Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Poison Thread by Laura Purcell

I started this novel on Saturday and found myself sucked into the story very quickly. Laura Purcell's second offering (after The Silent Companions) is one heck of a ride, combining a Dickensian atmosphere with elements of a horror novel, a thriller, and of women caught in the rigid structure of early Victorian rules and expectations. I simply couldn't put it down. 

There are two main characters: Dorothea Truelove, a young, wealthy woman approaching her 25th birthday, and Ruth Butterham, a young woman imprisoned and waiting trial for murder. Dorothea visits prisons to offer comfort to incarcerated women, and it also gives her a chance to explore her obsession with phrenology: a study of human behavior traits expressed through the shape of the skull. Yes, if you have bumps in a certain location, or your skull is shaped a certain way, it shouts to the world exactly who you are: a deep thinker? A worrier? A murderer?

Ruth's story is just plain awful. Only sixteen, she's lived the past four years in complete hell. Skillful with a needle, she's convinced her skill has given her the power to affect anyone who wears the clothing the makes--and by affect, I mean deadly. I don't want to tell Ruth's tale, because it is so compelling, and every other chapter is Ruth telling her story, from the age of twelve, being tormented by the girls in her school because she's poor. It seems like Ruth never had a chance at a normal life, and now she's facing execution. Dorothea quickly becomes obsessed with Ruth, all while trying to avoid her pushy father, who wants her to marry (she's becoming an embarrassment at her advanced age), and also because he wants to marry again-an odious woman Dorothea despises. There's a bit of a mystery between Dorothea and her father, and oh boy does that slowly unravel to a surprise--you probably figure it out before Dorothea does, but it's still "Whoa!". 

I love this novel-it was pretty dark, but so enthralling. Ruth's story unfolding slowly, entwined with Dorothea's story gives you two plots that satisfyingly conclude together, with a few surprises that really give the novel a bang of an ending. Both women, at the mercy of other's whims, struggle for one thing: happiness and love. Do they get it? Read to find out! 

This novel will be published in the United States on June 18 in paperback. It's already published in England under the title The Corset. A huge thanks to Penguin for providing an ARC for review. 

Rating: 5/6 for a gothic thriller that I simply couldn't put down. Ruth is such a compelling character, your heart bleeds for her. Dorothea--she's quite the character, too--as you shall see. A perfect read for those who enjoy dark, atmospheric thrillers. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

Trail of Lightning: The Sixth World, Book One by Rebecca Roanhorse

I've been itching to read a good fantasy novel for a while. My book group meets tomorrow night, and we have chosen to read a book that is either written by a Native American author, or has a Native American theme. I took this as as opportunity to find a fantasy novel with a Native American theme, and found this very creative and well written first in a series by Rebecca Roanhorse. 

Set in the near future, the world as we know it has been destroyed by the Big Water, which pretty much wiped out much of the United States, caused an energy war, and has reborn the Navajo Nation, known as the Dinetah.  

Gods and heroes of the Dinetah are real, and so are monsters. Maggie is a monsterslayer. She's young, beyond tough, and has a huge ax to grind. And you can't blame her one bit for it. Surviving a horrific night of torture and the death of her beloved grandmother, her clan powers are ignited: she is one who kills. The power rushes into her, she sees just how she will kill and she does it with skill, strength, and some supernatural power. She's also feared, alone, and nursing a broken angry heart from her mentor and lover, Neizghani-a God himself. 

Maggie is called on to hunt down and rescue a little girl snatched from her home by a monster. This begins Maggie's journey to find out who is creating these monsters, and why. Visiting Tah, her medicine man "grandfather", she meets Kai Arviso, who is Tah's actual grandson, and someone who has clan powers of his own. What they are...well, you'll have to read to find out. Together Kai and Maggie venture out into a hostile land to stop the monsters from terrorizing and killing across Dinetah, and stop whomever or whatever is creating them. 

There's much more to this, of course. But I have to leave you plenty to discover on your own. I read this in stops and starts, and I wish I'd read it in bigger chunks and a shorter amount of time. I enjoyed it-it's pretty dark. The world is not a good place. I kept hearing the end music from Terminator in my head, as Sarah Connor is driving towards the mountains and the growing storm. Da da dada da. Da da dada da.  I found the Navajo culture and mythology fascinating, and the idea that clan powers are real and something that is handed down through the generations, and a gift to be honored, no matter what form it takes. 

I will read the second in the series, since book one leaves you wanting answers. Book two is Storm of Locusts, and more adventures for Maggie Hoskie await. I like Maggie. She's so tough, but inside there's an insecure young girl who wants peace and love, and is afraid she's not worthy of either of them. She both embraces her clan powers, and loathes them.  I'm really hoping her further adventures with Kai will lead her to a better place. 

Rating:  4/6 for a new series that centers on the Navajo people, a post-apocalyptic world where fuel and water are in short supply, and gods and monsters are very, very real. If you like mythology, you'll like this series. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michelle Richardson

I've been a bit behind in my reading this year. Books are so much a part of my life, it's hard for me to imagine not having them within easy reach whenever I want one to read. This wonderful book reminded me that so many people love books and reading, but often times don't have access to a library, much less afford a trip to a bookstore. 

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is definitely one of my top reads of 2019. It's going to take a pretty amazing read to knock it off the #1 spot. Yes, I've still got 6 months to go, but it's such a good story! I'm not sure where I first saw this novel; I think I was reading an email from Sourcebooks (the publisher) and spotted it. Sourcebooks always publishes the best books! From there, I ordered the book from my local B&N. It's taken me a few weeks to finish, but not because it wasn't interesting. It was just so darn good. 

Cussy Mary Carter lives outside of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky in 1936. Poverty is overwhelming for the folks; coal mining kills the men, and food is hard to find. Cussy is one of the local Pack Horse Librarians, part of a WPA project created by FDR to put people to work during the Depression. The librarians rode horses and mules up and down the Appalachians, through all kinds of weather, to deliver books, newspapers, and handmade scrapbooks to schoolchildren and families. She lives with her father, a coal miner suffering from lung disease, and lives a very isolated life because she's blue. As in blue-skinned. 

Cussy and her father suffer from a disease that turns their skin blue. Unknown at the time, it is a genetic condition of the blood. What folks around Troublesome Creek see is a woman who is different-not white-and therefore shunned, treated badly, and treated as lesser-than in everything. Cussy, however, is smart, educated, beautiful, and tough as nails. But a lifetime of being singled out, left out, and treated badly have left their mark, and she yearns to be able to fit in, find love, and be accepted. 

This novel is about Cussy's travels as a librarian; the people she meets on her route--hard working, good people who don't see Cussy's skin color, but see her as she is, and appreciate her work bringing them a bit of the world every week. The local doctor is eager to study Cussy and her father, and figure out why they are blue skinned, but Cussy is reluctant to be poked and prodded, until Doc makes her an offer she can't refuse. And when it looks like Cussy finally has her wish to fit in come true, it comes with consequences that she didn't expect. 

Kim Michelle Richardson has written a novel that is steeped in local lore, history, and well developed characters. It was oh so easy to slip into Cussy's world. All the little details-food, clothing, housing, and the books. The author skillfully weaves it all together into a novel that was hard to put down! You will want to explore the world of pack horse librarians (or book women, as they were called) after reading Cussy's story. NPR has a fantastic look at this WPA program.  

Rating: 5/6 for a wonderfully written novel about pack horse librarians in Kentucky. Cussy Mary Carter is a character you won't soon forget. This is your summer novel to read! 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

I've seen so many reviews about this novel, and still it took picking it for a book group before I finally read it. This group is one that usually reads historical fiction, or novels that are chock full of symbolism and meaty discussions. Well, I decided we'd read this as an end to our last meeting before our summer break. I'll be honest, I got some grumbles. And I've had a few tell me it wasn't to their liking or taste. So I thought I'd made a horrible mistake. 

I was wrong-I didn't make a mistake, and I relish the upcoming book discussion. I like to remind book club members that book clubs are all about reading books that take them out of their usual reading groove; books that introduce them to another genre, or books that they would never pick up for any other reason. I'm always amazed at the books I've read that turned out to be very memorable, or books that I so enjoyed that I was happy I "had" to read it for a book club. It's too easy to fall into a reading rut, and only read what makes you comfortable, or what you come to expect in every book you read. The Kiss Quotient was decidedly different from my usual reads, and I loved it. 

Yes, it has some pretty steamy sex scenes. Hot hot hot scenes. Yes, some terms are used to describe physical anatomy that aren't what I'm used to reading in what I consider a romance. I'm not one for erotic romances; I find myself skipping over all of that and getting back to the story. I'm not offended, just not interested. However, this novel, while I consider it a romance novel, has some special qualities that make it memorable, and I can see why it's been a hit this past year. 

Stella Lane is one smart woman. She's a thirty-year old at the top of her game, as a econometrician who creates algorithms to study why people buy what they buy. It's fascinating work, and often times she works seven days a week, for hours on end. Stella is also on the autism spectrum, which makes it hard for her to socialize, break out of set routines, and have a healthy romantic relationship. Her mother insists Stella find herself a date for an upcoming gala, so Stella, in her methodical way, decides to hire someone to help her be better at sex, and that will lead to finding a romantic partner who understands and accepts her, quirks and all. 

Enter Michael. A gorgeous young man, frustrated fashion designer, and part-time male escort. He's hired to give Stella a few lessons in the bedroom, but instead, instant attraction hits. And Stella, for all her difficulty in forming relationships, is smitten by this kind man who treats her so carefully. Yes, he's a male escort with a heart of gold. A man who is working this job in order to pay his mother's medical bills, and get the family out of the debt left by his conniving father. Can Stella and Michael find their way to a solid relationship?

I was pleasantly surprised by this novel. Anyone who knows someone on the autism spectrum will just want to hug Stella. She struggles every day to be "normal", but her charm is that she has her quirks, and it's what makes her so unique and lovable. Michael is a good guy, who just can't resist Stella. But his self-confidence is beaten down, and he needs someone like Stella to make him see he's good enough, and not his father. 

I found the romance between Stella and Michael to be charming, and all of the supporting characters charming, too. The course of true love never runs smoothly, and there are plenty of obstacles in the way for Stella and Michael. I was cheering them on the whole way to the satisfying conclusion. 

Rating: 5/6 for a surprisingly modern, sexy, and solid romance about two people who don't quite fit in, but find their perfect matches in each other. It was refreshing to read about a heroine who is not run-of-the-mill. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five is a long overdue look at the women who were Jack the Ripper's known victims: Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. We know all the horrid details of their murders, but all we know of them is what's been handed down by newspapers and stories: they were all prostitutes, drunks, and roaming the streets of Whitechapel when they each crossed paths with Jack the Ripper. 

However, as is usual in sensational murders, the victims are often swiftly overlooked, soon becoming less-than. Hallie Rubenhold, a social historian, decided it was long past time to correct what we've all thought about these women. She researched each woman, and tells the stories of their lives. These women were sisters, daughters, mothers, lovers, and wives. Two were known prostitutes; the other three were victims of circumstance and some really incredibly stupid laws in Victorian England. Laws and social customs that kept women down, unable to improve their lives, or even divorce. Marriages broke down, and since divorce was not an option, women oftentimes walked out of their grimy, crowded, disgusting homes and went to the workhouse for assistance. There, they joined thousands of others in drudgery in exchange for a place to sleep and food. Husbands were required to pay a small monthly fee to their wives, but if they could prove their wives were unfaithful, that small payment could end, as it did in the case of a few, leaving them in even more dire straits. 

Hallie Rubenhold has really dug deep into research on each of the women, and it is fascinating stuff. It's also a very sobering look at the lower middle class and poverty level population of England in the 1800's. Childhood, if survived, was brief before children had to go to work to help support the family. If the male head of house was injured, died, or walked away, women and their children were left destitute. So many didn't have any reading or writing skills, it made everything that much more terrible. Polly, Annie, and Catherine all had attended school and knew how to read, write, and have basic skills in math. However, unable to break the cycle of poverty, they didn't have any chance at a better life. Elisabeth Stride was raped as a young girl, contracted syphilis, and the treatments forced on her caused her to give birth to a stillborn daughter. Branded publicly as a prostitute at 18, she was humiliated and never recovered from it all. 

Alcohol numbed each women's pain over losing their children, failed marriages, and poverty. Most of them also lost one or both parents very early in life, leaving grief and no way to cope with it. I found myself getting so angry at the circumstances each woman found themselves in, and the laws that limited them from getting the help they needed, and the laws that branded them as loose, unvirtuous, and not worthy. 

I found this a very interesting book, and yes, it's long overdue. Each of the women, forgotten by society for so long, and now infamous for how they died, deserves this telling of who they really were, the people they loved, and the families they left behind with so many unanswered questions. 

Rating: 5/6 for an incredibly well researched story about five women who became infamous for all the wrong reasons in 1888. These victims deserve to tell their stories, and Hallie Rubenhold is their voice. Whether you are a true crime fan, or a women's history devotee, or just interested in a really good book, pick this one up. You'll never look at Jack the Ripper's five victims: Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane, quite the same way again. And that's a good thing. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.