Book Review: The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Lioness
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: May 10, 2022
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A luxurious African safari turns deadly for a Hollywood starlet and her entourage in this riveting historical thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant

Tanzania, 1964. When Katie Barstow, A-list actress, and her new husband, David Hill, decide to bring their Hollywood friends to the Serengeti for their honeymoon, they envision giraffes gently eating leaves from the tall acacia trees, great swarms of wildebeests crossing the Mara River, and herds of zebra storming the sandy plains. Their glamorous guests—including Katie’s best friend, Carmen Tedesco, and Terrance Dutton, the celebrated Black actor who stars alongside Katie in the highly controversial film “Tender Madness”—will spend their days taking photos, and their evenings drinking chilled gin and tonics back at camp, as the local Tanzanian guides warm water for their baths. The wealthy Americans expect civilized adventure: Fresh ice from the kerosene-powered ice maker, dinners of cooked gazelle meat, and plenty of stories to tell over lunch back on Rodeo Drive.

What Katie and her glittering entourage do not expect is this: A kidnapping gone wrong, their guides bleeding out in the dirt, and a team of Russian mercenaries herding them into Land Rovers, guns to their heads. As the powerful sun gives way to night, the gunmen shove them into abandoned huts and Katie Barstow, Hollywood royalty, prays for a simple thing: To see the sun rise one more time. A blistering story of fame, race, love, and death set in a world on the cusp of great change, The Lioness is a vibrant masterpiece from one of our finest storytellers.

Chris Bohjalian proves once again that he can tell a story with any subject, in any genre, and make it unputdownable. The only reason I didn’t read The Lioness straight through was the pesky issue of needing to sleep. (And even once I stopped for the night, did I dream about kidnappings and safaris? You bet I did.)

From his devastating, engrossing novel about a Puritan woman accused of witchcraft in 1660s Boston (The Hour of the Witch), the author shifts tone and subject matter completely with The Lioness, bringing us a tale of Hollywood glamor, deadly Cold War proxy wars, and the terror of being utterly defenseless in a place that has far too many ways to kill a human.

Katie Barstow is the biggest movie star of 1964 when, at age 30, she marries art gallery owner David Hill, then brings their closest friends and family with them on a luxury African safari. Led by renowned “great white hunter” Charlie Patton, they’ll travel through the Serengeti viewing wildlife and taking photographs, “roughing it” with canvas bathtubs filled by porters and living in tents, while protected by rangers and having their every need catered to. For Katie, a warm-hearted friend and sister who truly cares about the people with her, it’s the adventure and experience of a lifetime.

But within a few days, things go very, very wrong. The expedition’s camp is attacked by armed men — white men with Russian accents and over-the-top firepower — who kill several of the group’s guides ruthlessly before taking the Americans hostage. As the group is divided in two, they’re left at the mercy of their kidnappers, who don’t hesitate to use violence. The deeper they’re taken into the Serengeti, the worse their odds of survival look: Even if they do manage to escape their captors, then what? Unarmed, without provisions, alone in the wild, how long could they survive the leopards, hyenas, and other predatory animals who stalk their every movement?

In chapters that shift perspective amongst the nine members of Katie’s entourage, we follow the events of the kidnapping as they unfold, but also see each character’s thoughts and memories of their lives before the trip and the events leading up to this point. We come to understand their inner lives, their early struggles, and the individualized fears they carry with them into this moment of extreme crisis.

I won’t say too much more about the plot. It’s complex and includes twists and red herrings, but we’re always fully present in the moment with the characters. We experience the terror of these events alongside the characters, never knowing from moment to moment what might be happening to the others, what the kidnappers’ plans are, or whether what’s coming might be even worse than what’s happening at that very moment. The characters must react and choose what to do based on very limited information, always weighing the odds of survival — is it better to attack their kidnappers, or to wait and hope for rescue or ransom? Which way offers the best chance of living for one more hour, one more day?

I did find myself lacking some key information about the state of affairs in East Africa in the mid-1960s, and relied on many quick Wikipedia searches to shore up my historical knowledge enough to get better context for the plot developments. The plot is so character-driven that the historical details are really more background than essential, but it helped me a lot to have quick access to the information I needed, and helped round out the stakes, the players, and the settings of the Cold War machinations that drive the story from behind the scenes.

The Lioness is a totally engrossing read, I was low-key anxious and/or terrified throughout my reading experience. We know right from the prologue that most of the characters will not survive — but it’s not clear who survives or how events wind up until the very end. Meanwhile, we get to know each of them as individuals, and while not all are people I’d want to actually hang out with, it’s still tragic and terrible to see how, one by one, those who die meet their ends.

I rarely give 5-star ratings — I think of 5-star books as being those where I wouldn’t change a thing. And with that in mind, I couldn’t give The Lioness any less than 5 stars. I was immediately captivated, and then couldn’t look away. My emotions and my brain were engaged right from the start.

This isn’t an easy read — the subject matter is very tough to take — but the book itself is impossible to put down once you start. I’m a big fan of Chris Bohjalian’s books, and The Lioness doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. (In fact, despite having an e-ARC, I think I’m going to need a hard copy for my shelves as well).

Don’t miss The Lioness. I have a feeling it’s destined to end up on many of the “best of” lists for 2022.

Book Review: The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson

Title: The Book Woman’s Daughter
Author: Kim Michele Richardson
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Bestselling historical fiction author Kim Michele Richardson is back with the perfect book club read following Honey Lovett, the daughter of the beloved Troublesome book woman, who must fight for her own independence with the help of the women who guide her and the books that set her free.

In the ruggedness of the beautiful Kentucky mountains, Honey Lovett has always known that the old ways can make a hard life harder. As the daughter of the famed blue-skinned, Troublesome Creek packhorse librarian, Honey and her family have been hiding from the law all her life. But when her mother and father are imprisoned, Honey realizes she must fight to stay free, or risk being sent away for good.

Picking up her mother’s old packhorse library route, Honey begins to deliver books to the remote hollers of Appalachia. Honey is looking to prove that she doesn’t need anyone telling her how to survive. But the route can be treacherous, and some folks aren’t as keen to let a woman pave her own way.

If Honey wants to bring the freedom books provide to the families who need it most, she’s going to have to fight for her place, and along the way, learn that the extraordinary women who run the hills and hollers can make all the difference in the world.

I loved the 2019 novel The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, and was excited to hear that a sequel would be released this year. Sadly, The Book Woman’s Daughter doesn’t quite live up to the first book.

The story picks up about 15 years after the end of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. The first book’s main character, Cussy Mary Lovett, and her husband Jackson are raising their adopted daughter Honey in the backcountry hills — but the people of Kentucky have a long memory, and, it seems clears, a long-lasting capacity for hatred.

Cussy Mary is a Blue, one of the clan of Kentucky Appalachian dwellers with a genetic condition that gives them blue skin. The Blues are despised by white Kentuckians and are viewed as “colored” — and because Cussy is married to a white man, the two are accused of miscegenation. Although they live in isolation in the back woods, the law still catches up with them. As The Book Woman’s Daughter opens, Honey’s parents are arrested, treated violently, and soon thereafter sentenced to two years each in prison.

The law isn’t done with the family, though. Honey, at age 16, is a minor. The county has issued an order for Honey to be taken into custody and sent to a reform institution, where she can be held until age 21, doing hard labor and essentially a prisoner of the state. Honey makes a last-minute escape from the sheriff and social worker who come to seize her, and from there, must depend on the kindness and support of the mountain folk who loved her parents, including an old woman who assumes guardianship of Honey and a moonshiner whose family offers her shelter.

Things don’t go well for Honey, and she’s repeatedly forced to find new ways to survive and support herself, eventually taking up her mother’s former profession as a pack horse librarian. As the area’s new Book Woman, Honey travels the trails and mountains on her mule, but encounters trouble even there as she becomes embroiled in the struggles of a woman suffering abuse at her husband’s hands.

The book follows Honey’s efforts to find a place for herself, protect herself, and ultimately seek emancipation in order to keep herself out of the clutches of the state that wants to lock her up. Her journey involves some terrible experiences and danger, but she also finds new friends along the way and gains a better understanding of the plight of women in that time and place.

The Book Woman’s Daughter introduces us to the world of Appalachia in the mid-1950s, clearly not a welcoming world for women, especially those who don’t fit the traditional mold. It’s a place of economic woes, with children starving in the backcountry and men (and the occasional women) sacrificing their health to the coal mines — the only option for those seeking work and wages.

Honey is an endearing character, and I appreciated her determination, her commitment to her parents and her love of family, and her sense of right and wrong.

I did feel that the book lacks in terms of bringing the setting to life. I suppose there’s an assumption on the part of the author that readers will have read the first book, but even as someone who had read it, I would have liked this book to spend a little more time describing the way of life, the landscape, and the overall sense of the time and place. Instead, we’re dropped into a setting that doesn’t get fleshed out enough, and I always felts something was missing.

My other quibble with this book is a certain flatness. The events move along, and some are moving or frightening, but overall, I couldn’t quite get emotionally engaged. Honey’s parents are almost entirely off the page, which is a shame — they’re the connection to the first book, but they’re rarely seen, and this second book doesn’t create enough of a link back to their story.

I’m still glad to have read The Book Woman’s Daughter, but it didn’t capture my feelings or imagination the way The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek did. Still, for those who read the first book, it’s worth reading this follow-up to see what happens next for the family.

Book Review: The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer

Title: The Black Moth
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: 1921
Length: 355 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A disgraced lord, a notorious highwayman

Jack Carstares, the disgraced Earl of Wyndam, left England seven long years ago, sacrificing his honor for that of his brother when he was accused of cheating at cards. Now Jack is back, roaming his beloved South Country in the disguise of a highwayman.

And the beauty who would steal his heart

Not long after Jack’s return, he encounters his old adversary, the libertine Duke of Andover, attempting the abduction of the beautiful Diana Beauleigh. At the point of Jack’s sword, the duke is vanquished, but foiled once, the “Black Moth” has no intention of failing again.

This is Georgette Heyer’s first novel, a favorite of readers and a stirring tale to be enjoyed again and again.

The Black Moth was Georgette Heyer’s first novel, published when she was just 19 years old. The author went on to publish over 60 novels and became known as the queen of Regency romances. Apparently (according to Wikipedia and other online articles), she wrote The Black Moth in serial installments as a way to entertain her ailing, bedridden younger brother, and her father thought the story was so good that he encouraged her to publish it. And the rest, as they say, is history!

The Black Moth is quite the adventurous, swash-buckling tale, full of men behaving badly and women steeling their spines and standing up for themselves (with a little swooning thrown in too). Set during the Georgian era, the plot revolves around aristocratic men bound by family loyalty and what would now be considered out-of-proportion concern for honor and reputation.

Jack Castares, the elder son of the Earl of Wyncham, has been living in exiled disgrace for years as of the opening of the book, ever since he was caught cheating at cards — a fatal blow to a gentleman’s reputation. He spends his days as a highwayman, raiding carriages and terrorizing travelers — although he’s actually a highwayman with a heart of gold, more often than not helping the helpless or “donating” his ill-gotten gains to those in need.

But Jack’s younger brother Richard knows the truth. Richard was, in fact, the one who’d been cheating, but Jack took the blame rather than see his brother shamed and disgraced, which would have resulted in him losing the woman he loved.

Richard’s wife Lavinia’s oldest brother, Tracy Belmanoir, the Duke of Andover, was the one who “caught” the cheating. A man nicknamed “Devil”, the Duke is cold, decadent, and deadly when provoked. When he attempts to abduct a young woman who’s caught his eye, Jack intervenes, at risk to his own life. Family secrets, love, and honor become intertwined, until a final showdown involving yet another abduction, a duel, and (naturally) a happy ending.

The Black Moth is highly entertaining, but clearly a product of its time. I had to leave my feminist sensibilities firmly tucked away on a shelf while reading this book, or the paternalism and disrespect toward women would have driven me crazy — although to be fair, there are two lead women characters who are strong-willed, determined, and capable, and I love their portrayals.

On the negative side, however, is the plot climax that includes threat of a forced marriage — or, if the woman will not consent, the implied threat of a rape and marriage anyway. These fates are avoided by the hero’s arrival and success in a duel, but the fact remains that the evildoer goes unpunished and the incident is largely resolved through a gentlemen’s agreement that everyone will be better off keeping this a private affair.

Daring adventure and danger is the name of the game in The Black Moth, and the scenes that include either action sequences or social manners and maneuvers are the most enjoyable. I was less enthralled by the gambling and settling of debts and manly men being manly in their men’s clubs… but there was enough good stuff in the mix to outweigh these bits.

I ended up reading The Black Moth for the Classics Club Spin challenge, and I’m so glad I did! This book has been on my shelf for several years, and I’m happy that I finally had an incentive to pick it up and read it. I started The Black Moth via the Serial Reader app, thinking I’d read it over the course of a month in daily installments, but this approach ended up not working for me. The small bites didn’t give me enough immersion in the story and made it hard to keep the characters straight — I was much happier once I picked up my paperback edition and read straight through to the end.

This is, I believe, my 7th Georgette Heyer book, and I have a stack of unread books by her still sitting on my bookshelf. Overall, The Black Moth was a great pick for a light and easy classic read, and I’m glad to have gone back to this author. And now that I have, I’m feeling motivated to squeeze in at least one or two more this year!

If you’ve read any Georgette Heyer books, please let me know — which are your favorites? I’d appreciate any and all recommendations!

Book Review: To Marry and To Meddle by Martha Waters

Title: To Marry and To Meddle (The Regency Vows, #3)
Author: Martha Waters
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The “sweet, sexy, and utterly fun” (Emily Henry, author of The People We Meet on Vacation) Regency Vows series continues with a witty, charming, and joyful novel following a seasoned debutante and a rakish theater owner as they navigate a complicated marriage of convenience.

Lady Emily Turner has been a debutante for six seasons now and should have long settled into a suitable marriage. However, due to her father’s large debts, her only suitor is the persistent and odious owner of her father’s favorite gambling house. Meanwhile, Lord Julian Belfry, the second son of a marquess, has scandalized society as an actor and owner of a theater—the kind of establishment where men take their mistresses, but not their wives. When their lives intersect at a house party, Lord Julian hatches a plan to benefit them both.

With a marriage of convenience, Emily will use her society connections to promote the theater to a more respectable clientele and Julian will take her out from under the shadows of her father’s unsavory associates. But they soon realize they have very different plans for their marriage—Julian wants Emily to remain a society wife, while Emily discovers an interest in the theater. But when a fleeing actress, murderous kitten, and meddlesome friends enter the fray, Emily and Julian will have to confront the fact that their marriage of convenience comes with rather inconvenient feelings.

The Regency Vows series is a fun, fresh look at love and friendship in (obviously) the Regency era. The books focus on a trio of friends, Violet (lead character of the first book, To Have and To Hoax), Diana (starring in To Love and To Loathe), and Emily, the main character of this 3rd book, To Marry and To Meddle.

Lady Emily Turner is the perfectly mannered daughter of a respectable society family. At age 23, she is unmarried, largely because her parents have promised her to an awful man to whom the family is ruinously in debt. She’s desperately unhappy, but would never dream of disobeying her parents… until Julian comes along.

Lord Julian Belfry is the younger son of a titled family. No one expects much of a younger son, but they certainly don’t expect and can’t tolerate his ownership of a (gasp!) theater — especially a theater that has the reputation of being a place for gentleman to spend a night out with their mistresses.

In Emily, Julian sees a way to attain respectability for his theater. In Julian, Emily sees a path to freedom. At a country party (the setting of much of the previous book), Julian comes up with a plan that might solve both of their problems: He proposed marriage. With Emily’s good social standing, he hopes to repair the theater’s reputation and draw in the right crowd. And with Julian’s money, Emily’s family can be freed from their debts, saving Emily from being forced into a terrible marriage.

The arrangement would clearly be a win-win situation, and the fact that they enjoy one another’s company is an added bonus. Emily accepts, and the two are married right away. Emily soon learns that there’s one more unexpected benefit to the marriage — she and Julian are very compatible, and they enjoy a steamy start to their married life (interrupted only by the appearance of a homeless kitten, whom Julian christens Cecil Lucifer Beelzebub).

While quite enjoyable, I found TM&TM a little… flat. There just isn’t much dramatic conflict in the plot. The key tension is around whether Emily spends her time wooing society ladies by paying calls, when what she really wants is to spend more time with Julian and participate in running the theater. Julian’s conflict has to do with running the theater in a way that will prove it’s respectable, when what he really and truly wants is his own father’s approval. And, as expected, they each must reluctantly face the fact that they’ve fallen in love — how to admit to one’s spouse that a mutually beneficial arrangement now involves one’s feelings?

Because of course she loved him — how could she not? But, more importantly, how could she ensure that he did not know, did not ever discover her secret? Because, after all, in a marriage of convenience, love would the most inconvenient surprise of all.

It’s all very pleasant and often quite funny, but there just isn’t much there there when it comes to the plot. The stakes are fairly low, after all, when it comes to the plotlines related to the theater. The book is at its best when it focuses on relationships, and it was touching to see how both Emily and Julian stand up to their families and repair their damaged connections.

To Marry and To Meddle has the fun, light tone of the previous books, and as Emily continues her close friendship with Violet and Diana, we get to spend more time with these entertaining characters, which is lovely. One of the things I really appreciate about these books is how the women’s friendship is so central to the stories. Even though each book focuses on a different romantic relationship, the time spent with the trio of women is what connects them all, and their support and affection for one another feels very special.

The dialogue and overall writing can be a real hoot:

Predictably, she blushed. Perversely, he was delighted.

Julian clearly know the way to a woman’s heart:

[…] After Julian had rung for tea and crossed to the sideboard to busy himself with the decanter stored there, he said, almost casually, “You must buy any books you wish to add to our collection.”

Something within Emily warmed at these words. She’d always been faintly envious of Violet’s library at the house she shared with Lord James, and felt a small thrill run through her at the thought that she, too, could have a room full of books to call her own.

Amidst the funnier moments…

“You’re not…” Violet trailed off, a look of dawning horror on her face. “Sick of tea?” She uttered the words in a hushed whisper, as though afraid to speak them into truth.

… there are also scenes of coming into one’s own power and strength:

Here, a woman could take up space, speak loudly, draw the eyes of a crowd — or, alternatively, could slip into a role behind the scenes, quietly doing her work just as well as the men who surrounded her — and Emily found both prospects not shocking but… exhilarating.

I do recommend this book, but suggest starting at the beginning of the series, or you’ll miss the backstories of the characters and their social circle. I don’t know if there will be a 4th book, but I can guess which side character might get her own book next, and I hope my prediction comes true!

Book Review: The Ladies of Missalonghi by Colleen McCullough

Title: The Ladies of Missalonghi
Author: Colleen McCullough
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 1987
Length: 192 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Sometimes fairy tales can come true–even for plain, shy spinsters like Missy Wright. Neither as pretty as cousin Alicia nor as domineering as mother Drusilla, she seems doomed to a quiet life of near poverty at Missalonghi, her family’s pitifully small homestead in Australia’s Blue Mountains. But it’s a brand new century–the twentieth–a time for new thoughts and bold new actions. And Missy Wright is about to set every self-righteous tongue in the town of Byron wagging. Because she has just set her sights on a mysterious, mistrusted, and unsuspecting stranger… who just might be Prince Charming in disguise.

After coming across a mention of The Ladies of Missalonghi online, I decided to give it a try once I saw the audiobook available via my library. This short book is enjoyable in many ways, but it also shows its age a bit, and has a troubling reputation as well. (See my quibbles section below…)

Set in the early 1900s in a small town in Australia, The Ladies of Missalonghi focuses on the sad little family living in a run-down house named Missalonghi on the shabby side of town. The town of Byron is dominated by the Hurlingford family, who own pretty much all of the desirable land and every local business. The nasty truth of the family is that thanks to an edict from its founding father who first established Byron, only males in the family inherit financially, while women descendents get a house and five acres of land. However, the houses and land have become worse and worse over the generations, and Hurlingford women who don’t marry well, become widowed, or (gasp) remain spinsters are doomed to a life of poverty and dependence.

Main character Missy Wright lives with her widowed mother Drusilla and her elderly aunt Octavia, and the three eke out the barest of livings. Missy is considered plain and unmarriageable, long past whatever youthful prime she might have had. To economize, the women dress in brown (appropriate for any occasion, and it doesn’t show dirt), have a very fixed routine of household chores, and rely on the condescending patronage of their richer relatives for meager treats and hand-outs.

When Missy meets a rough-hewn stranger and learns that he’s bought land in the adjacent valley, her imagination takes off — especially thanks to the romantic novels the town’s new librarian has been sharing with her. After a mild health scare, Missy decides to take matters into her own hands, throw off the burden of obedience and family deference, and pursue a life of adventure and love… even if she has to scheme and lie to get it.

While engaging in many ways, I do need to point out a few quibbles:

SPOILERS AHEAD

As I mentioned earlier, the book’s age shows in some of the depictions and dialogue. I don’t have a problem with historical fiction portraying an era’s inherent sexual inequalities, hang-ups, class issues, etc, but I actually feel that this book smacks a little too heavily of the 1980s. Published in 1987, The Ladies of Missalonghi has a love interest who’s the stereotypical bad boy in many ways, coming out with statements and attitudes that just wouldn’t fly today… and in historical fiction written now, I think authors tend to make their heroes a little less sexist/asshole-ish. If that makes any sense.

BIG SPOILER: There’s a weird supernatural element that’s revealed toward the end that makes no sense at all, bringing a ghost into the mix in the strangest way possible, then using that ghost as the explanation for Missy’s pursuit of freedom. Seriously, I don’t get it at all. The ghost in question appears as a real person to Missy, and provides Missy with books, legal documents, a new dress and hat, and even comes to tea at Missalonghi, where she interacts with Drusilla and Octavia. Again… I don’t get it.

Finally, I need to point out the plagiarism allegations that plague this book, specifically, that Colleen McCullough basically took the plot of The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery, tweaked it a bit and moved it to Australia, and published it as her own. Colleen McCullough denied the allegations, but suggested that “subconscious recollection” was at play — that she must have read the book at some point and inadvertently incorporated elements without realizing where they’d come from. The stories track so closely (with key differences being that Missy’s mother is kind and loving, and that Missy knows that her health crisis isn’t real and lies to her love interest) that it’s impossible to believe that the similarities are purely accidental.

Having read The Blue Castle recently, the shared plot elements are very obvious — and I have to say, if I had to choose between the two books, The Blue Castle wins hands-down.

END OF SPOILERY QUIBBLES

All that aside, there’s plenty to like about The Ladies of Missalonghi. There are some clever twists as Missy begins to assert herself, including her scheming to undermine the terrible male relatives who neglect and cheat the vulnerable women of the family. The descriptions of the setting are lovely, and there are moments of clever dialogue and sly social digs that make it fun.

The audiobook is narrated by Davina Porter, known to Outlander fans as the wonderful narrator of all Outlander series audiobooks, and she’s always a treat to listen to.

Overall, I’m not sorry to have read The Ladies of Missalonghi and I enjoyed listening to it, but the troublesome aspects make it a hard book to truly love.

And I have to say, the whole “marriage due to a medical crisis that turns out to be false” plot is handled much better in The Blue Castle, as is so much else about the basics of the plot.

Book Review: Where the Lost Wander by Amy Harmon

Title: Where the Lost Wander
Author: Amy Harmon
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Publication date: April 28, 2020
Length: 343 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy via NetGalley; audiobook purchased via Audible
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this epic and haunting love story set on the Oregon Trail, a family and their unlikely protector find their way through peril, uncertainty, and loss.

The Overland Trail, 1853: Naomi May never expected to be widowed at twenty. Eager to leave her grief behind, she sets off with her family for a life out West. On the trail, she forms an instant connection with John Lowry, a half-Pawnee man straddling two worlds and a stranger in both.

But life in a wagon train is fraught with hardship, fear, and death. Even as John and Naomi are drawn to each other, the trials of the journey and their disparate pasts work to keep them apart. John’s heritage gains them safe passage through hostile territory only to come between them as they seek to build a life together.

When a horrific tragedy strikes, decimating Naomi’s family and separating her from John, the promises they made are all they have left. Ripped apart, they can’t turn back, they can’t go on, and they can’t let go. Both will have to make terrible sacrifices to find each other, save each other, and eventually…make peace with who they are.

Where the Lost Wander is a beautiful story of love and tragedy, set in the era of westward expansion and wagon trains.

We know from the prologue that terrible events are coming, as we see a group of wagons attacked by a band of Shoshoni warriors, leaving all dead except Naomi and her infant brother, who are taken captive. How this came about, who these people are, and what happens next will be revealed over the course of the story that follows.

Naomi May is a young woman traveling west with her parents and younger brothers as part of a large wagon train. At St. Joseph in Missouri, their point of departure, she meets John Lowry, a young man of mixed heritage who’ll be traveling with the train, along with his prized set of breeding mules.

As the wagon train makes its slow journey, they face danger from every direction — perilous river crossings, cholera, accidents, hostile encounters with other travelers — but along the way, Naomi and John grow closer, falling in love despite their own personal backstories. I came to care deeply about these characters and to wish for their happiness, but experienced a growing sense of dread as well, knowing from the prologue that tragedy was coming, but not knowing when.

Where the Lost Wander is beautifully written, full of emotion as well as history. The author strikes a good balance in presenting both the dreams and desires of the emigrants and the devastating impact of the white man’s encroachment onto Native lands. The tribes encountered are portrayed with sensitivity, and we get to know certain people as individuals, giving us entry into a way of life that’s under constant threat.

Naomi and John’s story, from initial attraction to trust and longing and finally, to love and commitment, is moving and well-told. Given the era and the setting, we know this cannot be a happy, pain-free story, but I couldn’t stop hoping for good outcomes and peace for these characters, even in the most dire of situations.

Overall, this is a well-researched, vivid depiction of a time in America’s history that’s in many ways well-known, but here, presented with so much more nuance and perspective than in typical tales of the Old West. Highly recommended.

Via Amy Harmon’s author website: https://www.authoramyharmon.com/wherethelostwander.html

A note on the audiobook: The audiobook (11 hours, 46 minutes) is narrated by Lauren Ezzo and Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who read as Naomi and John. It’s a lovely performance, with each one capturing the emotions of their characters and giving dramatic, expressive expression to the more descriptive passages. I enjoyed it very much, and while I referred back to the print version for clarity on places and people, I’m glad I chose to experience this book via audio.

Book Review: An Impossible Impostor (Veronica Speedwell, #7) by Deanna Raybourn

Title: An Impossible Impostor
Series: Veronica Speedwell, #7
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: February 15, 2022
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

While investigating a man claiming to be the long-lost heir to a noble family, Veronica Speedwell gets the surprise of her life in this new adventure from the New York Times bestselling and Edgar Award-nominated author Deanna Raybourn.

London, 1889. Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian beau Stoker are summoned by Sir Hugo Montgomerie, head of Special Branch. He has a personal request on behalf of his goddaughter, Euphemia Hathaway. After years of traveling the world, her eldest brother, Jonathan, heir to Hathaway Hall, was believed to have been killed in the catastrophic eruption of Krakatoa a few years before.

But now a man matching Jonathan’s description and carrying his possessions has arrived at Hathaway Hall with no memory of his identity or where he has been. Could this man truly be Jonathan, back from the dead? Or is he a devious impostor, determined to gain ownership over the family’s most valuable possessions–a legendary parure of priceless Rajasthani jewels? It’s a delicate situation, and Veronica is Sir Hugo’s only hope.

Veronica and Stoker agree to go to Hathaway Hall to covertly investigate the mysterious amnesiac. Veronica is soon shocked to find herself face-to-face with a ghost from her past. To help Sir Hugo discover the truth, she must open doors to her own history that she long believed to be shut for good.

A new installment in the deliciously smart Veronica Speedwell series is always cause for delight, and book #7 is no exception.

Veronica and Stoker are a well-established couple at this point, but they’ve lost none of their spark or chemistry. Their passion continues to simmer, and they’re fulfilled by their work together on the natural history collection of Lord Rosemorran. But when Sir Hugo Montgomerie of Scotland Yard asks a favor, he’s awfully hard to ignore, and their peaceful moments are interrupted by a call to adventure.

Our fearless duo sets off to the Hathaway estate to discover whether the long-presumed dead eldest son has miraculously returned — which would have enormous ramifications for his surviving siblings, especially the brother who has legally inherited in his stead.

Veronica and Stoker discover a situation much more complicated than expected, further muddled by Veronica’s own distant past which included an acquaintance with the missing Hathaway son. While uncovering the truth, Veronica and Stoker once again end up in mortal peril, fighting for their lives, solving multiple mysteries, and using their wits to find solutions.

It’s all very charming, and the adventure itself is fun even while taking a while to build up stakes. Once our favorite couple are themselves in danger, of course it all escalates and becomes much more dramatic — but even then, the banter and sexy glances and innuendo continue.

I had a few qualms about a certain plot complication which the romantic in me found upsetting, but never fear, it’s more or less resolved by book’s end. The mystery is tied up nicely, although Veronica and Stoker are left in a status that’s less settled than in previous books… so can I have #8 now please???? (Sadly, no — I expect it’ll be another year’s wait for the next one).

As in all the books in this series, the humor is silly and fun, and Veronica is a treat — a fierce, intelligent woman of science who’s not afraid to follow her own path, including becoming romantically and physically involved with a man who’s very much her partner and equal.

And really, when else would we get to read a book that includes such delightful words and phrases as “fritillary”, “amatory arts”, “passamenterie”, “osculatory”, and “inanition”? Not to mention a quick little aside in which a character educates us on the origins of the bandanna?

An Impossible Impostor is just a super fun adventure. Each book in the series goes by too quickly, and I always tell myself to slow down and savor them… but I never do. An Impossible Impostor could potentially work as a stand-alone mystery. The key players and background are explained well enough to be able to follow along. But, I don’t really recommend this approach — you’d be missing out on all the delicious history of Veronica and Stoker’s relationship, as well as their individual backstories, and truly, those are too good to miss!

If you want to get to know Veronica Speedwell, I’d say start with book #1, A Curious Beginning. I’m pretty sure you’ll be hooked! And isn’t it nice to know that there are already another six books to enjoy after that one?

This series has become one of my favorites. Check it out!

Shelf Control #306: The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: The Arctic Fury
Author: Greer Macallister
Published: 2020
Length: 408 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A dozen women join a secret 1850s Arctic expedition—and a sensational murder trial unfolds when some of them don’t come back.

Eccentric Lady Jane Franklin makes an outlandish offer to adventurer Virginia Reeve: take a dozen women, trek into the Arctic, and find her husband’s lost expedition. Four parties have failed to find him, and Lady Franklin wants a radical new approach: put the women in charge.

A year later, Virginia stands trial for murder. Survivors of the expedition willing to publicly support her sit in the front row. There are only five. What happened out there on the ice?

Set against the unforgiving backgdrop of one of the world’s most inhospitable locations, USA Today bestsellng author Greer Macallister uses the true story of Lady Jane Franklin’s tireless attempts to find her husband’s lost expedition as a jumping-off point to spin a tale of bravely, intrigue, perseverance and hope.

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition shortly after the book’s release in 2020.

Why I want to read it:

Everything about the summary makes me feel like this book is calling my name! The time period, the focus on women’s lives, the Arctic expedition — it all sounds amazing. I love that the story is about women leading an expedition when this would definitely not have been expected or accepted. Between the expedition itself and the murder trial, this sounds like such an interesting and exciting read.

Greer Macallister is an author whose books I’ve been wanting to explore, ever since reading Woman 99 a few years ago. She clearly is a writer who’s skilled at exploring women’s inner lives and bringing historical settings to life.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

Stay tuned!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Title: Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Author: Malinda Lo
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 19, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young adult / historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A story of love and duty set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Red Scare.

“That book. It was about two women, and they fell in love with each other.” And then Lily asked the question that had taken root in her, that was even now unfurling its leaves and demanding to be shown the sun: “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club.

America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a beautiful, sensitively told story of a young woman in 1950s San Francisco, discovering her sexuality, finding first love, and navigating her place in the world of Chinatown and beyond.

Lily Hu is a high school senior who loves math, science, and reading Arthur C. Clarke. She’s fascinated by the idea of rockets and space, and dreams of one day working alongside her aunt at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Lily is the oldest child of a Chinese-American family living in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and her world revolves around the neighborhood and its community. While she attends a nearby high school, her friends and her activities are all based in Chinatown too — until she starts to get to know Kathleen, a girl in her advanced math classes.

Lily and Kathleen — or Kath, as she prefers to be called — begin to form a tentative friendship after Kath accidentally picks up a newspaper ad that Lily had saved, a promo for a male impersonator’s appearance at a nightclub. Kath mentions that she’s been to the Telegraph Club once, and the two girls agree to sneak out late one night and go together.

Meanwhile, Lily is unsure what to make of the feelings stirred in her when she reads about Tommy Andrews, the nightclub performer, or when she spies a pulp novel at the local drugstore that features two scantily clad women on the cover. When she and Kath finally make it to the Telegraph Club, Lily’s eyes are opened, seeing women together in clearly romantic relationships.

As Lily’s story progresses, she and Kath explore their feelings and learn more about the secret underworld of gay life in San Francisco. At the same time, the “red scare” is bringing fear to Chinatown, as even naturalized or American-born Chinese people are threatened with deportation and pressured to inform on others. When Lily’s father’s naturalization papers are confiscated during questioning about communist activity in Chinatown, the danger strikes home, and Lily is confronted by the potential consequences her own actions could have on her family.

Last Night the Telegraph Club is a moving coming of age and coming out story, and also a well-researched and eye-opening look at a particular time and place in 20th century history. The author shares a great deal of information at the end of the book about her research, her intentions, who she interviewed, and even provides a wide-ranging bibliography for those who want to learn more.

As she points out, there isn’t a lot written about Asian lesbians in historical fiction. The topics covered within this book are a unique blend of LGBTQ+, Asian American, and San Francisco history, and they work together spectacularly.

Lily is a fabulous main character. She’s not flashy or outrageous by any means. A studious, smart girl devoted to her family, she’s really never stepped foot out of line prior to this point in her life. She struggles with the conflict between her identity, her emotions and desires, and her family duty. Lily is portrayed as a sensitive girl who might have truly thrived in the modern era, but because of the time and culture in which she’s born, there is no easy answer for her.

As a non-native San Franciscan myself, I’m always interested in learning more about the history of my adopted city, and Last Night at the Telegraph Club delivers. While many of the places and neighborhoods are the same, the city has changed in dramatic ways since then. I loved seeing all the familiar streets and landmarks mentioned as Lily and Kath and others explore the city, and appreciate that they venture beyond the areas often covered in popular media to include lesser known spots too, such as one of my own favorite places:

Judy had fallen in love with Ocean Beach the first time she saw it almost four years ago, right after she first arrived in San Francisco.

Although as Lily herself later reflects, you can’t always count on the weather:

She suspected it would be freezing out by Ocean Beach

On a more serious note, the response of Lily’s family to learning about her orientation is sadly typical of the time, but still incredibly painful to read:

“There are no homosexuals in this family,” she said, the words thick with disgust.

… and …

“There are studies,” her father said. “You’re too young for this. This is a phase.”

My only quibble with this book is that I wished for a little more at the end, between the last full chapter and the book’s epilogue. I can’t say much without entering spoiler territory, but I wish the events of the last chapter had been carried forward longer to show what happened in the ensuing months. The epilogue wraps the story up very well, but it’s almost too abrupt in its resolution. Still, overall, I’m happy with how things were resolved for the various characters, and felt so invested in Lily’s well-being that I wish I could check back in with her to see how her life turned out 10, 20, and 30 years down the road.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is engrossing, moving, and sensitive, with memorable characters and a fast-moving plot that manages to convey so much, so well. Highly recommended.

Shelf Control #304: The Deadly Hours by Susanna Kearsley, C. S. Harris, Anna Lee Huber, and Christine Trent

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: The Deadly Hours
Author: Susanna Kearsley, C. S. Harris, Anna Lee Huber, Christine Trent
Published: 2020
Length: 352 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A stellar line-up of historical mystery novelists weaves the tale of a priceless and cursed gold watch as it passes through time wreaking havoc from one owner to another. The characters are irrevocably linked by fate, each playing a key role in breaking the curse and destroying the watch once and for all.

From 1733 Italy to Edinburgh in 1831 to a series of chilling murders in 1870 London, and a lethal game of revenge decades later, the watch touches lives with misfortune, until it comes into the reach of one young woman who might be able to stop it for good.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a paperback copy as soon as it was released, back in 2020.

Why I want to read it:

Basically, as soon as I heard that there was a book being released that included Susanna Kearsley as one of the authors, I knew I had to have it.

Susanna Kearsley is one of my go-to favorite authors, and I haven’t regretted reading (or buying) a single one of her books yet! And while I haven’t read anything by the other authors who contributed to this book, I’ve heard good things about all of them.

As for the book itself, I like the sound of interconnected stories focusing on a watch that gets handed down through generations, and I’m curious about the curse, what it is, and how it might be broken. Plus, I’d love to see how the four different authors’ pieces work together, and whether it feels like one coherent whole.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!