Book Review: Fly Girls by Keith O’Brien

Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History by Keith O’Brien

The Blurb:

The untold story of five women who fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s — and won

Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. Thousands of fans flocked to multi‑day events, and cities vied with one another to host them. The pilots themselves were hailed as dashing heroes who cheerfully stared death in the face. Well, the men were hailed. Female pilots were more often ridiculed than praised for what the press portrayed as silly efforts to horn in on a manly, and deadly, pursuit. Fly Girls recounts how a cadre of women banded together to break the original glass ceiling: the entrenched prejudice that conspired to keep them out of the sky.

O’Brien weaves together the stories of five remarkable women: Florence Klingensmith, a high‑school dropout who worked for a dry cleaner in Fargo, North Dakota; Ruth Elder, an Alabama divorcee; Amelia Earhart, the most famous, but not necessarily the most skilled; Ruth Nichols, who chafed at the constraints of her blue‑blood family’s expectations; and Louise Thaden, the mother of two young kids who got her start selling coal in Wichita. Together, they fought for the chance to race against the men — and in 1936 one of them would triumph in the toughest race of all.

The Golden Age of Flying, and especially the lives of female flyers has intrigued me ever since I read Laurie Notaro’s fantastic Crossing the Horizon. The golden age of the ’20s and ’30s was characterized by a huge upswing in popularity for flight, an increasing availability of aircraft, and the very real danger of disaster from less-than-reliable machines. This was a time of new records to set and to break, exploration and pushing limits. Of trans-continental races, and no-holds-barred competitions. It was a time when a man or woman with enough gumption, talent, and luck could set their name in the history books as a first, or fastest, or farthest.

O’Brien’s book features five outstanding female pilots. Big names and big stories in their day, but only one (Earhart) is still remembered today, ironically for her presumed death, and not as much for her accomplishments in flying.

This is a fascinating story, in a fascinating time in aviation. O’Brien has captured the glamor and the drama of his subjects. We get to go along with them as they try to break into an arena that was (and largely still is) considered to be men’s territory. You will laugh and cheer, gasp and shudder, you will shake your head and your fist. O’Brien has done a fantastic job at bringing these exceptional women back to life.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Double!! Book Review: Whispers Beyond the Veil and Whispers of Warning by Jessica Estevao

Whispers Beyond the Veil and Whispers of Warning by Jessica Estevao

So it’s time for a big ol’ review of the first two books in Jessica Estevao’s Change of Fortune mystery series. Since I’m reviewing both books together, there’s probably going to be minor spoilers for the second book in the series (duh).

Blurb the first:

Canada, 1898. The only life Ruby Proulx has ever known is that of a nomad, traveling across the country with her snake-oil salesman father. She dreams of taking root somewhere, someday, but, until she can, she makes her way by reading tarot cards. Yet she never imagined her own life would take such a turn…

After one of her father’s medical “miracles” goes deadly wrong, Ruby evades authorities by hiding in the seaside resort town of Old Orchard, Maine, where her estranged Aunt Honoria owns the Hotel Belden, a unique residence that caters to Spiritualists—a place where Ruby should be safe as long as she can keep her dark secret hidden.

But Ruby’s plan begins to crumble after a psychic investigator checks into the hotel and senses Ruby is hiding more than she’s letting on. Now Ruby must do what she can to escape both his attention and Aunt Honoria’s insistence that she has a true gift, before she loses her precious new home and family forever…

Blurb the second (spoilers, duh):

Partially reformed con artist Ruby Proulx is starting to feel at home in her aunt’s seaside hotel. She loves the feeling of being rooted in one place and also feels a sense of purpose as she helps her aunt keep her business afloat by acting as a psychic medium for the hotel’s metaphysically inclined guests.

When one of the guests, renowned Spiritualist and outspoken suffragist Sophronia Foster Eldridge, checks into the hotel for a month-long stay, Ruby finds her sense of purpose expand outside the confines of home and family. Sophronia takes Ruby under her wing and mentors her in the mediumistic abilities, encouraging her to work for a woman’s right to vote. But not everyone is as happy with Sophronia’s appearance in Old Orchard. When her body is found floating in the saltwater plunge pool of a local bathhouse, Ruby takes it upon herself to solve the murder, and in the process learns that Sophronia was hiding some secrets of her own.

Estevao has done a great job recreating a seaside town in Maine at the turn of the 20th century. She has clearly done a great deal of research, and the town of Old Orchard comes alive off the page. Ruby herself is a great character, an intelligent, independent woman who still manages to make mistakes, and occasionally do the wrong thing. In other words, Ruby has welcome nuance to her character. She isn’t a victim, a villain, or a superhero, but rather is someone relatable and sympathetic.

The mystery plots are well crafted, with red herrings and rich supporting characters. There is (isn’t there always?) a romance subplot, but it remains largely in the background, and doesn’t consume the characters.

In all, this is a great historical mystery series, with plenty of room to grow and evolve. Fans of the genre will have no trouble diving into this engaging book. Fans of Victoria Thompson and Deanna Rayborn should definitely take note.

An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

The Blurb:

An Unexplained Death is an obsessive investigation into a mysterious death at the Belvedere—a once-grand hotel—and a poignant, gripping meditation on suicide and voyeurism

“The poster is new. I notice it right away, taped to a utility pole. Beneath the word ‘Missing,’ printed in a bold, high-impact font, are two sepia-toned photographs of a man dressed in a bow tie and tux.”

Most people would keep walking. Maybe they’d pay a bit closer attention to the local news that evening. Mikita Brottman spent ten years sifting through the details of the missing man’s life and disappearance, and his purported suicide by jumping from the roof of her own apartment building, the Belvedere.

As Brottman delves into the murky circumstances surrounding Rey Rivera’s death—which begins to look more and more like a murder—she contemplates the nature of and motives behind suicide, and uncovers a haunting pattern of guests at the Belvedere, when it was still a historic hotel, taking their own lives on the premises. Finally, she fearlessly takes us to the edge of her own morbid curiosity and asks us to consider our own darker impulses and obsessions.

This book was not what I expected. That isn’t a bad thing at all. I had done in expecting scandal and intrigue, and found introspection and analysis (which probably says a lot about me). An Unexplained Death reminds me strongly of Claudia Rowe’s The Spider and the Fly, which was a true-crime book that focused more on the impact of the crime and the killer on the author’s life.

The book deals with the mysterious death of Rey Rivera, who plunged from the roof of the Belvedere in Baltimore in 2006. Brottman, who lived (still lives) in the building, found herself intrigued, then obsessed by the circumstances of Rivera’s death. Add that to the history of the Belvedere itself, which seems to attract suicidal people, and there is a lot to dig into here.

Yet, the book is less about Rivera than about the author’s, and our own, fascination with death and self-destruction. Brottman speaks multiple times of her (unconscious and semi-unwanted) ability to be completely forgettable. She walks through her own story as some sort of ghost, peripheral and ephemeral to those around her. Whether the feeling of invisibleness contributes to her fascination with death and suicide isn’t stated.

Though the tone of the book was unexpected, I found myself swiftly drawn into Brottman’s tale. At times a stark history, at others almost a stream-of-concious musing, I admire Brottman’s ability to look into her dark fascinations and wring a moving story from them. After all, it is part of the human condition to want to gaze into that abyss. Few of us, however, are willing to admit how much we enjoy its pull.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Devon Knox is a teenage gymnastics prodigy. Her parents, coaches, and gymnastics gym have dedicated all their resources to helping her become an Olympic-level athlete. When a tragic death shakes their insular gymnastics community, rumors and suspicion begin tearing everything apart. As it becomes clear just how many secrets are hidden in this small community, Katie, Devon’s mother, finds herself unwillingly dragged closer and closer to the truth.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I am pretty much entirely over the psychological thriller genre right now. I bought this book through the Book of the Month club a while ago, and hadn’t been able to bring myself to read it until now.

I’m very glad that I did. This is a psychological thriller done right. Abbott skillfully weaves the Knox family around one another and around their friends, and the author does a wonderful job of infusing nearly every interaction with a sense of menace.

This is a story about obsession, but not in the way you would expect. The goal of getting Devon to the Olumpics has consumed everyone in her orbit. When the unexpected occurs, it is unsettling to watch how this carefully constructed group begins to fray at the seems.

Psychological thriller fans will obviously enjoy this book. But even those who aren’t such big fans of this genre, or (like me) needed a break, will find Abbott’s portrayal of obsession and paranoia well worth the read.

Book Review: Kin by Kealan Patrick Burke

Kin by Kealan Patrick Burke

The Blurb:

On a scorching hot summer day in Elkwood, Alabama, Claire Lambert staggers naked, wounded, and half-blind away from the scene of an atrocity. She is the sole survivor of a nightmare that claimed her friends, and even as she prays for rescue, the killers — a family of cannibalistic lunatics — are closing in.

A soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder returns from Iraq to the news that his brother is among the murdered in Elkwood.

In snowbound Detroit, a waitress trapped in an abusive relationship gets an unexpected visit that will lead to bloodshed and send her back on the road to a past she has spent years trying to outrun.

And Claire, the only survivor of the Elkwood Massacre, haunted by her dead friends, dreams of vengeance… a dream which will be realized as grief and rage turn good people into cold-blooded murderers and force alliances among strangers.

It’s time to return to Elkwood.

In the spirit of such iconic horror classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance, Kin begins at the end and studies the possible aftermath for the survivors of such traumas upon their return to the real world — the guilt, the grief, the thirst for revenge — and sets them on an unthinkable journey… back into the heart of darkness.

If you’ve got the horror bug, you’ve seen this movie. God knows there are plenty to choose from. A group of attractive teenagers venture into the woods (or an old farmhouse, or anywhere, really, the world has it in for attractive teenagers), and find themselves hunted and tortured by a sadistic family of inbred monsters

Even if you don’t have the horror bug, you know how this ends. One girl, the virginal good girl, makes it out. She has been beaten and defiled, she is scarred inside and out, but she has escaped. Sometimes there is a twist, sometimes there isn’t, but usually we get to see her sobbing in the arms of her rescuer. But what then? When the camera stops rolling and the audience goes home, are we supposed to believe in some kind of happily ever after?

Kealan Patrick Burke is here to tell us what happens to the girl, to her family and friends, to the families of her friends who were not so “lucky” as she. Kin is a big, sharp, serrated story that takes a (let’s face it) tired trope and drags it kicking and screaming down the path to where the story continues.

This is an ultrasaturated ride that encompasses a revenge fantasy, a slasher flick, and all the best parts of 1970s and 1980s movie horror excess. We get guts (ha) and glorious payback. We get death and destruction. We get the fire-breathing, brimstone-hurling back woods preacher a story like this deserves.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. But horror fans everywhere will find a practically perfect read between the covers of Kin.

Book Review: The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal

The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal

The Blurb:

It’s late. The phone rings.

The man on the other end says his daughter is missing.

Your daughter.

The baby you gave away over fifteen years ago.

What do you do?

Nora Watts isn’t sure that she wants to get involved. Troubled, messed up, and with more than enough problems of her own, Nora doesn’t want to revisit the past. But then she sees the photograph. A girl, a teenager, with her eyes. How can she turn her back on her?

But going in search of her daughter brings Nora into contact with a past that she would rather forget, a past that she has worked hard to put behind her, but which is always there, waiting for her . . .

I love flawed female protagonists. I mean, I love female protagonists in general, but commonly they are depicted as wonder women or saints, physically, mentally, and/or emotionally perfect. Of course, psychological thrillers have taken the unstable female trope as an easy out to create an “edgy” story (see many previous rants of mine). It is rare, though, that we find a flawed, damaged, occasionally unlikable woman steadfastly occupying the role of heroine, and I absolutely love it.

Nora Watts was brought up in the foster system after her father’s suicide. She survived a brutal rape as a young woman, she is a recovering alcoholic, formerly homeless, and holding her life together by her fingernails. The knowledge that the daughter she had given up for adoption a decade and a half ago threatens to undermine what little stability she has managed to create for herself. Nora is suspicious, paranoid, and unstable. She can be vicious and unforgiving. She has a pitch-black, deadpan sense of humor. And I absolutely love her as a character.

The story itself is a dark, contemporary mystery, reminiscent of Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Nora’s past informs the reader’s present, and the grim paranoia of the story seeps into every interaction. This is ultimately a story of haves and have-nots. Nora is half-native, formerly indigent, skating along the bleeding edge of poverty. As she delves deeper into her daughter’s disappearance, the breadth of the forces arrayed against her becomes more and more clear. A David and Goliath tale for the modern age, wrapped in the darkest noir, this is a fantastic start to a new mystery series, with a protagonist who may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but is nonetheless unforgettable and original.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Fisherman by John Langan

The Fisherman by John Langan

The Blurb:

In upstate New York, in the woods around Woodstock, Dutchman’s Creek flows out of the Ashokan Reservoir. Steep-banked, fast-moving, it offers the promise of fine fishing, and of something more, a possibility too fantastic to be true. When Abe and Dan, two widowers who have found solace in each other’s company and a shared passion for fishing, hear rumors of the Creek, and what might be found there, the remedy to both their losses, they dismiss it as just another fish story. Soon, though, the men find themselves drawn into a tale as deep and old as the Reservoir. It’s a tale of dark pacts, of long-buried secrets, and of a mysterious figure known as Der Fisher: the Fisherman. It will bring Abe and Dan face to face with all that they have lost, and with the price they must pay to regain it.

This is a classically-built lovecraftian story. The horror builds slowly, the pace of the story allowing the reader to spend plenty of time anticipating the cosmic horror slinking towards them out of the shadows. Through Langan’s writing, the woods of upstate New York take on a timeless, sinister aspect, the very mountains radiating an unfathomable malice. As the pace of the story picks up, the weirdness amplifies in stride, providing he reader with the kinds of cosmic chills Lovecraft was so well known for.

I love these kinds of stories. The kind of evil that simply is, that threatens us simply because we are so insignificant as to be beneath its notice. Langan has also successfully brought this horror to a human scale with sympathetic characters. The evil is unknowable, but it’s effects on ordinary people are not.

Fans of HP Lovecraft and weird horror will definitely enjoy this finely crafted story. Horror aficionados in general will find a lot to love here as well.

Book Review: In the house in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

The Blurb:

“Once upon a time there was and there wasn’t a woman who went to the woods.”

In this horror story set in colonial New England, a law-abiding Puritan woman goes missing. Or perhaps she has fled or abandoned her family. Or perhaps she’s been kidnapped, and set loose to wander in the dense woods of the north. Alone and possibly lost, she meets another woman in the forest. Then everything changes.

On a journey that will take her through dark woods full of almost-human wolves, through a deep well wet with the screams of men, and on a living ship made of human bones, our heroine may find that the evil she flees has been inside her all along. The eerie, disturbing story of one of our perennial fascinations–witchcraft in colonial America–In the House in the Dark of the Woods is a novel of psychological horror and suspense told in Laird Hunt’s characteristically lyrical prose style. It is the story of a bewitching, a betrayal, a master huntress and her quarry. It is a story of anger, of evil, of hatred and of redemption. It is the story of a haunting, a story that makes up the bedrock of American mythology, but told in a vivid way you will never forget.

This book read like a combination of fevered nightmare and fairytale. And I mean that in the best way possible. The story takes our heroine (?), known only as “Goody” and sets her down in a wood where magic weaves into the bark of the trees, and the stench of rot can be sensed when the wind blows the right way.

Like a traditional fairy tale, the story begins by showing us the fantastical…the sharp teeth are well hidden. But as the story goes on, the underlying menace comes to the fore, and the smile widens into a razor grin.

This isn’t your traditional horror story … but the dream-like prose and ever-fascinating subject matter make this book shine. Anyone out there looking for something a bit different for the Halloween season and the dying of the year should consider this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Ann Fowler

A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Ann Fowler

The Blurb:

The riveting novel of iron-willed Alva Vanderbilt and her illustrious family in as they rule Gilded-Age New York, from the New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.

In 1883, the New York Times prints a lengthy rave of Alva Vanderbilt’s Fifth Ave. costume ball–a coup for the former Alva Smith, who not long before was destitute, her family’s good name useless on its own. Marrying into the newly rich but socially scorned Vanderbilt clan, a union contrived by Alva’s bestfriend and now-Duchess of Manchester, saved the Smiths–and elevated the Vanderbilts.

From outside, Alva seems to have it all and want more. She does have a knack for getting all she tries for: the costume ball–no mere amusement–wrests acceptance from doyenne Caroline Astor. Denied abox at the Academy of Music, Alva founds The Met. No obstacle puts her off for long.

But how much of ambition arises from insecurity? From despair? From refusal to play insipid games by absurd rules? –There are, however, consequences to breaking those rules. One must tread carefully.

And what of her maddening sister-in-law, Alice? Her husband William, who’s hiding a terrible betrayal? The not-entirely-unwelcome attentions of his friend Oliver Belmont, who is everything William is not? What of her own best friend, whose troubles cast a wide net?

Alva will build mansions, push boundaries, test friendships, and marry her daughter to England’s most eligible duke or die trying. She means to do right by all, but good behavior will only get a woman so far. What is the price of going further? What might be the rewards? There’s only one way to know for certain…

In her afterword, Therese Anne Fowler makes a wonderful point: that powerful/influential women, especially those who live “unconventional” lives, tend to be remembered negatively. Alva Vanderbilt is commonly remembered as a gold-digging, social-ladder-climbing floozy. Yet (as is almost always the case) there is more to her than that. The image we have of Alva is passed along largely through the memories of men and society matrons she offended. Little about her life has been put into context.

Fowler’s book seeks to put Alva’s life in a more contextual (and sympathetic) frame. Here we see Alva not as a mere social climber, but also as a woman with limited options in 19th century society to ensure the wellbeing of herself and her family. She is not a shrill hysteric, but an intelligent woman with little outlet for her talents.

I love seeing history from the other direction. While you can certainly argue that Alva, as the wife of one of the richest men in the world at the time, was by no means living in hardship, it is shocking just how restricted the lives of society women were around the turn of the 20h century.

Fans of history and historical fiction will certainly find Fowler’s story engaging.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

Welcome to the late 19th century in an America that never was. The federal government, seeking to relieve the nation’s meat shortages, had the brilliant idea of importing hippos and breeding them in the swamps of the southeast. This is, apparently, based on an actual proposal that was (thankfully) scrapped. However, in River of Teeth, the plan went ahead, and now most of northern Louisiana is a swamp full of vicious feral hippos (and more than a few outlaws and gangsters). Winslow Houndstooth is a man with a past, looking for one last payout to retire and live out the good life. He has been tasked (alongside his crew) with clearing the swamp of ferals. Of course, in a story like this, nothing can ever go as planned.

The first thing that grabbed my attention was the title. I mean, River of Teeth? How could I pass up anything with a title like that?! Add to that a recent “oh hey, did you hear about…” from Dear Husband about (I shit you not) feral hippos wrecking up the place in Mexico. It just seemed like it was meant to be.

The book is an old-fashioned western with a hell of a novel twist. Gailey gives us murder revenge, paddle boats, hippo ranchers, gamblers, lawmen, mercenaries, gun fights, knife fights, and explosives. In short, all the things you want in your old-timey western adventure and then some. Also novel about Gailey’s story is the diversity of the characters. Let’s face it, the western (pick any genre though) with wall-to-wall white male protagonists has been done (and done, and done). Gailey brings a refreshingly varied cast of characters to her story.

In fact, my biggest complaint about this story is how short it is. At 114 pages, this is more novella than novel. I read the book in a single sitting and simply wanted more. I wanted more time and interactions with Houndstooth and his crew, I wanted more history and background of the hippo endeavor and the mess that brought about a huge swamp of death. Fortunately, there’s a second book out (and hopefully more to follow) so I will get my wish.