Review: Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister + Giveaway

Review: Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister + GiveawayGirl in Disguise by Greer Macallister
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 308
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

For the first female Pinkerton detective, respect is hard to come by. Danger, however, is not.
In the tumultuous years of the Civil War, the streets of Chicago offer a woman mostly danger and ruin-unless that woman is Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective and a desperate widow with a knack for manipulation.
Descending into undercover operations, Kate is able to infiltrate the seedy side of the city in ways her fellow detectives can't. She's a seductress, an exotic foreign medium, or a rich train passenger, all depending on the day and the robber, thief, or murderer she's been assigned to nab.
Inspired by the real story of Kate Warne, this spirited novel follows the detective's rise during one of the nation's greatest times of crisis, bringing to life a fiercely independent woman whose forgotten triumphs helped sway the fate of the country.

My Review:

The subject of this fictionalized biography would be downright offended at its title. By the time this book begins in the mid-1850s, Kate is a woman whose illusions seem to have been stripped away long ago. She’s also a widow.

“Girl” doesn’t fit her at all, and she wouldn’t want it to. What she wants, at least as she is portrayed in this book, is to be treated as an equal. The equal of any man in the Pinkerton Agency. And it’s a hard-knock fight every single step of the way.

Kate Warne was a real person. Admittedly, a real person about whom not very much at all is known. Which makes her a great character on which to hang a work of historical fiction. Particularly since what is known about Kate Warne is the stuff of fiction to begin with.

Kate was the first female Pinkerton agent. Hired in 1856, she was one of the first, if not the first, female detectives in the world. No one expected her to succeed. No one even expected her to apply. There was no such thing as female detectives or female police officers when Kate Warne answered Allan Pinkerton’s “Help Wanted” advertisement for new agents.

But as she says, “Someone has to be first.”

Her life, what little we know of it, is the stuff of legends. Most of the information about her real career was kept in the Pinkerton office in Chicago. And most of it was wiped out in the Great Chicago Fire. (Mrs. O’Leary’s cow has a LOT to answer for)

One of the things that is known, and that made her fame, was her part in spiriting then-President-Elect Abraham Lincoln through a risky Baltimore night ride on his way to his inauguration – and his subsequent date with history. Without Warne, the history of the U.S. as we know it might have been far different.

But this book is a fictionalized version of her life, stitching together what little is known about her, with considerably more that it known about the Pinkerton’s in general and their work during the Civil War in particular, and making a fascinating story out of it, without descending into rank sensationalism or outright melodrama, at least until the very end.

Kate Warne lived a brief but fascinating life. I wish history had left us more details of her adventures. But if they were even half as hair-raising as this story, her candle must have burned very bright indeed.

Escape Rating B: I left myself plenty of time to read this one, because while I was very interested in the subject, I was a bit unsure about the author. As much as so many people loved The Magician’s Lie, when I gave it a try I couldn’t get into it at all. But Girl in Disguise grabbed me from the first page.

I think that had to do with Kate’s voice. The book is written in first-person singular, so throughout the story we are always in Kate’s head. It’s a fascinating place to be. While the circumstances of Kate’s life are particular to her time and place, so many of her thoughts seem universal to working women.

She wants to be considered as a professional, on an equal basis to the men in the agency. She never trades on her feminine wiles, and has nothing but professional relationships with all of the male Pinkerton’s, particularly including Allan Pinkerton himself. As portrayed in the book, the relationship between them was strictly professional from beginning to end. He mentored her and trusted her in a way that would have raised no eyebrows if she had been a man, but because she was a woman she constantly battled rumors that they were having an affair – rumors that persist to the present day in spite of a complete lack of evidence either then or now. It was simply assumed that a woman could not possibly be hired or trusted on her own merits.

Until the end, Kate is in love with her job, and as so many of us do, sacrifices most of her life to the pursuit of her work. But Kate isn’t the only one. As one of the male agents comments, none of them have personal lives, with the exception of Pinkerton himself. They are on the road too much, and they must keep way too many secrets. No spouse, male or female, is willing to tolerate that kind of treatment for very long.

What made Kate so relatable, at least for this reader, is just how dispassionate she is about her own life. She’s not given to flights of either hyperbole or fancy, at least in the privacy of her own head. This is who she is, this is what she does, this is what it costs her. She’s a heroine, but she never sees herself that way. She’s a woman doing a job that challenges her in ways that she can’t find anyplace else, and that she absolutely loves. She’s doing what she was born to.

There is historic evidence that Kate was part of the team that kept Lincoln alive on his way to his inauguration. Many of the other cases in the book where she is involved are based on real Pinkerton cases, even if Kate’s specific involvement is not known, and a few have been combined for dramatic license.

I really enjoyed the perspective of Kate the professional woman, both her triumphs and her many and frequent qualms about whether the ends justified the means. She has a lot to live with, and sometimes, quite reasonably so, she has second, third and fourth thoughts.

As a reader, I wish that her dispassion had not failed her in the last quarter of the book. I very much enjoyed reading about Kate in love with her work, and the details of that work as the Civil War heated up. I was less enthralled when Kate fell in love with a fellow agent. At that point the melodrama swept in.

But all in all, Girl in Disguise is a fascinating portrait of an unsung heroine – Kate Warne, the first female “private eye”.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Greer and Sourcebooks are giving away 3 copies of both The Magician’s Lie AND Girl in Disguise to lucky participants in this tour.
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Review: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

Review: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam JenoffThe Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on February 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A powerful novel of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II, The Orphan's Tale introduces two extraordinary women and their harrowing stories of sacrifice and survival .
Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep… When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.
Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another—or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything.

My Review:

In The Orphan’s Tale, as the season (and the book) winds down to its conclusion, one of the characters prophetically says with a sneer, “Next year? The circus is dying.” In this story of two women who find shelter and redemption in one of the few circuses allowed to limp across Europe under the Nazis, the irony is that they all think of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey as their well-funded and well-attended competition across the Atlantic. Now in 2017, their circus is dying too.

But the story in The Orphan’s Tale brings together the unsung history of the circuses across Europe under the Nazi regime with a moving tale of sacrifice, friendship and survival about two women who find themselves thrown together in death-defying circumstances. Not just their beautiful but deadly act on the “flying trapeze”, but also their hiding in plain sight from the Nazis.

Astrid is a Jew. Her family used to be the owners of one of the most successful traveling circuses in Europe. But that was before the Nazis took everything, including their lives. Astrid is the last survivor, hiding amongst the performers of a rival circus, doing the only thing that makes her feel alive – flying.

Noa is also rescued by the circus. As a young Dutchwoman who looks like the Aryan ideal, she should have been safe. But her parents threw her out when her brief fling with a Nazi soldier resulted in pregnancy. The “home” for unwed mothers took her baby. She is alone, bereft, and eking out a bare living cleaning the train station, when the Nazis leave a boxcar of infants unattended at the station. Most of the babies have died of exposure, but a despairing Noa finds one little one still alive. A boy, and all too obviously Jewish, telling her everything she needs to know about the dead babies in the boxcar. She rescues him, and runs, seeing in this child his resemblance to her own missing baby.

But to hide in the circus, Noa must have a part of the performance. And the circus needs another aerialist. Against Astrid’s wishes and recommendation, she is stuck with training the tyro to perform, and has barely six weeks to cram a lifetime of training into the very reluctant flyer.

They are not friends. At first they are reluctant teacher and equally reluctant student. At times they are rivals. But the nature of their act means that above all, they must learn to trust each other. Or they will die. Or their secrets will be revealed, and they will die. And the circus will die with them, their fellow performers imprisoned or executed as collaborators.

But as Noa becomes part of the circus, she comes to love the world in which she has found herself. And, against all odds, she has come to see Astrid as the big sister she never had. And just as Astrid has cared for both Noa and the little boy she named Theo, sometimes in spite of herself, so Noa comes to take care of Astrid as her world, and the circus it encompasses, fall apart.

In the end, all they have is each other. And it’s just barely enough.

Escape Rating A-: The Orphan’s Tale is a story within a story. At the very beginning, it is the modern day, as an old woman takes great pains to visit a museum which has put her old circus wagon on display. The story itself is her recounting of her life in that wagon, Astrid and Noa and Theo, and the world of the circus under the Nazis.

We return at the end to that same elderly lady, and discover how it all turned out. In this case, it’s a marvelous way to tell the important bits, while leaving out the more mundane aspects of her post-war survival. When we find out what happened, we understand everything about the lady, the circus, and the world she left behind.

In the author’s postscript, we learn just how much of the story is based on pieces of fact, and it is well-worth reading. As the book proceeds, so much of the background feels true that it is almost a relief to learn that a great deal of it was true. Astrid and Noa did not exist, but the circus at this time was as portrayed. And unfortunately, the boxcar of dead babies is also based on historical fact.

But the story here is the story of women’s friendships, in spite of opposition or enmity, and how those friendships can flourish under the harshest of circumstances. Astrid and Noa do not always like each other, and they begin with very little in common. At the same time, they are both hiding such similar secrets that they must begin to trust each other. The story here is the flowering of that trust.

It is also the story of the circus, both the mundane and back-breaking work of putting it all together, and the uplifting effect of bringing a small taste of not just normality, but of a bit of escape, to people who have otherwise been beaten down into the deepest rut of bare survival. Although the circumstances of time and place are very different, this part of the story has the same feel as Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The circus goes on, even in this depth of adversity, because survival is insufficient.

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Review: The Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie + Giveaway

Review: The Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie + GiveawayThe Enemies of Versailles (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy #3) by Sally Christie
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Series: Mistresses of Versailles #3
Pages: 416
Published by Atria Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the final installment of Sally Christie’s “tantalizing” (New York Daily News) Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, Jeanne Becu, a woman of astounding beauty but humble birth, works her way from the grimy back streets of Paris to the palace of Versailles, where the aging King Louis XV has become a jaded and bitter old philanderer. Jeanne bursts into his life and, as the Comtesse du Barry, quickly becomes his official mistress.
“That beastly bourgeois Pompadour was one thing; a common prostitute quite another kettle of fish.”
After decades suffering the King's endless stream of Royal Favorites, the princesses of the Court have reached a breaking point. Horrified that he would bring the lowborn Comtesse du Barry into the hallowed halls of Versailles, Louis XV’s daughters, led by the indomitable Madame Adelaide, vow eternal enmity and enlist the young dauphiness Marie Antoinette in their fight against the new mistress. But as tensions rise and the French Revolution draws closer, a prostitute in the palace soon becomes the least of the nobility’s concerns.
Told in Christie’s witty and engaging style, the final book in The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy will delight and entrance fans as it once again brings to life the sumptuous and cruel world of eighteenth century Versailles, and France as it approaches inevitable revolution.

My Review:

The Enemies of Versailles, and the entire series of the Mistresses of Versailles, beginning with The Sisters of Versailles and continuing with The Rivals of Versailles, is a fascinating blend of historical fiction and herstorical fiction, telling the story of the reign of Louis XV of France through the eyes of the women who shared his bed and/or his heart.

So instead of viewing this history through the lives of its movers and shakers, usually male, we see the king from the perspective of his mistresses and, in the case of this final book in the series, from the point of view of his oldest daughter, the unmarried and extremely upright (also uptight in modern terms) Adelaide.

It’s not a pretty picture, and it isn’t intended to be, particularly at this point late in the king’s life. It is to Louis XV that the famous phrase is attributed, “apres moi, le deluge”. And while he may not have known precisely what horrors the deluge of the French Revolution was destined to unleash, it is clear from this account that he was well aware that whatever followed him was going to be less rich, less glorious, less regal, and pretty much just less of everything.

It turned out he was right. From the perspective of the monarchy and the aristocracy, the Revolution indeed brought much less of everything, except blood. There was plenty of that. An outcome that Louis himself does not live to see, although the principal narrators of this story, his daughter Adelaide and his last mistress, the Duchesse du Barry, witness the revolution in all its horror.

In this book, and the trilogy as a whole, Louis appears as a self-indulgent and even indolent ruler, willing to let his advisors run the country while he dallies with his mistresses and escapes from the pomp and ceremony of court life as much as possible. And, of course, his advisors are more than happy to take the burdens of monarchy off of his hands, the better to further their own ambitions.

At the center of this book, and of the final years of Louis’ life, we see a man caught between two opposing forces. On the one side, his daughter Adelaide, ruthlessly virtuous, desiring above all else to save her father’s eternal soul by persuading him to give up his licentious ways. On his other side, the courtesan Jeanne Becu, Duchesse du Barry, encouraging the king to while away his hours in her company, giving her as many beautiful presents as possible and ignoring the world outside her boudoir.

Adelaide never stands a chance. Louis always prefers his mistress’ charms, whoever that mistress might be. But as we watch the court squabble over who should have precedence, and how best to capture the attention of the aging king, we know that we are watching the equivalent of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or fiddling while Paris, substituting for Rome in the famous saying, burns.

Escape Rating B: This is a series about which I have had mixed feelings from the very beginning, and I leave the series with lots of them. But most of those mixed feelings are about the history portrayed, rather than the portrayal itself. In other words, this series made me think. Among other thoughts, making me glad that I am reading about this period rather than living in it.

The world portrayed in the series is fascinating, enthralling, rich, decadent and strange. There are two sayings that seem to apply equally: “The past is another country, they do things differently there” and, to paraphrase just a bit, “the rich are very, very different from you and me”.

One of the things that strikes me is the appalling waste. Not just the wretched excesses of the court, but also the waste of the brains and talent of the women in this series, and this era. As much as I would not want to have spent five minutes in her company, I found Adelaide and to a lesser extent her sisters, to be utterly pitiable. They all had brains, and probably talents of one sort or another. And absolutely no outlets for any of that except through moral rectitude to the point of priggishness, extreme protection of their privileges and status, and endless backbiting and jostling for position in a court and an era that simply saw them as less than nothing.

Then of course, there’s the wretched excess of the court itself. That so much time and effort was expended, and so much wealth wasted, on ceremony that was extended and elaborated somewhere past the nth degree fascinates and disgusts at the same time.

The Revolution was a bloodbath of epic proportions, and yet it is all too easy to see it looming on the horizon, at least from our viewpoint, and wonder why no one at the time seriously saw it coming. But the same is true, to a much less bloody extent, in the run up to the American Revolution. Hindsight, as always, is 20/20.

About the books and the series. Looking back, there is one thing about each of the books that made the first parts a bit difficult to get over. In each book, the story of the mistress or mistresses begins with their childhood. And while the child certainly makes the woman, that period of each of their lives just wasn’t as compelling, or even as interesting, as what happens to each of them as they find themselves, or are thrust in the case of duBarry, into the king’s orbit. One reason I found Adelaide sympathetic in this particular book was that by the time this story begins, she is an adult, even if her understanding is somewhat lacking in particulars because of her very peculiar sheltered life.

In some ways, both Adelaide and du Barry remain infantilized by their circumstances until the Revolution robs everyone of any possible pretensions. They had to either grow up or die. That one did and one did not provides a last and final contrast in the remarkable circumstances of their lives.

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Enemies of Versailles to one lucky US or Canadian commenter.

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Review: In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen + Giveaway

Review: In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen + GiveawayIn Farleigh Field: A Novel of World War II by Rhys Bowen
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 396
Published by Lake Union Publishing on March 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.
As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?
Inspired by the events and people of World War II, writer Rhys Bowen crafts a sweeping and riveting saga of class, family, love, and betrayal.

My Review:

I picked this up because people always rave about Rhys Bowen, but she’s in the middle of a whole bunch of series and I like to start at beginnings if I can. In Farleigh Field is a standalone, which made it a good time to try this author.

However, for those who are expecting something a bit light and frothy, like the Her Royal Spyness series, this one is neither light nor frothy. Nor should it be. This is a World War II story that deals with serious issues on the home front. It begins with the crash landing of a German spy in the middle of an aristocrat’s estate, and ends with the realization that none of us really know the people we think we do.

This one is all about the less glorious parts of modern warfare; code breaking, spying, official secrets, official lies and ultimately betrayal, both on a personal and on a political level. And it revolves around questions about the ends and what means they justify. And by whom.

The story begins as a simple mystery, but there were no simple mysteries during WWII. A uniformed parachutist crashes at Farleigh, wearing the uniform of the West Kents who are stationed in the mansion. But nothing is as it seems, starting with that dead parachutist. He may be in uniform, but the details of that uniform aren’t quite right. And no one is missing from the regiment. He has nothing on him except a parachute that refused to open, fake ID tags and a landscape photo with numbers on the back.

MI5 doesn’t really care who the man was, their interest is in who the man was supposed to contact within walking distance of Farleigh, and they have just the man for the job. Ben Cresswell, ineligible for the draft due to a tin knee, is the son of the local vicar at Farleigh. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him. In spite of his junior status and relative inexperience, he’s the perfect agent to investigate his old neighborhood.

And of course, no one knows he’s MI5. That includes the daughter of Farleigh, Pamela Westerham. Pamma has no idea that Ben is MI5, just as she has no idea that he’s been in love with her for all of their lives. But while Ben is very aware that Pamma has been in love with Jeremy Prescott, son of the local squire, all of her life, he is very much unaware that Pamma is one of the junior code breakers at Bletchley Park.

Her superiors are every bit as interested in the mystery of the dead parachutist as Ben’s are. And it will take both of them, and a lot of luck, to finally discover the truth. A truth that is much, much worse than they imagined. And every bit as deadly.

Escape Rating B+: I’ll admit that based on the author’s reputation, I was expecting something a bit lighter. There are points in this story that are very dark. This is appropriate for the period and the circumstances, but still a bit of a downer.

Albeit a fascinating one.

The story takes place during the very early years of the war, particularly around the time of the Battle of Britain. At that point in 1940, Britain stood alone against the seemingly unstoppable might of Nazi Germany. The United States was pursuing a policy of non-involvement and Lend-Lease was still on the drawing board. There was a feeling in Britain, and it was probably justified, that unless the U.S. came to their aid that it was just a matter of time until Britain fell to the Nazis. That some, particularly among the upper classes, wanted to capitulate in order to save what they could (admittedly including their own skins) was historic fact. That one of those upper-class potential collaborators was the former king, the Duke of Windsor, was well-known at the time, which is why he was packed off to the Bahamas and both out of harm’s way and out where he couldn’t cause any harm.

Churchill planned to fight to the last man, (woman and child) but there were plenty of people who believed it would come to that, sooner rather than later, if the U.S. didn’t provide support, and quickly.

One of the things that makes this story so interesting is just how insidious the fifth-column activities really were. Although we laugh now at some of the antics of the home guard and the air raid wardens, the difficulties were real at the time. And one of those difficulties was the one that Ben and Pamma face – that they simply can’t imagine that someone they know well could possibly betray their country. They assume that it must be an outsider, when it so seldom is.

Insiders always know where the weak points are and just how to exploit them. But Ben’s prejudices of both class and familiarity lead him on many a wild goose chase until the perpetrator is finally exposed.

There’s also a small element of melodrama in this story, and I’m not sure whether it helped or hurt. The resolution of the love triangle between Ben, Jeremy and Pamma plays into the ultimate solution to the puzzle. However, that triangle is Ben loves Pamma, Pamma loves Jeremy and Jeremy really only loves himself. Some of Pamma’s angst about Jeremy’s behavior made me want to shake some sense into her. I rather badly wanted Jeremy to be guilty of something – he was an absolute bounder.

All in all, In Farleigh Field is a story about people rising to the occasion, keeping the side up, and solving the mystery, no matter how much it hurts. Anyone who enjoys spy stories or stories of World War II on the homefront (or who loved Foyle’s War) will enjoy In Farleigh Field.

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

I am giving away a copy of In Farleigh Field to one lucky US commenter!

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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.