Posted in Fantasy, Witches, Women's Fiction

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Superficially, the story is as old as time. Three sisters are born in a rural area, living a fairly meager existence. Their mother dies, their father becomes cruel and only their wise grandmother gives them love. When grandmother dies, the two older sisters are shipped off, leaving the youngest to deal with her abusive father. They lose touch with each other and the youngest becomes feral and angry. She assumes she’s been abandoned by her sisters.

The three sisters learn words and charms from their grandmother. These are simple things, rhymes that make life just a little easier. When the three woman become adults, these charms are mostly forgotten. Then one day, evil comes to the town of New Salem and the women are pulled together by forces they barely knew existed. Soon, they are at the center of a revolution.

As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that this is so much more than a story about three witches. This is a novel about the oppression of women by men (and sometimes other women). The Once and Future Witches is both fantasy and reality. Although the novel is set in a fictional past, it is thoroughly modern. Just substitute shirtwaist factories and suffrage with economic justice, reproductive rights and domestic violence.

The writing is very clever and often made think, look twice at what I just read or smile. The spells are drawn from fairy tales and childhood nursery rhymes, which were very relatable and simple. No need for eye of newt, cauldrons or memorizing complicated spells. These were so simple, any woman could do them. And that was just the point. ANY woman could rise above, be more, reach her full potential, could be a witch.

It took me a while to get into this book, but once I did, I was absolutely gobsmacked by the layers of meaning. This book won The Robert Holdstock Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 2021, given by the British Fantasy Society.

Rating: 5 Stars, Grade A+

Posted in General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction, World War II

Paris Never Leaves You by Ellen Feldman

Publication Info: Expected publication date: August 4, 2020 by St. Martin’s Press. I read the Kindle pre-pub edition courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley. Other editions available at publication.

Summary: After nearly four years of Nazi occupation, the people of Paris are emotionally drained and starving. The German soldiers in the city, sensing the end of their rule, are increasingly cruel to the French. Citizens are harassed, rounded up, shot or sent to the camps. The tension is so great that Parisians are turning on each other, making accusations and killing their fellow citizens for reasons based on nothing but rumor. The primary allegation against the victims of the mobs is collaboration.

In 1944, Charlotte Foret and her baby daughter, Vivi, are struggling to survive. They work in a bookshop owned by her friend, Simone. Charlotte’s husband was killed in the war. Charlotte, Vivi, Simone and her young daughter live on the money from the meager book sales and their special ration cards, but food is still in extremely short supply. They they are slowly starving to death.

A German soldier begins to quietly frequent the bookshop. He says he is a doctor and helps Vivi through an illness. After Simone is taken by the Germans, Charlotte reluctantly accepts the doctor’s small gifts of food and his friendship. It is the only way they can survive. In the definition of the mobs, she is a collaborator.

Many years later, teenage Vivi is searching for her identity. Charlotte, who has buried her past, comes face to face with her guilt for what she did to survive the war in Paris.

Comments: For me, the central theme of Paris Never Leaves You is guilt, both survivor’s guilt and Catholic guilt. I’ve been fortunate enough to never experience the former, but I sure know a lot about the latter. My mother was fiercely Catholic and sent me to Catholic School in the 60’s and 70’s for thirteen years (including Kindergarten).

I fully related to Charlotte’s inability to forgive herself and move on with her life. After the war, she became an emotional wraith, just passing through life without really living it. While physical present and functional, she lived in the past, unable to form attachments beyond her unduly protective relationship with her daughter, Vivi.

I’ve read several other women in WWII novels, but none quite like this one. Where most of them feature a heroine character drawn from real life, Paris Never Leaves You is about ordinary people just trying to survive in an extraordinary time.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction, General Fiction, Women’s Fiction and stories about World War II.

My Rating: 4.5 STARS, B+

Posted in Beach Read, General Fiction, Southern Fiction, Women's Fiction

The High Tide Club by Mary Kay Andrews

Publication Info: I listened to the audiobook through my local library. Published May 8, 2018 by MacMillan Audio. Other editions available in bookstores and libraries.

Summary: Ninety-nine year old Josephine Bettendorf Warrick is dying of cancer. She owns a crumbling mansion and most of a barrier island off the Georgia coast. The state is trying to take the island and turn it into a park. With no direct heirs, curmudgeonly Josephine, determined to keep it out of the hands of the state, contacts attorney Brooke Trappnell and tells her that she wants to leave the island to her old friends and their descendants. All but one of her friends is deceased. They used to call themselves The High Tide Club.

Shortly after Josephine hires Brooke and reveals a shocking secret to her and several other people over dinner, she dies, leaving even more stories untold.

Comments: Mary Kay Andrews writes sympathetic and compelling novels that make fantastic beach reads. The High Tide Club is no exception. I love the gentle flow of her writing, but there is plenty of drama to keep me riveted. The High Tide Club’s themes include love, abandonment, betrayal, danger, acceptance and hope. I felt that I really got to know the characters, as their lives unfolded with every page and chapter. I really loved this book and look forward to reading more by the author.

My rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Legal Fiction, Women's Fiction

The Night Swim by Megan Goldin

Publication Info: Expected publication date August 4th 2020, by St. Martin’s Press. I read the Kindle pre-pub edition courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher.

Summary: In the small seaside town of Neapolis, a young man is on trial for the rape of a teenage girl. Scott Blair is Neapolis’ athlete-hero, with a college scholarship and a good shot at a place on the Olympic swim team. His defense team presents multiple character witnesses who attest to Scott’s upstanding community spirit.

The underage teenage girl, known as K, only has her testimony and the report from a rape kit. It is a classic case of he said/she said. The victim desperately needs a witness to support her accusation.

Among the reporters at this trial, is Rachel Krall, a well-known true crime podcaster. After several seasons of covering past trials, Rachel is reporting on the case in Neapolis at the end of each day. Rachel is also receiving mysterious handwritten notes and emails from a woman named Hannah. The notes implore her to look into the death of her sister. Many years ago, Jenny was a teenager when she died in Neapolis, a supposed drowning victim. Her sister, Hannah, insists that Jenny was murdered. Intrigued by the amount of detail in the notes, Rachel is pulled into investigating Jenny’s death while reporting on the contentious rape trial.

Comments: In The Night Swim, Megan Goldin does an amazing job of conveying the emotional devastation of rape and the rule of good old boy culture in a small town. In painful detail, the author describes what a female goes through in a rape trial. In describing the violation of the victim after the rape and not dwelling on the intimate details of the act itself, the author empathically describes how the court treats sex-crime victims.

I thought that the primary voices in the book, both the podcaster and the letter writer, were the perfect means to differentiate the cases. The formats also allowed the reader to develop deep compassion for K and Hannah.

Very highly recommended for fiction readers of courtroom dramas, legal fiction and women’s issues.

My Rating: 5 Stars

Posted in Beach Read, Happy Fiction, Happy Fiction, Light Romance, Women's Fiction

Summer at the Lakeside Resort by Susan Schild (Lakeside Resort #2)

Publication Info: Published May 15, 2019 by Longleaf Pine Press. I read the Kindle edition through Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited.

Summary: After her initial burst of guests and and enthusiasm, Jenny is worried about making a success of the Lakeside Resort. Her background was teaching, not property management or marketing. She is going to need some clever ideas and more than a small amount of cash to ensure a steady stream of lodgers.

Luckily, Jenny has some great friends with a variety of skills. One of her friends is a super bargain hunter, which helps stretch Jenny’s thin budget. A few more friends help her build a laundry facility, complete with flower boxes so it matches the cottages. One of her frequent residents hosts a writer’s workshop and another suggests a yoga retreat.

As the ideas flow and the guests respond, Jenny starts to relax a little — except for one major problem. Her boyfriend, Luke, flies off on an extended business trip to Australia, leaving her to deal with some major headaches — like getting a large, expensive boat back to the resort when she doesn’t know a thing about boating. Jenny also worries about her relationship with Luke, as the months drag by and he seems increasingly distant. But with the support of her friends and family, Jenny knows that no matter what happens with Luke, she won’t be alone.

Comments: Bright and cheery, Summer at the Lakeside Resort is the perfect getaway. I’d love to vacation there! It reminded me of some summer vacations with my parents. For a couple of years, my parents booked a tiny one-bedroom pine cabin near the beach. It was one of several on a dirt road. As an only child at the time, vacations could get a bit lonely, but these cottages always had other families. The feeling of temporary community made those vacations particularly happy and memorable.

The novel’s setting isn’t the only thing that made me feel relaxed and comfortable. The characters are older, very down-to-earth and relatable. The dogs are also amusing, but that miniature horse is absolutely adorable!

With continuing social isolation during Covid-19, I’m looking for books that take me to other places. Susan Schild’s novel was a perfect armchair getaway to a very happy, sunny place.

Recommended for readers of Light Romance and Happy Fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction

Cartier’s Hope by M.J. Rose

Publication Info: Expected publication date January 28, 2020 by Atria Books. Kindle pre-pub edition courtesy of NetGalley.

Summary: Vera Garland’s family is very wealthy. Her father was the owner of Garland’s Emporium, a very prosperous department store in early New York. As the daughter of a socialite, Vera was raised to be a fine lady of leisure, but she wants more than her mother’s lifestyle. Vera works as a reporter and newspaper columnist under the pseudonym Vee Swann. As Vee, she disguises herself as a common woman, so she can write about the social issues of the day. Children are working long hours and women are marching to get the vote. Charlatans fleece customers in elaborate ruses during seances. Newspapers publish gossip and salacious stories to attract readers.

Women working in journalism in the early 1900’s were most frequently relegated to fashion and society columns. Vera is determined to write more serious articles and exposes. After her father dies, she discovers a huge, shocking secret about him and another close relative that lead to their deaths. She decides to seek revenge against the sleazy newspaper owner who threatened to expose the men.

Vera’s investigation into the stories Pierre Cartier is telling about Hope Diamond in his possession gives her an opportunity to kill two birds with one very expensive stone.

Comments: I was drawn to reading Cartier’s Hope because of the story line involving the Hope Diamond. I’ve seen the famous blue stone many times at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. I’m also a fan of early 20th century America historical fiction.

I actually liked this book a lot more than I expected to. First, it had more than one unexpected twist. Second, during the first incarnation of The Brown Bookloft about 12 years ago, I was sent a very early M.J. Rose novel. I didn’t care for it and haven’t read anything by her since then. She’s obviously honed her writing skills since those early days!

I acutely related with plucky Vera Garland. I had many fights with my own mother, who overly valued societal expectations. She tried in vain to “raise me to be a good housewife” (her own words). I wanted more for myself, too. The book also made me consider the issues that faced women one hundred years ago–some of which we still face today.

Recommended for readers of General Fiction, Women’s Fiction and Historical Fiction (especially early 20th Century New York.

My Rating: 4 STARS

Posted in General Fiction, Literary Fiction, Multi-Cultural Fiction, Women's Fiction

The Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Publication Info: Published May 14, 2019 by Knopf. Hardback edition courtesy of my local library. Other editions available.

Summary: On a summer day in northern Russia, two young sisters vanish without a trace. One witness remembers seeing the girls with a white man and a dark car, but no one, including the police, has any solid evidence that the girls were kidnapped. The local investigators are taking the case very seriously but have few leads.

Several years previously another girl vanished, but the police didn’t investigate her disappearance as vigorously. After all, she was older, had a bit of a reputation and she was a native.

After the sisters disappear, the townspeople are on edge. The uneasy truce that exists between the natives and whites flares up as people look at each other with suspicion. Old-timers mourn the changes to Russia that brought strangers to the area. Mothers keep a closer watch on their children and don’t allow them to roam freely. People scurry to be home before dark–even though the girls vanished in broad daylight. It is a natural reaction to hide and become isolated after trauma. But it is only when people start to come back together and ask each other questions that the truth emerges.

Comments: While a mystery is at the core of The Disappearing Earth, the novel is about much more than that. It is the story of a changing community and vanishing cultures. Isolated from the world until 1990, the people of Kamchatka are still adjusting to intrusions from the outside world. In the novel, the big black car is more than the vehicle that snatches two unwary girls; it is a symbol of change and uncertainty.

It took me longer than I expected to get through this book. I found it emotionally draining, so I had to occasionally step away. Through vivid imagery, the novel focuses primarily on the ordinary lives of the women in the town. Their hopes and dreams are exposed and dashed. Fear and uncertainty drives them to make the safe choices in their lives. I found myself reflecting on the choices I make in my own life—and why I make them.

Recommended for readers of Literary Fiction, General Fiction, Multi-Cultural Fiction and Women’s Fiction

My Rating 4.5 STARS

Posted in Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction

Where the Light Enters by Sara Donati (The Gilded Hour #2)

Publication Info: Published September 10, 2019 by Berkley Books. Pre-pub Kindle edition sent to me by Berkley Books via Netgalley.

Summary: In 1884, Dr. Sophie Savard returns to New York to throw herself back into work following the death of her husband from tuberculosis. In New York, she is surrounded by friends and family, but also people who would love to see her fail. These are pioneering days for women in medicine and if that wasn’t enough cause for disgust and dislike among her male peers, she is also of mixed race.

Sophie’s husband left her a fortune, which she intends to put to good use by creating a scholarship for women of color to pursue medical careers as well as using her home as a dormitory. Sophie soon realizes that she must find and manage a staff in order to realize her dreams.

Meanwhile, her cousin Anna’s husband, a police officer, is dealing with a series of crimes against pregnant women. The women were murdered when they sought illegal abortions. When a prominent socialite goes missing after speaking to a person of interest in the case, everyone, especially the rumor-mongering press, fears the worst.

Sophie’s extended family faces additional challenges when a young child in their care becomes gravely ill.

Comments: Although Where the Light Enters is the second book in the series, it stands on its own. I read the first book, The Gilded Hour, when it came out in 2015 and loved it as much as this new one. In both novels, the author breathes life into her characters, including many of the more minor ones. I am hoping to get to know some of them better in future books! The historical setting is well-researched and although there are some timeline discrepancies that are spelled out in the author’s notes, they are minor. The pacing of the book is gentle, yet there were enough twists and turns in the plot lines to keep me turning the pages eagerly.

I think Sara Donati has found her writing niche in historical fiction. I read her Wilderness series several years ago. While those are more historical romance, her writing brought the settings and time period to life, foreshadowing her ability to write solid historical fiction. I still remember some of the characters in that series–a rarity for me.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction and Women’s Fiction. Also recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of women in medicine.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Beach Read, Best Sellers, British, Contemporary Fiction, Psychological Suspense, suspense, Thriller, Women's Fiction

Twenty-Nine Seconds by T.M. Logan

Publication Info: Expected publication date Sept 10, 2019 by St. Martin’s Press. Pre-pub Kindle edition courtesy of NetGalley. Previously published in the U.K.: other editions available.

Summary: Dr. Sarah Haywood works hard at her job at the University. She really needs a promotion to a permanent position, as she is currently single mother. Her husband ran off with another woman to “find himself”, leaving her with two young children. Sarah works hard, keeps on top of her busy teaching schedule and even comes up with an idea for additional funding.

But all of this is threatened by one man, Professor Alan Hawthorne. Alan won’t let her — or any woman — get ahead unless they agree to his terms. At the university, Alan is untouchable. He has an impeccable public reputation on his BBC show. If a woman complains about his sexual harassment, she is disgraced and dismissed. When he steals Sarah’s ideas, she feels completely overwhelmed.

One fateful day, Sarah inadvertently does a good deed for a stranger. That stranger offers to make one person, any person, in her life disappear forever. Sarah must decide if the risks outweigh the consequences.

Comments: I couldn’t put this book down. I read until late in the evening, fell asleep, woke up and finished it. It absolutely had me gripping my Kindle until the very last few pages.

This is a very timely story of one man’s abuse of power and the fear he instills in others to keep his secrets. I know there are women out there who will relate to the situation, if not the solution.

Highly recommended for readers of Psychological Suspense and Thrillers. It would also make a terrific Beach Read and I’d love to see it on the best seller lists.

My Goodreads rating is 5 stars.

Posted in British, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized, Women's Fiction, World War I

The Victory Garden by Rhys Bowen

Publication Info: Published February 12th 2019 by Lake Union Publishing . Hardcover. Other editions available. The Victory Garden

Summary: Emily Bryce chafes at the restrictions placed on her by her very proper British parents. She wants to work as a nurse like her best friend, Clarice. But with the WWI battlefield death of her brother, Freddie, her parents are now overly protective of their only daughter. Besides, her upwardly mobile mother feels it isn’t proper for a young lady to do anything to help the war effort besides visiting injured soldiers in the convalescent home next door. Nothing short of someone with a title or at the very least “one of their own kind”, is good enough for Emily.

On one of these sanctioned visits to the convalescent home, Emily meets Lieutenant Robbie Kerr, a member of the Australian Royal Flying Corps. Although from very different backgrounds, Emily and Robbie fall in love. After Emily turns 21, she is free to make her own choices. With Robbie back flying in the war, she decides to volunteer as a Land Girl, working the farms in Britain to help on the home front.

With a genteel upbringing, Emily is totally unprepared to be a Land Girl, but she is young, strong, healthy and willing to work. She soon befriends the girls she works with, women of completely different stations and backgrounds. After assignments picking potatoes and sowing hay, she ends up working for Lady Charleston, tending her large garden. She and two other women live in the tumble-down cottage on the estate.

After she learns that Robbie was killed in a plane crash, she discovers she is pregnant. Remembering her mother’s sharp criticism of another unwed mother, Emily decides to remain with Lady Charleston as companion, gardener and library organizer, rather than return home.  Emily blossoms as she continues to gain independence and learn skills in herbalism from an old book she found in the cottage.

But someone doesn’t like Emily and is determined to see her gone.

Comments: I’m a huge Rhys Bowen fan and I particularly like her stand-alone novels. I recently reviewed The Tuscan Child. I liked that book, but I like The Victory Garden better. Like her other historical fiction, the author uses the time period as a backdrop to the lives of her characters and doesn’t spend a lot of time on specific historical details. In The Victory Garden, the author does a credible job of describing English countryside life during WWI. But for me, it is the characters that shine, which is what I like most in her writing.

I absolutely devour Rhys Bowen’s books. She can’t write them fast enough for me to read them. I look forward to whatever she’s publishing next!

Highly recommended for fans of Historical Fiction, General Fiction or Women’s Fiction.