Review: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Review: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer RyanThe Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by Crown Publishing Group on February 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!"
As England enters World War II's dark early days, spirited music professor Primrose Trent, recently arrived to the village of Chilbury, emboldens the women of the town to defy the Vicar's stuffy edict to shutter the church's choir in the absence of men and instead 'carry on singing'. Resurrecting themselves as "The Chilbury Ladies' Choir", the women of this small village soon use their joint song to lift up themselves, and the community, as the war tears through their lives.
Told through letters and journals, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir moves seamlessly from budding romances to village intrigues to heartbreaking matters of life and death. As we come to know the struggles of the charismatic members of this unforgettable outfit -- a timid widow worried over her son at the front; the town beauty drawn to a rakish artist; her younger sister nursing an impossible crush and dabbling in politics she doesn't understand; a young Jewish refugee hiding secrets about her family, and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past -- we come to see how the strength each finds in the choir's collective voice reverberates in her individual life.
In turns funny, charming and heart-wrenching, this lovingly executed ensemble novel will charm and inspire, illuminating the true spirit of the women on the home front, in a village of indomitable spirit, at the dawn of a most terrible conflict.

My Review:

The Chilbury Ladies Choir is the lovely and immersive story of a small coastal village in England during the early years of World War II. The story is told entirely through the letters and diaries of the members of the choir as they navigate the changes that have arrived in their little town in the wake of war.

The first change is the one that gives the choir both its name and its purpose. Chilbury is a small town. All the young men and even middle-aged men are gone. Only the very old and the very young are left. The local vicar, on that side of very old, comes to the traditional conclusion that without any men, without any tenors, baritones and basses, the church choir will have to disband for the duration.

The new music teacher disagrees. There is no reason why the women can’t make a choir of their own, with music altered to fit their soaring soprano and alto voices. And so it begins.

The ladies of the choir, at first hesitant to do something so completely nontraditional, discover that their voices have not been stilled. If anything, their voices have been amplified and expanded by the war, as they are left to take up all the tasks that are still required by village life, jobs that used to be filled by men.

As tradition falls by the wayside, so do many of the social restrictions that governed daily life, and more important for women before the war, the rigors of strict respectability. Things that were simply “not done” are now done all the time, whether that’s work at the nearby government installations or take up with a dodgy artist who claims to be too infirm to enlist.

Their world has been turned on its head, yet they soldier (and sing) on, even as they receive black-bordered telegraphs from the front and as bombs fall on their tiny town.

We view the early years of the war and the remaining denizens of the village through their eyes. Young Kitty Winthrop’s diary, and her older sister Venetia’s letters to a friend in London speak of the mundane and the tragic. We see their still simmering sibling rivalry, we experience almost-fourteen-year-old Kitty’s stops and starts at growing up. We experience the tragedy of Venetia’s love affair through her letters, and observe her through Kitty’s eyes as she changes from a self-absorbed vamp-wannabe to a grown woman who finally matures.

Through the letters of the local midwife and the diary of the local nurse, we see a great swindle unfold. And we see crime finally turned into triumph.

We see all the woman grow and change and expand into their new roles, into this frightening new world. And in the midst of so many tragedies, we see them rise along with their voices.

Escape Rating A: I think that a lot of readers are doing to compare The Chilbury Ladies Choir to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and from the looks of things there certainly are similarities. Enough so that I feel the need to get a copy of Guernsey, which I haven’t read. Yet.

One big difference is that Guernsey takes place after the war, so the characters are reflecting on what happened rather than experiencing it fresh. Chilbury is contemporaneous, we read the letters and diaries as they are being written. We find ourselves in the middle of these characters lives, watching them change and grow. We learn about Kitty and Venetia’s family life by what they write, not by an omniscient narrator telling us that their father the local squire is a bully and a brute who abuses them and their mother. They write about what they feel as it happens, and we watch them try to avoid and justify and self-efface and cower in an attempt to survive. We feel their confusion and triumph as he finally gets put in his place.

We see half the women in the village experience some variation of his bullying and brutality, and cheer when someone finds a way to stand up to him and make it stick.

This is kind of a gentle story, in spite of the war. Some of the women experience tragedy, but because of the epistolary nature of the story, the blood and guts are not described, not even when the village is bombed. But the emotional tsunami in the aftermath is experienced again and again.

In a way, not a lot happens. And yet so much does. The story, much like the choir, works together so well that it is a joy to experience these women’s lives with them, even though we don’t know how it ends. And we don’t need to. The war eventually ended, but these women’s lives, and the lives they touched, went on. While it would be marvelous to see each one’s happy-ever-after (or at least get some resolution if they don’t get one) it doesn’t feel necessary for the story to conclude.

One final note: there is another author named Jennifer Ryan. The other Jennifer Ryan writes contemporary romance and romantic suspense. And was the source of one of my most sarcastic, and most liked, reviews on Goodreads, The Right Bride. The two Jennifer Ryans are definitely not the same.

If you love stories about the homefront during World War II, or women’s fiction, or just want to read a lovely story, I can’t recommend The Chilbury Ladies Choir highly enough.

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Review: The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams

Review: The Wicked City by Beatriz WilliamsThe Wicked City by Beatriz Williams
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on January 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams recreates the New York City of A Certain Age in this deliciously spicy adventure that mixes past and present and centers on a Jazz Age love triangle involving a rugged Prohibition agent, a saucy redheaded flapper, and a debonair Princetonian from a wealthy family.
When she discovers her husband cheating, Ella Hawthorne impulsively moves out of their SoHo loft and into a small apartment in an old Greenwich Village building. Her surprisingly attractive new neighbor, Hector, warns her to stay out of the basement at night. Tenants have reported strange noises after midnight—laughter, clinking glasses, jazz piano—even though the space has been empty for decades. Back in the Roaring Twenties, the place hid a speakeasy.
In 1924, Geneva "Gin" Kelly, a smart-mouthed flapper from the hills of western Maryland, is a regular at this Village hideaway known as the Christopher Club. Caught up in a raid, Gin becomes entangled with Prohibition enforcement agent Oliver Anson, who persuades her to help him catch her stepfather Duke Kelly, one of Appalachia’s most notorious bootleggers.
Headstrong and independent, Gin is no weak-kneed fool. So how can she be falling in love with the taciturn, straight-arrow Revenue agent when she’s got Princeton boy Billy Marshall, the dashing son of society doyenne Theresa Marshall, begging to make an honest woman of her? While anything goes in the Roaring Twenties, Gin’s adventures will shake proper Manhattan society to its foundations, exposing secrets that shock even this free-spirited redhead—secrets that will echo from Park Avenue to the hollers of her Southern hometown.
As Ella discovers more about the basement speakeasy, she becomes inspired by the spirit of her exuberant predecessor, and decides to live with abandon in the wicked city too. . . .

My Review:

I picked up The Wicked City because I absolutely adored A Certain Age and wanted to read more by this author.

The Wicked City is a very different book from A Certain Age, even though the lion’s share of the story is set in the same period, the early 1920s, and among some of the same people. Possibly even the same people.

But The Wicked City is a story split between two very different eras and two very different women, with each story blending just a bit into the other.

In the late 1990s, Ella Hawthorne has just moved into a slightly crumbling apartment with a whole lot of character (and characters) in Greenwich Village. She’s also just left her philandering husband, after catching him screwing a prostitute in the hallway of their condo building while he was pretending to fetch a pizza. If the whole scene hadn’t been so tragic, at least in its consequences, it would have slipped into farce.

But Ella’s drama isn’t in her impending divorce, it’s in the building of her new sanctuary. There’s a stream of hot jazz emanating from the basement of the building next door, and that beautiful music is coming not from a live club, but from the ghost of the speakeasy that once thrived there.

While Ella’s late 20th century story is interesting, the real heart of The Wicked City lies in the events of the 1920s, events that centered around both the speakeasy and the apartment building next door, where Geneva Kelly lived in the 1920s and Ella Hawthorne finds herself in the 1990s.

Ella’s story is a tale of wandering husbands, forensic accountants and handsome jazz musicians of the past and present.

Geneva Kelly’s story, on the other hand, is a tale of cold-hearted bootleggers, hot federal agents, and deadly family secrets.

Geneva’s stepfather was an abusive two-bit criminal back home in Western Maryland, but only Gin seems to have seen his true face. Everyone else saw the charm, while she experienced the rot underneath. But after she fled her Appalachian home town for the bright lights of the big city, Duke Kelly moved from small-time crook to big-time racketeer, controlling a major piece of the illegal booze market in thirsty New York, as well as every single soul in his little town.

It was Prohibition, and the feds were looking for a way to take Duke Kelly down. Gin was too, so when a handsome federal agent offered her the chance to get the goods on the snake, she was all in.

Until she was very nearly all the way out.

Escape Rating B+: At first, the story moved a bit slowly, as did A Certain Age when I look back. Both stories take a while to get themselves set up, but once they do, the action careens quickly from boat chase to shoot out to romance, and back again, with lightning speed.

Particularly Gin’s story. Ella’s story feels less fleshed out, and I’m not convinced it was really necessary. Gin’s story is the one that sparkles like a flapper’s sequined dress.

While we don’t feel much of Ella’s dilemma, we do become all too well acquainted with Gin’s. She fled her hometown in the wake of her stepfather’s abusive, and she tries very hard not to look back. She’s also a young woman with not enough education and no family ties trying to make a living in the big city. Some of her choices arise from desperation, and some from pure pragmatism. It’s a hard-knock life.

She wants to bring her stepfather down, which makes her a plum ripe for the plucking by Prohibition agent Oliver Anson. She’s attracted to his stalwart honor even more than she is his good looks. But like everyone else in her life, Anson is keeping secrets that threaten both Gin’s life and her heart. Everything that happens between them feels screened by a haze of smoke and mist, and neither ever knows quite where the other stands until the very end.

cocoa beach by beatriz williamsIn addition to the connection between Gin and Ella, there’s also a connection between Gin and the characters in A Certain Age, and indeed the characters of many of the author’s previous books. It’s not such a tight connection that the reader needs to worry about having read the other books, and it’s also not completely revealed or resolved. But these people all inhabit the same social circles, and everyone seems to know, or at least know of, everyone else.

I’m looking forward to exploring this more, both in the author’s upcoming novel, Cocoa Beach, and by diving back into some of her earlier works. All in all, I’m glad I took this little trip to The Wicked City.

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Review: On the Sickle’s Edge by Neville Frankel

Review: On the Sickle’s Edge by Neville FrankelOn the Sickle's Edge by Neville Frankel
Format: paperback
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 474
Published by Dialogos on December 31st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

What we cannot keep. What we cannot lose.
A sweeping masterwork of love and loss, secrets and survival, On the Sickle's Edge is told through the voices of three characters who lay bare their family's saga: the endearing, scrappy South-African born Lena, transported to Latvia and later trapped in the USSR; her granddaughter Darya, a true Communist whose growing disillusionment with Soviet ideology places her family at mortal risk; and Steven, a painter from Boston who inadvertently stumbles into the tangled web of his family's past. Against the roiling backdrop of twentieth-century Russia and Eastern Europe, the novel delivers equal parts historical drama, political thriller and poignant love story.
On the Sickle's Edge takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century. Instantly immersed in seven generations of the Shtein family, we witness their exhilarating celebrations and provocative controversies, and gain an intimate understanding of the pivotal events in South Africa, Latvia and the Soviet Union. Neville Frankel's ability to combine historical insight and human passion is spellbinding. I couldn't put it down. --Pamela Katz, The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink
In the hands of a masterful storyteller, On the Sickle's Edge pits the weight of an oppressive regime against individual tenacity and profound personal courage. Inspired by Frankel's own family history, this multi-generational epic holds up a mirror to a universal truth: all immigrants face the powerful tension between assimilation and cultural identity. We have--all of us--lived life on the edge of the sickle. --Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs, American Jewish Committee

My Review:

This book is many things, and all of them awesome.

At its heart, if feels like a fictional history of the Soviet Union, but not as is usually done in historical fiction, from the perspective of the movers and shakers. Instead, this feels like a story set among the “groundlings”, as they were called in Shakespeare’s day. Or a “lower-decks” story set on a ship, whether historical or science fictional.

In other words, this is view of life in the Soviet Union from the Revolution to Glasnost, as seen through the eyes of the people it was supposed to benefit, and so obviously in this case, didn’t. It’s not a pretty story, but it is a powerful one.

And as people say about life during the Depression, the average person didn’t really see themselves as deprived. They knew things were awful, that was kind of hard to miss. And everyone was afraid all the time, afraid of being watched, afraid of their neighbors, afraid of their thoughts, afraid of the “Organs” of state.

But it was all they knew, and it was all they were allowed to know.

The story in On the Sickle’s Edge has another side to it. In the case of Lena and her family, in addition to all of the things that everyday Russians were afraid of, they were afraid of the exposure of their big secret.

When the family entered Moscow during the chaos of the Revolution, they entered under forged papers. Those papers stated that the family were Russian peasants, displaced from their farm by the Revolution, but that was a lie. A big one. Instead, they were displaced Jews expelled from Latvia. In an act of intelligence and courage, mixed with a bit of perhaps cowardice, but mostly pragmatism, Lena’s stepmother Esther decreed that because everything terrible that had happened to them, and it was terrible, had happened because they were Jews, they would take this equally terrible opportunity to reinvent themselves as non-Jews.

In an act of self-effacement and self-abnegation, they did. Conditions in post-Revolutionary Moscow were bad for everyone, but worse for the Jews. If things are bad in general, they are always worse for the Jews in particular. Esther’s act saved her family, especially her children and step-children, at least for a while.

So Lena keeps the secret. Along the way, she loses her husband and her half-sister to the insanity of Stalin’s purges, and late in life finds herself raising her daughter’s child, Darya. And she survives. Lena always survives.

Escape Rating A: I finished this at 3 am. It started out well, but somewhere around the 20% mark it completely grabbed me and didn’t let go until the end. Possibly after the end. I’m still thinking about this one. And probably will for a while.

Although Lena is not the only narrator, it was her story that sucked me in. And that is fitting, as the story is told at least in part as her memoir. A clue to her ultimate survival that the reader completely loses track of in the midst of events. I wanted her to make it out, but there were points where I feared it would not be so, even knowing that it was.

Her story, from a briefly happy childhood in South Africa to the family’s return to Latvia, to being trapped inside Russia as the walls closed down paints a compelling picture. We are there with her through all the long years as conditions go from bad to worse to unsustainable, and yet we also see what sustains her, and how she survives those long years.

Some of the story is her granddaughter Darya’s, as Darya learns the secret yet continues to wear the mask of the Communist Party poster girl, complete with marriage to a party official. Like so many young women who think they are in love, Darya doesn’t listen to her grandmother’s instincts that her husband is a monster. But he is.

(Something in the description of Darya’s husband reminded me of Vladimir Putin. I don’t know whether that was intentional or not, but it certainly added to the chill factor)

This was a wonderfully absorbing story, and there is so much more to it that I’m tempted to get into, but will reach much too far into spoiler territory. For me, On the Sickle’s Edge also contained an element of “there but for the grace of G-d”. My mother’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Western Russia probably around the time that Lena was born. They got out just in time. But this story could have been theirs, with all the calamities that followed.

And the echoes to current events absolutely chill me to the bone.

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Review: Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang

Review: Dragon Springs Road by Janie ChangDragon Springs Road by Janie Chang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on January 10th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the author of Three Souls comes a vividly imagined and haunting new novel set in early 20th century Shanghai—a story of friendship, heartbreak, and history that follows a young Eurasian orphan’s search for her long-lost mother.
That night I dreamed that I had wandered out to Dragon Springs Road all on my own, when a dreadful knowledge seized me that my mother had gone away never to return . . .
In 1908, Jialing is only seven years old when she is abandoned in the courtyard of a once-lavish estate outside Shanghai. Jialing is zazhong—Eurasian—and faces a lifetime of contempt from both Chinese and Europeans. Until now she’s led a secluded life behind courtyard walls, but without her mother’s protection, she can survive only if the estate’s new owners, the Yang family, agree to take her in.
Jialing finds allies in Anjuin, the eldest Yang daughter, and Fox, an animal spirit who has lived in the courtyard for centuries. But Jialing’s life as the Yangs’ bondservant changes unexpectedly when she befriends a young English girl who then mysteriously vanishes.
Murder, political intrigue, jealousy, forbidden love … Jialing confronts them all as she grows into womanhood during the tumultuous early years of the Chinese republic, always hopeful of finding her long-lost mother. Through every turn she is guided, both by Fox and by her own strength of spirit, away from the shadows of her past toward a very different fate, if she has the courage to accept it.

My Review:

In a peculiar way, Dragon Springs Road reminds me a bit of Jade Dragon Mountain. Although both stories are set in China, their settings are 200 years apart. But the similarity is in the way that both stories managed to evoke a “you are there” feeling, at least for me. It was more than reading about something, it felt like being drawn into the story in both cases.

There was also a tiny element of The Tale of Shikanoko, even though Shikanoko is Japanese and not Chinese. In both that story and this one, there’s that sense of the mythic bleeding into the real. In the case of Dragon Springs Road, that mythic element is the fox spirit who protects Jialing and her mother during their residence on Dragon Springs Road.

Jialing believes that Fox is real, and she certainly seems to affect real things. But does she? As this story is told through Jialing’s eyes, we see things how she believes them to be, not necessarily how things are.

We also see a world that is in the process of change. Dragon Springs Road is in Shanghai, and the story takes place during the first two decades of the 20th century, through both the World War I years and the contentious early years of the Republic of China, as factions and warlords fought for power and against the rising tide of communism within, and Japanese imperial ambitions without.

As the story begins, Jialing is a little girl, one who has lived her entire life on the fringes of the Fong household on Dragon Springs Road. But things are not going well in the Fong household, and her mother, the concubine of the master of the house, is particularly vulnerable. Jialing is too young to understand any of this. All that she knows is that one day her mother goes away, leaving Jialing hiding in the decrepit outbuilding where they have lived.

And from that inauspicious beginning, Jialing is set adrift. She is very, very young. And she is mixed race, and therefore despised by both the Chinese and the Europeans. The household that moves into the Fong’s former residence take her in out of charity. And so she lives, dependent on the kindness of strangers, and knowing that she doesn’t belong anywhere, no matter how hard she tries.

Through the years, Jialing grows up. She makes friends, and enemies. She is fortunate enough to receive a Western education. But no matter how much she improves herself, all that anyone sees is the lowest of the low, a woman of mixed race.

Her friend, companion and guide through the lost years is the Fox who watches over the compound, and over Jialing. Fox both teaches her about the world outside, and makes her forget inconvenient questions. And Fox prevents others from asking inconvenient questions about Jialing.

The one thing that Jialing longs for above all others is to find her mother, and to discover why she was left behind all those years ago. And she does. Just as her entire world falls apart.

Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

Escape Rating A: This is an absolutely lovely story that pulls the reader in and doesn’t let go until the end. It feels as if you are walking that road with Jialing, and not just reading about it. Stories that do that are rare and precious.

Dragon Springs Road is also a very quiet story. Jialing’s life is not the stuff of an adventure tale. She grows up, she does her best to serve, she watches and waits. Much of the action in this story happens to other people, as Jialing watches a second family overtaken by the bad luck that seems to haunt this one house.

And outside the gates, the world changes. Revolutions come, not just to China, but also to nearby Russia. The world that is coming is going to be very different from what has gone before. And Jialing becomes involved, but in the most unlikely of ways.

One of the threads that permeates this story is the prejudice that Jialing faces from all sides, and the ways that prejudice limits her choices. On all sides she is hemmed about by people who consider her less than dirt because she is neither fully Europeon nor fully Chinese. At a time and in a place where lineage is everything, she has none.

And yet she perseveres, making the best choice available to her. And we’re right there with her.

This is a book I simply loved. I was swept away at the beginning and left bereft at the end, gasping and flailing at my return to the real world. It feels like I was in a dream with the Fox, and she just turned me loose.

Dragon Springs Road is a book to get lost in. I loved it so much I’m having a difficult time articulating that love. Why don’t you pick up a copy and see for yourself!

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Review: Say Goodbye for Now by Catherine Ryan Hyde + Giveaway

Review: Say Goodbye for Now by Catherine Ryan Hyde + GiveawaySay Goodbye for Now by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 358
Published by Lake Union Publishing on December 13th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

On an isolated Texas ranch, Dr. Lucy cares for abandoned animals. The solitude allows her to avoid the people and places that remind her of the past. Not that any of the townsfolk care. In 1959, no one is interested in a woman doctor. Nor are they welcoming Calvin and Justin Bell, a newly arrived African American father and son.
When Pete Solomon, a neglected twelve-year-old boy, and Justin bring a wounded wolf-dog hybrid to Dr. Lucy, the outcasts soon find refuge in one another. Lucy never thought she’d make connections again, never mind fall in love. Pete never imagined he’d find friends as loyal as Justin and the dog. But these four people aren’t allowed to be friends, much less a family, when the whole town turns violently against them.
With heavy hearts, Dr. Lucy and Pete say goodbye to Calvin and Justin. But through the years they keep hope alive…waiting for the world to catch up with them.

My Review:

This story quietly drew me in, and then blew me away. It’s slow and sweet and just plain lovely. It’s about the triumph of hope, and it’s about the family you make being stronger and braver and better than the one you are born to.

And it’s also a story whose happy ending flies in the face of racism and sexism and trumpets the hope and joy and triumph of not giving in to either, no matter how much they beat you down along the way.

In 1959, in small-town Texas, there are a whole lot of things that just seem wrong to 21st century eyes. And yet, those are the way things were. And unfortunately in many cases and places, still are.

One of those seemingly immutable laws in that place and time was that the races don’t mix. Not just that it was still very much illegal for a black man and a white woman to marry (or vice versa), but that the innocent pre-teen friendship between a white boy and black one will result in both of them getting beaten. The only difference in those beatings is that the white boy gets beaten by his abusive father, and the black boy gets beaten by white toughs at the instigation of the white boy’s abusive father.

It all starts innocently enough. A boy rescues a dog, left for dead next to the road. But the dog isn’t dead. He also isn’t just a dog. And Pete’s saga to save the dog he names Prince is anything but easy.

Prince is a wolf/dog hybrid. The local vet refuses to treat the animal. And Pete is broke.

There’s a lady doctor out in the sticks, way outside of town. Rumor has it that while she doesn’t like people much, she will take care of wounded animals. So Pete drags the poor wounded dog four miles down the road in his little red wagon, hoping that the doctor will help the poor beast..

Dr. Lucy can’t resist a wounded stray – at least not one with four legs. Or wings. Or whatever. It’s people she’s trying to keep away from. But Pete is just as wounded as Prince, and he somehow worms his way into her heart, just a little bit underneath that frozen layer that protects her from the world.

Then Pete brings Justin, his equally young and even more scared black friend. They’ve both been beaten for being seen walking down the road together. The town wants to enforce that separation of the races at all costs, even if it’s the life of a young boy.

And Justin brings his dad, Calvin Bell, into Dr. Lucy’s life. And that ice dam around her heart is broken irrevocably. But as the town makes increasingly clear, there is no future for any of them in Texas. Justin and Pete can’t be friends, and Calvin and Lucy can’t explore whatever might be developing between them.

Until the world changes. Just enough.

Escape Rating A: Just as Pete and Justin and Calvin sneak their way into Lucy’s heart, this book snuck into mine.

It’s possible that Pete and Lucy are just way ahead of their time. But it feels more as if the point is that racism is taught. Pete just doesn’t take the lesson that his father tries to beat into him. Justin is his best friend, and it doesn’t matter to Pete that he is white and Justin is black. They have found a rare and perfect friendship, and race is a stupid thing to get in its way.

Lucy may or may not have been a woman of her time, but she’s stepped outside her setting in so many ways that falling in love with Calvin doesn’t seem anything but right to her, even though she’s aware that the world around them does see it as extremely wrong. As a woman doctor, she’s faced a different type of prejudice on her own. And the tragedies that led her to her life of isolation have changed her value system. And as a doctor, any society that would beat a child half to death for something so trivial as walking down the road with a friend doesn’t deserve her support. What it gets is her fear.

That they all manage to keep hope alive makes for a beautiful story. The world does change. In 1967, the Supreme Court strikes down all anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. with their ruling in the case of Loving v. Virginia. It doesn’t mean that Lucy and Calvin will have an easy life together, but it does mean they have a chance at a life together. And that’s what they’ve been waiting for.

If your heart needs warming on a cold winter’s night, read Say Goodbye for Now.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of Say Goodbye for Now to one very lucky US/CAN winner.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson WhiteheadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 306
Published by Doubleday Books on August 2nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood - where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor - engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven - but the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

My Review:

As the saying goes, “fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” The Underground Railroad is definitely that kind of book. These specific events didn’t happen to this particular person, and yet, they all happened, all too frequently, to entirely too many people who had but one thing in common with Cora – the color of their skin.

The story in The Underground Railroad is historical fiction mixed with a bit of magical realism. The real, historical, Underground Railroad was not actually a railroad with rails and steam engines under the ground. The secret train with its hidden stations makes for a powerful metaphor for the vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape from the South’s “Peculiar Institution” to the theoretically “free” states of the North. Or to Canada.

Cora’s journey parallels many such real journeys, from the plantation in Georgia where she was born to her long and often desperate flight to freedom, endlessly pursued by the slave-catcher Ridgeway.

As she travels, she finds herself in different places, and in each she discovers a different way in which she, and her people, are not truly free of subjugation and hatred, even if it briefly appears so.

And while, again, the locations and the methods were not exactly in use in each specific place at that particular time, all these things really happened to real people just like Cora.

Her journey is one of continual loss, with the tantalizing hope of freedom always just out of reach, even when it seems most closely present. Her story is often grueling, and frequently heartbreaking. As each chance for hope and happiness is snatched away, we shake our heads and quake in anger, incensed that this is the way it was.

And this is the way, in so many ways, it still is. Slavery casts a long shadow, not just on those who suffered it directly, and those who perpetrated it and tried to perpetuate it, but on everything and everyone it touched. Even today.

Escape Rating B+: This is a hard story to read. We want to say, I want to say, that this treatment was beyond unjust, and that it couldn’t happen here. But we know from history that it most certainly did happen. And that its legacy is still with us.

The perspective in the story is that of Cora, a young woman born in slavery who decides to escape at whatever cost – because even though she knows that even the attempt is a death sentence if she fails – staying on the plantation is a sentence of immediate death in utter torment. There is no sugar-coating of the terrible conditions of slavery. Nor should there be.

But Cora is a difficult protagonist. Her story often feels as if it is being told at one remove. While we are outraged at everything that happens to her, we don’t always feel with her. She seems a bit detached, and so are we. There’s a part of me that believes that her detachment was part of her means of survival, but it makes her a sometimes cold character to follow.

Like the Railroad itself, each stage of her journey is a metaphor for one of the varying, but equally awful, ways that whites thought of blacks in the 19th century and believed that they were finding ways to deal with “the problem”. The most supposedly “enlightened” solutions contained some of the truest brutality, and the most overtly brutal enslaved everyone it touched, white as well as black, but in different ways. Even the “Free” North can’t bear the thought of a self-sufficient black community, as it gives the lie to all the stories they have told.

There are no easy answers in this book. The ending is not a happy redemption of anyone, more like a hope for a possible better future somewhere down the line. But we’re not there yet.

Sometimes a book sweeps all the awards, and one is left wondering why. The Underground Railroad is not one of those books. This is one that will haunt you long after you turn the final page.

Review: The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

Review: The Last Days of Night by Graham MooreThe Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Random House on August 16th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A thrilling novel based on actual events, about the nature of genius, the cost of ambition, and the battle to electrify America—from the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game and New York Times bestselling author of The Sherlockian
New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history—and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?
The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society—the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal—private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?
In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem.

My Review:

This is one of those stories that if it weren’t mostly true, would absolutely shred the willing suspension of disbelief. But it is mostly true. And it is fascinating.

The story is about the birth of the modern technological world, as midwifed by three extremely different men. Men without whom the world as we know it would be much the poorer – and also still in the dark.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s the United States (and the rest of the world) was on the edge of a technological revolution. And that revolution was in the midst of a great battle, admittedly one being fought in law offices and courtrooms, and not with rifles and bayonets.

But this story still begins with a death. Young (very young) attorney Paul Cravath witnesses a man’s electrocution on the streets of New York. It was an accident, but it certainly sets the stage for what happens next.

And for the rest of Cravath’s life.

Electricity as a public utility was in its infancy. In fact, the country was still deciding whether Direct Current (DC) or Alternating Current (AC) would be the way to go. The conflict was heightened, exacerbated and pushed to greater levels of mania by the antipathy between the leaders of the competing schemes.

The great inventor, Thomas Alva Edison was a proponent of direct current. George Westinghouse was the leading proponent for alternating current, and was building generators to push his movement. As history knows, AC won the “War of Currents”, but no one knew that at the time.

Edison and Westinghouse were locked in epic, if metaphorical, battle. But the battleground wasn’t actually the current. Edison took the fight in a direction he was certain he could win. Westinghouse was also selling light bulbs. And Edison seemed to have an iron-clad claim, and the legal and monetary resources to back it, that Westinghouse was infringing on his patent.

Enter young Cravath. He was too young and too inexperienced to have a clue just what he was letting himself in for. So when Westinghouse offered him the job of lead attorney on his case against Edison, he jumped for it. It was the opportunity of a lifetime – if he could pull it off. And Cravath was just young enough at the beginning of the case to be certain that he could. That his career would end in ignominy if he failed wasn’t something he saw at first – and when he does it nearly flattens him.

So the young lawyer placed himself in the middle of the battle between two titans. And into the fray he introduced a third, Nikola Tesla. For years, Westinghouse and Edison fought over the provenance of the lightbulb, the question of which current would power the country, and the life and fate of Tesla, who was a bit too lost in his dreamworld of inventing to know just how much of a catspaw he really was.

In the end, Cravath doesn’t exactly win. But he doesn’t actually lose, either. And the way he gets there, and what he experiences, keep the reader glued to the page until the very end.

And there’s light.

Escape Rating A-: This is a story that rewards sticking with it. It takes a while to build its momentum, partly because Cravath doesn’t start out to be a particularly interesting character. We see things from his point of view, but he isn’t half as interesting as the three giants at the center of the controversy, Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla.

At the halfway point, the story lights up with a flash, and as Cravath finally figures out what he’s doing. From that point on, it’s hard to stop.

Part of what makes the story interesting is the way that Cravath changes. He’s pretty naive at the beginning. By the end he’s a cynical mess, betrayed on all sides. But he’s also finally an adult. And still operating way above his head.

Another point that fascinates is the different perspectives on the three inventors, Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla. They are alike, and they are all different. Tesla is a pure dreamer; he doesn’t need to see his dreams built, he gets satisfaction from the invention just by thinking it up. Westinghouse is the engineer who gets his satisfaction from building the device itself. Edison, the figure who towers so tall over American invention, does not come off nearly as well as the others. Edison wants to win at all costs, and is definitely a proponent of the ends justifying the means.

In order to beat him, Cravath has to become the same. He nearly destroys his life to win. Watching him step up to the line and just barely pulling back from the brink makes the story, and his life.

That most of what occurs in the book also happened in real life just makes the story that much more fascinating. You really couldn’t make this stuff up.

Review: Beauty and Attention by Liz Rosenberg + Giveaway

Review: Beauty and Attention by Liz Rosenberg + GiveawayBeauty and Attention: A Novel by Liz Rosenberg
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction
Pages: 211
Published by Lake Union Publishing on October 25th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

The riveting story of one brave young woman’s struggle to free herself from a web of deceit.
For misfit Libby Archer, social expectations for young women in Rochester, New York, in the mid-1950s don’t work. Her father has died, leaving her without parents, and her well-meaning friends are pressuring her to do what any sensible single girl must do: marry a passionate, persistent hometown suitor with a promising future. Yet Libby boldly defies conventional wisdom and plans to delay marriage—to anyone—by departing for her uncle’s Belfast estate. In Ireland, Libby seeks not only the comfort of family but also greater opportunities than seem possible during the stifling McCarthy era at home.
Across the Atlantic, Libby finds common ground with her brilliant, invalid cousin, Lazarus, then puts her trust in a sophisticated older woman who seems to be everything she hopes to become. Fraught with betrayal and long-kept secrets, as well as sudden wealth and unexpected love, Libby’s journey toward independence takes turns she never could have predicted—and calls on courage and strength she never knew she had.

My Review:

This is a difficult book to review. I finished it last night, and now that I’m done, I’m not exactly sure what happened. And that feels weird.

The story takes place in the mid-1950s, at a time when women were supposed to marry young and become model wives and mothers. While a tiny number of careers were open to women – teacher, nurse and secretary – the ambition was to become a stay-at-home wife and mother.

I’m so glad I wasn’t an adult then, because, well, that is so not anything I would have wanted.

And it isn’t what Libby Archer wants, either. Not that she is actually sure what she does want in her early 20s, but that just makes her normal in our 21st century eyes. It does give her contemporaries a great deal of pause, however.

The man who loves her is just certain that she should marry him, right now. And he places way too much pressure on someone who finally has a chance to spread her wings, so she runs.

Libby’s alcoholic father has just died. And after years of tip-toeing around his cold withdrawals and drunken rages, after years of suppressing her every desire and ambition to care for him in his decline (as good daughters were supposed to do) she wants to discover who she really is before she becomes a part of somebody else.

So she goes to Ireland to visit her aunt and uncle and cousin. These are people that she remembers fondly from her childhood, before her mother died and her father started drinking himself to death. Uncle Sacks is her mother’s brother, and it was easy for her dad to drop the connection.

Libby picks it back up again. She finds a second home with her aunt and uncle, and a fast friend in her dying cousin, ironically named Lazarus. Whatever is killing Lazarus, which is real but ill-defined, he will not be rising from the dead.

She finds strength as part of their rather eclectic household, but she is still drifting inside herself. When her uncle dies, the household scatters to the winds, and Libby finds herself drifting again, but this time, drifting into all the bad decisions that her friends back home warned her about.

It is only at the side of her cousin’s deathbed that she begins to pick up the reins of her own life. Where those reins lead her is left to the reader’s imagination at the end of the book.

Escape Rating B-: I liked the first part of the story very much. Libby is a bit lost and uncertain, and so she should be. She’s free of her father’s domination, and feels both exhilarated and guilty at the same time. After years of being forced to deal with her father’s “illness” she wants the freedom to explore herself, and everyone else’s very forceful good intentions just feel like an attempt to put her in a different cage.

Only because they are.

Libby’s life in her uncle’s house, and the story of her deep friendship with Lazarus, are bittersweet. It is a safe harbor that is doomed to end, but still surprises Libby when that end comes.

One of the fascinating things about Libby is that she is so much of a blank slate. She is bright, naive and innocent and has a desperate need to please. Several men fall in love with her, not necessarily for who she actually is, but what they think they can make of her.

And she is easily manipulated and led. Which is what happens. Someone she thinks is a friend seems to maneuver her into the terrible marriage that everyone back home feared for her. But one of the faults of the book as that we don’t see it happen. One page, she’s just meeting the future Mr. Awful for the first time. The next page, she’s married and obviously miserable. That missing link took the heart out of the story for this reader.

In the end, the reader is left with the impression that Libby has finally seized her life in her own hands, but there are fits and starts even to that. Her independence is not assured, merely seems to be in the offing. And the equivocation of the ending left this reader a bit bereft.

I hope that Libby finally rescued herself. But I wish I knew.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of Beauty and Attention to one lucky US/Canada commenter.

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Review: The Girl Who Fought Napoleon by Linda Lafferty + Giveaway

Review: The Girl Who Fought Napoleon by Linda Lafferty + GiveawayThe Girl Who Fought Napoleon: A Novel of the Russian Empire by Linda Lafferty
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 430
Published by Lake Union Publishing on September 20th 2016
AmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

In a sweeping story straight out of Russian history, Tsar Alexander I and a courageous girl named Nadezhda Durova join forces against Napoleon.
It’s 1803, and an adolescent Nadya is determined not to follow in her overbearing Ukrainian mother’s footsteps. She’s a horsewoman, not a housewife. When Tsar Paul is assassinated in St. Petersburg and a reluctant and naive Alexander is crowned emperor, Nadya runs away from home and joins the Russian cavalry in the war against Napoleon. Disguised as a boy and riding her spirited stallion, Alcides, Nadya rises in the ranks, even as her father begs the tsar to find his daughter and send her home.
Both Nadya and Alexander defy expectations—she as a heroic fighter and he as a spiritual seeker—while the battles of Austerlitz, Friedland, Borodino, and Smolensk rage on.
In a captivating tale that brings Durova’s memoirs to life, from bloody battlefields to glittering palaces, two rebels dare to break free of their expected roles and discover themselves in the process.

My Review:

Nadezhda Durova in officer's uniform
Nadezhda Durova in officer’s uniform

I was astonished at the end to discover that The Girl Who Fought Napoleon is a fictionalized version of a true story. Nadezhda Durova was a real woman, who seems to have done pretty much what is claimed of her in this incredible novel.

And also, just as she is in this story, Nadya is an unreliable narrator of her own life, editing out the parts that detract from her tale of bravery, battle and disguise.

As a child, Nadya was very much the daughter of her father’s regiment in the Russian army. Her mother “followed the drum” as her father served in one posting after another, and blamed Nadya’s father for seducing her away from her wealthy family, and blamed the infant Nadya for everything that was wrong with her life. When she threw the infant Nadya out of a moving carriage, it was the last straw.

Nadya ended up being raised by the soldiers, having an aide-de-camp assigned as her nursemaid and guardian. For years, she had the freedom of a young boy, riding where she wanted and living in camp away from her mother’s influence and abuse, cossetted and coddled by the soldiers who saw her as a mascot.

It all changed when her father retired. Unfortunately not the bad parts, just the good parts. In a town, Nadya found herself suddenly restricted to the closeted life of a young girl, completely under her mother’s abusive control.

At 17, she rebelled, wearing boy’s clothes and “stealing” her own horse, she escaped her mother’s plans for her marriage and ran away to join the Russian Army, disguised as a boy. In the cavalry she found the place where she belonged, even if she wasn’t quite strong enough to keep her lance steady.

She tended to let circumstances overwhelm her orders, and sometimes found herself committing an insanely brave act for the most unlikely reasons. It brought her to the attention of her commanders and eventually the Tsar. And somehow, in her tumultuous nine years as a soldier, she rose from cadet to Captain, and managed to see action on all the major Russian battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars. She became a legend.

In counterpoint to Nadya’s story, we see those same years and that same war from the perspective of Tsar Alexander I, the leader who defeated Napoleon the first time around and sent him to Elba.

In Nadya’s story, we see the view of the war from, if not quite the bottom, very near it. She saw war not as glorious, but as the hell it truly is. She never sees herself as a hero. Sometimes, she barely sees herself as a survivor. Alexander, on the other hand, shows the view from the top in all its vainglory and willingness to sacrifice his army to feed his ego or vanquish his demons. It is a tortured picture, but never a pretty one in spite of its beautiful trappings.

In the end, both the soldier and the statesman pass from history into very, very different legends.

Escape Rating B: Discovering that this is mostly a true story changed some of my opinions about it. At points, it almost seemed too fantastic to hang together as fiction. But historical events don’t have to make sense, they just have to have happened. And that’s the case here.

Throughout my reading, I found myself questioning the choice of presenting Tsar Alexander’s and Nadya’s stories in alternating chapters. While the stories do cover the same period of time, their intersection is minimal, and because of this they don’t hang together well. Just as the reader gets really into Nadya’s story, the focus switches back to Alexander. And vice versa. I think this would have felt more cohesive, at least for this reader, if the story had stuck with one or the other, preferably Nadya. Her story is as bizarre as it is fascinating, and also mostly unknown outside of her native country.

We know that women have disguised themselves and fought in every war, or nearly so. Prior to the most recent era, when documentation wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous and medical exams weren’t required, it was relatively easy to pretend to be a male, at least long enough to enlist. The trick was in maintaining the illusion in the close quarters of company life. Many of the disguises failed when the female soldier was wounded, and treatment required baring more of the person than normal life at the time required.

Because this is fiction, I would have been very interested in seeing more of Nadya’s inner life than is described in these pages. As this story is based on her published diary, we see a lot of “war is hell” and also a significant amount of fear of discovery. But not much else.

The truly fascinating thing about Nadya’s story is just how unreliable a narrator she was. She did all the things she said she did, but she also left out a great deal of her early life. Notably the seven years when she married and had a child. She abandoned her family to become a soldier. In the end, she comes back not because she misses anyone or anything of her old life, but because she is sick to death of war and killing. She has seen and experienced too much. As do so many soldiers.

In the end, it was Nadya’s story that grabbed me. I wish I’d had a bit more of it.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of The Girl Who Fought Napoleon to one lucky US/Canada winner.

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Review: Autumn in Oxford by Alex Rosenberg + Giveaway

Review: Autumn in Oxford by Alex Rosenberg + GiveawayAutumn in Oxford: A Novel by Alex Rosenberg
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, suspense, thriller
Pages: 426
Published by Lake Union Publishing on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

After being blacklisted for having communist sympathies as a student twenty years before, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Tom Wrought escapes America’s Cold War climate to teach at Oxford. There, he falls in love with Liz Spencer, a beautiful married woman. When Liz’s husband is pushed in front of a train in the London Underground, Tom is immediately arrested for the murder. Scotland Yard is convinced it has its man, as he had means, motive, and opportunity.
Certain of his innocence, Liz hires a young solicitor, Alice Silverstone, to defend Tom. But they discover that Tom’s former secret work as an American spy made him a number of powerful enemies. Russian intelligence, British counterespionage, and even the FBI all may have reason to frame him. If Liz and Alice can find out who is behind the murder, they stand a chance of freeing Tom, but doing so puts all their lives at risk.

My Review:

Autumn in Oxford is a conspiracy theorist’s dream of a novel, set during the period of one of the craziest conspiracies of all – the Red Scare of the late 1950s. It’s even presided over, in a rather perverse way, by the queen conspiracy theorist of all, J. Edgar Hoover.

And once the story gets going, it doesn’t let the reader go.

At first, this seems like a simple thriller. A man is pushed into an oncoming train by a mysterious assailant and is instantly killed. But of course it isn’t nearly that simple.

Tom Wrought witnesses Trevor Spencer being shoved off that train platform and knows that he is in deep, deep trouble. Tom was on his way to a rendezvous with Spencer’s wife. He knows that he has the obvious motive for killing the man, and that witnesses will eventually place him at the scene, especially since the real killer bears at least a passing resemblance to himself.

So Wrought pretty much does everything an innocent man shouldn’t do. He runs out of the station, chasing the real killer. He leaves the scene of the crime in a way that draws attention to himself. He stops to phone his lover to tell her that she should go home to meet the cops, who will inevitably come to give her the “bad” news.

He knows that he didn’t do it. So who did? And why?

And that’s where the fascinating part of this book begins. Not with the recitation of the beginning of Tom’s affair with Liz Spencer, but with what happens next. And with what happened in Tom’s life long before this little mess. All the events and chances that dropped Tom into the soup at this point in time, and why they have all come to a head now and not earlier. Or later.

And all the things that people in high places will do to get Tom both locked up and discredited. The collateral damage of a little murder isn’t even the worst act they commit. But watching Tom, Liz and their attorney unravel the conspiracy, piece by ugly piece, is one hell of a story.

Escape Rating A-: In the end, I absolutely loved this book. But it needs an editor. The affair between Tom and Liz is the least interesting part of the entire story. It’s only purpose is to provide the means and method for what follows. And frankly, the reader knows enough about their affair when Tom witnesses the murder that we don’t need the complete rehash. It’s what happens after the murder, and the story that Tom tells of his life before Oxford, that give this story its punch.

And what a punch it is. The Red Scare of the 1950s in the U.S. makes for very bizarre reading from the 21st century. Except where it resonates all too clearly.

Tom flirted with the Communist Party while he was in college. A lot of people did in the 1930s. Tom was also extremely anti-segregation long before integration became remotely accepted. And an awful lot of very important people in the 1930s believed that any challenge to the American status quo, including calls for integration, were automatically part of a Communist plot.

All of this makes Tom an obvious target for the powers-that-be. He’s had the fortune, or misfortune, to be in the right place at the right time to be a witness to history, and to be able to expose the lies and deceits of powerful people. J. Edgar Hoover, in particular, was not known for being merciful to those he perceived as his enemies – whether they saw themselves as his enemy or not.

The story of Tom’s life before the murder is what draws the reader in. And also what provides the motive for the murder. The ways in which Tom ran afoul of people in high places, and the underhanded means they used to strike at him without regard for either collateral damage or irreparable harm to U.S. relations with their post-war allies piles conspiracy on top of conspiracy into an unstable but absolutely compelling house of dirty little cards.

The thrill-a-minute chase at the end provides the perfect conclusion.

Reviewer’s note: I was born in 1957, two years before this book begins. While I obviously don’t remember the historical events that form the backdrop of this story, they were still very much “present” and part of the cultural zeitgeist as I was growing up. It is really weird to see times that I lived through portrayed as “historical” fiction.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m very pleased to say that I am giving away a copy of Autumn in Oxford to one lucky US or Canadian commenter. I really enjoyed this book, so I am very happy to be able to share it!

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