionists. (I’m slightly disappointed Gertrude Bell earned no mention, though.) It’s hard to ignore, though, as a person of our era, well aware of the bloodshed that the former colonial power wreaked on the region.

The leadership in London had never dressed wounds or held soldiers’ hands as they wept over lost limbs.

Annabelle McCormack, Windswept

However, in the context of the book, there appear to be no alternatives to those living in those times, which is a reasonable position. Even now it’s hard to come up with a solution for resisting the Germans in the Middle East during WWI without using the local interests to British advantage. It’s tempting to say that the powers that be should have done something different, as it should have been clear from the beginning that going back on promises would probably create longterm animosity, but it’s difficult to predict how different choices during WWI would have lead to better outcomes for more people. The rule of unintended consequences is a bitch.

[P]eople who feel betrayed and mistreated have a tendency to act irrationally.

Annabelle McCormack, Windswept

Windswept’s blooming romance in the midst of machinations of so many parties is a great read with characters you’ll love and hate well.


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Living with the Klan and other racists

When Stars Rain Down by Angela Jackson-Brown

r/suggestmeabook: I want to feel what it’s like to live in small town Georgia in 1936 as an 18-year-old Black girl.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 368

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

ARC provided by NetGalley

Depression Era American South

From the publisher: The summer of 1936 in Parsons, Georgia, is unseasonably hot, and Opal Pruitt can sense a nameless storm coming. She hopes this foreboding feeling won’t overshadow her upcoming eighteenth birthday or the annual Founder’s Day celebration in just a few weeks. But when the Ku Klux Klan descends on Opal’s neighborhood of Colored Town, the tight-knit community is shaken in every way.

One of the wonderful things about great fiction is that it allows you to see the world through someone else’s eyes in a way that few other experiences can. Angela Jackson-Brown’s When Stars Rain Down is just such a book, and should be required reading for every American. But it’s not just a great book about race and the challenges faced by Black Americans both then and now, it’s a great coming-of-age story for anyone.

Every girl I knew, Colored or white, was waiting for the day she could become a wife or a mother. That was all we knew. That was all we had ever seen.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

However, I’m going to talk mostly about the first part, about how When Stars Rain Down gave me new ideas, contexts, and imaginative reframings about being Black in the South. The lyrical ode to Colored Town was a perspective changer, as the protagonist, Opal Pruitt, doesn’t see it as exclusion but as a retreat from the demands of Jim Crow, even though the woman she works for, and her household, are “good” white people.

On any given night you might hear soft quarrels, the sounds of lovemaking, or the giggles and laughter that were just natural sounds to hear among those of us who lived in Colored Town. Not one of us was rich, but we had all that we ever needed, and that was each other.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

This is one of the questions Opal has to answer for herself: are there actually any whites who will choose right over white when the issue involves a Black person? The illustration of the well-meaning white girl trying to help but not listening is a lesson for anyone who hasn’t lived the life of the protagonists but thinks she knows best how to help.

I looked at her, really looked at her, and I could tell she was sorry. I had never experienced that before. Most white folks, especially rich white folks, took us for granted and never really thought about our feelings.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

I’m not sure there’s a single movie that captured for me the visceral sense of waiting for the Klan to strike like this lovely book. The oppressive environment, the strain of the impending raid, the deep internal struggles of how best to deal with the Klan, the fear of both what the Klan might do and how to limit repercussions of how the Black community responds to the Klan: all of these are given visceral reality.

I guess if you live in a world where angry white men can come out of the blue and burn down your property without any fear of payback, there is no normal. There’s just getting by from day to day.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

The cameo appearance by Satchel Paige was a fun addition, giving a glimpse of how important these early barrier-busting athletes were to their communities. Jackson-Brown’s use of concrete details makes him (and, indeed, all of the characters) breathe on the page.

He liked sitting on the porch playing the spirituals, but he made it very clear that he thought God was something white folks made up to keep Colored folks in line.

Angela Jackson-Brown, When Stars Rain Down

Although the book echoes issues and attitudes still with us to this day, it is firmly situated in the period. When Stars Rain Down presents the world of Black Southerners living in the Jim Crow era unflinchingly, showing both the joy and pain of that life, offering no easy answers, and illustrating the reach of history.

Money, sex, and silent movies

Scandal in Babylon by Barbara Hambly

r/suggestmeabook: I want a fast-paced murder mystery revolving around a rising starlet and investigated by an English fish-out-of-water.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 240

Series: Silver Screen Mysteries

Publisher: Severn House

Golden Age of Hollywood, the Silent Years

ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley

From the publisher: 1924. After six months in Hollywood, young British widow Emma Blackstone has come to love her new employer, glamorous movie-star Kitty Flint—even if her late husband’s sister is one of the worst actresses she’s ever seen. Looking after Kitty and her three adorable Pekinese dogs isn’t work Emma dreamed of, but Kitty rescued her when she was all alone in the world.

I’ve read Barbara Hambly’s books since the 80’s, so I was thrilled to see that she has started a new series set in pre-sound Hollywood. Her fictional biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, The Emancipator’s Wife, is one I’ve recommended repeatedly, but it’s a much more serious book than this frothy and fun Hollywood mystery. Apparently Bride of the Rat God (one of Hambly’s novels I hadn’t read) has many of the same features (the dogs and the British war widow, same time period, but different names), but I can’t speak to how much overlap there is between the two.

Although the Hays Code wouldn’t come about until 1934, the specter of censorship and scandal were haunting actors in the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle trial. The studios weren’t quite as affected in that all publicity was good publicity. So when the (former?) husband of Camille de la Rose, née Kitty Flint, is found shot dead in her trailer, her burgeoning career is threatened, even if she is oblivious to that threat, and her assistant, Emma Blackstone, is determined to clear her name.

The writing is clear and crisp, and the pace fast. Hambly’s ability to sketch memorable characters is at the fore, and there’s never a point where I had to suspend disbelief because of an improbable plot turn—she always does a great job of setting the groundwork so that the turns seem reasonable in the context of the story world. The characters are so believable that I had to double-check that they were all fictional (there is a Foremost Productions, but it wasn’t started until 1990). The larger context of the period, though, is dead on; every time I had a “wait a minute, is that right?” moment, Hambly had her facts in a row.

Her months in Hollywood had given her a front row seat on an astounding display of the misuse of power, and there far worse things to spend money on than fountains of bootleg champagne at one’s parties or solid gold door-handles for one’s car.

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

And that accuracy is pretty important in that there is a delightful running commentary about the historical inaccuracies of Hollywood. The protagonist, Emma Blackstone, is fluent in Latin and perhaps Greek as well, having gone to Oxford and assisted her father’s research. (I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a classical Greek quotation in a light-hearted murder mystery.) As a historical fiction reader who is also a fan of straight history, it tickled me to have the character roll her eyes at the Queen of Babylon going to Rome as it did in the script being filmed in the background of the story.

A wrangler passed across the square, leading four horses in what Hollywood fondly believed to be Roman saddles (meaning blankets strapped over English saddles, with anachronistic stirrups visibly dangling).

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

Moreover, Emma Blackstone works well as the voice of the story, told in a close third person, as she’s not really a part of the Hollywood scene, smart enough to be useful, and open-minded enough to accept differences without losing sight of how those differences would play in Oxford. Zal Rokatansky, cameraman and love interest, is the kind of reliable, kind man that everyone needs in their life, and I was delighted to have a couple where the woman was taller than the man. The height difference is noted, but it’s not an issue, which is charming.

Zal was teaching her to wield chopsticks, one of several skills—along with mixing cocktails and tallying baseball scores—which she had not expected to learn in America.

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

Then there’s the ditzy Kitty Flint, sister of Blackstone’s deceased husband, who is juggling men left and right, including the rather intimidating studio chief Frank Pugh and the wealthy Ambrose Crain. Kitty is one of those people you become fond of despite yourself, as she can be thoughtless and self-absorbed, but she has a generous and kind streak that redeems her.

“But would any of them,” pursued Emma, “Actually kill a man to get you out of the way”

“Gloria Swanson,” replied Kitty promptly, “would kill a man who beat her to a taxi-cab.”

“Don’t be silly, Kitty,” put in Zal. “Swanson never takes taxis.”

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

The minor characters are fun too, particularly the foul-mouthed director Madge Burdon and the polite bootlegger Tony Cornero. Each character introduced feels well-developed and authentic rather then just fulfilling a plot point, from the Hedda Hopper type and the jealous actress trying to climb to the top over Kitty’s back.

Well, I suppose if Odysseus could get information by giving libations to the spirits in Hell, it’s no surprise it works here as well.

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

Readers of cozy mysteries will probably enjoy this as long as they don’t have an issue with salty language; that’s the only thing that made me rate this an R, as there was nothing particularly gory or oppressive about the novel.

His glance was like a smiling kiss, and her eyes received it like one, before she hurried down the thirty marble steps to the 2000 square feet of laboriously imported sand.

Barbara Hambly, Scandal in Babylon

Scandal in Babylon forecasts a wonderful series from Hambly, and I can’t wait to see these characters again!

Faith and death for the nonreligious

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

r/suggestmeabook: I need some comfort about death and dying, but I no longer believe in a God preached by a mainstream religion.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 390

Publisher: Tor Books

ARC provided by NetGalley

Optimistic fantasy

From the publisher: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace from his own funeral, Wallace begins to suspect he might be dead. And when Hugo, the owner of a peculiar tea shop, promises to help him cross over, Wallace decides he’s definitely dead.

When I was eleven and afraid of death, I read C.S. Lewis’s The Final Battle, and that gave me a positive way to look at death. Now, almost fifty years later, I no longer have the faith of that preteen, but TJ Klune’s Under the Whispering Door has given me a comforting book about death and dying which is just as much about how to live, and it is comforting even though I no longer believe in a hereafter.

There are little deaths, because that’s what grief is.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

Klune’s vast gift for empathy and kindness infuses his books with an optimism that does not overlook the pains and perils of life; rather, Klune celebrates the possibilities of change and growth within clearly flawed people, and he’s fast becoming one of my favorite authors. In Under the Whispering Door, Wallace, the protagonist, starts as one of those people you love to hate: a workaholic unmotivated by even the slightest degree of concern for his fellow man (or woman)—the worst kind of lawyer. While the losses in life were insufficient for him to make any changes, the loss of control in death makes him face what kind of person he was.

All that work, all that he’d done, the life he’d built. Had it mattered? What had been the point of anything?

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

Don’t get me wrong; there’s no unrealistic, cloyingly sweet arc here. It’s all very grounded in the real world, and there’s a lot of pain felt by various characters that can be achingly familiar. However, it’s a hopeful world, where change is still possible, a wonderful vision in our increasingly polarized society. Part of what makes it work is Hugo, the ferryman, an empathetic soul, paired with an irascible grandfather, so they complement each other nicely, as well as the spunky Mei, who does not suffer fools.

Every time Wallace opened his mouth to say something, anything, he stopped himself. It all felt…trivial. Unimportant. And so he said nothing at all, wondering why he felt the constant need to fill the quiet.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

Then there’s the view of death and dying itself. While I’m clearly not saying anything Klune propounds in his fantasy is literally true, the ideas behind them often resonate with me, providing a lot of comfort. I particularly like the view of faith, which has nothing to do with the kind of faith preached to me for years, but a more accessible faith that reflects experience.

There’s no one way to go about this, no uniform rules that can be applied to every single person like you who comes through my doors. That wouldn’t make sense because you’re not like everyone else, much like they’re not you.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

And, of course, it’s just a damn good story, with love, loss, and longing (hmm—didn’t plan on alliteration, but I’m going to leave it) all written in lucid prose with a pace that made me want to keep reading even when I had other things to do.

Whoever told you that you were funny obviously lied and you should feel bad about it.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

TJ Klune is a master of the optimistic fantasy, but never in ways I expect it to be, and never in contexts where I expect optimism, and it’s a gift to every reader, and Under the Whispering Door is a book I expect to reread many times.

“Unclean, unclean,” they must cry

The Second Life of Mirielle West by Amanda Skenandore

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to watch how a privileged, self-centered young woman deals with leprosy and all it entails in 1920s America.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 304

Publisher: Kensington

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

1920s Medical Drama

From the publisher: 1920s Los Angeles: Socialite Mirielle West’s days are crowded with shopping, luncheons, and prepping for the myriad glittering parties she attends with her actor husband, Charlie. She’s been too busy to even notice the small patch of pale skin on the back of her hand. Other than an occasional over-indulgence in gin and champagne, which helps to numb the pain of recent tragedy, Mirielle is the picture of health. When Charlie insists that she goes to the doctor to have a burn checked, the consequences come fast. The diagnosis–leprosy–is devastating and unthinkable.

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of The Second Life of Mirielle West! The giveaway is open to US residents only and ends on August 13th. You must be 18 or older to enter.


Mirielle West feels so sorry for herself, it’s hard for the reader to, but it’s a good thing. When the horrifying ordeal is happening to someone self-centered and in so much denial, you aren’t swamped in the bleakness of life for a leper, even if it’s a little improved at United States Marine Hospital Number 66 (better known as “Carville”) when compared to most of history. Like Mirielle, I grew up reading stories of lepers in the Bible, where they rang the bell and cried, “Unclean, unclean” to warn others of their presence, and was shocked to learn in my teen years that leprosy, now referred to as Hansen’s disease, persisted to the current day.

There’s a reason that the word “leper” has come to mean an outcast or untouchable. That was exactly what happened to someone with the disease throughout the world and history (and is still the case in the few places around the world where it clusters). In the early 20th century, a patient was likely to be treated no better than a wanted criminal; lepers were unable to vote in Louisiana until 1940.

Hell, our families would be better off if we were dead.

Amanda Skenandore, The Second Life of Mirielle West

The Second Life of Mirielle West honors the leprosarium, its inhabitants, and its staff by Amanda Skenandore’s masterful character development and sense of place. Mirielle is a fabulous character: I spent a good deal of the time wanting to slap her, but, in the end, I loved her and her complexity. It’s part of the author’s genius that you end up feeling compassion for everyone from the harsh nun who runs things at the hospital to the impossibly out-of-touch Hollywood husband.

With the stark, dreary whiteness all around them, she understood why he did it. It was an escape from the tedium of their daily lives and the horrors of the disease. It gave them something to talk about in the dressing clinic when she unbandaged and dressed their feet.

Amanda Skenandore, The Second Life of Mirielle West

Skenandore also does a marvelous job in how she delivers the information about the disease. Anyone wanting a study in how to deliver exposition would do themselves a favor by reading this novel. I came to that conclusion when I realized how much I learned about leprosy and how patients were treated and couldn’t come up with a single time when I felt that the story was bogged down in explanations. You learn as Mirielle does, and she cannot absorb it all in one sitting (mostly because it takes her so long to accept the diagnosis and pay attention). No long paragraphs about the disease or its history—it all comes out organically and never breaks the pace.

The seemingly inconsequential details and events she left out of her letters built one upon the other to shape her life here.

Amanda Skenandore, The Second Life of Mirielle West

The novel also examines how we deal with loss: loss of privilege, autonomy, health, loved ones, and our sense of self. It also manages to raise the question of whether we are our best selves when we are overly pampered, and although leprosy is rather an extreme remedy for privilege, the point is subtly made that a life that requires nothing of us is unhealthy as well. Which is worse, the physical leprosy, or a emotional/intellectual/spiritual one? (“Must we have one or the other?” Mirielle would have probably asked.)

There are two types of patients at Carville: those who count themselves among the dead, and those who have the pluck to claim their place among the living. The choice is yours.

Amanda Skenandore, The Second Life of Mirielle West

Mirielle also is a case study in assumptions. She assumes so much about her fellow patients, not to mention the staff, but it all mostly adds up to a blanket assumption that no one can understand her pain, whether because they are too insensitive or boorish or because they have not suffered like her. Little by little, she begins to learn, grudgingly, that no one is immune to pain, even with a disease that numbs.

None of their names stuck in her addled mind. All she noticed was their disease. A few had islands of lesions across their skin—dry, thick patches more or less circular in shape. One had pea-sized blisters up and down her arms. Another hadn’t any eyebrows, only thickened, red skin in their place.

Amanda Skenandore, The Second Life of Mirielle West

And then there are the wonderful touches that root the story in Louisiana. Mirielle isn’t the fan of gumbo that I am, but she takes to Southern sweet tea. I share her difficulty with understanding a thick Cajun accent, although I’d be willing to bet she’s not as mesmerized by it. Mardi Gras is celebrated at the facility with the grudging consent of the Sisters of Charity, and the descriptions of their floats made it come to life. Levees surround the grounds on three sides, holding back the mighty Mississippi, but it’s not to be missed that they are three of the four barricades keeping patients restricted to the grounds.

The Second Life of Mirielle West is not to be missed—it’s a novel that will resonate long after you finish.


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Medea in Chicago

Devil by the Tail by Jeanne Matthews

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery set in 1867 Chicago with a plucky heroine navigating the corrupt and seamy city with the assistance of a former rebel soldier.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 252

Publisher: D. X. Varos, Ltd.

Series: Garnick & Paschal Mystery

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Historical mystery

From the publisher: Quinn Sinclair, who uses the name Mrs. Paschal professionally, and her wryly observant partner Garnick get two cases on the same day – one to help a man prove he didn’t kill his wife, another to help a lawyer find reasonable doubt that his client killed her ex-lover’s new bride. As the detectives dig deeper, they unearth facts that tie the cases together in disturbing ways.

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of Devil by the Tail by Jeanne Matthews! We have 2 copies up for grabs! The giveaway is open to US residents only and ends on July 30th. You must be 18 or older to enter.


Jeanne Matthews has done a great job of starting the action of Devil by the Tail in medias res—I felt sure there was an earlier installment, but, no, there is simply a lot of backstory that is effectively ladled in so that you want to know more. Her depiction of Chicago in 1867 evokes a city bursting with postwar growth and riddled with corruption.

Only those with nothing to lose can afford to pull the Devil by the tail.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

This mystery drags her heroine, Quinn Sinclair AKA Mrs. Paschal, through a couple of whorehouses, which is problematic for a woman who wishes to stay respectable. However, Quinn comes to realize that she can’t be as judgmental as she had been in the past when she realizes how little stands between any given woman and prostitution in a world that doesn’t allow for women to make a living in very many ways.

Detective Paschal, self-styled heroine and daring non-conformist, afraid to lose her respectable, cozy niche at the boardinghouse breakfast table, afraid of the opinion of a bunch of prissy old hens.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

The themes of men and women and how they relate is interwoven through the story, as are the twin mysteries of the man claiming to be falsely accused of murdering his wife and the woman who is on trial for an arson that killed the bride of the man who jilted her as well as the bride’s father.

Quinn’s mind stretched in equipoise like a clothesline hung with contrary reasons and contrary feelings, not to mention a load of dirty linen.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

The misogyny of the period (which can still be seen today) is on full display, as is the tendency of people to judge on the superficial. Clothing, then as now, is a huge signifier of class, wealth, and respectability, and Matthews takes care to let us know what the ladies are wearing as well as how the dress is coded in that period.

Tightly corseted in a low-cut canary yellow dress, she resembled a belted balloon, the upper bulge near to bursting.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

Euripedes’s version of Medea is used to great effect to frame the mystery and its various suspects. In case you don’t remember the play (I was grateful for the reminder within the novel), Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts) dumps Medea, who has killed her brother for him, in order to wed another, and Medea takes her revenge upon the bride. As Matthews deftly insinuates, Jason is as much at fault as Medea, but society immediately makes Medea the sole problem, a horrifying corruption of womanhood.

Men could walk unmolested wherever they chose while women had to skitter about like prey.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

In this mystery, Medea is introduced by a reporter who has no regard for truth, only for the sales of the newspaper, and he threads Medea into his descriptions of the crime, knowing that the play had toured in Chicago relatively recently. Women latch onto this myth as much as the men, often becoming quite ugly about other women in the process.

The leech showed up in Rock Island penniless, a runaway from some little prairie town, all rags and fleas.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

Then there’s the recent Civil War, which is also handled cleverly. Garnick, the former rebel, had been a POW in Camp Douglas, a hellhole which is only lightly discussed, although the Confederate dead play a role in the story. Garnick has disavowed the Cause, wishing he’d never put on the uniform, which mitigates any issues a reader might have about a sympathetic Johnny Reb. Hopefully this history will be explored more in future installments.

No way to justify going to war to keep people in chains. At first I had some notion of loyalty to my neck of the woods, allegiance to kith and kin like the states rights firebrands preached.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

Another theme from the time that Matthews works into the story is that of the prejudice against the Irish. Quinn is often having to sidestep her Irish roots, hearing people disparage the Irish regularly. Her heritage is also at the root of her dispute with her former mother-in-law, who can’t stand to let Quinn inherit from her dead son.

You can wall people in, but I learned you can also wall them out.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

The characters are well-formed, the themes interesting, and the mystery absorbing. There’s a little bit of a let-down in that not all of the people we find out are engaged in nefarious dealings are served justice, but, of course, that can be one of the downsides of historical fiction: the constraints of the facts (unless, of course, you’re Quentin Tarantino). I’m really looking forward to the next installment of this well-constructed mystery series.


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To investigate, or not to investigate?

Death on the Lake by Jo Allen

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to watch how detectives balance competing cases as well as their personal/work lives in the context of a well-crafted mystery.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 392

Publisher: Self

Series: DCI Satterthwaite Mysteries

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

Contemporary traditional mystery

From the publisher: When a young woman, Summer Raine, is found drowned, apparently accidentally, after an afternoon spent drinking on a boat on Ullswater, DCI Jude Satterthwaite is deeply concerned — more so when his boss refuses to let him investigate the matter any further to avoid compromising a fraud case.

This is the sixth of Jo Allen’s DCI Satterthwaite Mysteries, and the second I’ve read, and she does not disappoint—this one is just as good as the last one I reviewed, Death at Rainbow Cottage. Allen has a talent for keeping you guessing, and, just like last time, I was constantly sure I had the riddle solved and then realized, nope, I hadn’t. In this case, there was one key fact that wasn’t disclosed that would have made the difference, but I’m okay with that, as that disclosure also would have made the whole thing rather obvious (or at least it seems that way to me in retrospect).

Shared secrets allowed you to love someone for what they were, just as confession cleared your conscience.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

I particularly enjoyed that Allen talked about the use of resources in this book, something I don’t know I’ve ever seen before. My retired cop husband’s constant bitch about TV shows involving police investigation (and one of many, many reasons we don’t watch them) is that they act like the full resources of the police are available for every case, and that every department has all of the latest scientific testing available. So having the prickly Detective Superintendent Faye Scanlon set some very difficult parameters for DCI Jude Satterthwaite’s investigation of Summer Raine’s death was quite rewarding.

Thirty-six years of insatiable curiosity had matured into a store of rock-solid local knowledge.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

I also really like the way Allen is investigating the romantic relationships of the recurring characters. Ashleigh and Jude are so much more honest about their relationship than most people are, and both understand how much a career in law enforcement complicates everything, particularly in a situation like theirs, where overtime is expected and required.

But he knew and she knew he knew, and the resulting tension was always there between them.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

Another lovely feature was grappling with the relative importance of various crimes. Police officers have a great deal of discretion, so when is it appropriate to bust someone for marijuana and when should you let it go? Which is worse, murder or money-laundering/fraud? Satterthwaite comes down firmly on the side that murder is worse, but money-laundering/fraud can, depending on the particular scam, ruin far more lives than a single murder, so which really is more important to stop? (If you’ve read anything on recidivism, you’ll know that most studies show that murderers tend to have a lower recidivism rate; my old criminal law prof joked it was because “you only have one mother-in-law.”)

There must have been a reason why everyone disliked him, but for all that he was her family.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

And then there are the characters who are around (presumably) for just this installment. The family at the center of the murder, fraud, and money-laundering questions, the Neilsons, are fascinating: a young wife trying to help raise privileged-as-hell twins of 18 with an oft-absent wealthy husband who came from the area and made his fortune after leaving. There are so many levels to explore in this family, and Allen does a good job of covering the waterfront.

It was rare she coveted anything, but the Neilsons’ summer mansion brought out the worst in her.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

And then there’s the setting. More so than the last book, the Lake District’s geography comes into play in this novel. I took some time to look at some of the landmarks Allen discusses in the book, and the difficulties the lay of the land create for observation and security become quite obvious.

Because fear, like loyalty and friendship, made you do terrible, terrible things.

Jo Allen, Death on the Lake

All-in-all, Death on the Lake is a triumphant installment of this engaging murder mystery series, marked both for the clever puzzle and the layers of depth in its treatment of the crimes and characters.