From girlhood to womanhood, Libertie is one woman's journey to freedom—both mental and physical—inspired by the life of one of America's first Black female doctors. Talk about some stunning writing and storytelling.
I think this book is going to be the source of a lot of discussion this year. It feels like a story that will last, not the least because of its captivating writing and strong sense of character.
Libertie is a free born Black woman growing up in Brooklyn in the mid-1800s. Her mother is a practicing doctor. The two women and their female assistant, Lenore, operate a medical practice for Black people in the New York area, and occasionally for white women, too, as Libertie's mother can pass for white.
In this uniquely matriarchal and progressive bubble, Libertie is raised. She is raised to be educated, to read and write and learn medicinal treatments, and to follow in her mother's footsteps as a free Black woman with ambitions of her own. She grows up with an abundance of food, education, and sense of self in a world where many Black individuals are still actively enslaved and seeking freedom.
But like many daughters, Libertie doesn't necessarily recognize the unique circumstances of her mother's efforts as a gift to savor... she needs to carve her own path, regardless of the consequences.
Spanning from Brooklyn to Ohio to Haiti and beyond, Libertie was a physical, mental, and emotional journey that will remain with me for years to come.
I thought this novel was beautiful. The writing was show-stopping—Greenidge's prose lifted me into the story immediately and I found myself swept along for the ride in a consuming reading experience. Even though I disagreed with many of Libertie's actions and feelings, I couldn't help but read her story.
Complex themes of racial identity, divides between free born Black people and those escaping from enslaved situations in the American South, what it means to be female and Black in 1800s America, classicism, religion, a hint of magical realism... this novel packed in a lot in its 300-some pages. I thought it was masterfully done.
My one caveat to the reading experience is minor, and most likely personal. I found Libertie's refusal to trust and follow her mother's guidance to be intense. This might be because my own relationship with my mother is very close, but for whatever reason I found Libertie's decisions to be rash and filled with an odd level of anger and distrust. Clearly a personal reason, but still wanted to mention it here in case other readers feel the same way.
Overall, a beautiful story that I hope receives a wide readership this year. One of my favorite reads of 2021.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Camilla Bruce is now on my list of must-read authors. Her interest in the darker elements of the female experience—and in this case, the sociopathic murderous elements—makes for fascinating reading. This was a great work. But it could have been shorter.
Character portrayals: ★★★★★
Have you heard the story of the Widow of La Porte? Belle Gunness' reign as one of the most prolific female series killers in early 1900s America is a chilling (and true) tale.
Belle Gunness was born Brynhild Storset in Norway in the 1800s to a poor family of rural tenants. Her earliest years are spent with vicious nurture and violent nature, and an early sexual encounter gone extremely sour—the author's editorializing at work with this fact, as this encounter is rumored in Norway but not officially confirmed--leads to her first murder. Little Brynhild poisons her abuser and likes the feeling of power she gets.
Little Byrnhild doesn't do well in Norway. The villagers whisper about her and her pride chafes at the knowledge that everyone in her small town knows of her shame. She writes to her older sister, Nellie, in America and desperately asks for her to help her.
Nellie agrees to fund Brynhild's voyage to America and takes her under her wing in a Norwegian-American apartment community in Chicago. Brynhild becomes Bella. Bella's pride, greed, and need for control over the men in her life lead to some dark decisions... and her sister Nellie begins to suspect that something is not all right with her sister.
As the years go by, Bella's life seems to be marked by obvious tragedy. Her husbands and children just keep...dying. And her homes and businesses just keep... burning down. What's up with that? Eventually, Bella moves to rural Indiana and marries Peter Gunness, her new persona as Belle Gunness begins. And once Peter suffers a tragic accident with a meat grinder—or cleaver, depending on who you ask—what's a twice-made widow to do with a huge farm but create an ad asking for male farm hands to come and help her? It's not exactly her fault if all the men disappear in the night...
The black widow spider creates her wicked web...
Told in two points of view, one from Belle herself and one from her sister, Nellie, In the Garden of Spite takes us along for the ride as we silently witness Belle's entire life from girlhood to her bloody reign as Belle Gunness on her murder farm. It's a chilling tale meant to unsettle, and Camilla Bruce's mastery of ominous, distanced writing really sells the tension throughout this almost 500-page novel.
But bringing up the length of this book brings up my only caveat—it was pretty long. In the marketing, the focus is entirely on Belle's time in La Porte as a murdering farm widow. This seems to be a bit misleading and definitely affected how I viewed the pacing of the book. When you start a book expecting to read a novelization of the Widow of La Porte....and then it takes 380 pages to get to Belle's life as "Belle Gunness" in the first place... Honestly, it made the first 3/4 of the novel feel incredibly slow. I kept waiting for the "real" plot to happen and that took away from the experience of reading the characters' life stories.
I'd definitely recommend going into this knowing that you're getting a life's story and not a snapshot novelization or a glorified true crime fixation.
This is a personal and chilling character study of one woman's descent into the darkest levels of the human psyche and her lack of acceptance of her own darkness. It's also about the toll that life on her loved ones, and the knife's edge between loving and protecting your family versus realizing the monster in your family tree.
Definitely read the author's note at the end - it gives a lot of context for Belle's real life, the amount of research the author used, and a key list of artistic differences that the author decided to take on in order to explore the themes.
Thank you to Berkley, Goodreads, and NetGalley for my giveaway ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
3.5 stars, rounded up!
An American railroad heiress, an English duke in need of funds, and an arranged marriage with a lot angst and chemistry than anyone is expecting.
August Crenshaw is the oldest daughter of an American railroad tycoon. She's got a head for figures and enough ambition to hold her own... and yet. When her parents give her and her younger sister, Violet, the ultimatum that one of them must marry a duke in England... August can't believe it. Will she have to compromise on her autonomy and freedom sooner than she planned?
Evan Sterling, the Duke of Rothschild, is up to his ears debt thanks to his father. Evan never planned on being the duke of the family and he certainly never planned on having to save his family from ruin, but here he is. When the Crenshaw family shows up in England in need of a title, Evan sees a way out. But then he meets August in an underground brawl in Whitechapel and one fated kiss will forever change the outcome...
As August and Evan navigate the tangled landscape of England's Society, her parents expectations, and Evan's desire to win August on his own merit and not for his title, they find they might be in for more than they bargained for.
I thoroughly enjoyed this debut. It had some refreshing twists on some old tropes and I LOVED how August's fierce need for independence shown through as both a positive trait AND a negative one. I know how bizarre that sounds, but hear me out—she's stubborn to the point of ignoring her own desires and the facts around her, and to be honest that bites her in the butt. I liked the realism of that, and how it made her character more human and less "perfect protagonist."
There's also the perfect set up for the next novel, of course, with August's younger sister Violet in need of a duke of her own...
Looking forward to reading that one too!
Thank you to Berkley for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Inspired by the true story of Indian chess champion Malik Mir Sultan Khan in the early 1900s, Game of the Gods is a transporting work that spans the farming country of India to England's elite to New York's bustling streets.
Plot structure: ★★★
Character's voice: ★★★★★
In 1930s British India, a young Malik wants to learn how to play chaturanga, an Eastern ancestor to chess with deeps ties to myth, faith, and enlightenment. Malik meets the wealthy Indian landowner who oversees his small rural village and shares his dream—and to his shock, the landowner takes him back to his palace and grooms him for the game.
Over the years as young Malik grows in talent, he becomes a bauble to his patron, and his patron sees an opportunity: Malik can beat Westerners at the modern game of chess, too. Soon, Malik finds himself in England and competing against the white elite.
Malik always wins. And in the 1930s, his Indian ancestry does not endear him to the British public.
Game of the Gods follows Malik throughout his entire lifespan as we watch his humble beginnings turn into lush winnings and then to mysterious World War II side rooms and finally to a scandalous murder in New York City. A surprisingly passive participant in his own life, Malik's adventures come to him like wafts of air, taking him from place to place.
Italian author Paulo Maurensig used the real-life inspiration of Malik Mir Sultan Khan for Game of the Gods, but he is clear to point out in his forward that there are embellishments to the story. It was relatively easy to tell what was most likely fiction... but that did not stop me from enjoying the tale at all. This was mesmerizing.
I enjoyed Malik's story and found myself extremely invested in how his life would turn out—which was truly something, as right at the beginning of Game of the Gods we are introduced to Malik at the end of his life. So from the top, we know how the story must end. But I still found myself cheering for him at every step.
Fantastic story, beautifully told. Recommended for all fans of the era, chess or strategy games, and good storytelling.
Thank you to World Editions for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A Southern exposé in a certain way, with grace and pain wrapped between frankly beautiful written pages. I was not expecting to love this story of a white man in the South, but there are some kernels here and no one was more surprised to find them than me.
Characters: ★★★★ 1/2
For those who know me here on Goodreads and in the book community, you might be thinking this really isn't my type of read. (You're totally right) A book written by a white dude, about a white dude in Nashville, Tennessee, with lots of white privilege and classism?? Amy, come on.
Well I had to eat my hat with this one, folks, because this was stunning.
Beautifully written, poignantly described, and filled with an unbelievably delicate balance of self-awareness and reflection on the hypocrisy and decay of the Southern white elite, The Fortunate Ones is a read that will no doubt be a focus of discussion in 2021.
Charlie Boykin grows up in a poorer part of Nashville with his single mother, Bonnie. Bonnie got pregnant at 15 and was thrown out of her rich family's house and told never to return. Charlie never knows anything different—his Aunt Sunny is a bar singer, his mother is a cocktail waitress at a bar nicknamed The Divorcee, and his best friend, Terrence, is a Black kid with a lot of heart who looks out for Charlie.
Then Charlie's life dramatically changes in high school. His mother has managed to snag him a need-based scholarship to Yeatman, an all-boy prep school known for housing Nashville's elite children with ties to old money and the Old South. Charlie has no idea what he's in for.
In a move that should feel derivative of The Great Gatsby but manages to stand alone and supersede it, Charlie's life as the "outsider" passes as he reflects on, admires, craves, and worms his way into the glamorous and decaying life of Nashville's rich. His tie to his close friend and occasional secret lover, Archer Creigh, becomes one of unbalanced love and manipulation as Charlie falls deeper and deeper into a world that he's aware is wrong, racist, and fueled by the pain of the lower classes—and yet the lure of the glitz is too much for him to ignore.
Spanning decades and locations, The Fortunate Ones feels like an epic wrapped in a mere 300 pages. Charlie is—surprisingly, for me as a woman from a lower middle class background—a likeable narrator to follow. He's both aware of his privilege and yet aware enough of his ignorance to own up to his blindness in certain arenas.
The people of color in this novel are marginalized and relegated to stereotypical Southern roles, and we as readers are uncomfortably aware of that boundary line even as young Charlie and old Charlie miss most of it. The women of this novel are trapped in the gossamer cage of the trophy, the accessory, the beautiful—and while Charlie catches some of that and misses most of it, Tarkington's skill as an author highlights it for us despite his own narrator's ignorance. I found that extremely well done.
Another element to this story was its fringe revelations in the handling of its gay and lesbian characters. In a society where sexuality is strictly forced into a heteronormative binary, Tarkington's way of highlighting that rot and hypocrisy by having Archer's sexuality bleed through the edges of the page was fascinating, along with Charlie's interactions with a mentor figure who exists as a lesbian amongst this world of "good old boys." I really can't talk about this element without spoilers, but wanted to highlight that it's here for those who would automatically dismiss the story as not including that element. (I totally did that, honestly, so I'm raising my own hand.)
What a beautiful, lingering piece of fiction.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
I adore this series. Historical romance with a slap of women's suffrage? BRING it, babe, and keep them coming.
Historic vibes: ★★★★ 1/2
Witty dialogue: ★★★★★
A Rogue of One's Own comes out on September 1, 2020!
This is fast becoming one of my favorite series in the niche genre of historical romances. Neck in neck with Tessa Dare's Girl Meets Duke series, this is filled to the brim with witty banter, sharp women, self aware yet powerful men, and a historical setting with a refreshingly modern sense of female independence. (Okay, that last one obviously bends the rules of "historical accuracy," but excuse me... this is a romance and I'm not complaining.)
Lucie is not happy. A woman who has given up her reputation in society and worked herself to the bone for The Cause (women's rights), Lucie is finally at the point where she and her team of Oxford suffragists have successfully landed a spot to shine the light on their cause: They've purchased 50% of the shares of a publishing house, and they mean to use them to fight the good fight and spread the word.
The only thing in Lucie's way is Lord Tristan Ballentine.
Tristan and Lucie grew up together, and Lucie cannot BELIEVE that at this moment, the most important moment of her Cause, it's Tristan standing in her way. As far back as she can remember, it was Tristan in her path. He threw pranks her way, he never left her alone, and he never disappeared from her line of sight. Of course, these days he's keeping himself in her life by flaunting his lovers and sexual escapades in the society's gossip rags.... but still.
Tristan Ballentine has bought the other 50% of shares at the publishing house.
Lucie's not about to let that stand. She's ready for battle, and as always, Tristan is there ready to spar. What could possibly make Tristan do this?
Well, if the man has been infatuated with the spitfire suffragist since she was old enough to slap him at the age of 13, that's his business. He's spent decades doing everything he possibly can to provoke a reaction from Lucie. But this time, Tristan's actions aren't necessarily about Lucie, and he's found himself on the other side of the sparring field quite by accident.
He guesses it's time to see how far this can go. Oh dear, Lucie. Get ready for a ride.
LOVED this, folks. Perfectly paced hate-to-love romance, with a huge dash of mutual angst and pining because, duh, it's also historical. One of the best elements of historical romances is the strict society rules, and how our heroes decide to subvert them. This story was no exception. Their ending was perfect for their character arcs.
Tristan and Lucie's chemistry zings. Really zings. I loved their back stories, their reasonings, and even enjoyed the stereotypical elements of "reluctant historical female meets notorious rogue" that usually sets my teeth on edge. Because Lucie's character was so independent and strong, I didn't mind. She held her own and then some.
Also, it must be said that the author does a fantastic job of grounding us in the time period of women fighting for their rights in England. There's a section of notes in the back explaining where things fit into the real historic timeline, and I really appreciated it.
Thank you to Berkley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Sometimes you just need a Regency romance... This was a cute and enchanting read, with more fairy tale elements than steamy scenes.
Miss Sophie Kendall, organizer of the feminist group the Debutante Underground, has a few problems. Her family is one step above financial ruin, her father is a drunk, and her family has given her an ultimatum: she must marry, he must be rich, and it must be quick.
Now, in a deviation from one of the more traditional Regency plots, it's not an arranged setup—the family has already found Sophie a marquess willing to marry her. Too bad Sophie doesn't love him...
Reese, Earl of Warshire, is a man with a serious problem: he can't sleep. We're not talking casual insomnia—he's literally killing himself with a lack of sleep. A former war general, he's haunted by the loss of his men and even more haunted by the loss of his older brother, Edmund, who was supposed to be the Earl. Now stuck in the position with more nightmares than hope, Reese is not doing so well.
One chance encounter with Sophie Kendall radically changes his life.... And begins their sweet, chaste encounters in the nighttime. In a twist that feels more like a fairy tale than a romance, Sophie agrees to spend her Friday nights with Reese—no funny business, for real—and engages in fairy tale-like adventures with him on the moonlit gardens of his estate.
But Sophie's betrothed to another, and Reese knows he has her on borrowed time...
I thought When You Wish Upon a Rogue was a cute and soft installment for the Debutante Diaries series. This was my first introduction, and to be honest I really enjoyed it! My main qualms with the story involved the lack of realism... I know that most Regency romances often deviate from historical accuracy to follow the romance, and normally I'm on board with it, but for this particular plot the facts kept me from fully immersing myself in the story. I thought it was extremely sweet, but not overly plausible.
Intrigued enough to try out the next book in series!
Thank you to St Martin's Press via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
A dead body in a teagarden. Secrets buried from the distant past. Political intrigue mixed with London's society. Welcome to London, 1814.
Mystery plot: ★★★ 1/2
Enjoyment: all the stars, this was the perfect evening read
Who Speaks for the Damned is the 15th book in the Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries, but don't let that stop you from picking it up--I was a new reader to this world and these characters and had a darn good time.
Sebastian St. Cyr is the Viscount Devlin in early 1800s London. He's a nobleman with a past...and a habit for ferreting out crimes that the nobles would rather be left alone.
When a disgraced former member of society winds up dead in a teagarden, Sebastian is on the case. The man is Nicolas Hayes, the third son of the late Earl of Seaforth. Eighteen years ago, Hayes was convicted of attempted assault and murder and banished to a distant prison camp for life. Thought to be dead, Hayes' recently dead body in London comes as a shock to society and unearths secrets better left buried.
Who killed this former murderer, and why?
I really, really enjoyed this one.
Sebastian St Cyr is not your average gentleman, and he doesn't care if you know it or not. Given the time period and the historical setting, I found his character extremely unique and surprising. I loved his way of questioning the ton—with surprising elements of humor—and his core of steel when it came to class injustice.
The author also did a FABULOUS job with the sense of place and historical accuracy. It felt like 1800s London, down to the dialogue, as opposed to a historical novel with just enough details. I loved the total immersion into the time period.
And, last but not least, the mystery! Obviously can't talk about this too much without spoilers, but let's just say that C.S. Harris knows how to spin a good yarn. I was right about a few things, wrong about a few things, and in the end so thoroughly entertained by the entire experience that I just settled in for the ride.
Thank you to Berkley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
This alternative historical fiction novel centered on a "sin eater" in a version of Elizabethan England was dark, lyrical, and unforgettable.
Sense of place:
Sin Eater comes out on April 7, 2020!
May Owens is caught stealing a piece of bread in the streets of an alternative version of London. It's the time of the Virgin Queen. Taken to be sentenced, May is shocked to receive a one-of-a-kind punishment: she's been declared a sin eater.
A sin eater is always a woman. She's branded by a collar displaying an "S," and branded with a black ink "S" on her tongue. She's not allowed to speak, she's not allowed to be touched, she's not allowed to be looked at, and her entire life is plagued by the limitations of her new position—she "eats" the sins of the dying.
As you can tell, the job isn't great.
May's life as a sin eater in this alternative London was fascinating, heartbreaking, and poignantly human. This is a lingering read. I really disagree with the comparisons claiming this tale is like The Handmaid's Tale and Alice in Wonderland—neither of those comparisons resonated with me and they really miss the connections to historical England and the lyricism of this novel. This is about the grimy underbelly of London, the seedy witchcraft of a prescience era, and the life of a pariah among and separate from the people.
Also, there are no fantastical elements to this novel whatsoever, so fantasy fans take note. I still loved it, but would not call it a fantasy even in the loosest sense.
Thank you so much to Atria Books for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
This wasn’t quite what I’d hoped it’d be, but honestly that was on me and not on this book.
Quick take: Two women are trying to make their mark on the film industry of the 1950s during the Communist scare and the Hollywood blacklists that ensued as a result of the Red Menace.
Phoebe Adler is in New York, scratching out a living as a screenwriter for a mid-level detective TV show. Her shows have her name on the credits, but it's hard being a self-made woman after WWII, when the men have returned from the war and want their jobs back. Phoebe doesn't mind much, except for getting her name out there and making sure she's making enough money for her sister, Mona, who depends on her. When the Red Menace comes knocking and Phoebe's world turns on its head, London may just be her saving grace.
Hannah Wolfson is an expatriate living in London. She's managed to create a production company and successfully be an executive producer in a male-dominated world—and her husband and kids support her. But when blacklisted writers and talent arrive in the UK and Hannah decides to risk it all and hire them, odds are something just might fall through the new cracks.
This was such an immersive reading experience. Red Letter Days made me feel like I was in the 1950s, down to the prevalent mannerisms and details. It was harder for me to read the sexism—also a necessary element—because that's something I dislike in my escapist fiction, but I thought the author did a fantastic job of conveying female agency amid those issues.
However, in general I struggled with the density of the descriptions and lack of driving pacing. Due to the fact that this novel is much more exploratory and reliant on slice-of-life, this was definitely a "me" problem. The author did a fantastic job of portraying the real life struggles of these women in real time. I think I just wanted more pizzazz, more intrigue—coming from a predominantly fantasy and mystery/thriller reader, hopefully that further explains my lackluster rating.
If you are a fan of historical fiction and/or old-school Hollywood a la The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, give this a go! The atmosphere is fantastic.
Thank you to Berkley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.