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.

Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Charles Thomas “Tommy” Tester is a Harlem native who understands the uselessness of a black man working hard for a good wage in New York City. Unlike his bricklayer father, who’s body is broken and wallet empty from long hours of backbreaking work for meager pay. Tommy prefers to hustle for his money, the mystique of a carefully chosen suit and an old guitar doing a good portion of the legwork for him. If he sometimes gets involved with the arcane and the occult, at least he’s making a loving sufficient to support himself and his aging father. But after an encounter with a sorceress in Queens, events begin to spiral out of control. Tommy has attracted he attention of dangerous beings, and he, New York, and reality itself are in grave danger.

I’m a huge fan of HP Lovecraft’s stories, though the man’s personal beliefs are frankly odious. I love the concept of unknowable cosmic horrors, of elder gods so ancient and vast that human beings (always so full of ourselves) are essentially bacteria in comparison. However, Lovecraft’s blatant racism shouldn’t be ignored, and the best modern Lovecraft derivatives take this into account rather than trying to smooth over it.

This is a retelling of one of Lovecraft’s famous short stories, but the narrative takes us along the flip side of the original. This is a story about race and arcane magic, of injustice and revenge, of the dark, foreign, and “lesser” discovering beings who make their oppressors less than nothing.

Thus may be a book about elder gods and magic, but it is also a brutal and and all-to-relevant story of those pushed out to the margins, and what happens when they are pushed too far.

Book Review: Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor

Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor

In 1888, young Egyptologist Romulous Hardy is offered a vast sum of money by a reclusive millionaire to search for ancient tombs in Egypt. Hardy jumps at the chance to get out of the library and into the field, but soon finds himself dealing with things no one could have forseen. After tragedy befalls his expedition, Hardy is charged with bringing the mummies he recovered (six in all, though one sarcophagus is twice as big as any normal human) back to LA. When his train is waylaid in the Arizona desert, he learns that his cargo may be more dangerous than he ever suspected, and that cursed mummies are only the tip of the iceberg.

This was a fun, entertaining, and wild ride. Told in the style of old weird fiction stories, Sidor brings quite a bit of HP Lovecraft and The Mummy to the table. The latter half of the book, which takes place in Arizona and Mexico is evocative of Weird West stories. There are monsters and mummies and cultists and vampires. There are cowboys and banditos and Pinkertons and train heists. There’s cannibalism and curses and ancient legends. This book is a mashup of everything that makes weird fiction fun.

In fact, my biggest complaint is that in including everything, the story loses focus in places and drifts along, detached. Sometimes the actions runs along at breakneck pace, and sometimes it stutters to a halt to gaze for a while at the supernatural scenery.

Still, anyone who is looking for a good time with some good, old-fashioned pulp will probably enjoy this book. I mean, just look at that epic cover art! If the cover sings to you, then more than likely the book will as well.

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

Book Review: The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane by Colin Falconer

The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane by Colin Falconer

At the turn of the twentieth century, Kitty O’Kane grows up poor in the slums of Dublin, Ireland, enduring beatings from her drunken father and dreaming of a better life. She gets herself out of her old life and into service with the prestigious White Star line. She is able to secure a position as a stewardess on the line’s newest and largest ship: the Titanic. And so starts the saga of the Unkillable Kitty O’Kane. After becoming romantically involved with a firebrand journalist, Kitty dives into the fight for the poor, the disenfranchised, and for women’s sufferage. She bears witness to the some of the most calamitous and tumultuos events of the early twentieth century. Through Kitty’s eyes we experience the sinking of the Lusitania, the Russian Revolution, and the start of The Troubles in Ireland.

Kitty spends much of the book lamending her past. She ties herself early on to the increasingly erratic reporter, and pines for Tom Doyle, a young boy from her childhood in Dublin who has since grown into a handsome young doctor in London. And this is the crux of the problem for the book. Romance and love triangles are all well and good, but Kitty’s relationship with the men in her life completely takes over any true agency she might have had.

Yes, she witnesses the October Revolution in Russia, but she is only there because the journalist, Lincoln, has dragged her there. She wants to be a journalist herself, but lacks the courage to write in her own words, and rather follows Lincoln’s lead in all her writing. She eschews becoming a wife and mother in favor of adventure and activist (a decision I applaud) yet will not picture a life with her “true love” Tom Doyle that does not adhere to traditional relationships. She may be The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane, survivor of two shipwrecks, Russian snipers, and British armaments, but she is only that by accident, or by someone else’s agency. She is on a quest to better the lives of women in the world, but the author doesn’t let her make an attempt except by the side of a man.

So, the historical aspects of this book were lovely, and Kitty’s insertion into actual historical events, and her meeting with real historical people is well done. But I found Kitty’s lack of agency, and her dependence on an increasingly erratic Lincoln to be frustrating, and runs counter to the plot of a book that emphasized the personal strength and growth of a woman born with nothing who makes something of herself.

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

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

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The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher

The bloody, horrific battles of World War I ended in 1918, leaving battered nations and shattered families to pick up the pieces of their lives and find a way to continue on. As the 1920s began to roar, the Spiritualist movement, a pseudo-religion based upon making contact with the departed, came into prominence. The mediums who were the face of the movement offered reconnection with family and friends lost beyond the veil.

Into this tumultuous time period stepped two men, both rationalists at heart, yet destined to take very different paths through Spiritualism. The first was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle had lost his brother and cousin in the Great War, and his son to influenza shortly thereafter. Through several mediums, Doyle had managed to make convincing contact with his dead son and his brother, and hereafter became one of the most vocal proponents of the Spiritualist movement. The second man was Harry Houdini, world famous magician and escape artist. Houdini had never really recovered from the death of his mother years before, and had set out on a quest to speak with her again across the veil. Houdini’s trained eye and his experience with legerdemain exposed every medium he visited as nothing more than a fraud. Houdini would make it one of his life’s missions to expose fraudulent psychics.

The book focuses on the eponymous “Witch of Lime Street,” a woman named Mina Crandon. Unlike most psychics of the day, Mina was a member of the Boston Brahmin social elite, and pretty, vivacious, and charming. Multiple scientific researchers would declare her work genuine. Houdini’s quest to unmask her as a fraud would become an obsession.

This book is a well-written, immersive history of a fascinating period in American history. For the first time, modern scientific principles were being applied to old-school supernatural phenomena. Scientists and laymen were seeking the answer to the “ultimate quest”: could life after death be conclusively proven? Jaher handles the subject well, maintaining mystery while providing a scientific expose, no mean feat. Jaher used primary source material for most of the content of the book, and this shows in the vivid (and occasionally contradictory) portrayals of the major players.

I would highly recommend this book for any history buffs out there. But even for those who don’t usually take to nonfiction, Jaher’s writing is accessible and entertaining, making this a good pick for any interested in the subject matter.

A copy of this book was provided by Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review. The Witch of Lime Street is currently available for purchase.

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For more information on the author, David Jaher, click here

Book Review: Cajun Waltz by Robert H. Patton

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Cajun Waltz by Robert H. Patton

Cajun Waltz is a Greek tragedy with roots deep in black delta soil. The story begins with Richard (Richie) Bainard, a white musician from Texas who finds himself in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1928. Richie is a bit of a shiftless layabout, thinking about getting out of the music business and into something a bit more profitable. A chance encounter with the spinster daughter of the local dry goods store seems to offer him a way out, and a violent encounter with some good old boys after a performance with a black musician cements his choice. Richie marries the spinster and finds himself heir to a burgeoning retail empire.

Unfortunately, with a small taste of power and control, we find that Richie Bainard is not exactly a very good person. He is a violent and unfaithful drunk, terrorizing his family, friends, and mistress.

Like any good Greek tragedy, the sins of the father carry forward to the next generation. Here we have the twins: Bonnie, cold and pathologically calculating, and R.J., shiftless and casually violent. And then there is Seth, Bonnie and R.J.’s half brother, partially blinded and crippled in an accident as a child, trying to feel his way free of his poisonous family. Also exiting and entering the plot are the Bainards’ hangers-on, enemies, and victims, everyone’s stories weaving in and out of one another to form a tapestry of a dysfunctional family.

This book is the fictional debut of history writer Robert H. Patton. His style reflects his past; Cajun Waltz is written in the style of novelized nonfiction, and Patton draws on actual historical events and people to give the story bite. In the style of southern gothic tragedy, all the characters in Cajun Waltz (even the protagonists, such as they are) are deeply flawed, and occasionally difficult to sympathize with.The book being set in the 1920s through the 1950s, the issue of race indeed comes up, but is largely discarded later in the book. The book also features two women prominently: Bonnie Bainard (daughter of Richie) and Adele (one of the family’s victims) who choose very different (and not necessarily successful) routes to deal with the casual misogyny (and violence) of both their era, and the Bainard family.

In all, this book is a quick read and difficult to put down once started. I think it speaks well of the author’s characters when I want to reach through the page and slap/strangle a few of them. History buffs, or those into historical fiction will enjoy this book.

A copy of this book was provided by the author via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review.Cajun Waltz is currently available for purchase.