Carolyn Kirby’s The Conviction of Cora Burns finds twenty-year-old Cora Burns desperate to discover what’s hidden in her memory’s shadows. It’s 1885, and she’s a child of the system. Raised in the Union workhouse, transferred to the Borough Lunatic Asylum as a laundry maid, then sentenced to Birmingham Gaol for attempted infanticide, she’s suspicious when she’s offered employment in the house of Mr. Jerwood, a man of science who photographs convicts. But she accepts because she needs time and means to find her only childhood friend, Alice Salt, so that, finally, all might be well.
The novel probes some of Victoriana’s darkest corners. Kirby uses the ties between early scientific and medical research, prisons, lunatic asylums, and workhouses to humanize the vulnerability of the poor, especially women and children. Once a person goes through any of these doors, the die is cast. Their life permanently changes in ways they have little control over and even less hope of escaping.
In a novel that deftly illustrates so many social horrors, Kirby delivers a complicated picture of Cora that defies easy characterization. Although Cora helms the novel, its point of view splits between multiple first-person narrators to reveal the layered implications of her tragedy. She is neither wholly good or bad, sane or insane, altruistic or self-serving; questions about her likability, sanity, and motivations hover, giving Cora complexity and depth.
The suspicion and risk that permeate Cora’s few choices reveal the disproportionate power accorded to the wealthy and to men, even when their deeds display wanton inhumanity. Although historical fiction is always a reconstruction, something of the present projected onto the past, The Conviction of Cora Burns makes plain the frightening ease by which Victorian practices lay bare our own.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (April 27, 2019)
In Varley O’Connor’s historical novel The Welsh Fasting Girl, Sarah Jacob is a humdrum farm girl. When she stops eating in the 1860s, she swiftly gains notoriety throughout the United Kingdom and United States, becoming the “Welsh Fasting Girl” of the title.
To some individuals and factions, Sarah represents a miracle; to others, she’s perpetuating a hoax. But whether she’s a saint or a fraud, the real miracle lies in the capacity of Sarah’s singular, dark fate to illuminate the socioeconomic, religious, scientific, philosophic, and political cultures and conflicts of her time.
Specific and universal truths spring from the observations and insights of the book’s fictional and nonfictional characters. The book is ultimately more fiction than non-, but any purely historical account would have rendered its truths as inaccessible today as they were a hundred and fifty years ago.
Poetic, sensual prose that is authentic to the times and places depicted foists a sense of immediacy upon this chronicle of bygone days. When history fails to distance itself from the present, local women, cloistered upstairs to view courtroom proceedings in 1870, fail to achieve exclusivity in their claim to have “inhabited Sarah’s outrageous story as if it were familiar.”
Dialogue carries the story forward like the wheels of a train; every turn resonates with vibrations unique to each voice and scene. Meanwhile, letters from a fictional journalist, Christine, to her presumed-dead journalist husband provide a venue for professional and personal musings about the agendas of particular persons and the groups with which they identify. More essentially, this safe haven incites Christine to explore matters too morally and culturally taboo to be mentioned, let alone set indelibly in print for public consumption. Varley O’Connor’s The Welsh Fasting Girl is a transcendent historical novel.
LINDA THORLAKSON (April 27, 2019)
Adam Popescu’s Nima is a heroine’s journey wherein the call to adventure is shaped by feminism as a choice. Set against the backdrop of Mount Everest, this portrait of a young Sherpa woman is a breathlessly climbing, thrillingly high-stakes coming-of-age story.
After years of slogging through losses, things are looking up for Nima’s traditional family. She and her sister are betrothed to marry a longtime family friend, Norbu. When Norbu makes a decision that sends the family into turmoil, Nima realizes that it’s time to start making some decisions of her own. Her fight for agency sends her climbing up the highest mountain in the world.
Nima’s is truly a quest of epic proportions. Though the first few chapters are driven by exposition, they are worth sticking out to be swept away by the expedition that follows. While Nima never really seems sure of where she’s going, she’s tough, smart, and determined, and it’s a privilege to discover Everest through her eyes.
Part of the book’s magic is that it doesn’t play down the difficulties that Nima faces as her journey snowballs. Women are considered bad luck on the mountain, and Nima’s empowerment requires that she stare down threats not just to her personhood, but to her life. It’s unfortunate that most of Nima’s choice-making is more about the men around her than it is about her own visions for her future, but the narration is still clear about the oppressive forces that Nima faces. With the white journalist she’s guiding up the mountain as a foil, Nima’s story opens up room for conversations about what Eurocentric feminism misunderstands.
Nima is the perfect book club pick—full of high stakes storytelling that everyone will devour, with plenty of thought-provoking nuances to explore in discussion.
JESSIE HORNESS (April 27, 2019)
Vanda Symon introduces a cheeky, brave new heroine in Overkill, the first in her Sam Shephard series of mysteries set in New Zealand.
When Sam, the lone officer in tiny Mataura, is called in to investigate a missing person case, she certainly doesn’t expect it to be the wife of the ex-boyfriend she’s been trying to find. The situation goes from bad to worse when Sam discovers the woman’s body washed up on the banks of the nearby river and the apparent cause is suicide.
It doesn’t take long for Sam to realized that the woman certainly did not kill herself. Instead, she may have stumbled upon a conspiracy that could rock their close-knit community. When Sam becomes a suspect, she draws on all of her emotional and investigatory resources to clear her name and bring closure to the only man she has ever loved.
This atmospheric thriller provides a haunting backdrop that weaves together the harshness of the landscape with the often more harsh realities of small-town life. As Sam battles against prejudices, ignorance, and the ever-growing suspicion that the people she’s known her entire life could very well be murderers, the tension mounts and the stakes get higher and higher.
Sam is a tough-talking tomboy trying to make it in a man’s world, yet her tender heart shows through in almost every scene. She struggles to conceal all of the emotions that are churning within. She’s the perfect heroine to take on a bleak crime in a landscape marked by the desperation of dying resources. Her complicated relationships with the townspeople add another layer of intrigue, and her increasing loyalty to her ex-lover’s murdered wife gives her a welcome depth.
Overkill is an achievement that blends heart-stopping thrills with deep, believable characters in a stark New Zealand setting. It will leave readers reaching for the next Sam Shephard mystery.
ANGELA MCQUAY (April 27, 2019)
Tales of Feline Friendship in Old New York
Peggy Gavan’s atmospheric Cat Men of Gotham retells forty-two true stories of Old New York felines and the men who cared for them. Culled from newspaper and magazine archives from the 1880s to the 1930s, these tales about cat mascots and hard-working mousers were popular public relations material for city businesses and politicos and standard feel-good copy for news-hungry New Yorkers.
Gavan organizes her entertaining, history-laden accounts by cat occupation. There are tales of good luck seafaring cats; vermin-fighting fire, police, and post office cats; schmoozy hotel and restaurant cats; and the pampered pets of a string of colorful artists, writers, and tycoons.
Most tales are lighthearted, focusing on the spectacular achievements of the featured felines—many could walk on their hind legs and box. Others touch upon the harsh lives of pets in eras when they were valued for their skins, animal abuse was commonplace, and there was little available veterinary care. Pity poor Holey, a kitten who fell down into a four-inch-wide shaft between two Lower East Side tenement buildings and spent two years living under the elements until someone figured out how to rescue her with a lariat.
While cats are at the hub, Gavan inserts a wealth of information about New York City’s architectural development, too, fueled by its many devastating fires. The book covers Manhattan neighborhoods and a few in the Bronx and Brooklyn, relating the transformation of the sleepy Dutch colonial outpost into a bustling port and hard-driving center of immigration, culture, and business. Lively prose conveys the author’s passion for the city and its rich history.
Cat Men of Gotham will be most enjoyed by those who are familiar with New York City history but also by anyone who has ever been amused by or in love with cats.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (April 27, 2019)