Mini-reviews: “The Impossible Girl” and “A Beautiful Poison” by Lydia Kang

I’ve been reading book after book in the last couple of months, but have neglected writing reviews for them as usual. I’m going to rectify that starting with these two books that I’ll be reviewing in this mini-reviews post.

I read The Impossible Girl and A Beautiful Poison back in April when I was on my free trial of Kindle Unlimited. I enjoyed both of these two as they both appealed to the history nerd in me and the medical professional that I am. The crime mystery element weaved into these two books was another thing I really liked about these books.

Given all their similarities though, these two books stand well apart from each other. And me being me, might just prefer one over the other a little bit more.

breaker

39344110

Title: The Impossible Girl
Publication Date: September 18, 2018
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Get it: IndieBound | Book Depository | Barnes and Noble | Books-a-Million | Amazon | Apple Books

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39863498-the-gilded-wolves

Two hearts. Twice as vulnerable.

Manhattan, 1850. Born out of wedlock to a wealthy socialite and a nameless immigrant, Cora Lee can mingle with the rich just as easily as she can slip unnoticed into the slums and graveyards of the city. As the only female resurrectionist in New York, she’s carved out a niche procuring bodies afflicted with the strangest of anomalies. Anatomists will pay exorbitant sums for such specimens – dissecting and displaying them for the eager public.

Cora’s specialty is not only profitable, it’s a means to keep a finger on the pulse of those searching for her. She’s the girl born with two hearts – a legend amnog grave robbers and anatomists – sought after as an endangered prize.

Now, as a series of murders unfolds closer and closer to Cora, she can no longer trust those she holds dear, including the young medical student she’s fallen for. Because someone has no intention of waiting for Cora to die a natural death.

This book was immensely interesting especially with all the medical bits and pieces thrown into the narrative. I ended up on an hour’s worth of research rabbit hole after this, reading more about resurrectionists and the history of anatomy (which was intriguing and gruesome and brow-raising at varying measures.)

But, more than the fascinating history of the time, it was the characters that got me. Cora was just such a strong main character. She’s wily, smart and cunning, but she’s also vulnerable, closed-off. Theo, while immediately appearing to be the opposite of Cora’s grey cloud personality, has secrets of his own. Together, these two form a formidable bond that had me rooting for them right until the very end.

This was a carefully crafted story full of twists and turns. The end actually took me by surprise in a good way. I never expected the ending to happen the way it happened, but when I finally got to it, I realized that it has been hinted to all throughout the book. It’s a testament to Lydia Kang’s subtle plotting, something that I very much appreciated.

breaker

33788985._sy475_

Title: A Beautiful Poison
Publication Date: August 1, 2017
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Get it: IndieBound | Book Depository | Barnes and Noble | Books-a-Million | Amazon | Apple Books

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39863498-the-gilded-wolves

Just beyond the Gilded Age, in the mist-covered streets of New York, the deadly Spanish influenza ripples through the city. But with so many vicims in her close circle, young socialite Allene questions if the flu is really to blame. All appear to have been poisoned – and every death was accompanied by a mysterious note.

Desperate for answers and dreading her own engagement to a wealthy gentleman, Allene returns to her passion for scientific discovery and recruits her long-lost friends, Jasper and Birdie, for help. The investigation brings her close to Jasper, an apprentice medical examiner at Bellevue Hospital who still holds her heart, and offers the delicate Birdie a last-ditch chance to find a safe haven before her fragile health fails.

As more of their friends and family die, alliances shift, lives become entangled, and the three begin to suspect everyone – even each other. As they race to find the culprit, Allene, Birdie, and Jasper must once again trust each other, before one of them becomes the next victim.

A Beautiful Poison was just as interesting as The Impossible Girl. Lydia Kang again uses her medical background and history – the Gilded Age this time – to create a vivid backdrop to her story.

However, I felt like the author just pulled on a bit too much in this one – looping in WWI, the Spanish Flu into this story’s collection of strings. I love plot twists like any other reader does but, with this one, it felt overdone, unnecessarily overcomplicated. It didn’t help that the relationship between the three main characters – Allene, Jasper, and Birdie – was already complex in itself. The three have their own agendas and constantly maneuvered over and around one another just so they get what they want simply because they want it. They aren’t exactly the kind of characters you’ll root for, and I didn’t. I, maybe, felt a bit of empathy but I didn’t care enough about them even after the book ended.

What kept me reading, however, is the mystery – the whodunnit part – that I think was still well done. Piecing together the clues dropped in between dialogues and scenes kept my mind turning. The final twist in this story was a total surprise.

breaker

Both books, though classed as adult fiction, have great crossover appeal. Teens and young adults will just as easily love them. I definitely would recommend them to mystery and historical fiction readers.

Review: “Insurrecto” by Gina Apostol

40237027
Title: Insurrecto
Author: Gina Apostol
Publisher: SOHO
Publication Date: November 13, 2018
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Get it: IndieBound | Book Depository | Barnes and Noble | Amazon | Kobo | iBooks

goodreads-badge-add-plus-d700d4d3e3c0b346066731ac07b7fe47

ARC provided by the publisher through Edelweiss

 

A story within a story wrapped around another story – Gina Apostol’s newest release Insurrecto is a strange hybrid about two countries’ past and two modern women’s present.

Two women, a Filipino translator and an American filmmaker, go on a road trip in Duterte’s Philippines, collaborating and clashing in the writing of a film script about a massacre during the Philippine-American War. Chiara is working on a film about an incident in Balangiga, Samar, in 1901, when Filipino revolutionaries attacked an American garrison, and in retaliation American soldiers created “a howling wilderness” of the surrounding countryside. Magsalin reads Chiara’s film script and writes her own version. Insurrecto contains within its dramatic action two rival scripts from the filmmaker and the translator—one about a white photographer, the other about a Filipino schoolteacher.

As much as I love reading historical fiction based off other countries’ histories, I am hungry to see my own country’s history be featured in one, and that was what I was expecting to get in Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto. What I got instead was a mixed bag of a story, one that combines uniquely different strings and weirdly weaves them into one complementary piece.

Starting off with a six-paged Cast of Characters listing down a variety of personalities ranging from historical figures to pop culture icons alongside fictional ones, reading Insurrecto was an experience. I still don’t know what to make out of it honestly. It was confusing and dizzying — out-of-order chapters, a flurry of forward and backward switches between what appeared to be one main character’s movie script and the other’s mystery novel draft interspersed with both protagonists’ present-day experiences with the Philippines, from the gritty streets of the capital, Manila, to the coastal roads of Samar, serving as their backdrop. Still, even with all its tangential ropes, it somehow manages to coalesce into something coherent.

With the 1901 Balangiga Massacre forming its backbone, Apostol uses her two main characters — Magsalin, a Filipino writer and translator and Chiara Brassi, an American filmmaker — to highlight the contrasting accounts with which this dark piece of history between the Philippines and the United States has been viewed and told. It was interesting how the labels differed depending on whose perspective it was coming from like how Magsalin calls the same group of Filipino fighters “revolutionaries” while Chiara views them as “insurgents.” Apostol successfully utilizes this, juxtaposing the two women’s viewpoints to illustrate her point, and she sticks with this message until the very end even as she drive both protagonists to pursue their own agendas.

That said, while I appreciated Apostol’s thoughtful presentation and how well-researched this story was, I did not enjoy this as much as I expected to. Both Magsalin and Chiara felt faraway, flat characters acting as mere plot drivers, and I couldn’t connect with them, feel for them. The way the story was constructed and written also did not help. It was confusing, the language too flowery when things could be stated in a more direct way. I cannot count how many times I’ve put the book down just because of this. It was a distraction from the story this book is telling.

Still, even if this wasn’t a fit for me, I think this is an important book and will recommend giving it at least a try. I could definitely see metafiction readers enjoying how this story played around and broke the constraints of storytelling. Historical fiction lovers may also find something to like in this book. I certainly enjoyed reading about Casiana Nacionales, the only known woman who participated in the rebellion in Balangiga. And with the US is set to return the Balangiga church bells taken as war loot after their troops’ retaliation, I think picking up this book is only fitting.

🍂 🍂 🍂 🍂 🍂

About the Author:

gina-apostolGina Apostol’s third book, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, won the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize. Her first two novels, Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, both won the Juan Laya Prize for the Novel (Philippine National Book Award). She was writer-in-residence at Phillips Exeter Academy and a fellow at Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, Italy, among other fellowships. Her essays and stories have appeared in The New York TimesLos Angeles Review of BooksForeign PolicyGettysburg ReviewMassachusetts Review, and others. She lives in New York City and western Massachusetts and grew up in Tacloban, Philippines. She teaches at the Fieldston School in New York City.

Website | Twitter

Review: “A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts” by Therese Anne Fowler

37638194
Title: A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts
Author: Therese Anne Fowler
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: October 16, 2018
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Get it: IndieBound | Book Depository | Barnes and Noble | Amazon | Kobo | iBooks

goodreads-badge-add-plus-d700d4d3e3c0b346066731ac07b7fe47

ARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

 

Author Therese Anne Fowler shines a light on one of the Gilded Age’s most fascinating and misunderstood women in her newest fictional biography, A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts.

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 best friend and now-Duchess of Manchester, saved the Smiths – and elevated the Vanderbilts.

From the 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 a box at the Academy of Music, Alva founds The Met. No obstacle puts her off for long.

But how much 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…

I’ve always been a history nerd and with it comes my love for historical fiction, but I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t know much about America’s Gilded Age and the families who ruled it like royalties – the Astors and Rockefellers, and, of course, the Vanderbilts. So, naturally, when I saw this book available on NetGalley, I immediately requested it wanting to know more.

And this one didn’t disappoint.

Written in the third person and in the style of an Edith Wharton novel, A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts is a well-researched, informative and entertaining fictional biography focused mainly on Alva Belmont and her years as a Vanderbilt.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Alva Smith – who later on became Alva Vanderbilt when she married W.K. Vanderbilt in 1875, then Alva Belmont when she married Oliver Hazard Belmont in 1896 – was a fascinating woman. She’s a contradiction: head strong and confident, driven, ambitious, and a forward thinker even in today’s standards, but at the same time she’s insecure and so full of doubts and fears about herself, her family and their place in society.

Alva is a tough woman in a time when society expects women to stay in the background, arm candies to their rich and powerful husbands. It was just so easy to like her, though, by all means, she did do a whole lot of things with questionable reasons (pushing, almost to the point of forcing, her daughter Consuelo to marry the Duke of Marlborough for one). But that’s just one of the things that make Alva, Alva.

A lot of Fowler’s main character’s concerns may not be relevant to us now (Societal standing be damned) but some of Alva’s struggles like not letting her philandering first husband and his overbearing family (especially her sister-in-law) walk all over her still hits home. Truly, I cannot imagine myself living in her time. Put in her place, I might just punch someone, cause a big scandal and live as a pariah my whole life! My personal thoughts aside, I appreciate how Fowler was able to humanize this deeply interesting woman who lived more than a hundred years ago for a modern-day reader like me. She felt closer – reachable – and it was this that made this book enjoyable for me.

The book, the way it was written, may not work for everyone though. The dialogues may sound too formal, some parts moving too slow at points, but I think these are all justified given Fowler wrote this novel emulating the style of writing particular to that period. One thing I wished this one had more though was Alva’s involvement with the Suffragette Movement. While the end of the book and the long (but informative) author’s note tackled it, I still wanted more and couldn’t help thinking how much more interesting it would be to read about Alva’s part in the movement in story form.

That said, A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts is still an engrossing read. I enjoyed this one a whole lot, learning as I read. I definitely recommend it to readers of historical fiction.

🍂 🍂 🍂 🍂 🍂

About the Author:

72904080THERESE ANNE FOWLER is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Raised in the Midwest, she migrated to North Carolina in 1995. She holds a B.A. in sociology/cultural anthropology and an MFA in creative writing from North Caroline State University.

Website | Facebook | Twitter

Blog Tour + Author Q&A: Sarah Bird

Bird - Author Image (credit Sarah Wilson)

With already 10 books under her belt, Sarah Bird is already a veteran author. But, somehow, her latest release Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is extra close to her heart. Lightly based on the life of the only known female Buffalo Soldier, Cathy Williams, Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen shines a light on an inspiring, feisty woman.

In this author Q&A, Sarah talks about what inspired her new book, her writing process, and a little bit about what’s in store for her in the future.

 

Rachel: How did you decide to take on writing about Cathay Williams? What about her did you find the most compelling?

Sarah Bird: I first heard about Cathy Williams’ extraordinary feat of disguising herself as a man and serving for two years in the Buffalo Soldiers way back in the late nineteen-seventies when I was photographing and documenting African-American rodeos.

My imagination was seized by the tale of a slave who, at the end of the Civil War, made the singular decision to reject the life of servitude she would have had as a woman, and enlisted with one of the six new regiments formed by the U.S. Army. If this story were true, I thought, then Cathy Williams was the first woman to serve in the regular U.S. military. Though hundreds of women had passed as men during both the Revolutionary and Civil War, I had not heard of any who’d done so during peacetime.

Perhaps because I am the daughter of two warriors–a career Air Force officer and an Army nurse who served from Casa Blanca to Marseilles–who grew up on military bases around the world with an understanding of the power of a uniform, the power of the salute, I felt a special affinity with a woman who shared that understanding and tried to learn more about her. Back in those pre-Internet days, however, I found no trace of Cathy Williams, Buffalo Soldier, and assumed the fabulous story was apocryphal.

Cathy did not return to me until 1988, when, pregnant with our son, I attended a childbirth class taught by Pam Black, teacher at a predominantly African-American school. When she learned that I was a novelist, Pam told me I “had to” write a book about a forgotten hero that her students, especially the girls, needed to know, Cathy Williams. Before I had time to tell her that there never was a female Buffalo Soldier, Pam handed me copies of Cathy’s enlistment certificate, discharge, and her application for a pension. Thrilled to know that she was real, I quickly hunted down the rest of what little documentation exists about Cathy Williams.

The more I learned, the more “inhabited” I felt by Cathy and, with her slender archive as a trellis, her imagined life twined through me and, after many more twists and turns, blossomed into a tale as majestic as her decision had been.

R: How much research went to making this book?

SB: A ton!! Fortunately, I live in a city with a world-class university library system, including one library that specializes in the history of the West. They provided me with a wealth of material. I also traveled to Fort Davis, six hours away in West Texas, many times. I used this fully restored fort which had once been regimental headquarters for the Buffalo Soldiers as the setting for Cathy’s service in the West. I also benefited from visiting the Buffalo Soldier Museum in Houston which allows visitors to handle artifacts.

R: What’s the biggest takeaway do you want readers to have from Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen?

SB: What has always inspired me the most was the example of a woman presented with nothing but horrible choices, imagining herself into a better life than any on offer. I am thrilled by the pioneers and heroes among us who find a way when there is no way.

Second, I’d like readers to take away the certain knowledge that, as far as we know, Cathy Williams was the first woman, of any race, to enlist in the regular, peacetime armed forces. One hundred and twenty years before the act that allowed women to enlist in the regular army was signed into law in 1948.

R: You’ve been writing historical fiction since the 80s, and while most of it is built on real events and people at its base you still add some things into the story. How do you decide what things to add into your stories and how do you balance this out with the historical foundations of your stories?

SB: Such a great question. I sort of think it as building a fire. The research is the kindling, the logs, the careful addition of the right material at the right time. The story is the flame. Too little fuel and it fizzles out. Too much and the fire is suffocated, buried beneath the weight of too much research. For me, one of the major dangers is falling in love with some juicy nugget or astounding fact that I’ve unearthed then, sort of, deforming the story to shoehorn it in. I won’t point to specific examples in my own work, but , as far as research goes, I’ve learned to kill my darlings.

R: Do you have another book in the works?

SB: Yes, I am researching the story of a doomed love affair set in the world of dance marathons during the Great Depression. And, boy oh boy, are there ever some juicy nuggets!

R: When you aren’t writing, what things keep you busy?

SB: The heart of Austin, for me, is Barton Springs, a three-acre, limestone-bedded pool where the water is 68 degrees all year round. I go there to swim, think out plot points, and abate anxiety.

R: Lastly, if you could described Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen in 3 words, what would it be?

SB: I can’t do any better than my friend, the wondrous Christina Baker Kline who described the novel as, “an epic page-turner.” I always imagined Cathy’s story as larger than life and attempted to write a book of that scope.

🍂 🍂 🍂 🍂 🍂

About the author:

SARAH BIRD’s previous novel, Above the East China Sea, was long-listed for the Dublin International Literary Award. Sarah has been selected for the Meryl Streep Screenwriting Lab, the B&N Discover Great Writers program, NPR’s Moth Radio series, the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, and New York Libraries Books to Remember list. She first heard Cathy Williams’ story in the late seventies while researching African-American rodeos.

🍂 🍂 🍂 🍂 🍂

To celebrate the release of Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, I am, with the help of St. Martin’s Press, giving away a copy of this amazing book. Just enter the rafflecopter giveaway by clicking on the link below. This is open to everyone. (Yes, even you wonderful international readers! Yes, of course, you!)

Also, if you haven’t yet, please check out my review of the book.

I am so thankful and happy to be given a chance to be a part of the blog tour for this very special book. Special thanks goes to Sarah Bird for giving me her time for this Q&A and Clare Maurer at St. Martin’s Press for helping me with this blog tour.

Review + Giveaway: “Daughter of a Daughter of Queen” by Sarah Bird

37638135

Title: Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

Author: Sarah Bird

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan

Publication Date: September 4, 2018

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Get it:

IndieBound | Book DepositoryBarnes and Noble | Amazon | Books-a-Million | Powells

(ARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley)

Sarah Bird shines a light on the only known female Buffalo Soldier Cathay/Cathy Williams in her newest offering Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen.

“Here’s the first thing you need to know about Miss Cathy Williams: I am the daughter of a daughter of a queen and my mama never let me forget it”

Though born into bondage on a “miserable tobacco farm” in Little Dixie, Missouri, Cathy Williams was never allowed to consider herself a slave. According to her mother, she was a captive destined by her noble warrior blood to escape the enemy. Her means of deliverance is Union general Philip Henry “Smash ’em Up” Sheridan, the outcast of West Point who takes the rawboned, prideful young woman into service. At war’s end, having tasted freedom, Cathy refuses to return to servitude and makes the monumental decision to disguise herself as a man and join the Army’s legendary Buffalo Soldiers.

Alone now in the ultimate man’s world, Cathy must fight not only for her survival and freedom, but she also vows to never give up on finding her mother, her little sister, and the love of the only man strong enough to win her heart. Inspired by the stunning, true story of Private Williams, this American heroine comes to vivid life in a sweeping and magnificent tale about one woman’s fight for freedom, respect and independence.

I admit, aside from having to memorize and perform Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in junior year English class (for which I got an A), I know almost nothing about the American Civil War. It’s always been a point of interest though, so when I got an email asking if I’d want to read an advanced copy of a book set at the tail-end of the civil war featuring a woman, a freed slave, who disguised herself as a man to join the army, I immediately said yes.

And I’m totally giving myself a good job pat on my shoulder for making that decision.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is an engaging novel, vividly re-imagining historical figures and events. I totally fell in love with this story. It has everything I could ever ask for  – captivating writing, interesting and nuanced supporting characters, action, and romance.

But, as important as those elements are, where Sarah Bird really excelled is at writing her main character.

blog tour daughter of a daughter of a queen quotes (1)

From the get-go, I was compelled by Cathy Williams’ character. She’s strong and feisty and proud. Having been raised by strong, proud women – her mother and grandmother – Cathy’s will remain unbroken even through years of bondage and servitude. She’s still sarcastically witty, gutsy, and resilient, and I admired her more for it. The things she has gone through, I can only imagine just how hard it had been for her, but still, she pushes and comes through in the end.

As is the case with historical fiction, this book is a mix of researched facts and the authors creative leeway. Sometimes a book may be bogged down by these creative add-ons, but Bird managed to balance it, taking what bits of history there is about Cathy Williams and weaving it into a story of her own making while tackling racial issues that are still very much relevant today.

blog tour daughter of a daughter of a queen quotes (2)

This was an almost flawless book for me. What kept it from getting a five-star rating is its slow pacing down the middle parts and the nonmention of Lincoln’s assassination (whereas Andrew Jackson was brought up).

Overall, Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is a great, important read. Whether you’re a historical fiction lover or not, I believe this is one book you’ll enjoy and treasure. I definitely recommend this book.

🍂 🍂 🍂 🍂 🍂

To celebrate the release of Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, I am, with the help of St. Martin’s Press, giving away a copy of this amazing book. Just enter the rafflecopter giveaway by clicking on the link below. This is open to everyone. (Yes, even you wonderful international readers! Yes, of course, you!) The giveaway runs until the end of September 11. I’ll be picking a winner on September 12.

I am so thankful and happy to be given a chance to be a part of the blog tour for this very special book. Special thanks goes to Sarah Bird and Clare Maurer at St. Martin’s Press.