Finding freedom in British Guiana

A Review of Song by Michelle Jana Chan

 Random Things Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to experience British colonialism from the perspective of a Chinese boy trapped in a racist system. And lots of birds.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 480

Publisher: Unbound

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

British West Indies Colonial Fiction

From the publisher: Song is just a boy when he sets out from Lishui village in China. Brimming with courage and ambition, he leaves behind his impoverished broken family, hoping he’ll make his fortune and return home. Chasing tales of sugarcane, rubber and gold, Song embarks upon a perilous voyage across the oceans to the British colony of Guiana, but once there he discovers riches are not so easy to come by and he is forced into labouring as an indentured plantation worker. 

Michelle Jana Chan has delivered a world that I was not familiar with, British Guiana (Guyana since 1966), a colony where power resided in the planters. The British Empire outlawed the slave trade in 1807, but emancipation didn’t occur until 1838, and the sugar cane planters replaced their slaves with what were nominally indentured servants. They might have well have been slaves, given that they were often transported under deceptive term with the cost of the transportation supposedly to be worked off, but it was a goal that moved ever away as the planters charged the indentured servants’ cost of living to their remaining debt.

Song is a boy who endures the cost of that deception as well as the racism that fuels a system dependent on a powerless labor class. British Guiana used Chinese and then Indian workers after the former enslaved persons of African descent wanted nothing to do with the plantations.

The character of Song is well realized, as well as the rest of the cast: the despicable Mr. Cameron, the progressive Father Holmes, the hearts-of-gold ladies, the ruffians of Bartica, the friendly Amerinds, and the snobbish “civilized” folk of Georgetown. There are some heart-tearing moments of racism and violence, and the questions of what will you do to be safe and how to combat the status quo are reckoned with.

The pacing is a little uneven. It took me a little while to get into it, then I was completely absorbed in the story until, even though it’s a sad commentary on how my attention works, things got better for Song for a while and there seemed to be little conflict. This oasis for him was sweet and helped build for the next push of crap to be thrown at him, but it was much slower reading. However, I cared enough about Song by that point that I stuck with it.

In addition to the themes of power and privilege, racism and activism, Chan explores some other very interesting ideas in this novel: how much property does one need, what dreams are worthy, how do we deal with repeated losses, and how much does education remediate class differences? She doesn’t necessarily provide answers, but she illuminates portions of the spectrums.

A fascinating study in the book is that comparing Bartica, a rough frontier town, to Georgetown, the heart of colonial government. The overt premise is that the evils of the former are all on the outside, and less in aggregate, than those of the latter, hidden, insidious, and greater. There may not be stabbings on the street or whores every few blocks in Georgetown, but Song is assailed more frequently and pointedly in Georgetown than Bartica. And therein lies what seems to be the implicit story: that racism is more pronounced in “civilized” areas where power congregates and evil is disguised than in a rough place where most are scrabbling to survive.

My biggest complaint is about the ending, which is always a tricky thing to complain about without some spoilers. Let me simply say that it felt like it trailed off rather than ended, which is often a choice on the part of the author, but part of what I enjoy about fiction (as opposed to real life) is the possibility of closure, of a sense of completion. I’ve heard some critics talk about the need to meet the expectations that have been set, but those expectations are set by Western storytelling conventions, so I’m not saying this is wrong or bad, just that it’s a type of ending I don’t care for.

However, it’s largely a compelling read and an intriguing slice of life in a part of world history that many Americans have probably never heard of, and I appreciate the guided tour.


Fascism’s long shadows

A Big 4+ review of The Spanish Girl by Jules Hayes

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to follow an orphaned daughter’s search for her mother who disappeared during the Spanish Civil War.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: Less than 300 pages (probably)

Publisher: Orion Dash

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

Spanish Civil War Novel

From the publisher: Feisty journalist Isabella has never known the truth about her family. Escaping from a dangerous assignment in the turbulent Basque country, she finds her world turned upside down, firstly by her irresistible attraction to the mysterious Rafael, and then by a new clue to her own past. As she begins to unravel the tangled story of her identity, Isabella uncovers a story of passion, betrayal and loss that reaches back to the dark days of Spain’s civil war—when a passionate Spanish girl risked everything for her country, and for the young British rebel who captured her heart. 

The first thing that comes to mind for me when the Spanish Civil War is mentioned is Pan’s Labyrinth. [1] Yes, it’s a fable, and, yes, it actually takes place after Franco won, but the protagonist’s stepfather so vividly portrayed the brutality under a veneer of sophistication, and the story’s so rife with the undercurrents of the recent conflict, that images from the movie invariably conflate with whatever else I read on the subject. So it’s not surprising that the odious stepfather was cast as the various villains in my mental production of The Spanish Girl by Jules Hayes.

I’m generally a fan of dual or multiple timelines, and this novel has one set in 1976 and one in 1937. I ultimately liked having both periods, but at about a third of the way through, I wasn’t sure why the later one was bothered with. I’m not sure if it would have been aided by cutting between the two sooner or more frequently; I just know that I didn’t particularly care if we got back to the one in 1976 after the 1937 Spanish Civil War scenes started.

Was I like the majority of Spain, insofar as I’d been remiss in not investigating what had really happened, even regarding my own parentage, about my own mother and father?

Jules Hayes, The Spanish Girl

Part of that was because I had a hard time buying the instalove Isabella has for Rafael, perhaps because most of his alleged attractiveness is mediated by Isabella telling us about the attraction rather than making him charming and seductive through his actions. For example, he persists in calling her “querida,” a term of endearment, having only met her a scant time before and despite her request that he stop it, making me find him less than attractive. And in the beginning, that romance and a lot of re-iteration of how much Isabella wanted to know about her mom seemed to be the only justification for the framing of it. And, I suppose, the ability to weigh in on the consequences of the Franco regime, particularly during, but also after the war.

As rapidly as the suspicion had descended, it dissolved, and something shifted within me as this man I did not know spoke of a woman he did not know with such empathy.

Jules Hayes, The Spanish Girl

So if you start the book and have that feeling, don’t give up on it after you find out the story about the Spanish Civil War; there is, eventually, some payoff for the inclusion of Isabella in the story. I still find the first timeline more compelling, but it didn’t bother me when I found out where it was going. I think, though, I would have preferred to read a more developed version of Sofia’s story than both of them.

Despite the heavy cloud cover the morning light was growing brighter but the quietness, which hung like a physical entity around Miguel’s abode, hit me as hard as the rumble of noise when I opened the balcony doors of my Barcelona flat.

Jules Hayes, The Spanish Girl

Alternatively, I would have liked more info about the “other victims” that are vaguely referenced in the story. The White Terror killed somewhere between 160,000-200,000 and no one knows how many victims of rape, torture, and oppression. Like most countries recovering from fascist regimes, the new government is ready to move on rather than deal with the legacy of those insidious political ideologies, and Hayes does a good job of bringing that reluctance (at best) and whitewashing (more frequently) into the limelight. But the magnitude of the tragedy is harder to discern, although it’s clear that Hayes has done the research and is aware of it.

With Franco dead, the new Spanish government does not want Spain’s civil war in the global eye. They want trade, they want tourists. The don’t want the remains fo a murdered woman and her unborn child in the world media.

Jules Hayes, The Spanish Girl
Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso

The plot, however, is quite good, and although I suspected most of the eventual outcome of events, I was not ever completely sure I was correct until the author revealed those plot points. One of the distractions (I’m not sure that it was meant to be a red herring) was that the “young British rebel” referred to in the publisher’s synopsis is named Jack Hayes, which you probably already realize shares a last name with the author (although I now believe it’s a pseudonym). So I kept wondering if this was a family history that Hayes the author was fictionalizing, and wondering when that was going to become obvious. It seems a petty complaint, but it took me out of the flow of the story, and I wish that the author had chosen a different name for the character.

As well as being patient, George was also kind and generous to his men. Something else a family’d knock out of him.

Jules Hayes, The Spanish Girl

As long as I’m bringing up petty complaints, I really dislike the way the book is captioned on Amazon (US, UK, Canada, and Australia): “The Spanish Girl: A completely gripping and heartbreaking historical novel.” It’s like someone getting ready to tell you a story at work and starting it with “This is soooo funny.” It almost never is. Let me decide if it’s completely gripping and heartbreaking, and don’t tell me that in the title. If I’d come across the book that way, I’d have done a hard pass.

Barcelona caught Jack’s imagination and captured his heart—because the city itself had a heart. Beating and pulsing. It was a feeling he wanted to scoop up and put in a box.

Jules Hayes, The Spanish Girl

This book does deal with some serious trauma, and there are moments that are sad, although I didn’t find them as heartbreaking as whoever wrote the header. I never got completely vested in the characters, and I’m not completely sure why. However, my favorite character was Jack Hayes, and it’s because my view of him was based on his actions and attitudes, not because a narrator told me how great he was, that I rather suspect my lack of connectedness with most of the characters was for the same reason I wasn’t enamored with Rafael.

I objected a little to the characterization of the villainous Severino Herrera; the word “instability”is most frequently used, and sometimes “madness.” These descriptions come up regularly before Herrera actually appeared, and I expected someone with wild mood swings or a tenuous grip on reality. Instead, we have a remorseless sadist who hungered for power. Although this can be a pathological psychiatric state, it’s not really unstable—he seems to be consistently nasty, and the frequent references to Isabella’s godfather as an effective protector would seem to indicate that Herrera is quite capable of reining in his instincts in a rational manner. If I were to characterize anyone as unstable, it would be Joe Hayes, Jack’s duplicitous brother.

He thought he could cry forever. But of course we don’t cry forever, only inside.

Jules Hayes, The Spanish Girl

Despite those criticisms, I did find it a…well, “pleasant” isn’t really the word for a book about a traumatic civil war, although I suppose it could be applied to the love story…well told mystery of a woman’s disappearance in a period that deserves far more attention than it gets.

[1] Never Hemingway. Not a fan, to say the least, but this isn’t a review of any of Papa’s works.


A tale of three orphans

The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to follow two generations of orphans through their struggles, particularly two numerate women.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 383

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Late 19th/early 20th century

Giveaway: Enter to win a paperback copy of The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper! The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on March 31st. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher: Australia, 1906. Orphan Jane Piper is nine years old when philanthropist siblings Michael and Elizabeth Quinn take her into their home to further her schooling. The Quinns are no strangers to hardship— having arrived in Australia as penniless immigrants, they now care for others as lost as they once were.

From a Liverpool workhouse to an Australian orphanage, and from a gold rush town to a solid municipality, this tale of three orphans brings in trauma, history, mystery, and social commentary, all within gripping and fast-moving prose. Tea Cooper’s writing illuminates and penetrates, and the plot is well-conceived.

From the water, Sydney didn’t look like much. A small, ugly town, surrounded by barren sandy coves, the trees—short and stunted—clinging to the rocks.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

The three orphans are a brother and sister, Michael and Elizabeth Quinn (originally Ó Coinn), and a girl they foster, Jane Piper. Their stories are told in tandem, beginning in 1906 with nine-year-old Jane at the Maitland orphanage, whose life is covered for around a decade. The second thread covers the 1860s to 1870s, with the Quinn’s emigration from England through their life in frontier Bathurst and then to sedate Maitland.

Acumen? What was an acumen? Another A word. She hadn’t had time to look up aptitude and accountant yet, and now she had to remember acumen.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

There’s not a lot of discussion of the traumas of their disrupted families, but it’s evident in the way the characters act. Michael and Elizabeth are deliberate in their patronage of the orphanage and of individual orphans, which I read as a tacit understanding of the difficulties those young people would face. Watching the mentoring is more effective than a discussion of it.

Jane discovered there was a whole lot more to arithmetic than she thought. But most fascinating of all was Elizabeth’s abacus. Why didn’t everyone use one?

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Cooper also shows the early maturity of these kids, having the responsibility for their own survival thrust upon them early in life. It’s alway surprising to me to remember that kids in other times and/or other places have had to take on so much more than the ones in my life (or that I was).

Michael scrubbed Father MacCormick’s large white handkerchief across his face, drew in several slow breaths, and tried to remember he was a man.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Be prepared, though, if you’re sensitive: there are some fairly detailed depictions of PTSD as well. I’m not a mental health professional, but they match up to the things I’ve had psychiatrists describe (and articles out there on it). Although no one was calling it that back then, there had to be some recognition of the symptoms.

In the corner of the room, in a damp-smelling space between two cabinets, a figure huddled, knees drawn up to her chest, her hands cradling her bent head as though protecting it.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Issues of class, social norms, bigotry, and sexism are all raised by the plot and characters. In particular, both Elizabeth and Jane are numerate and trusted with accounting, which they both recognize is unusual for their sex, and Michael’s attitudes toward their abilities is contrasted by other characters, again, illuminating by example rather than discourse. Overall, the various social issues are handled sensitively.

Angry, red swollen blisters peppered her skin. His words dried in his throat. By all that was holy, something wasn’t right, and he’d be finding out what it was.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

I loved all three of these characters. Watching all of them grow and handle the challenges of their sundry lives was a pleasure. I wondered if Cooper was trying to portray Jane as neurodiverse, possibly on the spectrum, but in the historical context, no one would have termed it that way, and I’d be interested to hear if people from that community read her that way.

Numbers had a practicality, a definitive no-nonsense, no-alternatives, no-misinterpretations, black-and-white reality. She always found a certain security and comfort in the neatly lined-up columns and rows of the account ledgers.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

The minor characters were also well done—the endlessly catty fellow orphan, the town gossip, the villain…well, he was a little mustache-twirly, but I enjoyed it. The backdrop of Australian history is nicely integrated as well. Despite the fact that Thomas Nelson is publishing this novel, there’s no overt Christianity aside from the cultural Catholicism of the Irish-born Quinns.

It wasn’t only Michael who disapproved of her friendship with Jing. Mr. Li thought her as much of an infidel as people believed the Celestials to be.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Tea Cooper gives a masterclass in The Girl in the Painting about how to “show rather than tell” works, and it will definitely be a book I’ll be recommending and re-reading for a long time.


The making of the Queen of Mystery

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

r/suggestmeabook: I want to read a solution to the historical mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 383

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

WWI and Interwar Period

From the publisher: In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Investigators find her empty car on the edge of a deep, gloomy pond, the only clues some tire tracks nearby and a fur coat left in the car—strange for a frigid night. Her World War I veteran husband and her daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author.

David Suchet, who played Hercule Poirot for 25 years, presciently expressed how I feel about this book in the 2014 documentary The Mystery of Agatha Christie:

When I first heard about Marie Benedict’s The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, I immediately flashed back to a different documentary, which I cannot now find. I couldn’t remember any of the details except that Agatha Christie had disappeared for a short period of time, and that it had never satisfactorily been explained. This wonderful novel gives the explanation I craved; whether it is truly the reason why is irrelevant, because it’s great storytelling. (And much better than the Doctor Who version, although I enjoyed it at the time.)(Warning: Possible spoilers.)

The first section of the book is split between past and the present of 1926, with the past being first person from Agatha Christie, and the present being a third person close from her husband’s POV. The technique works very well, with the past informing the present. Although the chapters from the past have the title “Manuscript” on each, it wasn’t until I reached the second part of the book that I realized those sections were supposed to be from a manuscript written by Christie.

In truth, the only time I felt like myself was when I was writing. No matter how I tried to anticipate his needs, I couldn’t please Archie, and all the qualities he used to admire—my spontaneity, my love of drama and adventure, and my desire to discuss feelings and events with him—now irritated him.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Both Agatha and Archie are well drawn, although it’s not entirely clear exactly how WWI changed Archie’s personality. It’s implied that he suffers from PTSD, not exactly a reach for a man who served in combat (as evidenced by the award of the Distinguished Service Order in 1918). PTSD can cause longterm personality changes, but I would have liked a little more explicit discussion of that process. Perhaps any overt mention was omitted to avoid making him sympathetic; he isn’t very.

Archie walks alone, of course. It wouldn’t be seemly for him to link hands with these regular folks, not in his current predicament.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

One of the factors that comes between them, it seems, is the difference in class. Agatha went to finishing school in France and is well-schooled in the etiquette of the upper class. It’s not exactly clear what Archie’s status is, but he is shown to flagrantly violate the established norms early on in the relationship. What is crystal clear that Agatha’s mother thinks Archie is a terrible match for Agatha.

No matter what happened in the future, I didn’t want her disliking Archie any more than she already did. And nothing had more significance than a man acting like a gentleman and a woman acting her part as a lady in turn.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The other characters in the story are also memorable: Agatha’s mother, the investigator Kenward, their daughter Rosalind, Agatha’s sister Madge, and Rosalind’s nanny (and Agatha’s part time secretary) Charlotte each contribute to the story line and are easy to imagine. The interaction of Agatha with all of these characters, and her husband, as well as the lingering remembrance of financial woes when her father died, move Agatha inexorably to being the author of legend.

Madge exhaled cigarette smoke as she reclined on the sofa even further, ever assuming the pose of the confident older sister and first daughter.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

A couple of themes in the book that I quite liked were that of what are the duties of a wife and the role of the unreliable narrator. The first was a well considered review of what women were taught for a good deal of Anglo-American history, as enunciated by Agatha’s mother, which basically were to ensure that you caught and kept a man to keep your status. The arc of Agatha’s view on this advice is captivating, and I could hear echoes of what I was told by my grandmother and mother in what she was told; indeed, some women are still given the same kind of advice even today.

A wife’s duty is to be with her husband, because her husband must come first, even before her children. If a wife leaves her husband alone for too long, she will lose him.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The saddest application of marital advice was to Agatha’s relationship to her daughter, Rosalind. Archie’s fear of being displaced and her mother’s admonitions to always defer to her husband’s wishes lead Agatha to distance herself from Rosalind in her babyhood. That decision seems tragic for them both.

Perhaps this was mankind’s fate—to learn that none of our paths were as straight as we believed they would be.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The unreliable narrator was a lovely touch, as it referenced Christie’s groundbreaking use of the same in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which arguably was what propelled her into the front ranks of her field. The observation that we are unreliable narrators of our own stories has a double application: it’s simply an interesting idea about our personal blindspots and also a commentary on the story itself.

As I reread it for a final time, it occurred to me that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives, crafting stories about ourselves that omit unsavory truths and highlight our invented identities.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Marie Benedict has created a marvelous solution to an enduring mystery that even Agatha herself would have appreciated (if she hadn’t been so set on keeping it secret).


Inferences, or why what you show isn’t what you want to tell

a note to indie authors

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

For most people, “infer” is usually something you only talk about in contrast to “imply.” In one of my previous lives I was a civil litigator, and inferences can be a consideration in trying and appealing a case.

When you try a case, you present a bunch of pieces of evidence (witness testimony, photos, other documents) and then you try to convince the jury of your side of the story. [Sidebar: Drives me nuts when TV shows et al say “It’s just circumstantial evidence.” It’s almost always only circumstantial evidence!] Sometimes the type of evidence you have becomes an issue because the jury doesn’t have enough to make a “reasonable inference,” or judges will decide that the inference wasn’t reasonable.

In other words, the jury came up with an answer that wasn’t warranted based on the evidence before them. Given that the standard advice for fiction writers is “Show, don’t tell,” it seemed a parallel situation: sometimes readers come up with an answer you didn’t mean for them to when you “show” them the story.

Let’s take a concrete example: Here’s a letter sent home from an elementary school. Before the letter, Teacher A and Teacher B split the school day between them, with Teacher A taking the morning and and Teacher B taking the afternoon:

We want to notify you of a staffing change that will affect your child. Effective Tuesday…[Teacher B] will be your child’s…virtual teacher in all subjects. Your assistance in making this a smooth transition is deeply appreciated. As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to call. You may also set up a meeting time at 8:30 am. We are confident that this will be a successful school year for your family.

What did the recipients “see” from this?

  • Teacher A was fired.
  • Teacher A quit.
  • Teacher A was taking all the kids attending in person, while Teacher B was taking the virtual classes.

There wasn’t enough evidence from the letter to decide, so inferences were made. The way you would make those inferences would depend on what you thought of Teacher A–her competence, her satisfaction with work; how you would be reacting to the situation; and what you thought or knew about how the school works with staff.

The more you want to control those inferences, the more you have to either “show” more or tell the audience directly. In this case, if you’d seen Teacher A make many mistakes, then you might think she’d been fired—unless your experience leads you to believe that schools never fire anyone that isn’t convicted of a crime.

On the other hand, if you knew Teacher A was immuno-compromised and was really worried about the recent reports that some other staff members had contracted Covid-19, you might think she quit—unless you didn’t know what her insurance situation was and she’s a “Miss,” and you’d never quit a job without having health insurance.

Or, on a foot, if you knew they were having to rearrange staffing because there were more students returning to in-person classes, you might think it’s just a change in terms of how they staff for virtual versus in-person students—unless you know that Teacher A has always done only math and Teacher B has never taught math and you thought they always split classes by subject.

In this case, it would probably have been easiest for the school to simply state that they were rearranging the class loads because more students were returning to in-person classes. But if this were a story, you’d want to give the reader more of the types of information as illustrated by the sorts of things that would fill in the blank.

The more “evidence” you give the reader, the more likely they are to read the story the way you want them to. On the other hand, there are intangibles, like whether the reader liked the character of Teacher A—if not, the reader would be more likely to want the first scenario than if they would if they did like Teacher A.

So if you’re getting feedback about how readers are perceiving a particular situation that’s different than you’d meant for it to be, consider the evidence you’ve given them so far. You have the choice to leave it ambiguous (“Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.”) or to make it clearer. You can’t control all the inferences, as illustrated above, because of preconceived ideas the reader brings with them to the reading, but, unlike a trial, you can manufacture any evidence you need to get the jury to come to the verdict you want.

Pitch perfect but tone deaf

The Extraordinaries by T.J. Klune, narrated by Michael Lesley

r/suggestmeabook: I want a funny YA book with an uncritical depiction of police from the point of view of a very ADHD gay teen who really wants to be a superhero.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 397

Listening time: 13 hours, 3 minutes

Publisher: Tor Teen

Series: The Extraordinaries

From the publisher: Nick Bell? Not extraordinary. But being the most popular fanfiction writer in the Extraordinaries fandom is a superpower, right? After a chance encounter with Shadow Star, Nova City’s mightiest hero (and Nick’s biggest crush), Nick sets out to make himself extraordinary. And he’ll do it with or without the reluctant help of Seth Gray, Nick’s best friend (and maybe the love of his life).

This book made me laugh out loud more than any I’ve read in a while, so I started recommending it left and right when I was only a quarter of the way in. The story opens with Nick’s fanfic about the IRL superhero Shadow Star in a reality that shares our fictional superheroes, and includes in-jokes comic aficionados will get (I had to ask the resident expert about those), which got me going at the outset.

What if he’d met some Luxor Avenue debutante or a burly mechanic with oil stains on his fingers? Nick read alternate universe fanfiction. Stuff like that happened all the time.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Usually characters who are oblivious to things that the text makes obvious frustrate me, but T.J. Klune manages to make Nick so endearing, it doesn’t bother me. Part of it is that I relate to his ADHD to the extent that I was (and still am) often oblivious to what’s going on around me because I hyperfocus on something to the exclusion of everything else. Nick is far more ADHD than I, and might strike some as stereotypical, but he feels very much like kids I’ve known. On the other hand, there are some of his symptoms that don’t sound much like ADHD, but I’m not going to speculate on those.

Some people were born to be an Extraordinary. Nick was born to have a million thoughts in the space of a minute that often led to splitting headaches. It wasn’t fair.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Nick’s friends are also very likable. In addition to sweet best friend Seth, Nick hangs out with Gibby, a badass I wish I could be more like, and Jazz, the constantly underestimated rich cheerleader who is more supportive than you’d think a character with that shorthand description would be. The adults are very much portrayed from a teen POV, but they are, for the most part, positive folks, with a couple of glaring exceptions.

That’s the one thing you don’t expect. How lonely it is. Because you can’t tell anyone about it. You can’t tell your family because they wouldn’t understand. You can’t tell your friends because they could become targets, and you don’t want them to get hurt.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

The pace is brisk and the tone teenage snark. The narrator is a bit over the top, but it worked for me. I could have done without the Jack Nicholson impression for ex-boyfriend Owen and his father, and two accents of BIPOC that are problematic. Granted, if you’ve got one narrator for a book and a diverse cast, there’s a potential for problematic voices no matter how well-intentioned you are; it’s a question of impact that I defer to people of that community to resolve.

Just because you did something wrong doesn’t mean that’s who you are. And even if you keep doing the wrong thing, you can still be saved. Maybe they just need someone to listen to them, to hear the storm in their heads.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Not all is fun and games. Nick’s mom is dead, and that fact hovers over his life profoundly and pervasively. Klune handles the multifaceted nature of grief deftly and that grief informs one of the intriguing themes of the book: “What are you willing to do to keep your loved ones safe?” I’m not sure how I feel about the way that question is resolved in this book, and am interested to see if Klune picks it up in the next volume, because it’s a good question to ask. The knee-jerk answer is “Anything,” but even that virtue can become a vice under the right circumstances, something that Klune alludes to, but doesn’t address as deeply as I thought he was going to with the various references to that question.

Life isn’t a comic book. Extraordinaries aren’t everything. So what if they can do things others can’t? That doesn’t make them more special than the rest of us. It doesn’t work like that.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

The more complicated question is that of the depiction of police. Nick’s dad is a cop. As I’ve mentioned before, my husband is a retired police officer. I haven’t gotten my kids to read this yet, but from my POV, the portrayal of the police dad and his relationship with his kids is spot-on. In fact, there were a couple of incidents that were very close to some we went through during my kids’ teen years.

It’s well known that regardless of what else they are, teenage boys are inherently stupid.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

There were only two quibbles I had when I finished the book as it pertained to the accuracy of depiction: first, that the police utility belt wasn’t called by its name, a Sam Browne. However, neither of my kids remembered that term, so I discarded that quibble. The second I’m going to add below the “check the price” button, as it could be a spoiler.

In the mystical time known as Before, Dad would regale him with stories of grotesque injuries he’d seen on the job, much to Mom’s dismay.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Nick’s dad, Aaron, is a gruff but good guy. The story is told from Nick’s POV, so it makes sense that as a junior in high school, he hadn’t yet developed a critical eye when looking at cops. But the events of the book portray police in an uncritical way, showing almost exclusively the admirable aspects to police work: the times that an officer will put his own life in danger to save a stranger, the dedication to the law over vigilantism, and the sense of service to the community and each other. All of these things happen, but it’s clearly not the complete picture.

‘Police officers are woefully underpaid,’ Nick agreed. ‘Especially for the line of work they’re in. It’s dangerous on a daily basis, and they should be compensated.’

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Given that Klune introduces the idea that superheroes would be more complicated than good vs. evil, it’s hard to argue he couldn’t have artfully placed the argument that the police and policing are also flawed. The book was written before George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers and published a few months after. Although Black Lives Matter predates the Floyd tragedy, the video of that event has signaled a seismic shift where uncritical portrayals of police feel a bit tone deaf. 

You’ll be an officer of the law, they said. You’ll help people, they said. You’l get a Taser, they said, even if they also said you couldn’t use it whenever you wanted.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

This complicated my relationship with the book, as it brought back many familiar and rather cozy memories of a time when I felt like police were generally good, and the problems were that of a few bad apples—we always knew guys “like that.”  However, there was no way to watch the protests last summer, with all the videos of attacks against protestors and journalists, and keep that point of view. 

Dear ol’ Dad straps a gun to his waist and a badge to his chest and goes to work every day knowing there’s a chance he might not come home. And that’s scary.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Perhaps the use of a Black police chief was meant to signal that this particular department in this alternate reality doesn’t have those issues; we see that in other fantasy fiction, where some social issues of our current day are not a problem so that others may be addressed. Indeed, none of the officers in the book have any issues with the fact Nick is gay, which also strikes me as improbable, so this may be a conscious decision on Klune’s part. I can also see how using a “good” police department or an unambiguously evil antagonist are useful in conducting the kinds of extended thought experiments that are part of what I find so appealing about SFF. But I’m having a hard time arguing to myself that it’s sufficient reasoning not to address the police depiction here.

‘Maybe I’ll give it a go,’ Cap said, rubbing his mustache. ‘My secretary says your dad is dreamy, whatever that means. Think I got a shot?’

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Police are alternately lionized as the keepers of justice and vilified as corrupt in popular media. But the reality is far more complicated and ugly than either extreme, and in this period of debate about what to do to untangle the racism inherent in modern policing, it feels somehow irresponsible to promote a book that does not raise these issues.

So that’s the bottom line, I suppose. I loved this book, but did so with some sense of guilt for loving it, because although the bulk of the story is Nick’s obsession with the Extraordinaries, his love life, and his ways of dealing with fear and loss, the police depiction is a key piece of the story. If you read it with a full awareness that the police depiction is as fictional as flying crimefighters in tights and capes, then you’re good to go.

Postscript: Just to make sure you don’t miss the comment from Dianthaa, I wanted to move the link she shared here: http://www.tjklunebooks.com/new-blog/2020/7/29/a-message-about-the-extraordinaries. In it, Klune talks about the portrayal of police, taking responsibility and planning to address the issue in the next installment in the series. This stance is consistent with the general sensitivity Klune has to social issues, and the timeline of the writing and publication makes sense as well. Thanks, Dianthaa!


The second, spoilery quibble: Although I can see how it makes sense from a story perspective, there would not be a hospital corridor lined with uniformed police officers waiting around when a fellow cop was injured in the line of duty. Cops will come and go all day (and night) to check on the wounded buddy, but you won’t see them filling the hallway and waiting around. Been there; done that.

Waiting for George

Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a tour through the New York of George Gershwin, guided by his paramour and collaborator, Kay Swift.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 352

Publisher: Gallery Books

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Publication date: March 2, 2021

Giveaway

We have 2 paperback copies of Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan up for grabs! The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on March 12th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher: One evening in 1924, Katharine “Kay” Swift—the restless but loyal society wife of wealthy banker James Warburg and a serious pianist who longs for recognition—attends a concert. The piece: Rhapsody in Blue. The composer: a brilliant, elusive young musical genius named George Gershwin.

Kay is transfixed, helpless to resist the magnetic pull of George’s talent, charm, and swagger. Their ten-year love affair, complicated by her conflicted loyalty to her husband and the twists and turns of her own musical career, ends only with George’s death from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-eight.

Set in Jazz Age New York City, this stunning work of fiction, for fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, explores the timeless bond between two brilliant, strong-willed artists. George Gershwin left behind not just a body of work unmatched in popular musical history, but a woman who loved him with all her heart, knowing all the while that he belonged not to her, but to the world.

Mitchell James Kaplan has written a meticulously researched book, and clearly explains in the author’s note where he has deviated from historical fact, something I always appreciate from authors of historical fiction. New York City of the Jazz Age provides a roll call of celebrities, as the protagonist, Kay Swift, was married to a wealthy and prominent financier, and then became involved with George Gershwin, so she did come into contact with people whose names, unlike her own, are well known: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Duke Ellington, Adele and Fred Astaire, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Averell Harriman, Fats Waller, Langston Hughes, George Balanchine, Richard Rogers, Lorenzo Hart, Maurice Ravel, and Zora Neale Hurston, to name quite a few, but not all. However, most of these are mere cameos, and it was a pleasure to learn about Kay herself, the first woman to have composed a produced Broadway score.

Kaplan explores themes that still resonate: the problems of cultural appropriation, the relationship of the immigrant to the US, and the inequal opportunity afforded people based on race and class. Kay’s husband, Jimmy Warburg, immigrated to the US in his youth, with the advantage of money and the disadvantage of being Jewish, albeit only by culture, and he gives insight into how many Jews underestimated Hitler. Jimmy also introduces Kay to the concept of an open marriage, only to find that he likes it more for himself than for his wife.

The book succeeds on an intellectual level, but I never quite connected with the characters. All of them seem to be held at a certain distance, even Kay, from whose point of view the story is told in a close third person. Gershwin remains an enigma. It feels as though we are going through a checklist of events rather than it feeling organic, perhaps in order to make space for all the cameos. Dorothy Parker and Adele Astaire’s cameos have a little more weight, but it feels like breadth was chosen over depth in this telling. But mostly I felt like I was waiting around for George Gershwin to show up and sweep Kay away into the glittering company he surrounded himself with.

If you’d like an overview of the New York cultural milieu of the 1920s and 1930s, Rhapsody is a good introduction, competently written and thought-provoking.


Weaving through the Crucchi

The Garden of Angels by David Hewson

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to go to Nazi-occupied Venice and see it through the eyes of a young man grappling with his identity.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 320

Publisher: Severn House

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

WWII historical fiction

From the publisher: The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he passes, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.

David Hewson has created a taut snapshot of a few days in Nazi-occupied Venice through the eyes of a young weaver and those whose stories intersect his own. The frame story is set in Venice of 1999, but the main action is in Venice of 1943, when 18-year-old Paolo finds himself confronted with the world outside his hidden retreat set in the garden of a long-abandoned palazzo. His neighbors thought the isolation was because he was gay, a fact Paolo has mostly stayed unaware of, knowing that his family was also considered outsiders by the insular Venetians.

Imagination was a place he’d usually avoided. Particularly of late. There were corpses there, eyes open, looking at him.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

Paolo must confront the basic question raised by the Nazi occupation: Does he stand aside, and hope the storm passes him, or does he act, whether to collude with the Germans to help himself out of the poverty the war has brought or to resist them? It’s a question most of the book’s non-Jewish characters ask themselves at some point. Paolo’s moment comes at the insistence of the parish priest Filippo Garzone, who believes that inaction is not a choice.

There were occasions, it seemed, when the right decision was beyond a simple man like him. To act or do nothing? Both might end in bloodshed, for guilty and innocent alike.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

I haven’t been reading many WWII era books of late, but I made an exception for this one because it is set in a part of the war I know less about. The invasion of Allied troops helped split Italy in half between the southern royalist government and the northern Mussolini one, which was, effectively, a puppet of Hitler. Venice was in the northern half. This sobering book gave a lovely introduction to the people and geography of Venice. Hewson’s pride of elegant and measured, giving the story the respect it deserves.

The city on the water was spared most of this since it lived at the edge of the conflict, a precious gilded prison too beautiful for the horrors Italy was seeing elsewhere.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The framing works quite well, as Nico provides a counterpoint to his grandfather’s story. No one in the 1990s wants to talk about the war, preferring to boil it down to its barest essence, so Nico is left on his own to puzzle out how the veracity of his grandfather’s account. Not surprisingly, Nico is unnerved by the idea of his grandfather’s sexual identity being something other than completely heterosexual. The frame also helps build the tension for the main story, as Paolo insists that Nico keep it to himself, that he’s not to share it with his father.

If the fact a couple of men in extremis should get close to one another is …weird…I hate to think what you’ll make of life later on. Unless you lead a dull one.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

Hewson manages to avoid creating characters of unrelenting good or evil, allowing us to see that all of them are human, making choices that are good or evil instead. The text highlights how well-meaning people can drift into a totalitarian state, which is part of the enduring fascination with the Third Reich: how do ordinary people end up committing the atrocity of the Holocaust? He also does a good job of presenting the pressures the Germans (which the Venetians call the Crucchi) put on the inhabitants of the country they occupy, and how those pressures warp people.

That was one of the lessons I think he was trying to teach me: evil wasn’t special. There was no need for extraordinary villains with scars and wicked, dark glints in their eyes. It was ordinary, mundane, a part of the city, a lurking virus within us all.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The character who best exemplifies the grays of the story is Luca Alberti, a former police officer turned liaison with the Nazis. Alberti is hard to get a grasp on, as he lies to himself as much as to anyone else. He’s somehow likable despite his alignment with the Crucchi, although the Venetians generally view him with contempt. Perhaps his motives are more than self-serving, but each reader will have to render judgment.

Dust and the remains of insects rose like a golden mist in the lamplight as he unhinged the bronze clasp on the cover and let the contents breathe for the first time in years.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The Garden of Angels is an absorbing tale, both for its imagining of wartime Venice and the themes it raises of how to deal with oppression in the present and with memories of the past.


Exiled between worlds

Big 4+ prepublication review: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

r/suggestmeabook: I want a political novel seared by the trauma of colonialism as experienced by a woman of color acting as an officer for the colonizing power.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 442

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: 3/23/21

Series: Magic of the Lost

From the publisher: Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought. Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne. Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.

This novel, graphically demonstrating the ills of imperialism, made me dream of the Amritsar Massacre and the Sepoy Rebellion (which was the name given back when I first learned of it) when I was in the midst of it, not sure which way the story was going. However, there are little frills of French, so I probably should have been thinking the Battle of Algiers. C.L. Clark’s book is that vivid, thrusting you into the point of view of what it would be like to feel trapped between a world that had trained you and an unremembered land that gave you birth.

The Balladrians could—would—flay them all alive. Or whip them just as near. It baffled her, how stupid the rebels were about the balance of power: The Qazali had nothing. Balladaire had numbers, equipment, supplies—they were winning, had been winning for decades.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Touraine has long been caught between her ambition to make something of herself in the Baladaire empire for which she has fought in many wars and her desire to protect her fellow Sands, other conscripts from her homeland. That tension is pulled to its utmost when her unit is deployed to the land of their birth, Qazal. No one wants her—not the country she’s bled for or the country she was pulled from with no say in the matter. Sometimes you just want to shake her to see things as they are (and occasionally yell at her for some ill-considered choices), but you can’t help feeling for her predicament.

Always, always someone weighed her. Always, someone looked for the flaw.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Luca, princess and arguably rightful ruler of the empire, has been sent to deal with local disturbances. I had less sympathy for her and her inability, at times, to empathize with the colony she’d come to. Having a disabled protagonist who was quite functional despite the condition that made walking or dancing difficult was a plus, but her self-centeredness was a bit off-putting. She can dress it up as beneficial to all her subjects, but those claims felt hollow.

It made Luca wonder what new boundaries people would have to make in the future—how they would call themselves, what they would find to separate themselves from each other.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

It’s an absorbing story, full of devious actors. There’s a lot of emotion packed into this, and the otherness that Touraine always feels is convincing and heart-rending. There’s also a lot of questioning about who is responsible for what and how to handle competing priorities and loyalties. There are some occasional abrupt shifts in pace, and times when the motivations for actions seem less than convincing. The mood is grim most of the time.

People like you and me have to remind people like her the difference between what’s important and what’s possible.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

As well as the unusual storyline, The Unbroken features a cast that’s overwhelmingly female. They all have their own quirks and personalities, and almost all of them are strong (and fragile) in unique ways. Lesbian relationships are taken as a matter of course, a pleasant feature in an alternate reality.

They never chose this. They’re not getting rewarded for valor with ribbons and raises. We just die, and when we die, we’re not even worth the wood to burn us.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Another interesting feature is that Balladaire has eliminated religion, if not by law, by a pervasive social view that it is “uncivilized.” The imperial view is in opposition to the religious nature of most of the subject countries, although the religions portrayed remind me more of the contractual types of religion (do this for me and I’ll do that for you) rather than any mystical-type connection.

Magic was a tool, perhaps even a weapon. Religion was folly dressed as hope.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

It takes a while for any fantasy aspect (other than an imagined reality) to appear, and it may be too limited for some fantasy junkies. But I found it a compelling, if at times disturbing, read.


Spotlight: Random Things Tours

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore

Pages: 413

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

Interwar spy novel

Book excerpt

Summer 1928

It all began at a garden party in a leafy provincial suburb. ‘Don’t dawdle, dear,’ called Mrs Gray, hurrying ahead along the front path.

Minnie sighed as she shut the wooden gate then followed her mother round the side of the white-painted mansion with reluctant footsteps. They passed beneath an arch of tumbling pink roses and out onto a sunny terrace overlooking a rolling expanse of lawn dotted with people and stalls selling home- made jam and baked goods.

From here she surveyed the busy gathering with dismay. There were a few people she recognized, but they were mostly her mother’s friends, middle-aged women in frumpy hats and floral frocks, some with their husbands in tow. At twenty-one, it seemed that Minnie was the youngest person here. How she wished she’d never come.

‘Look, there’s Sarah Bowden. Come on, Minnie!’ Mrs Gray, bright-eyed and purposeful, propelled her daughter across the grass to where a willowy lady in navy was queuing by a snowy canopy where teas were being served.

‘Betty darling,’ Sarah Bowden cried in welcome, carmine lips curving in her foxy face. ‘And Minnie. So sweet of you to keep your mother company. I’m here on my own. Ernest had a bowls match, wretched man.’

‘I’m not being sweet, Mrs Bowden, there was nothing else to do.’ Minnie had never warmed to beady-eyed Mrs Bowden. ‘Tennis was called off and Mother wouldn’t leave me moping at home, would you, Mother?’

‘Really, Minnie,’ her mother muttered. ‘Do you have to be so honest? I’m sorry, Sarah, sometimes I don’t know what to do with her.’

‘Poor dear Minnie,’ Mrs Bowden murmured, patting Minnie’s arm. ‘It won’t be much fun for her here.’ She glanced around and her voice dropped. ‘Honestly, Betty, look at the men. The ones that aren’t old and married are hardly a young girl’s dream.’

Mrs Gray scanned the crowd with a predator’s eye. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said briskly, ‘there are one or two nice younger ones. Don’t slouch, Minnie. It’s not attractive.’

They took their turn at the rows of white crockery and there was a pause while they collected cups of tea and finger sandwiches. Minnie slid a slab of warm marble cake onto her saucer then licked her fingers, causing her mother to frown.

Mrs Bowden narrowed her eyes and whispered above the rattle of cups, ‘Did you hear that Mr Chamberlain himself is expected?’

Mrs Gray’s expression clouded. ‘His wife didn’t mention it when I saw her at last week’s committee meeting.’

‘Didn’t she?’ Mrs Bowden said happily. ‘There are rumours, you know, that he’s to switch to our constituency in the next election to be sure of a good majority.’

‘I know about that. Minnie, I’ve told you how important Mr Chamberlain is becoming in the House of Commons. It would be something for you to meet him.’

‘If you say so,’ Minnie murmured, long bored by the sub- ject of the Chamberlains, though secretly she supposed that encountering Neville Chamberlain would be special. Not only was he one of Birmingham’s MPs, but he was the son of the renowned Victorian statesman Sir Joseph Chamberlain. Now what was wrong? Her mother was inspecting her in a critical manner. My hair, probably. Minnie touched a hand to her new blonde crop and worried whether the style suited her.