Review: A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang + Giveaway

Review: A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang + GiveawayA Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, historical fiction, historical mystery
Pages: 350
Published by Lake Union Publishing on August 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Just beyond the Gilded Age, in the mist-covered streets of New York, the deadly Spanish influenza ripples through the city. But with so many victims in her close circle, young socialite Allene questions if the flu is really to blame. All appear to have been poisoned—and every death was accompanied by a mysterious note.
Desperate for answers and dreading her own engagement to a wealthy gentleman, Allene returns to her passion for scientific discovery and recruits her long-lost friends, Jasper and Birdie, for help. The investigation brings her closer to Jasper, an apprentice medical examiner at Bellevue Hospital who still holds her heart, and offers the delicate Birdie a last-ditch chance to find a safe haven before her fragile health fails.
As more of their friends and family die, alliances shift, lives become entangled, and the three begin to suspect everyone—even each other. As they race to find the culprit, Allene, Birdie, and Jasper must once again trust each other, before one of them becomes the next victim.

My Review:

At first, it seems like this story is about the party. An engagement party, in New York during the Gilded Age, among the upper crust. A young socialite dies, and everyone wants to sweep her death under the expensive carpet and chalk it all up to an accident. Even if, or perhaps especially because, it isn’t.

But once the focus moves outward, from the singular death to its effects on three young people attending that party, the action shifts into high gear. Suddenly, it’s not about the party, or at least not just the party, any longer.

As we watch our young protagonists (they are all 18) grow and change in the wake of this event, and in the process of their investigation into it, it seems to be about everything but the party. We become involved with them, their worlds, which were once the same but are now divergent, and the mystery expands.

Until it contracts, and we’re back, surprisingly, to that party, only nothing was quite as it seemed.

A Beautiful Poison is a murder mystery, and, it is also a coming of age story. And it’s a story about friendship. And love. Definitely about love.

All three of the protagonists are 18. And although all of them either are about to or already have embarked upon their adult lives, their relative youth and inexperience definitely factor into the story.

At first, is seems like Allene’s story. And also at first, Allene’s story seems like that of a typical poor-little-rich-girl, a bird in a gilded cage that yearns to fly free, even though her sheltered upbringing means that she has no clue what that freedom might cost.

Her friends are all too aware of the cost. Both Jasper and Birdie used to be members of Allene’s charmed inner circle, until tragedy shoved them out and away. And Allene, firmly under her parents’ thumbs, as rich girls were a century ago, let it happen.

Jasper’s parents committed suicide – after his father lost all their money. In the intervening four years, Jasper has lived with his alcoholic, agoraphobic uncle, supported them both, and put himself through college as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital, borrowing textbooks over the weekend in the hopes of someday going to medical school.

Birdie has fallen even lower, as women had many fewer financial opportunities. She and her mother were upper-caste servants in Allene’s household, serving as lady’s maids and dressers to Allene and her own mother. Until Birdie’s mother was suddenly and inexplicably turned out of the house without a reference, forced to take Birdie with her. Hazel is now a prostitute, while Birdie keeps the little family afloat, a family that includes her 4-year-old sister, by being one of the dial-painters in the clock factory.

Birdie knows that her time is running out, and swiftly. She knows she’s dying, although she doesn’t know why. Birdie sees Allene’s invitation to the engagement party as her last chance to get back into Allene’s inner circle, in the hopes of saving her little sister from their mother’s fate. Allene just sees it as an adventure, and a chance to spend time with her besties before she is immured in marriage to a wealthy man who will undoubtedly grow up to be just like her father. Her cage door will lock forever, and this is her last chance to fly free.

As Allene, Jasper and Birdie investigate the original shocking death, more bodies pile up. People around them are dying, and in each instance, they find a note left behind, with only two words on it, “You’re welcome”. But who is welcome for what?

Time is running out, but so are the potential victims. Especially when the influenza epidemic sweeps through New York and nearly takes them all with it – before their amateur investigation is complete.

Escape Rating B+: This story is a circle. It starts with the party, and it ends with the party. But at the end, everyone’s perspective on those events has changed. And their world is a much different place than it was at the beginning.

Once the story moves outward, away from its initial focus on Allene to encompass all three protagonists, it moves at the same cracking pace as the progress of Birdie’s cancer, which is rapid indeed.

Birdie is one of the “radium girls” who painted clock faces with bits of radium that glowed in the dark. As did they before they died. There are books about real-life cases just like Birdie’s, including this year’s The Radium Girls. Those cases led to the first workplace regulatory legislation. It would have been much tidier in some ways for the author to have included the solution to Birdie’s death as part of the story, but radium wasn’t isolated as the cause until well after her death. Instead, her predicament becomes one of the many red-herrings in the mystery.

Upon finishing the story, it felt like the coming of age aspect was more important than it seemed at first, just as all the characters turned out to be much deeper than they seemed, especially Allene, who was rather shallow and self-absorbed at her engagement party. Allene and Jasper grow up during the course of the story, and they discover who they are and what they are to each other.

One of the things that they discover, surprising for both them and the reader, is that as much as this story is about love, it is not a love story. Allene and Jasper do not end up with each other, at least not as anything more than friends. Whether that is because their roads have diverged too far, or whether it’s because they are better as “family” than lovers is up to the reader to decide. But it felt right.

But the story is still about love, and what we will do for love. No matter what the cost, there are times and circumstances where no price is too high.

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

I’m giving away a copy of A Beautiful Poison to one lucky US/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: 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.

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Review: Beauty and Attention by Liz Rosenberg + Giveaway

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only because they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Autumn in Oxford by Alex Rosenberg + Giveaway

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Finding Libbie by Deanna Lynn Sletten

Review: Finding Libbie by Deanna Lynn SlettenFinding Libbie by Deanna Lynn Sletten
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: women's fiction
Pages: 344
Published by Lake Union Publishing on September 6th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Poring over a dusty hatbox of photographs in her grandmother’s closet, Emily Prentice is shocked to discover her father was married to his high school sweetheart before meeting her mother.
In the summer of 1968, Jack and Libbie fall in love under the spell of their small town, untouched by the chaos of the late sixties. Though Libbie’s well-to-do parents disapprove of Jack’s humble family and his aspiration to become a mechanic, she marries Jack a year after they graduate high school. But soon their happiness crumbles as Libbie’s mental state unravels and she is drawn to alcohol and drugs. Despite his efforts to help her, Jack loses the woman he loves and is forced to move on with his life.
Now that Emily’s mother has passed away, Jack is alone again, and Emily grows obsessed with the beautiful woman who had given her father such joy. Determined to find Libbie, Emily pieces together the couple’s fragmented past. But is it too late for happy endings?

My Review:

This story is a heartbreaker. Be sure you have a box of tissues handy whenever you dive into this marvelous story. Personally, I needed a hug every couple of chapters. This story gets you right in the feels.

In part, that’s because the love story related in this novel is heartwrenchingly bittersweet. As we look back on it through the lens of the storyteller, we know that it is going to end in tragedy. What we experience as the story is told is the depth of that tragedy. They should have had a happy ending. Instead, we see bright hope turn to despair on a trajectory that is all-too-easy to anticipate, but was impossible to stop.

The other aspects that will make 21st century readers weep, and scream in frustration, is the way that the treatment of women’s health and mental health, particularly at the intersection of the two, made what was already a bad situation much, much worse than it needed to be. And while we like to believe that things have changed, they haven’t as much as we hope.

This story works in framing story type of narrative. Emily is helping her grandmother clean out the old family house in preparation for moving to a townhouse in the center of town. This is a labor of love for both women, but the process reveals more of the past than Emily knew existed.

A long-forgotten box of photographs reveals a piece of Emily’s father’s past that she never knew, but that Bev witnessed in all of its bright hope and dark ending. Before he married her now-deceased mother, Jack Prentice was married to his high school sweetheart, Libbie Wilkens. The box of photos is all that is left of their tragic marriage.

The bulk of the book is Bev telling Emily the story of her dad’s first marriage. Libbie was the daughter of one of the town’s richest families. She was bright and beautiful and defied her parents’ expectations to marry hard-working Jack Prentice. But she lost herself along the way to a neverending cycle of prescription drugs, alcohol, and increasingly frequent stays in rehab to dry out.

Just like her mother.

In the end, they break. We see it coming all along the way, and we want to reach into the book and shake some sense into nearly everyone. But we have more perspective on what is wrong with Libbie than her contemporaries do. This story takes place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And that past is another country.

Everyone believes that Libbie is just “sensitive”, like her mother. And that it is still Jack’s job to take care of her and protect her from anything that might stress her or upset her. The possibility that it is that protection that is part of the problem never occurs to people. She is just seen as inherently weaker because she is female. She’s not allowed to work because that might cause her more stress.

Instead, doctors prescribe more and more pills to help her. Not all of them know what other doctors are prescribing, but there is also a definite sense that because she is female her problems are all just “emotional” and pills should fix her right up. There’s never a sense that anyone believes there might be underlying concerns that need to be diagnosed.

And no one in her family wants to even think about the possibility that the stigma of mental illness might be attached to one of “them”. While Jack doesn’t feel that way, he is relatively young and completely overwhelmed. Between taking care of Libbie and working two and three jobs to keep them financially afloat, he is in over his head every second.

In the end, everything goes too far, and their brief marriage is over.

In the present, Emily is left with a dilemma. Multiple dilemmas. She feels deeply for Libbie, and wonders what happened to the bright young woman who was disappeared by her family into some unknown but probably institutionalized future. She’s worried about her widowed father, who has retreated into increasing amounts of work to cope with his grief.

So she decides to find Libbie. In the unstated hope that searching for her happy ending, or at least some closure, will provide Emily with the perspective to deal with the unresolved issues in her own life.

Escape Rating A-: The blurb essentially gives away the story, but the book is absolutely compelling, even though the reader knows the historical part of the story before it begins. This is one of those books where even though you know the what, the how of it will keep you enthralled until the very end.

The way that Libbie is treated is guaranteed to make 21st century readers gnash their teeth in frustration. But it feels very true to the time period. The world of women’s opportunities was changing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it had not changed completely (if it ever has). Libbie is growing up in what Betty Friedan described in The Feminine Mystique as “quiet desperation”. She was supposed to be decorative and not functional, except within the sphere of the home. And it wasn’t going to be enough, with or without her family’s history of undiagnosed mental illness. Added to her mental health issues, she was doomed.

And when the story returns to the open-ended present, it still keeps you turning pages. Emily’s search gets under your skin. She may be using her search for Libbie as a way of distancing herself from her own issues, but it feels like it’s the scary but right thing to do.

Libbie could be dead. She could be happily remarried. She could be institutionalized. She could still be some kind of addict. She could still be angry at Emily’s father. And if Emily finds Libbie, Jack may not be ready or willing to revisit a past that caused him so much pain.

But in finding Libbie, Emily surprisingly finds herself. And it’s marvelous.

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Review: The Buried Book by D.M. Pulley + Giveaway

Review: The Buried Book by D.M. Pulley + GiveawayThe Buried Book by D.M. Pulley
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction, mystery
Pages: 399
Published by Lake Union Publishing on August 23rd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
Goodreads

When Althea Leary abandons her nine-year-old son, Jasper, he’s left on his uncle’s farm with nothing but a change of clothes and a Bible.
It’s 1952, and Jasper isn’t allowed to ask questions or make a fuss. He’s lucky to even have a home and must keep his mouth shut and his ears open to stay in his uncle’s good graces. No one knows where his mother went or whether she’s coming back. Desperate to see her again, he must take matters into his own hands. From the farm, he embarks on a treacherous search that will take him to the squalid hideaways of Detroit and back again, through tawdry taverns, peep shows, and gambling houses.
As he’s drawn deeper into an adult world of corruption, scandal, and murder, Jasper uncovers the shocking past still chasing his mother—and now it’s chasing him too.

My Review:

The Buried Book is a chilling story about the loss of innocence and the end of childhood, told by a narrator who is unreliable for all the right reasons, but who just keeps trying to understand.

Jasper Leary is 9 years old. He feels abandoned when his somewhat mercurial mother takes him to her brother’s farm in rural Michigan, and leaves him there for an indefinite future. It is 1952 and all Jasper can see is that his mother doesn’t want him and his father doesn’t care enough to know where he is.

And living on the farm isn’t half as much fun for real as it is for vacation.

Everyone is trying to protect poor little Jasper. This isn’t the first time his mother has run off, but this is the first time she’s left him so far from home. And Jasper’s picture is probably the one in the dictionary next to the saying about “little pitchers” and “big ears”. No one tells Jasper exactly what’s going on with his mother, but he hears plenty – and all of it bad.

When he finds his mother’s childhood diary hidden away in the burned wreck of her parents’ old house, Jasper finds himself seeing into the thoughts and feelings of his mother when she was a 15-year-old girl – and discovers that there was plenty of bad stuff swimming below the surface of this sleepy little farming community back then – and fears that some of it might still be chasing his mother all these years later.

We follow Jasper as he tries to piece together a picture of what happened to his mother, then and now. There is so much that he tries to understand about the world around him, and he so often fails.

Not because he’s not intelligent, but because he has so little to go on. Everyone is trying to protect him from what they perceive as the inevitable awful truth. As far as most people are concerned, his mother is just a bad seed who probably came to her rightfully bad end. And he is, after all, just 9 years old, and he doesn’t yet understand all the terrible ways that the world works.

But she is Jasper’s mother. And he can’t give up, no matter how much trouble he gets himself into. He keeps pursuing that elusive truth, no matter how much the adults, both good and bad, try to keep him from pursuing his missing mother.

Jasper takes a journey through dark places that he is too young to understand. But he keeps going anyway. And in the end, learns that there are some things he would be better off not knowing. But he’ll never be a child again.

Escape Rating A-: The Buried Book is a story that rewards the reader’s patience. The set up takes a long time, and Jasper’s necessarily limited understanding and rightfully childish point of view can make it difficult for adult readers to get inside his head. It’s not a comfortable fit.

But it is a rewarding one. At about halfway, the story suddenly takes off. Jasper has learned enough, or stumbled into enough, that whatever is chasing his mother is also chasing him. He’s afraid to trust any of the adults in his world. He has no way of knowing friend from foe, but he is rightfully certain that the adults mostly want to stop him. And even if it is supposedly for his own good, he can’t let go.

There’s a painful lesson in here about the darkness that lies beneath, and that people don’t want to see. The events of his mother’s adolescence are still with her in Jasper’s present. She wasn’t able to trust any of the adults in her life, either. But the way that they failed her, and continue to do so, is a big part of what destroyed her life, and may also consume Jasper’s.

The end of this story is utterly heartbreaking. Jasper learns a terrible lesson. It’s the one about being careful what you wish for, because you might get it. When the story ends, Jasper is 12, and his childhood is over.

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

I am giving away a copy of The Buried Book by D.M. Pulley to one lucky US or Canadian commenter:

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Review: Daughter of Sand and Stone by Libbie Hawker + Giveaway

Review: Daughter of Sand and Stone by Libbie Hawker + GiveawayDaughter of Sand and Stone by Libbie Hawker
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Pages: 328
Published by Lake Union Publishing on December 1st 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

When Zenobia takes control of her own fate, will the gods punish her audacity?
Zenobia, the proud daughter of a Syrian sheikh, refuses to marry against her will. She won’t submit to a lifetime of subservience. When her father dies, she sets out on her own, pursuing the power she believes to be her birthright, dreaming of the Roman Empire’s downfall and her ascendance to the throne.
Defying her family, Zenobia arranges her own marriage to the most influential man in the city of Palmyra. But their union is anything but peaceful—his other wife begrudges the marriage and the birth of Zenobia’s son, and Zenobia finds herself ever more drawn to her guardsman, Zabdas. As war breaks out, she’s faced with terrible choices.
From the decadent halls of Rome to the golden sands of Egypt, Zenobia fights for power, for love, and for her son. But will her hubris draw the wrath of the gods? Will she learn a “woman’s place,” or can she finally stake her claim as Empress of the East?

My Review:

Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz. Original on exhibit, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.
Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra,
by Herbert Gustave Schmalz. Original on exhibit, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Zenobia is a name that may feel familiar, even if you can’t place it. She was certainly a legend in her own time, but history has obscured who she was and what she did. In this very fictionalized history, she feels like a second coming of Cleopatra – an appropriate image, as Zenobia herself claimed to be a descendant of the great queen. And Zenobia, like her purported ancestress, also attempted to steal Egypt from her Roman masters. Also like Cleopatra, she failed.

Although little is known for certain about Zenobia’s life, the author has created a fictional biography that, while romanticized, also seems quite plausible. Zenobia was the daughter of one of the desert chieftains who controlled the lush trade city of Palmyra during one of the more contentious eras in the long and stuttering fall of the Roman Empire.

(For those who have read or watched I, Claudius, that same Claudius is mentioned as one of the many emperors that briefly rules Rome during Zenobia’s life. Rome was a hot mess.)

Unfortunately for Zenobia, while she did most of her plotting and planning during the years when Rome lost emperor after emperor, she brought her plans to fruition just as the extremely competent Aurelian took the purple. Aurelian crushed her attempt to form an Empire of the East, centered on her home city of Palmyra, that included Rome’s breadbasket, Egypt.

The story in Daughter of Sand and Stone is the story of a young woman who quite possibly thought too much of herself and her own destiny, who rose from chieftain’s youngest daughter to Roman governor’s wife to Queen to very, very briefly, Empress.

What we see is a young woman who seems first to have been a legend in her own mind. She rejected her expected role as wife and mother, rejecting all of the quite eligible suitors that her father presented to her. Then, when tragedy struck in the form of bandit raids on her unwalled city, she took upon herself a daring midnight ride to find her father’s remaining troops and rally them to defend the city.

Her people worshipped her as their savior, no matter that her brother-in-law became the next chief.

From there, Zenobia plotted her own course to power, first marrying the Roman governor, and then after his assassination carrying out his plans for an Eastern Empire, but in her own name. She took those plans to dizzying heights, and then, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun, and crashed to exile and death.

Escape Rating B: The story in Daughter of Sand and Stone is Zenobia’s from the very first page until her final defeat. In the book, that defeat is a capitulation to the role that she was supposed to have occupied all along, that of a quiet helpmeet and wife. In other words, she finally resigns herself to what was considered a “woman’s place”, after a lifetime of fighting that characterization every step of the way.

But the adventure that finally gets her there, while ultimately doomed, was a glorious one. She begins by always believing that she is meant for more than her lot in life should have given her. She always feels that she has a destiny, and is quite often self-deceiving in her pursuit of what she feels should be hers. It is no wonder that her talent for self-deception eventually runs into the cold reality of Roman might.

While occasionally Zenobia’s speeches and internal thoughts about her great destiny sound strange to our ears, what she did about that belief was remarkable. In her relatively short life (she was about 35 when she either died or slipped into complete obscurity) she takes herself from chieftain’s daughter to empress just on the strength of her own ambition and vision. That would have been a lot of ambition even for a man in that era – for a woman it became the stuff of legend.

In the story, some things are created out of very scanty bits of historical records. Her relationship with the governor’s first wife, while fictional, provides a lot of the tension in the early parts of the story, and motivates some of Zenobia’s real life behavior. Zenobia’s romance with her general, while also fictional, helps complete the portrait of Zenobia as a whole person instead of just a face on a coin.

The descriptions of the desert are rich and lush, the reader can almost feel the sand blowing by and the sudden beauty of the oases. It makes it easy to understand why Zenobia loved her city so much that she wanted to make an empire of it.

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

I am giving away a copy of Daughter of Sand and Stone to one lucky U.S. or Canadian commenter.

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Review: The Crescent Spy by Michael Wallace + Giveaway

Review: The Crescent Spy by Michael Wallace + GiveawayThe Crescent Spy by Michael Wallace
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 325
Published by Lake Union Publishing on November 10th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Writing under a man’s name, Josephine Breaux is the finest reporter at Washington’s Morning Clarion. Using her wit and charm, she never fails to get the scoop on the latest Union and Confederate activities. But when a rival paper reveals her true identity, accusations of treason fly. Despite her claims of loyalty to the Union, she is arrested as a spy and traitor.
To Josephine’s surprise, she’s whisked away to the White House, where she learns that President Lincoln himself wishes to use her cunning and skill for a secret mission in New Orleans that could hasten the end of the war. For Josephine, though, this mission threatens to open old wounds and expose dangerous secrets. In the middle of the most violent conflict the country has ever seen, can one woman overcome the treacherous secrets of her past in order to secure her nation’s future?

My Review:

liar temptress soldier spy by karen abbottThe Crescent Spy goes really, really well with both The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini (reviewed here) and Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott (reviewed here). Both the Chiaverini and Abbott books tell the stories of women who were spies for one side or the other in the war variously known as the “War of the Rebellion” if you were a Union partisan and the “War of Northern Aggression” if you supported the Rebel states.

While Liar, Temptress is intended as a more factual and less fictional account, both it and the fictionalized Spymistress feature stories of real women who were known as spies. The Crescent Spy uses its invented protagonist, Josephine Breaux, to show another aspect of the role of spies in the war, and the way that covert intelligence could affect actual policy. And it also gives us an intimate view of the battle for the port of New Orleans, as well as showing just how effective newspaper reporters could be as spies.

We meet Josephine Breaux as she is fleeing the First Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run, again depending on which side you are on. Josephine is not alone – a surprising number of civilians and society people traveled down from Washington DC to watch the Union kick the Rebels’ tails. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, the Union Army, along with the spectating civilians, fled in disarray from the spirited defense of the Confederate Army. Josephine, writing as she travels, details that it wasn’t so much that the Confederates won, as that the Union Army lost its will to fight in the confusion. The fog of war is a very real thing, especially when you feel all alone in the middle of it.

After she returns to DC, Josephine finds herself exposed by a rival newspaper. The real exposure is that she is the writer behind the male war correspondent Joseph Breaux. That would be survivable, but a story has been planted that she is a Rebel spy. She is done in DC.

Instead of setting out for New York City as she planned, she finds herself sitting in the White House, listening to President Abraham Lincoln explain that she has been chosen by the Pinkertons to travel to her former hometown of New Orleans to cover the war and spy for the Union. While angered that her downfall in DC was engineered by the Pinkertons, Josephine is flattered by the President’s attention to her intelligence and writing skill, and as an ardent Union supporter, finds herself accepting the President’s offer of clandestine employment.

This is where the fun really begins, as Josephine has to make her way from DC, through the Union blockade, to the Confederate port of New Orleans. In NOLA she uses her newfound notoriety as a Rebel spy to get herself a job on a New Orleans newspaper and makes herself both a war correspondent and the recipient of all the military-preparedness related gossip she can lay her hands on.

Josephine plays a major role in the Union’s relatively early capture of the South’s biggest port. The war began in 1861, and New Orleans was occupied by the Union Army in 1862. While the South mourned its loss, the early capture of New Orleans saved it from destruction by the Union Army such as was visited upon Atlanta and other cities during Sherman’s March.

But during that tumultuous year, we follow Josephine as she learns to be an effective spy while continuing to ply her trade as a journalist. That she is sending secret reports on Confederate readiness (or lack thereof) to the Union Command does not prevent her from reporting the war that she witness to the people in the city that are eagerly awaiting news and reassurance. Even when her news is true and her reassurance is false.

She is constantly aware that she could be betrayed at any moment. Her own past as a riverboat dancer’s daughter comes back to haunt her, and old friends resurface as enemies, willing to sell Josephine out for a chance at enough money to escape the war. Her old life is a much greater threat to her future than anything she does as a spy, including blowing up a powder magazine.

As a later Southern writer will say, “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.” Josephine discovers that her past isn’t done with her yet. Both it and her inability to deal with it nearly does her in, but she soldiers on.

Escape Rating B: This is a good solid story of a woman who is doing things that women were not supposed to do in her time and place. But the war provides the excuse and the impetus for Josephine to break out of any role that she is supposed to be in.

She is a likeable character without being too goody-two-shoes or too aggressively strident, although she occasionally comes close to the latter. If she were a man, no one would think twice about her extreme self-confidence or her desire for glory and validation of her prodigious talent. As a woman, she often finds herself in the position of needing to equivocate in order to get the military brass to see that she, not merely female but barely 21, actually does know more about military tactics than most of the idiots that are currently leading the Union Army. And while she is good enough at playacting in order to pursue a story, she has no capacity for hiding her light under a bushel basket when she is giving her own opinions. Even when those opinions sound a lot like giving orders to generals.

Josephine always thinks she knows best, and only lets her fear out when she’s alone.

The most difficult part of the story is the way that Josephine deals with her past. It’s not that she’s the daughter of a riverboat dancer and occasional prostitute, or even that she feels ashamed of what she came from. But she is still running from her ghosts, including the man who might be her father. Her past nearly overruns her present, and the secrets she keeps about who she is and how she got her start have a real chance at getting both her and the Pinkerton agent she works with killed. Even by the story’s end, while she has finally revealed the information to her partner, she still hasn’t dealt with the fallout emotionally. She still has some growing up to do. Which makes her a very interesting character to follow.

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

I am giving away a copy of The Crescent Spy to one lucky U.S. or Canadian commenter:

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