Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage

It’s 1928 and, in Britain, women of property now have the vote thanks to brave and tireless women like Mattie Simpkin.  Even so, Mattie stays in contact with her suffragette sisters, continues to lecture on her experiences and for the right of all women to vote.  She also carries a small club of polished ash in her handbag and lives in a charming old house called the Mousehole with her friend and assistant Florrie Lee, known as The Flea.  When they engage a sixteen-year-old housemaid named Ida, Mattie begins to see just how limited ordinary young women of the day actually are.  With Ida as the first member and reluctant recruit, Mattie begins a club for girls and young women – outdoor activities, exercise, sleuthing games, debate and adventures.  Mattie believes in living life with brio, and it all goes swimmingly, as they say.  Until, that is, Mattie, always a confident woman, becomes a bit over-involved, puts a foot wrong, steps in something smelly, and it all goes to hell.  But keep your eye on the wickedly intelligent Miss Simpkin.  This good woman has a sure instinct for steering the right course, and she will find her way.

Tell you what.  I think I was in the mood for (or maybe in need of) a case of the Brits.  Steadying, bracing, what is it?  Don’t know about you, but I can only go so long without ‘em, and Ms. Evans book is so very, very……well, it’s as British as a cup of tea and a biscuit.  Characters, time and place, humor – loved all of it, and there’s an interesting political timeliness as well.  Topping, spot on, jolly good, righty-o and all that.  This one will put you right as rain.

Available now, so shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by HarperCollins Publishers / Harper Perennial via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Louisa Treger’s The Dragon Lady

I was ready for a good chunk of a novel – not genre, not froth, not gimmick, not avant garde.  And by chunk, I’m not talking about heft, but rather, density, depth, a novel that you unpack as you read.  A novel that ends before you want it to.  Are you with me?  I just wanted a dadblamed book!

So…..you know that first line thing, lines that get the job done?  Well, here’s one.  “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget, yet the smallest thing takes me back to the time the Dragon Lady was shot.”  Let the unpacking begin.  The Dragon Lady is Virginia Courtauld (Gini), wife of Stephen Courtauld, and the dragon is not a dragon.  It is a snake, a fearsome serpent, tattooed up the side of her leg.  Scandalous.  How far up it goes no one knows except Stephen.  Did such a tattoo ever exist?  Not sure about that, but Gini and Stephen did, and The Dragon Lady is a fictionalization of their lives – Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld.  In fact, their home, La Rochelle in what was then Rhodesia, is now a hotel.

Stephen’s family is British and very wealthy.  To be more precise, they are upright folks, filthy, stinking rich, and so is he.  He’s a WWI vet (with flashbacks), a highly principled man, involved in the Arts, devoted to Gini, and he spends gobs and gobs of money.  Gini, well, she is already tattooed when she marries Stephen.  She is wealthy, too, but not as, and it’s upstart wealth.  Also, she’s half Italian, half Romanian.  Hmmm.  Antecedents are so important, you know.  A fascinating, mysterious woman and a bit of a social climber, but, to her disappointment, she never quite makes the cut.  As a couple they are genuine, liberal, philanthropic and always, always controversial.

The book moves back and forth in time from the 1920s to an epilogue in the 90s, but focuses on Stephen and Gini in Rhodesia in the 1950s.  They move to Africa for a new start, and build a beautiful home only to find that native Africans are held in dreadful contempt, and white society is both fearful and fearfully racist.  The Courtaulds reach out for ways to help.  They start a Home and Craft Center for native women, a school for African children, a model farm teaching agricultural methods; they build a theater and an art gallery.  However, as you well know, no good deed goes unpunished.  Stephen is ultimately knighted for his work, but they gain only anger and animosity from their white neighbors.

Oh damn, I hope I haven’t managed to make a slam dunk sound boring.  And I was off to such a good start, too.  Trust me, Rhodesia, a powder keg at that time, cannot be boring.  Neither can Stephen and Gini.  Nor can a ghost, a pet lemur, ladies who smoke slim cigarettes and people who – as if in a Noel Coward play – call each other “darling”.  The very names of African trees will make your eyes light up.  And did I mention the Duke and Duchess of Windsor?  This, my darlings, is a book.

Book your trip to Rhodesia and the past on August 13 when The Dragon Lady hits bookstore shelves.  Support your local indie bookstore if you like by pre-ordering here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Bloomsbury USA / Bloomsbury Caravel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Women of Copper Country

The very first word that occurred to me when I began reading Ms. Russell’s book was “solid”, and then, I swear, there was a sense of relief.  This book is solid, and this is not faint praise.  I knew I could count on it, lean into it, walk around in its rooms and settings and not trip or fall through a weak spot.  Hosanna!

Set in the copper mining country of upper Michigan, the story is a harsh one, based on events arising out of the labor movement of the early Twentieth Century, and in particular the Michigan copper mines strike of 1913 and the Italian Hall disaster.  Characters are, for the most part, actual persons or composites.  There is Anna Klobuchar Clements, the tall woman, wife of a miner, America’s Joan of Arc, who inspired and led a wildcat strike of nearly a year’s duration, protesting low pay, long hours, and dangerous conditions for the miners.  With Anna as its primary figure, the book focuses on the women in the movement, the women behind the miners, their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.  These women lived with horror and loss on a near weekly basis – crippling, maiming, work-ending injury and death in the mines.  Not if, but when.

Strong material for sure, and with her deft and artistic hand, Ms. Russell knows just what to make of it. Good material and diligent research, skillful plotting and narrative, fully realized characterizations, sure sense of time and place.  It’s all there.  For, you see, Ms. Russell is not only an artist, she knows her craft, and it is craftsmanship that makes this the good book that it is; good and, yes, solid.  A book you are grateful for, that you can count on.  Lean into it.  It will hold.

You’ll have to wait until August 6 for The Women of Copper Country to hit bookstores.  But why wait when you can pre-order this gem? Click here to support your local indie bookstore or here to pre-order from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Hans Fallada’s Nightmare in Berlin

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Written and set in Germany just after the end of WWII and the fall of the Nazi regime, this novel is not a pleasant read.  An ambitious country and a proud people drank the Kool-Aid for twelve years, and now lie in ruin.  The German people are almost universally held in contempt; any Berlin building with windows intact is a miracle; conquering armies (Russia, in this instance) are feared.  Conflicts arise between those who supported Hitler and those who did not, and even some of the latter are beginning to view his regime as a time of plenty and, perhaps, to wish for its return.  Understandably in distress, characters show their baser sides, and most are quite dislikeable.

Though this novel is widely considered autobiographical, Hans Fallada (pen name of author Rudolf Ditzen) denied this.  However, his central actor, Dr. Doll, is a German author of note, and most of his story here does seem to parallel that of Fallada, who has been compared to Mann and Hesse.   As Germany struggles with the aftermath of all-out war, Dr. Doll struggles with financial ruin, addiction, frequent hospitalizations, a difficult, much younger wife (also an addict) and the contempt of his neighbors, and, even though Dr. Doll has hopeful moments, you somehow know that he is not convinced.

Yes, this resurrected novel is dark, dark and challenging, but it is important for its contemporaneous look at Germany after the war, for its probing insight into human honesty and deceit, and for the artistry of the work.  Fallada/Ditzen wrote only one more work, Alone in Berlin, before he died in 1947, but Dr. Doll and a fallen Berlin will return to you time after time.

Click here to order Nightmare in Berlin from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Scribe US via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher and Edelweiss+ for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

John Burnham Schwartz’s The Red Daughter

I doubt the name Svetlana Alliluyeva means anything to most of us today, but Joseph Stalin’s daughter was a political hot potato when she defected from Mother Russia during the Cold War.  Whether you know of her, and regardless of your knowledge of the Cold War and Russian history, you will tear through this novelization of Svetlana’s life.  Mr. Schwartz writes of her confusing and privileged young life and provides the background to her defection, but the story is primarily that of her life after arriving in the U.S., and it is totally engrossing.

Intelligent, guarded and seemingly hard, Svetlana hides her vulnerability and her past, to the extent that she can or is allowed to; but her life as her father’s child and as an adult under the rigid control of Soviet society leaves her unprepared for Western life and choices.  She is haunted by the two nearly adult children she left behind; the U.S.S.R. tantalizes her with them, and U.S. authorities fear her children will be used to lure or harm her.  There is a brief remarriage, and a baby boy born late in Svetlana’s life.  She adores this child, hides his grandfather’s identity from him until he is a young teenager, and there are traumatic consequences.  You will swear that what you have before you is non-fiction reading as fiction, but, no.  The strength of this work is the story – fiction reading as blisteringly masterful fiction.

Available to everyone on April 30, or pre-order at Amazon.com: The Red Daughter: A Novel

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group / Random House via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Leonard Goldberg’s The Disappearance of Alistair Ainsworth

This third in the “Daughter of Sherlock Holmes” series was my introduction to Joanna Blalock Watson and her small family, born sleuths, all of them.  Joanna is the flesh and blood daughter of the famous detective, and her father-in-law is the ever-present Dr. Watson.  Her husband, Watson’s son, narrates, and her son Johnny promises to be his grandfather Sherlock all over again.  It’s World War I, so, as you’d expect, there are German spies, zeppelins and U-boats, encryption and experts, clandestine affairs (or not?), and a dastardly traitor.  Who?  (I figured it out; I figured it out!)  There’s even a fake funeral involving a long-dead cat.  Nice touch.

All this gives Joanna ample opportunity to dazzle with that famous deductive reasoning, but, in the Holmes tradition, there can be no rush to judgment.  She moves at a measured pace, dispensing conclusions in small, intriguing doses, and, like her father, is more than a bit condescending to those of lesser gifts……and isn’t that everybody?  While it may be something of a trudge for the modern reader, if you’re a Conan Doyle fan and don’t want to re-read him for the umpteenth time, this is well-done and as close as you can get.  Prefer your detective series in order?  Begin with The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes and follow with A Study in Treason.  This installment makes its appearance on June 11 from Minotaur Books.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press / Minotaur Books via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

 

Dominic Smith’s The Electric Hotel

The title?   Didn’t think it sounded too promising, you know; but I was wrong, so very, very wrong; and it was my good fortune to meet an elderly French gentleman, Claude Ballard, living out his life in a rundown Hollywood hotel.  This is not the electric hotel of the title, but it is the same hotel where, according to this novel, D.W. Griffith died.  Turns out, Mr. Ballard has a history in silent film that predates Griffith, and we go back in time to learn about the earliest days and the simplest of films, moving figures in a stream of light.   Here is a man who films his own sister’s death from tuberculosis as he tries to understand and promote this new medium.  Meet Sabine Montrose, a bold-going stage actress who transitions to film and then into exile after starring in a doomed masterpiece.  And Chip Spalding, teenage Australian daredevil, forerunner of all Hollywood stuntmen to come.  Hal Bender from Brooklyn, where he stays a step ahead of trouble eking out a living with nickel peepshows, to studio head where he struggles to stay…………

Unforgettable.  Lose yourself in layer upon rich layer and a stellar cast of characters.  Read Dominic Smith’s lovely new work, you lucky reader, you.  It is truly a find.

The Electric Hotel is not scheduled for release until June 4, 2019 so put this on your calendar.  Not to be missed!!!

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Sarah Crichton Books via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.