Review: Cave of Bones by Anne Hillerman

Review: Cave of Bones by Anne HillermanCave of Bones by Anne Hillerman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery
Series: Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito #22
Pages: 320
Published by Harper on April 3, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Anne Hillerman brings together modern mystery, Navajo traditions, and the evocative landscape of the desert Southwest in this intriguing entry in the Leaphorn, Chee, and Manuelito series.

When Tribal Police Officer Bernadette Manuelito arrives to speak at an outdoor character-building program for at-risk teens, she discovers chaos. Annie, a young participant on a solo experience due back hours before, has just returned and is traumatized. Gently questioning the girl, Bernie learns that Annie stumbled upon a human skeleton on her trek. While everyone is relieved that Annie is back, they’re concerned about a beloved instructor who went out into the wilds of the rugged lava wilderness bordering Ramah Navajo Reservation to find the missing girl. The instructor vanished somewhere in the volcanic landscape known as El Malpais. In Navajo lore, the lava caves and tubes are believed to be the solidified blood of a terrible monster killed by superhuman twin warriors.

Solving the twin mysteries will expose Bernie to the chilling face of human evil. The instructor’s disappearance mirrors a long-ago search that may be connected to a case in which the legendary Joe Leaphorn played a crucial role. But before Bernie can find the truth, an unexpected blizzard, a suspicious accidental drowning, and the arrival of a new FBI agent complicate the investigation.

While Bernie searches for answers in her case, her husband, Sergeant Jim Chee juggles trouble closer to home. A vengeful man he sent to prison for domestic violence is back—and involved with Bernie’s sister Darleen. Their relationship creates a dilemma that puts Chee in uncomfortable emotional territory that challenges him as family man, a police officer, and as a one-time medicine man in training.

Anne Hillerman takes us deep into the heart of the deserts, mountains, and forests of New Mexico and once again explores the lore and rituals of Navajo culture in this gripping entry in her atmospheric crime series.

My Review:

Once upon a time, a long time ago, but not in a galaxy far, far away, I used to have a very long commute to work. I listened to a LOT of audiobooks, and one of the series I discovered was the Leaphorn & Chee series by Tony Hillerman. Mysteries are perfect in audio because you can’t thumb to the end to find out whodunit. And the series was particularly good because it is read by the inestimable George Guidall. If you like audio and have not listened to a book read by him you’ve missed a real treat.

Fast forward a couple of decades and the series ended when the author died. That ending turned out to be more of a pause, as several years later his daughter revived the series by switching the focus. In Spider Woman’s Daughter, the “Legendary Lieutenant” Joe Leaphorn is struck down in the opening scene, and Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito, with the assistance of her husband Sergeant Jim Chee, takes over the investigation while Leaphorn begins the long, slow road to recovery.

The torch passes with the perspective, and the series has continued with Bernie becoming the principal character, while Chee appears nearly as frequently, but ironically still kind of the second-banana that he was to Leaphorn. Leaphorn provides consultation and occasional welcome, if sometimes cryptic, clues.

As has turned out to be the case with this continuation of the series, Bernie and Chee are stuck in different places, handling different situations when Bernie finds herself in the middle of an investigation that keeps her hopping all over the Four Corners Reservation and the surrounding area while Chee is in Santa Fe for a training class while keeping an eye on Bernie’s sister Darleen’s latest attempt to stay on the straight and narrow.

And, as usual, just when it seems that their cases can’t connect, the long arm of coincidence reaches out and links the case that Bernie is in the middle of with a few little errands that the Captain asked Chee to take care of while he was in Santa Fe.

It’s a mess that just keeps getting messier and messier, at least until Bernie and Chee, but mostly Bernie, with a few hints from Leaphorn, finally manage to get the disparate problems all wrapped up in one neat package.

Just in time for the crises in Bernie’s personal life to boil over.

Escape Rating A-: I loved this series back when I was listening to it, and I still do. But if this combination of mystery with exploration of the problems that plague the Navajo Tribal Police (as well as the issues that plague the tribe itself) sound like your cup of tea, and you don’t want to go all the way back to the very beginning, starting with Spider Woman’s Daughter will provide plenty of background to the characters, the situation, and the place.

Something that will fascinate long-time readers of the series is the way that the series is set in what is sometimes referred to as the “Perpetual Now”. If Leaphorn had aged chronologically from his first introduction, he would be over 100. Instead, he seems to be in his 60s, while Chee is still in his 30s. And all the updates to police methods of the 21st century, markedly absent in the early books set in the 1970s, are both a help and hindrance to everything in 2018.

There is a bit of a contrivance in the way that the author keeps Bernie and Chee apart during their cases, forcing them to rely on their own resources and not able to lean on each other. The coincidences that bring their cases back together at the end sometimes have a very long arm.

At the same time, this allows us to see one side, and the bigger part at that, from Bernie’s solo perspective. She is always caught between a rock and a hard place, between her duty as a police officer and her duty to her mother and sister. That conflict is a perspective we never saw when it was just Leaphorn and Chee, and it helps ground the series and keep the characters feeling human and real.

The case in Cave of Bones starts out a bit convoluted and keeps adding more and more parts and conundrums as it goes. While it is not difficult for the reader to keep straight, it does feel like the mountain of both Bernie’s and Chee’s tasks and duties keeps growing and growing.

It all starts with a missing person. And it ends with one, too. But it middles in helicopter parenting, scared teenagers, embezzlement, illegal antiquities, family squabbling and grand theft auto. And it’s a marvelous ride all along the way.

Review: To Die but Once by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: To Die but Once by Jacqueline WinspearTo Die but Once (Maisie Dobbs #14) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Maisie Dobbs #14
Pages: 336
Published by Harper on March 27th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Spring 1940. With Britons facing what has become known as "the Bore War"—nothing much seems to have happened yet—Maisie Dobbs is asked to investigate the disappearance of a local lad, a young apprentice craftsman working on a "hush-hush" government contract. As Maisie’s inquiry reveals a possible link to the London underworld, another mother is worried about a missing son—but this time the boy in question is one beloved by Maisie.

My Review:

In the earlier books in this series, Maisie reminded me a lot of Bess Crawford, from Charles Todd’s series, or even Mary Russell from Laurie R. King’s Holmes/Russell series. Bess, Mary and Maisie are all contemporaries, and had similar experiences.

But Maisie’s series has moved on, from World War I through the between-the-wars period and now she has reached World War II. And now Maisie, 20 years older and hopefully wiser than she was in her earlier cases, reminds me all too much of Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War.

While the scenario behind To Die But Once is straight from the movies. One movie in particular, Dunkirk.

The movie was set on the beaches as the men waited desperately for rescue. To Die But Once takes place on the other side of the Channel, on the home front, where Maisie’s friends, and therefore Maisie herself, worry about their hostages to a fortune that they desperately hoped never to see again in their lifetimes. A hope that has been miserably dashed on the rocky shore at Dunkirk.

As with Foyle’s War, while the background of war is ever present, the story revolves around events on the home front. Just because there’s a war on, even if in 1940 it was the “Bore War”, does not mean that human beings have refrained from their usual patterns of crime if not punishment.

The impending war merely provides yet more opportunities for nefarious activity, unfortunately not limited to graft, cheating on government contracts, selling secrets, and that age-old wartime pastime, the black market.

War makes very strange bedfellows, especially when there’s money to be made.

Maisie begins by investigating the disappearance of a young man. She, as well as the entire neighborhood, watched Joe Coombes grow up in his family’s pub. He’s a sweet young man, and at 16 he’s away from home for the first time, apprentice to a painter’s crew doing government work at RAF bases all over Britain.

While Maisie hopes to discover a boy out on a lark, she is prepared for what she does find – Joe’s unidentified body in a morgue. For Maisie, that is never the end of a case – only the beginning.

Maisie isn’t satisfied with the coroner’s ruling of death by misadventure. It is possible that this was the case – but it just doesn’t feel likely. And the more that Maisie looks into Joe’s life, the less likely it seems.

All she has to do is find the one thread to pull that will unravel this case – if the mysterious gentlemen in the black sedan don’t unravel her first.

Escape Rating A: This series is, from beginning to end, marvelous. It is a comfort read for me, having now read the first four books and the last five. I plan to meet myself in the middle sometime soon.

But this is a dense series. While the case in each book is generally singular, or at least all the cases that Maisie turns up are all completed within the volume, each entry requires at least some previous knowledge of Maisie’s background, her professional history, and an acquaintance with Maisie’s friends and associates.

In other words, don’t start here. Particularly as the series has been building towards the war for several books, since A Dangerous Place, if not before. Maisie’s adventures begin in the first book in the series, named for its protagonist, Maisie Dobbs.

Maisie is both a thorough and a thoughtful detective. She is also, as she describes her associate Billy Beale, a terrier. Once she has a case between her teeth, she doesn’t let it go until she has poked her nose into every single one of its dark alleys.

That’s certainly the case here. Joe is dead, but his death was caused as much by the tentacles of corruption that surround his family as it was by the sharp blow to the head that snuffed out his life. And Maisie uncovers a net that reaches from a small-time contractor to a big-time hoodlum to the halls of power and everywhere in between.

The case is twisting and convoluted, and keeps both Maisie and the reader captivated as she follows its turns to the very end.

There is so much going on here, with Maisie, with the case, and with the war. Maisie is often pushed to her limit, and in more than one direction. In the end, it is her willingness to confront the difficult, and her ability to see inside the human heart, that provides the answers – even if those are answers that no one wants to hear.

The Maisie Dobbs series is one of my favorite historical mystery series. I enjoy every entry, to the point where it is difficult to review the book. When I read Maisie, it feels like I am there. And I can’t wait to travel with her again. Even into war.

Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard CornwellFools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 371
Published by Harper on January 9th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestselling author Bernard Cornwell makes a dramatic departure with this enthralling, action-packed standalone novel that tells the story of the first production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream—as related by William Shakespeare’s estranged younger brother

Lord, what fools these mortals be . . .

In the heart of Elizabethan England, Richard Shakespeare dreams of a glittering career in one of the London playhouses, a world dominated by his older brother, William. But he is a penniless actor, making ends meet through a combination of a beautiful face, petty theft and a silver tongue. As William’s star rises, Richard’s onetime gratitude is souring and he is sorely tempted to abandon family loyalty.

So when a priceless manuscript goes missing, suspicion falls upon Richard, forcing him onto a perilous path through a bawdy and frequently brutal London. Entangled in a high-stakes game of duplicity and betrayal which threatens not only his career and potential fortune, but also the lives of his fellow players, Richard has to call on all he has now learned from the brightest stages and the darkest alleyways of the city. To avoid the gallows, he must play the part of a lifetime . . . .

Showcasing the superb storytelling skill that has won Bernard Cornwell international renown, Fools and Mortals is a richly portrayed tour de force that brings to life a vivid world of intricate stagecraft, fierce competition, and consuming ambition.

My Review:

If the title sounds familiar, it should. It’s a bit of one of the many famous lines from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” It is apropos for this book in multiple ways.

This is a story about the writing of, the stealing of, and the first performance of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. And the mortals within the story, and not just within the play, are certainly fools, but only in the sense that all humans are fools at one time or another.

And some of them play fools in the play itself, but that could almost be considered beside the point – being foolish, after all, is one of the hallmarks of the human condition.

The fools in this particular book (and play) are the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company of players that included as its most famous member, William Shakespeare, as well as his ne’er-do-well younger brother Richard.

As the story begins in 1595, during the first flourishing of what will become professional theater, Richard, now around 20 or so, is lamenting that he is still relegated to playing women’s parts in the company, and that he seems to have an undetermined, and often underpaid status that is neither “boy” nor “hired man”. He knows that he’s a good player, and he is certain that it is time for him to play men’s parts. He’s also equally certain that his famous older brother neither likes him nor wants him around, but can’t quite figure out what to do with him.

Into this winter of Richard Shakespeare’s discontent is introduced a new playhouse, the Swan, that is in desperate need, not of players which are a shilling a dozen, but of plays. There is a conspiracy afoot to steal William Shakespeare’s two latest plays, both of which are still works in progress.

But even with what is completed and what is rumored, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet are the stuff of which reputations are made, for players, for playwrights, and for theater companies.

Richard Shakespeare is caught in the middle, between his untrusting brother, the sniping, backbiting and jealous company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the Puritans who want to shut down all the playhouses and the nobles who will stop at nothing to ensure the success of their players and no other.

There is as much magic in Richard’s adventures as there are in the Forest of Arden on that famous midsummer night – even if Richard feels that it is as much nightmare as it is dream.

And it is glorious.

Escape Rating A: I love historical fiction, particularly of England in the Tudor and Stuart periods. Bernard Cornwell is an author who has been repeatedly recommended to me (he’s best known for the Sharpe series) but I’ve never managed to find the round tuit. Until now.

The first part of Fools and Mortals sets the stage (pun intended in this case) for what is to come. So much has been written about what little we actually know about William Shakespeare, so it was especially interesting to see this dive into historical fiction from a perspective we do not know – that of his younger brother Richard.

Sibling rivalry seems to have been just as big a problem in the 16th century as it is in the 21st. Richard may be aware of his brother’s genius as a playwright, but he is all-too-often focused on the man’s failings as an older brother, which seem to have been legion. Or it may have been that like so many geniuses, William Shakespeare’s focus was on his art to the exclusion of everything else, including both his birth family and his wife and daughters back home in Stratford.

Richard is somewhat of an unreliable narrator, or perhaps simply an unreliable person. But he can only be what his life and circumstances have made him. His “training” to be a player as well as a small time thief does not make for easy remembering for the character or reading for the reader.

At first, the story moves a bit slowly, as the stage is set. Not just our introduction to Richard, but our immersion in his world and his brother’s company. The 1590s represent the first flowering of professional theater, and it was in the midst of several different types of chaos.

One aspect that is so much different from the present is the complete lack of anything resembling copyright and the resulting paranoia and secrecy that surrounds the writing of a play and the desperate protection of any and all copies of it. Good plays were a company’s lifeblood, and in the case of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, William Shakespeare was the fount of that blood.

At the same time, the political and religious upheaval had a marked effect on the nascent theater. The rise of the Puritan strain of Protestantism was gaining influence, and it preached that theaters, players and all forms of entertainment were the work of Satan and must be eradicated at all costs. The theaters were all located outside the city boundaries of London in order to mitigate this problem, but they were still harassed at every turn.

(Readers who are interested in this time and place and these events should also take a look at Shakespeare’s Rebel by C.C. Humphreys. It is excellent historical fiction, to the point where the reader just about smells the smells, and covers this same time period.)

As fascinating as the plots and counterplots outside the theater are in Fools and Mortals, the magic of the book is wrapped up in the very first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And the author has done a marvelous job of putting the reader right there, with Queen Elizabeth and that first ensorcelled audience as the magic happens and the audience is transported to the Forest of Arden, and we along with them.

Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Review: Magpie Murders by Anthony HorowitzMagpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 496
Published by Harper on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When editor Susan Ryeland is given the manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has no reason to think it will be much different from any of his others. After working with the bestselling crime writer for years, she’s intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries disturbing sleepy English villages. An homage to queens of classic British crime such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Alan’s traditional formula has proved hugely successful. So successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job.

Conway’s latest tale has Atticus Pünd investigating a murder at Pye Hall, a local manor house. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.

My Review:

I really wish that the Atticus Pünd series existed, because the one we got in Magpie Murders was absolutely marvelous. I’d dearly love to read the rest of the series.

What we have, however, is the final book in the series, encased within a framing story about the death of the fictitious author of this fictitious book, and the many, many ways in which art seems to be imitating life – or vice versa.

The story begins with its frame. Susan Ryeland, editor at a small but prestigious publishing house, settles in for the weekend to read the latest manuscript by her least favorite and most favorite author. Susan loves Alan Conway’s work, but the man himself is far from lovable.

As Susan settles in to read, we do too. We read Magpie Murders by Alan Conway right along with her. And it is a marvelous take on the Golden Age of mystery, reading as though it should sit on the shelf beside Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham.

The detective, the perpetual outsider, comes to a small English village to investigate what turn out to be a series of murders. It’s an absorbing case, and the readers, along with Susan herself, are sucked right into the mid-1950s, the mind of the detective and the murderous goings on of this otherwise unremarkable little place.

Until the story ends abruptly, and we, as well as Susan, are left wondering “who done it?”. The last chapter of Magpie Murders is missing. And its author has just been found dead, an apparent suicide.

So Susan begins by hunting for that missing chapter, and finds herself hunting for the truth about Alan Conway’s life, and about his death. By the time those missing pages are found, Susan has uncovered much more than she, or anyone else, could have bargained for.

After all the times when she has blurbed that “reading such-and-such’s latest book changed her life”, just this once, it’s all too true.

Escape Rating B+: Magpie Murders is really two books in one. There’s a classic historical mystery sandwiched within the pages of a contemporary mystery thriller. And for this reader, the historical mystery wins out.

I absolutely adored Magpie Murders by Alan Conway. It was both a wonderful homage to the mysteries of the Golden Age, and a terrific case itself. Atticus Pünd would make a wonderful addition to the ranks of series detectives, right up there with Poirot, Marple, Wimsey and the rest. In its post-WWII time period, it takes the reader back to a simpler but no less deadly time, and its play on the locked room/locked house mystery keeps the reader guessing.

It gave me a tremendous yen to pick up a “real” historical mystery at the first opportunity. It reminded me how much I love the genre, and gave me a hankering to return. Or just to re-watch Poirot.

The abrupt ending to Conway’s novel jarred me almost as much as it did Susan Ryeland. I felt cheated. I wanted to know who the killer was every bit as much as she did. But I had a difficult time getting into the framing story.

In fact, I started the book once, couldn’t get into it, and then picked it up on audio. Listening to it got me over the hump, to the point where I was so captivated by Pünd’s story that I changed the audio back for the book, so that I could find out whodunnit that much more quickly – only to be disappointed when Susan discovers that the final chapter is missing.

Susan’s own quest turned out to be fascinating as well, but for some reason I didn’t find her as sympathetic or interesting a character to follow as the even more fictional Pünd.

The problem is that Pünd, while a bit distant in the traditional detectival mold, is a sympathetic character and seems to be a generally nice man. We want him to succeed. Alan Conway, on the other hand, will not be missed by anyone, except possibly his publishers.

Conway’s series is the marquee title for small but prestigious Cloverleaf Books. It’s their one big moneymaker, and it tides them over an awful lot of less successful ventures. Conway, or rather Atticus Pünd, pays the bills and keeps the lights on. But no one likes Conway. There are certainly people who benefit from his death in the direct, traditional way, but there are even more who are just happy at his absence from this earth, beginning with his ex-wife and ending with Susan’s lover. While there are plenty of people who will miss Atticus Pünd, no one will miss his author.

Susan finds herself with plenty of motives, too many suspects, and a police investigation that is all too happy to consider it suicide and close the case. There’s plenty of evidence to support that theory, and damn little to support anything else.

Until Susan starts digging, and nearly digs her own grave. In the end, no one is certain that good triumphed and evil got its just desserts. Not even Susan. And that’s what makes the contemporary thriller less satisfying than the historical mystery it contains. Mystery, as a great writer once said, is the romance of justice. Good is supposed to triumph, evil is supposed to get those just desserts. When that formula is subverted, as it is in the contemporary frame for Magpie Murders, it feels wrong, at least for this reader. While there may be a metaphor in there about the world being more complicated than it used to be, or that the real world isn’t half so neat and tidy as fiction, the framing story is also fiction. I want my neat and tidy ending, and I’m disappointed that it wasn’t there.

But we do finally get to read Atticus Pünd’s last chapter. And that was well worth waiting for.

Review: Song of the Lion by Anne Hillerman

Review: Song of the Lion by Anne HillermanSong of the Lion by Anne Hillerman
Format: ebook
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery
Series: Leaphorn and Chee #21, Leaphorn Chee and Manuelito #3
Pages: 304
Published by Harper on April 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A deadly bombing takes Navajo Tribal cops Bernadette Manuelito, Jim Chee, and their mentor, the legendary Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, back into the past to find a vengeful killer in this riveting Southwestern mystery from the bestselling author of Spider Woman’s Daughter and Rock with Wings
When a car bomb kills a young man in the Shiprock High School parking lot, Officer Bernadette Manuelito discovers that the intended victim was a mediator for a multi-million-dollar development planned at the Grand Canyon.
But what seems like an act of ecoterrorism turns out to be something far more nefarious and complex. Piecing together the clues, Bernadette and her husband, Sergeant Jim Chee, uncover a scheme to disrupt the negotiations and inflame tensions between the Hopi and Dine tribes.
Retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn has seen just about everything in his long career. As the tribal police’s investigation unfolds, he begins to suspect that the bombing may be linked to a cold case he handled years ago. As he, Bernadette, and Chee carefully pull away the layers behind the crime, they make a disturbing discovery: a meticulous and very patient killer with a long-simmering plan of revenge.
Writing with a clarity and grace that is all her own, Anne Hillerman depicts the beauty and mystery of Navajo Country and the rituals, myths, and customs of its people in a mystery that builds on and complements the beloved, bestselling mysteries of her acclaimed father, Tony Hillerman.

My Review:

This case starts out with a very literal (and also very large) bang. Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito has a rare night off. Unfortunately it isn’t a night off that she can share with her husband Jim Chee, also an officer with the Tribal Police. Left to her own devices, Bernie does what a couple of thousand other people are doing that night, going to a basketball game.

Although basketball is a VERY big deal on the rez (Bernie herself played back in high school) this game draws an even bigger crowd than usual. The current high school team are playing against a team made up of veterans from some of Championship teams of the relatively recent past. Everybody wants to see the hometown heroes, and discover whether or not age and experience really can beat youth and skill.

Bernie never gets to see the end of the game, because a bomb goes off in the parking lot. Suddenly Bernie finds herself back on the clock, trying to keep the crowd away from the very big mess (cars explode! car lots full of cars explode LOTS!)

Bernie finds herself in the middle of all the chaos, trying to keep the crowd contained and the crime scene relatively uncontaminated, while searching for any possible victims or suspects (or both) and praying that more officers arrive to help manage the 3,000+ attendees along with all the cars showing up to pick up kids at the end of the game. And she needs the FBI, much as she hates even thinking that, because they are the ones with explosives expertise.

It’s a mess that only gets messier, and more confusing, over the days ahead.

Because there are no coincidences in Bernie’s world, as she was taught by the “Legendary Lieutenant” Joe Leaphorn, the bombing ties into a much larger case. It seems like the intended victim was a hometown hero on that Championship team, but now he’s a big-shot lawyer from the big city. And he’s come back to the Rez not just for a basketball game, but to serve as mediator for all of the many, varied, contradictory and non-cooperative factions who are debating (loudly, heatedly and occasionally violently) about whether there should be any development at all at the base of the Grand Canyon.

A debate that feels like it is nearly as old as the Canyon itself. And equally immovable.

In the wake of the bombing, Jim Chee gets stuck body-guarding the mediator on his trip to Tuba City. Chee hates being a bodyguard, but not nearly as much as Aza Palmer hates having one.

Aza keeps giving Jim the slip. Eventually that is bound to catch up with him. With all of them. With catastrophic results. For multiple definitions of “catastrophe”.

Escape Rating A: I have to admit upfront that I love this series. I listened to the earlier books, written by the author’s father Tony Hillerman, back when I had a long commute. (If you have a long drive ahead of you, audiobooks are marvelous, and mysteries are particularly good. It’s nearly impossible to thumb to the end to find out “whodunnit”.)

When Tony Hillerman died in 2008, I assumed this series was over. So when his daughter Anne revived it in 2013 with the absolutely awesome Spider Woman’s Daughter, it felt like a miracle. Not just for the opportunity to catch up with “old friends” as the protagonists in long-running series often turn out to be, but also because Anne found a way to make the series her own, by shifting much of the perspective from the two male cops, Leaphorn and Chee, to Bernie Manuelito, giving readers a new perspective on the cases and a different perspective on Navajo life in the 21st century. Unlike both of the men, Bernie is often caught between two worlds and two sets of obligations. While she loves her job, and is every bit as good a cop as her husband or any other male officer, unlike them she still keeps up much of her more traditional role as her mother’s oldest daughter, and as her wayward younger sister’s protector. She often finds herself between the rock of her job and the hard place of her family in a way that neither Leaphorn nor Chee ever experienced.

(While the entire series is great, 21 books in may seem daunting to a new reader. And as much as I loved them at the time, I don’t think it is necessary to read the whole thing to get the background, especially since so much has changed. Starting with Spider Woman’s Daughter will bring any new reader up to speed with where the characters are now.)

The case in this story is fascinating, although not really about the bombing. One of the things about mysteries in general is that people are always people, both good and bad. In the end, the motives always turn out to be the familiar ones. And as so often happens, the past catches up with the present.

But in this series the surroundings and the background keep the reader enthralled every bit as much as whatever the mystery is. The background of this particular case is particularly intractable. There are multiple competing interests. Every single group involved is extremely passionate about their argument, whether they want to develop the Canyon, preserve it as it is, or something either in between or more extreme.

Even the groups that seem to be on the same side can’t agree with each other. And on top of that there’s a group that just wants to cause trouble and get media coverage, no matter what they have to do to get it. Everyone has a stake, and it seems like everyone wants to shove their stake into someone else’s heart. The FBI is up to their eyeballs in potential suspects for the bombing.

Watching the mediator attempt to herd all of the cats is both interesting and enlightening. In spite of the rumors that surround the event, his role is to referee, not to promote an agenda of his own. He’s very, very good at his job. And it turns out, very, very bad at family. Which is what the case comes back to in the end.

People are always people. But sometimes lions are more than they seem.

Review: In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline WinspearIn This Grave Hour (Maisie Dobbs, #13) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Maisie Dobbs #13
Pages: 352
Published by Harper on March 14th 2017
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As Britain becomes engulfed in a second World War, the indomitable Maisie Dobbs is plunged into a treacherous battle of her own when she stumbles on the deaths of refugees who may have been more than ordinary people seeking sanctuary on English soil, in this enthralling chapter in Jacqueline Winspear’s enormously popular New York Times bestselling series
Critics have long sung the praises of Jacqueline Winspear and her bestselling Maisie Dobbs series. In the thirteenth installment, Maisie—“one of the great fictional heroines, equal parts haunted and haunting.” (Parade)—is back with more mystery, adventure, and psychological insight.
When readers last saw Maisie Dobbs, it was 1938 and the world was on the brink of war. Maisie herself was on a dangerous mission inside Nazi Germany, where she encountered an old enemy and the Führer himself. In This Grave Hour, a year has passed and Maisie is back home in England—yet neither she nor her nation is safe. Britain has just declared war on Germany and is mobilizing for the devastating battle ahead. But when she stumbles on the deaths of a group of refugees, Maisie suspects the enemy may be closer than anyone knows.
Old fans will be delighted at Maisie’s return and new readers will be hooked by this thrilling installment in Jacqueline Winspear’s “thoughtful, probing series” (Oprah.com).

My Review:

Welcome to the Sitzkrieg, or as it was better known in Britain, the Phoney War.

As this 13th book in the Maisie Dobbs series opens in the fall of 1939, Britain declares war on Nazi Germany after its invasion of Poland. Then nothing happens. And nothing continues to happen for eight months, until Germany invades France and the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands) in May of 1940.

But during the period of this book, nothing much happens on the war front. Everyone knows it will come, and many people, including Maisie herself, have known that war was coming for quite some time, but for the moment, there is a pause. Not a peace by any stretch of the imagination. More like a vast inhaling of breath before the six year sigh of loss after loss.

And a murder. A whole series of murders. Deaths that owe their origin, not to the stresses of the upcoming war, but to the unresolved issues of what people are suddenly forced to call “the previous war” – the Great War, the War that unfortunately did not End All Wars, what history came to call World War I.

Murder, unfortunately for the world but fortunately for Maisie, never takes a vacation.

As the story opens, Maisie is dragged away from the war announcement to meet an old colleague. Dr. Francesca Thomas, in her guise as a member of the Secret Service, prepared Maisie for her undercover task in Journey to Munich. Now Dr. Thomas wants to hire Maisie to investigate the murder of a Belgian refugee from the previous war who has been murdered on the eve of this one.

Dr. Thomas is herself a Belgian national, and is now attached to that embassy. The murder of her fellow countryman is a crime that she wants to redress, before it happens again. She is aware of just how good Maisie is at her job, but she still keeps secrets. It is her nature. And almost her undoing.

While Maisie tracks down the patterns of life and causes of death of the late Frederick Addens, more former Belgian refugees turn up dead. By the same method, and most likely by the same hand. But whose? And more important to Maisie, why?

As Maisie begins to close the net around a suspect she also finds herself deep into a problem much closer to home.

Many children were evacuated from London to the countryside at the opening of the war. One such young girl is now boarded with Maisie’s family. But this little girl is a bit different. Not just because her coloring is noticeably darker than English peaches and cream, but because the little girl refuses to speak, and seems to have no documentation whatsoever.

And Maisie can no more resist solving that little puzzle than she can let a murderer go free. No matter the cost to herself.

Escape Rating B+: As World War II begins, this series reminds me more and more of Foyle’s War. (That there are no books for Foyle’s War continues to be a great source of disappointment!) Like Christopher Foyle, Maisie solves her cases with her brains rather than her fists. Also like Foyle, she is solving murders on the homefront, a task that many people think of as less important than the war. But as it so often turns out, those murders are often not divorced from the war, and in some cases are hidden by it until the investigator steps in.

As much as I love this series, this particular entry didn’t grab me by the throat and hang on quite the way that some of the other books have. I still enjoyed it, but it has the feeling of a pause before the storm, much as Britain itself was in during the Phoney War. Pauses, by their nature, just aren’t as dramatic as crises. And so it proves with this book.

There are, as there often are, two mysteries in front of Maisie. They don’t dovetail as well as they sometimes do. The murder of Frederick Addens, and the ones that follow, are one case, and while important, it feels like merely a case. The little girl’s missing identity is the part of the story that strikes Maisie’s heart, and it is the one that felt most important, even if the string of murders was obviously deadlier and had larger implications, or should have.

And that’s part of what fell just a bit flat for me. The serial murders of Belgian refugees and the people who assisted them felt like it was building up to something bigger. The resolution actually turned out to be small and rather close to home. Also frustrating as regards that particular case, both for Maisie and the reader, is just how much and how obvious it was that Dr. Thomas was, if not telling actual lies, certainly lying by omission every time she spoke. And yet she never seriously emerges as a possible candidate to be the murderer.

On that other hand, the case of the little girl was heartbreaking, particularly for Maisie. She sees herself in the child, as well as the child she lost when her husband was killed. Her heart is engaged with someone who will eventually have to go home. Perhaps. That piece of the story has yet to be resolved.

And I’m very much looking forward to Maisie’s further adventures, to discover just how she resolves it. Or doesn’t. I expect to find out next year during the 2018 Month of Maisie Readalong!

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Review: The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Review: The Fate of the Tearling by Erika JohansenThe Fate of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling, #3) by Erika Johansen
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Queen of the Tearling #3
Pages: 496
Published by Harper on November 29th 2016
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The thrilling conclusion to the New York Times bestselling Tearling trilogy.
In less than a year, Kelsea Glynn has transformed from a gawky teenager into a powerful monarch. As she has come into her own as the Queen of the Tearling, the headstrong, visionary leader has also transformed her realm. In her quest to end corruption and restore justice, she has made many enemies—including the evil Red Queen, her fiercest rival, who has set her armies against the Tear.
To protect her people from a devastating invasion, Kelsea did the unthinkable—she gave herself and her magical sapphires to her enemy—and named the Mace, the trusted head of her personal guards, Regent in her place. But the Mace will not rest until he and his men rescue their sovereign, imprisoned in Mortmesne.
Now, as the suspenseful endgame begins, the fate of Queen Kelsea—and the Tearling itself—will finally be revealed.

My Review:

queen of the tearling by erika johansenThis was awesome. As is the entire trilogy, starting with The Queen of the Tearling and moving right through The Invasion of the Tearling. If you like epic fantasy with a touch of SF, get thee hence and pick up Queen right now. This series is perfectly sized for holiday week binging.

At the beginning of the saga, back in Queen, it seemed as if this was pure epic fantasy. Starting in Invasion and particularly in this final book, we see where the story has its roots in SF. Somehow, in ways that are deliberately not made clear, the ancestors of the Tearling made their way from a near-future dystopian Earth to Tear. And deliberately turned their backs on late 21st or early 22nd technology in an attempt to create an agrarian utopia.

Kelsea, physically locked in captivity by the Red Queen of Mortmesne, takes a psychic journey back down through the timeline to see the origins of that long-ago utopia. While Kelsea is looking through the eyes of young Katie Rice three centuries ago, she sees William Tear’s dream of a perfect world die inch by inch, in ways that still have consequences all these generations later.

The problem with attempting to create a perfect world is that the people who populate it are never perfect. Not because they don’t try, but because people simply aren’t, even when they are not deliberately evil. Not that THAT isn’t a factor as well.

Kelsea starts out the story wanting to save her kingdom. She discovers that in order to save her kingdom, she must save the world. In the end, she can’t even manage to save herself.

And yet she does. And she doesn’t.

Escape Rating A: It takes a while for this final book to build to its epic, and thought-provoking, conclusion. As Fate opens, Kelsea is imprisoned, and has no freedom of action. She’s also not thinking too clearly.

Much of the first half of the book is carried by other characters – lots of other characters. The perspective and point of view switch often, and at first it’s just a bit jarring. The reader just has a grasp of one thread when the perspective switches to someone else at a different place, and sometimes at a different time.

Some of those perspectives are obvious – Kelsea’s regent back in the Tearling, the Red Queen in Mortmesne, various other leaders. But some are down among the rank and file, as we see a “lower-decks” version of the ways in which the world is falling apart, and the ways that everyone is using to even attempt to keep it together. Along with the ones who just don’t give a damn.

And the most important perspective of all, besides Kelsea’s in the present, is Katie’s in the past, at the beginning of the Tearling. While we begin with Katie as a child, as she grows up she sees the colony change from what seems like almost a working utopia to a god-bothered, fear-obsessed, evil theocracy. And that’s what survived to Kelsea’s present and has helped to make the current mess into the giant clusterfuck it now is. And there doesn’t seem to be any way in the present to save the day.

But in the view of the past, there is a whole lot being said about the way that the world, any world, works and doesn’t. It’s not difficult for the reader to draw parallels from the Tearling to 21st century America. Which is also a way of coming full circle, as it’s the results of our NOW that the Tear colonists fled which begins Kelsea’s entire saga.

And the implications of all of that will keep you thinking long after you turn the final page.

Reviewer’s Note: The way that The Fate of the Tearling manages its end reminds me strongly of Inherit the Stars by Laurie A. Green, with its choices about extreme means justifying shattering ends, and who does and doesn’t pay the price. If the ending of The Fate of Tearling leaves you gasping, and you want more with a similar heart-stopping and thought-provoking affect, pick up Inherit the Stars for a purely science fictional twist on some of the same results.

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Review: The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick

Review: The Comet Seekers by Helen SedgwickThe Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Harper on October 11th 2016
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A magical, intoxicating debut novel, both intimate and epic, that intertwines the past, present, and future of two lovers bound by the passing of great comets overhead and a coterie of remarkable ancestors
Róisín and François are immediately drawn to each other when they meet at a remote research base on the frozen ice sheets of Antarctica. At first glance, the pair could not be more different. Older by a few years, Róisín, a daughter of Ireland and a peripatetic astronomer, joins the science team to observe the fracturing of a comet overhead. François, the base’s chef, has just left his birthplace in Bayeux, France, for only the second time in his life. Yet devastating tragedy and the longing for a fresh start, which they share, as well as an indelible yet unknown bond that stretches back centuries, connect them to each other.
Helen Sedgwick carefully unfolds their surprisingly intertwined paths, moving forward and back through time to reveal how these lovers’ destinies have long been tied to one other by the skies—the arrival of comets great and small. In telling Róisín and François’s story, Sedgwick illuminates the lives of their ancestors, showing how strangers can be connected and ghosts can be real, and how the way we choose to see the world can be as desolate or as beautiful as the comets themselves.
A beautiful, skillfully crafted, and emotionally perceptive novel that explores the choices we make, the connections we miss, and the ties that inextricably join our fates, The Comet Seekers reflects how the shifting cosmos unites us all through life, beyond death, and across the whole of time.

My Review:

This feels like an easy book to like but a hard book to love. Your mileage, even to Antarctica and back, may vary.

I want to say this is a story about two people who feel connected to comets, and through that somewhat ephemeral connection find themselves connected to each other. At first their connection seems to be an accident, but in the end we discover that some gravitic force has been moving them towards each other all along.

Róisín is an Irish astrophysicist. She has been following comets since she was a child, and wants nothing more than the chance to study them. But Róisín is from a tiny Irish village, and while her family understands her need to see the universe, her first love does not. Every part of her journey away seems to encompass just a bit pain, a worry about what might have been if she and her cousin Liam had ever had a real chance.

Ironically, or coincidentally, or a bit of both, Róisín’s journey around the world, the journey that eventually leads her to Antarctica, keeps intersecting with François’ journey. Francois is younger than Róisín, but as she travels and explores the world and her profession, she keeps almost bumping into Francois and his mother Severine.

Not just when François and Severine make their one great trip, to Edinburgh, but also when Róisín finds herself working on a grant project in Bayeux, the home of the famous tapesty and the place that Severine and François call home.

Much of the story is Severine’s. She finds herself tied to Bayeux by the family ghosts. Down the centuries, from Aelfgifu in the 11th century who worked both herself and Halley’s Comet into the tapestry, all the way to the 21st century and Severine’s own grandmother, members of Severine’s family appear to Severine as rather lively ghosts whenever there is a comet in the sky over Earth. Severine loves her family, both the dead as well as the living, and can’t bear to part from the ghosts. But there is a price to be paid for keeping them close beside her – she has to stay close to them as well. If she leaves Bayeux, she loses her family.

BayeuxTapestryScene15
Where a cleric and Aelfgyva…
BayeuxTapestryScene32
These people marvel at the star
Of course, her son Francois thinks she’s lost her marbles, just as Severine’s mother thought had happened to HER mother. Severine’s mother was astonished to find herself a member of the family ghostly choir upon her own death!

The story begins on a scientific expedition in Antarctica, where Róisín is studying the heavens and chef François is keeping everyone fed. They are both there to get away from, or let go of, losses that they can’t bear around other people. And as their story progresses, we see the stories of all of the comets, and all of the members of François’ family who have been tied to their own particular comets.

Because the ghosts are telling their stories, one last time before they go.

Escape Rating B: I enjoyed the individual stories, but they just didn’t quite hang together into a single anything for me. This may explain why I often don’t quite get literary fiction – I keep expecting a plot there isn’t there.

The through story line is how Róisín and François reached the place where they can finally see each other. Not just because he had to grow up first, but because they each needed to experience their own profound losses before they were ready for a possible future together.

But we only glimpse their stories in bits and pieces. Most of the book feels like it is taken up with the visitations of the ghosts, and the different times that each of them experienced a comet passing through the sky. And all of the stories seem to have a tragedy in their hearts, whether it is the death of young Antoine, Severine’s uncle, or the tragic lives of Aelfgifu in the 11th century and Brigitte in the 15th.

We also only see Róisín and François’ lives through the tail of a comet – the narrative is not sustained through their lives. Instead we get glimpses through the 20th and 21st centuries as one comet after another makes its way into, or through, our solar system. So not just Halley’s Comet in 1986, but also Hale-Bopp, Shoemaker-Levy 9 and Hyakutake. It’s been a busy half-century for comets, which provides lots of points to observe their lives – but still not the same as a more straightforward story.

The historical vignettes are not in chronological order either, making it easy for the reader to get a bit lost among the stars. And comets.

Individual sections are often lyrical, but somehow the book just misses cohering into a whole. I’m flailing a bit, trying to convey that this book didn’t quite do it for me. It got close a few times, but just missed.

The Comet Seekers is a debut novel. Those lyrical parts of this story are lovely, and I have hopes for this author’s future work.

Review: The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson

Review: The Summer Guest by Alison AndersonThe Summer Guest by Alison Anderson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction
Pages: 400
Published by Harper on March 8th 2016
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Blinded by a fatal illness, young Ukrainian doctor Zinaida Lintvaryova is living on her family’s rural estate in the summer of 1888. When a family from Moscow rents a cottage on the grounds, Zinaida develops a deep bond with one of their sons, a doctor and writer of modest but growing fame called Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Intelligent, curious, and increasingly introspective as her condition worsens, Zinaida keeps a diary chronicling this extraordinary friendship that comes to define the last years of her life.
In the winter of 2014, Katya Kendall’s London publishing house is floundering-as is her marriage. Katya is convinced that salvation lies in publishing Zinaida’s diary, and she approaches translator Ana Harding about the job. As Ana reads the diary, she is captivated by the voice of the dying young doctor. And hidden within Zinaida’s words, Ana discovers tantalizing clues suggesting that Chekhov—who was known to have composed only plays and short stories—actually wrote a novel during his summers with Zinaida that was subsequently lost. Ana is determined to find Chekhov’s “lost” manuscript, but in her search she discovers it is but one of several mysteries involving Zinaida’s diary.
Inspired by fragments of historical truth, The Summer Guest is a transportive, masterfully written novel about an unusual, fascinating friendship that transcends the limits of its time and place. It’s also a contemporary story about two compelling, women, both of whom find solace in Zinaida and Chekhov as they contemplate all that’s missing in their own lives.

My Review:

“She had dared to believe in the truth of the imagination.” But the question that echoes after the book is done is whose imagination? And even more tellingly, whose truth?

This is a story of three women, spread across two eras and three countries, and the commonality they find, or are found to have, over their love of the work of Anton Chekhov.

In 1888, Chekhov and his family spend that summer, and the following summer as summer guests of the Lintvaryov family in Luka, in what is now Ukraine. At that point in his life, he was known but not yet famous, and still making his reputation. But his writings, rather than his medical practice, were the economic support of his family. His parents, his sisters and his brothers. Their support was both a joy and somewhat of a distracting burden.

They took him, or he took them, to Luka, so that he could write and relax. Or the other way around.

He became friends with the oldest daughter of the Lintvaryov house, a doctor like himself, But Zinaida Mikhailovna was no longer practicing medicine. She had been struck down by illness, most likely a brain tumor. In 1888 she was already blind, and her world was closing in.

To keep the internal darkness at bay, Zinaida kept a diary, by writing in a special box designed to keep her lines apart and legible. In 2014, Katya Kendall sends Zinaida’s diary, in the original Russian, to translator Ana Harding.

Katya’s small publishing company, a joint effort between herself and her somewhat distant husband Peter, is failing. Their business of publishing translations of Russian and Eastern European works has never recovered from the recession of 2008, especially as it was followed by so much political unrest in the countries that were their biggest customers.

Katya and Peter hope that the publication of Zinaida’s diary, illuminating as it does a documented but little known piece of Chekhov’s life, will allow them to recover their fortunes. Ana, captivated with the voice of the woman in the diary she has received, hopes that the publication of her translation will make her reputation, and in a way, justify the choices she has made in her life.

But Zinaida takes her under her spell, bringing those long-lost summers to life. In Zinaida’s words, Ana finds truths that captivate her to the point of visiting Luka herself, now in a brief calm between wars, in order to find the truth of the most surprising revelation of the diary – that Chekhov, the master of the play and the short story, left behind one novel, entrusted to the care of his dying friend.

Or did he?

Escape Rating B: The Summer Guest is a story of fiction as the lie that tells the truth. Ana and Katya both find themselves enraptured by Zinaida’s writing across the years, although in much different ways and for completely different reasons.

They both find the long-ago diarist a kindred spirit – a woman who still reached out to the world, even as her own was closing in. As both Katya’s and Ana’s lives seem to be, although not in the same way.

In the end, it is Zinaida’s voice that shines most clearly in the story, in spite of the way that it comes to be. And it is Ana’s search for meaning and purpose that provides the resolution at the end. Even though the diary turned out to be a lie, it still told Ana a truth that she needed to see.

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Review: Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman

Review: Terrible Virtue by Ellen FeldmanTerrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: feminist history, historical fiction
Pages: 272
Published by Harper on March 22nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the spirit of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, the provocative and compelling story of one of the most fascinating and influential figures of the twentieth century: Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood—an indomitable woman who, more than any other, and at great personal cost, shaped the sexual landscape we inhabit today.
The daughter of a hard-drinking, smooth-tongued free thinker and a mother worn down by thirteen children, Margaret Sanger vowed her life would be different. Trained as a nurse, she fought for social justice beside labor organizers, anarchists, socialists, and other progressives, eventually channeling her energy to one singular cause: legalizing contraception. It was a battle that would pit her against puritanical, patriarchal lawmakers, send her to prison again and again, force her to flee to England, and ultimately change the lives of women across the country and around the world.
This complex enigmatic revolutionary was at once vain and charismatic, generous and ruthless, sexually impulsive and coolly calculating—a competitive, self-centered woman who championed all women, a conflicted mother who suffered the worst tragedy a parent can experience. From opening the first illegal birth control clinic in America in 1916 through the founding of Planned Parenthood to the arrival of the Pill in the 1960s, Margaret Sanger sacrificed two husbands, three children, and scores of lovers in her fight for sexual equality and freedom.
With cameos by such legendary figures as Emma Goldman, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, H. G. Wells, and the love of Margaret’s life, Havelock Ellis, this richly imagined portrait of a larger-than-life woman is at once sympathetic to her suffering and unsparing of her faults. Deeply insightful, Terrible Virtue is Margaret Sanger’s story as she herself might have told it.

My Review:

Margaret Sanger in 1922
Margaret Sanger in 1922

When the phrase, “Well-behaved women seldom make history” was first penned by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in 1976, Margaret Sanger had been dead for ten years. But that short, pithy phrase still sums up her life.

On the one hand, all women, at least in Western countries, owe Sanger a debt. Whether one believes that birth control is a blessing, a right, or even a pernicious evil, Sanger made that choice possible. More importantly, she challenged and eventually forced the overthrow of laws that didn’t just make birth control illegal, but made it illegal for women to be educated about the “facts of life” about their own bodies.

And those of us who have chosen the spacing and number of our children, or not to have children at all, can trace that ability, that choice, back to her crusade.

But crusaders and saints are generally terrible people to live with. In Sanger’s case, it seems as if her husbands, her lovers, and especially her own children suffered a great deal from her obsessive devotion to her cause. That we are the better for it doesn’t change the damage to them. But if she had chosen to be a traditional wife and mother, where would we be now?

Terrible Virtue is a fictionalized version of Sanger’s life, told primarily through her own eyes. And we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives, as Sanger is. Not that she deliberately lies, but certainly that she justifies her behavior in her own mind. As do we all.

The occasional insertions of brief comments from the point of view of those closest to her, those who most often found themselves sacrificed on the altar of her crusade, provide a much-needed leavening counterpoint. Sanger gave birth to a revolution, but everyone around her paid the price.

Sanger is charming, and vain, and frequently ruthless in the pursuit of her goals. She’s obsessed with her groundbreaking work, and neglectful of anyone and everyone in her life in pursuit of those goals. She’s a difficult person to sympathize with, and the reader frequently does not, but her life was endlessly fascinating. She pursued a revolution for all of her life, and did so with a keen intellect and an eye for who would best advance the cause that she strove for. She succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. And occasionally in the middle of her greatest nightmares.

And she built one of the cornerstones of women’s rights in the 20th and 21st centuries – not just the right but also the capability for women to decide when, if, or how many children they would have. She made it possible for middle-class and poor women to have the same choices that rich women have always had, to control the size of their families.

While she may have entered on this crusade to prevent women from suffering the fate of her own mother, 13 children and dead before her time, she gave the gift to us all.

Escape Rating B+: Sanger’s life is fascinating, but she is not a sympathetic narrator. She’s selfish, obsessed, and ignores anyone and anything that doesn’t further her cause. That neglect generally covered her children, her two husbands, and any and all of her lovers. But it is her own children that suffer most for her crusade to let every woman decide how many children to have.

She may have pretended to be a respectable middle-class woman, but she certainly used the privilege she created, and had affairs with many famous and influential men, including but certainly not limited to Havelock Ellis and H.G. Wells. But her life wasn’t ruled by her love affairs – whatever else was going on in her life, she worked on the cause tirelessly and relentlessly.

At the end of the story, readers may respect Sanger, but not like her. She would have been hell to live with. But revolution is never easy. Or bloodless.

Because the story is from Sanger’s point of view, and because she is both self-serving and self-centered, she glosses over the accusations that were later leveled at her work. From her own point of view, she was not really a eugenicist. She did not advocate genocide of any populations. Instead, her goal was always to allow poor women of any race or ethnicity to be able to have the same choice that rich women have always had – the ability to limit the number of children they had to what they desired and would be economically feasible. She believed that the accusations of genocide that were leveled at her were the result of deliberate attempts to discredit her work.

We can’t know today. But we can see the way that governments and legislatures are still trying to denigrate any attempts for poor women to control their own biology in the continued witch hunt that hounds Planned Parenthood, and in the ever increasing number of laws that restrict women’s choices and inject medically incorrect dogma into women’s pursuit of those choices.

This book is an eye opener. A fascinating woman, an amazing life, and an influence that changed the world. And seems to have been the inspiration for Wonder Woman into the bargain!

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