“The Mad Girls of New York” by Maya Rodale – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In 1887 New York City, Nellie Bly has ambitions beyond writing for the ladies pages, but all the editors on Newspaper Row think women are too emotional, respectable and delicate to do the job. But then the New York World challenges her to an assignment she’d be mad to accept and mad to refuse: go undercover as a patient at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women.

Goodreads


While I was reading this one, several friends added it to their “to read” list on Goodreads – so, I think the world is hungry for more great historical fiction based on real life badass women. (I’ll call that the “Marie Benedict effect.”) How exciting!

Nellie Bly had worked as a reporter for a few years already, in Pittsburgh, but she eventually moved to New York City with hopes to work for one of the bigger papers. But just getting in the doors to get an interview proves hard for a woman, because women weren’t considered good choices for reporter jobs.

She’s been in the city for four months, and she’s struggling to pay her rent. She is also very aware that women who are considered “inconvenient” often end up in insane asylums, with no way to prove their sanity. So she needs to land on her feet, soon.

Which is how she comes up with the crazy plan – to act crazy. To see how easy it is to get herself locked up, and to report on the actual conditions and practices inside the asylum, which does not open its doors to reporters. Specifically, she aims to get inside the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, which is rumored to be the most inhumane. She does this “stunt” with the cooperation of the deputy editor of the New York World, who promises to get her out in a week or so.

She does get in, and is there for about 10 days. She meets other women, and of course, most are not really crazy at all – some are heartbroken and/or depressed, sick and in need of medical care their families couldn’t provide, foreign and unable to understand English, or maybe just poor (and therefore a nuisance).

The conditions are deplorable, and they are given no reasons to hope for more. They have to sit on hard benches all day and not talk or move. Nelly reasons that some of them may become insane while there, because they are given no mental or physical stimulation. It’s also freezing cold (she is there in October), and they don’t get enough to eat.

The title – “The Mad Girls of New York” – refers to the women of the asylum. But the story also follows some of Nellie’s acquaintances in the city, as well as her time before and after this assignment. Women trying to support themselves financially, and not just depending on a man to take care of them. And these girls could also be considered “mad” for their time (the 1880’s).

This whole scenario is based on actual events, which Bly wrote her own book about at the time (“Ten Days in a Mad-House“). The author used info from that book, but also based characters on other people and stories from that era.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, I’d definitely recommend this one. Even though we know Nellie will get out eventually, the stakes still seem high for her comrades in the asylum. And there’s one more fun twist after she gets out, too.

This book comes out today, April 26th. I was able to read an advanced copy through the publisher and Netgalley.


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“Elatsoe” by Darcie Little Badger – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Imagine an America very similar to our own… (but) this America has been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. Some of these forces are charmingly everyday, like the ability to make an orb of light appear or travel across the world through rings of fungi. But other forces are less charming and should never see the light of day.

Elatsoe lives in this slightly stranger America. She can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family. Her beloved cousin has just been murdered in a town that wants no prying eyes. But she is going to do more than pry.

Goodreads


Our main character here is Ellie – real name Elatsoe – a seventeen year old living in Texas. Her best friends are Jay – human, male – and her dog, Kirby. Except Kirby died when Ellie was twelve, and he has been a ghost for the past five years.

The action starts after Ellie’s cousin Trevor dies in a car accident. He lives in a different part of the big state, and it’ll take a whole day of car travel for Ellie and her dad to get there… but Trevor appears to Ellie overnight and tells her that he was murdered, and she needs to protect his wife and baby. He even gives her the name of his murderer!

While supernatural occurrences are common in Ellie’s world, they don’t hold up well in court without proof. So, Ellie needs to find out what really happened the night of Trevor’s death. While she is traveling with her dad, Jay finds all he can online about the supposed murderer – a local doctor with a sterling reputation.

Ghosts aren’t the only beings in this story that we would consider supernatural. Jay’s future brother-in-law, Al, is a vampire, for example. Jay’s family is descended from fairies, and those with fae blood can still travel through fairy rings – although the rings are regulated by the government. (In fact, Jay and his sister travel to Ellie’s location – Willowbee – several times to help her!)

These kids’ lives are also permeated by legends of their ancestors. They talk of their abilities and heroic deeds often and openly, giving their ancestry an important part in their everyday lives.

The story is different for the world it creates, and for the fact that “whodunnit” isn’t the mystery. I found the whole book fascinating and fast-paced. I don’t want to give away too much of the ending, but there is definitely a big “final battle” that includes vampires, revelations, and one casualty that hit me right in the gut.


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“The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections” by Eva Jurczyk – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Liesl Weiss has been (mostly) happy working in the rare books department of a large university, managing details and working behind the scenes to make the head of the department look good. But when her boss has a stroke and she’s left to run things, she discovers that the library’s most prized manuscript is missing.

Goodreads


I picked this one just because it’s a book about books – and what book-lover wouldn’t enjoy one of those once in a while?

Specifically, this one takes place in a library of ancient and rare books and manuscripts, housed on the campus of a university. The library has its own bevy of big donors, which makes it important to the university at large.

So when Liesl Weiss has to take over for her ailing boss, she doesn’t mind the real work. In fact, she loves looking at upcoming events and catalogs to see what rare items she could collect for the library. But dealing with donors – boozing, schmoozing, and stroking big egos – is not quite her thing.

She had been on sabbatical, writing her own book, when the head of the library fell ill. So, she wasn’t actually there when the newest addition had arrived, and she hasn’t seen it yet herself. The donors who paid for it are eager to view it, but Liesl can’t find it. The boss does have a safe, which she doesn’t have the combination for, so originally she assumes it’s just in there. She is in charge of the place for a good week or so before she starts to realize it’s actually missing.

And so sets the stage for the mystery here. At various points in the book, suspicion is thrown on each of her other long-time coworkers at the library: Francis, an older James Bond type who’s now a semi-bitter grandfather; Max, a former priest who was outed as gay and is the library’s expert on religious texts; and mousy Miriam, who mostly keeps to herself.

I hadn’t read a mystery in a while, and I really enjoyed this one. As with most, I feel like the pace really picks up in the final third or so – as I got closer to finding out who did it, I couldn’t help but keep turning pages. (I will say, though, without giving it away – that the perpetrator was exactly who I thought it’d be from the beginning!)

The copy I read had a little conversation with the author at the end, and she mentioned that one of her reasons for writing this book is because there are so few middle-aged women protagonists. Liesl is around 60, has worked at the library for decades, and is used to playing second banana. Her daughter is college-aged, and her husband has struggled in the past with depression. So she’s lived some life, if you will. But, as this is her first time dealing with anything of this magnitude, she often wrestles with how much she should go along with what the university president thinks, or how much she should stand up for her own opinions. I think a lot of women will find that relatable.

I was able to read this one for free through Sourcebooks Early Reads.


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“Memphis” by Tara Stringfellow – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Unfolding over seventy years through a chorus of voices, Memphis weaves back and forth in time to show how the past and future are forever intertwined. It is only when Joan comes to see herself as a continuation of a long matrilineal tradition–and the women in her family as her guides to healing–that she understands that her life does not have to be defined by vengeance.

Goodreads


TW: Physical abuse and rape of a child.

This story follows one family through three generations. We first meet Hazel in the 1930s, when she is a teenager in Memphis. Later, she has two daughters, Miriam and August. Miriam also has two daughters, Joan and Mya. The story ends in the early 2000s, when Joan is about to graduate from high school.

The story alternates between the perspectives of Hazel, Miriam, August, and Joan. It is not told chronologically. There are other characters, of course – including Hazel’s husband Myron, Miriam’s husband Jax, and August’s son Derek. The house these women leave in – which Myron built – is almost a character of its own. And the neighborhood is filled with other strong characters, mostly women.

These characters live through many trying times, both in their personal lives and on a bigger scale. We see them continue lives at home while their husbands are off at war, participate in the Civil Rights Movement and react to the assassination of Dr. King, and have a personal connection to the events of September 11th.

As mentioned at top, some of the personal events they have to overcome could be upsetting to some readers. I think this was the hardest part of the book, for me. I was rooting for these characters, but also mad at some of the things that happened.

I expect to see this book on a lot of lists – it’s ripe for being an Oprah pick. (Full disclosure, I read it in the fall of 2021, so this is totally a guess from me.) The multi-generational, non-linear storytelling alone lends it a certain epic quality. And the situations discussed – even the ones I did not enjoy – are certainly real for some people. I think it’s a bit of a hard read, but maybe that’s exactly the point.

This book comes out today, April 5, 2022. I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley and the publisher, Random House Publishing Group.


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“Survive the Dome” by Kosoko Jackson – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Jamal Lawson just wanted to be a part of something. As an aspiring journalist, he packs up his camera and heads to Baltimore to document a rally protesting police brutality after another Black man is murdered.

But before it even really begins, the city implements a new safety protocol…the Dome. The Dome surrounds the city, forcing those within to subscribe to a total militarized shutdown. No one can get in, and no one can get out.

Goodreads


I was drawn to this book on NetGalley because it had a great-looking cover and title – and who doesn’t love some dystopian YA?

This one doesn’t take place in some far-off future, however. It takes place in today’s America, with much of our own history and current problems – but with one new invention that we don’t have (yet?): The Dome.

Our main character is Jamal, a gay black teen in Annapolis. He drives to Baltimore, where there are some BLM protests going on. The governor of Maryland has been wanting to test the new Dome invention, and the protests offer the perfect opportunity. Now, Jamal is trapped inside. Not only can the citizens not get in or out, but neither can any electronic information – cell calls and texts, emails, etc.

In addition to the Dome, there is one other new technology that the government/police unveil during their Dome experiment: the police have powerful suits of armor that are all linked. The officers wearing the suits are basically super-soldiers. The only caveat is that the suits are pretty bulky, which makes them a little sluggish.

Jamal falls in with Marco, a wannabe hacker with contacts in Nemesis (analogous to the real world’s Anonymous). Marco is a pretty good hacker himself, with high ideals of changing the world, but he hasn’t been accepted into Nemesis because of his criminal record.

They also team up with Catherine, who is just a little older than them. She just got out of basic training, so her military background is useful. At first, she is cagey about herself – how does anyone know who they can trust in this situation? – but eventually we learn that Catherine is fighting to find her parents, who have been taken by the government.

The action here is non-stop, which makes this book move fast. Each chapter picks up right where the last stops, with virtually no down time. The entire story takes place over just a couple days.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I will say that Jamal seems too idealistic at times. He often puts himself in harm’s way to save anyone he comes across, including random people he sees on the streets. He’s precious, but almost too precocious to be a survivor in this harsh environment.

The views on police and government in the story are BLEAK. I’m not even saying they’re out of place, mind you, but they obviously come from a very frustrated place. We see leaders as the villains in most dystopian stories, though – think “The Hunger Games” – so it is really only striking in that these leaders are supposed to represent the ones we have in our present times.

This was a fast-paced read that has a lot of social commentary about the times we live in. It comes out today, March 29th, and I was able to read it ahead of time through NetGalley.


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“Circe” by Madeline Miller – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child – not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power – the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Goodreads


I had heard the name Circe before, and a quick Google search reminded me that she was in The Odyssey. I did read that, but in high school, so… it’d been a minute. For anyone who is familiar with that story – Odysseus does play an important role in this story, but his ship does not appear until about half way through this book.

The first half of this one is dedicated to Circe’s childhood and growth into the witch she becomes. She is one of four siblings who all possess the ability to use herbs and spells to change the beings and world around them. She is meek as a child, and is the last of them to discover her abilities.

Her first attempt at spells comes after she falls in love with a mortal, and wants to make him immortal (like her). After he rises to the ranks of the gods, however, he falls in love with a nymph named Scylla. Circe uses some potions on Scylla that turn her into a hideous and ravenous beast. For this, Circe is exiled from the halls of the gods, and sent to live alone on an abandoned island.

She uses her time there to hone her abilities, and experiment with the plants she finds on the island. But she doesn’t remain alone for long, as she occasionally receives visitors – sometimes gods, but more often sailors who are lost or in need of restocking their supplies. (She even gets to leave the island herself, to help her sister in childbirth.)

So, she loosely keeps up with the world around her. Eventually, Odysseus and his men arrive, and they end up staying for a good while. She does take Odysseus as a lover, but he wasn’t the first. What makes her tryst with him different, though, is that she gets pregnant.

Her son is mortal, and Circe has to spend a lot of energy warding off the goddess Athena, who has promised to kill him. Around age 16, though, he wants to venture out into the world and find his father. Circe struggles with the idea that she will not be able to protect him forever – much like we mortal moms do still to this day. She does realize that, even if she can keep him under her wing, she would still have to watch him die from old age someday. So she lets him make his own decisions.

Near the end, with her son gone, Circe decides she has one mission she must complete – stop the monstrous Scylla from killing sailors who pass her cave. Since Circe turned her into the monster she is, she feels guilty for much of Scylla’s destruction. She must blackmail her father into releasing her from her exile, but she is finally able to go into the world for herself to accomplish this task.


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“Campfire Confessions” by Kristine Ochu – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Annie, Sondra, and Jo were the best of childhood friends—but they haven’t seen each other in far too long. To the outside world, their lives are perfect. But appearances can be deceiving…

Goodreads


The story idea here is that three women reconnect on a canoeing trip. They were childhood friends, but two of them have moved away from the small Midwestern town where they grew up. All three are facing big life problems – depression, divorce, overwhelm, recovery from addiction, a sexless marriage, etc.

The first third of the book introduces us to the characters – Annie, Jo, and Sondra – and all the aforementioned issues (and then some). In 100 pages or so, we see multiple sex scenes (plus one with a vibrator), an overdose, and an attempt at blackmail. This all seemed a little too “soap opera-y” for my personal tastes, but I realized that it was just set-up.

The next section of the book has Jo and Sondra returning to their hometown to see Annie. They reconnect with family and old friends, and hatch a plot with Annie’s four sons.

Eventually, they get out onto the river, with two canoes, a tent, and some basic provisions. This part is where the action really picked up. But it also got to be a little too much at times. All three women end up hurt and/or sick before this excursion is out, and many of their encounters were dramatic.

There’s an interesting dichotomy here, in that the book kind of honors multiple spiritualities. For example, Annie is a preacher’s wife, and so the Christian perspective is represented. But Jo’s husband’s family – who live in the area, and interact with our characters a few times – are Indigenous. Especially out in nature, the women talk a lot of spirit animals and the like, so this perspective is also prevalent.

While I enjoyed that the book included multiple perspectives like this, all of them seemed a little too “in your face” at times. For example, when Annie falls and breaks her arm, she passes out and sees Jesus. They have a conversation, and she writes a song about it – while unconscious – that she remembers and sings after she wakes up. I’m not saying that it couldn’t happen, but it was a little over the top for my personal tastes.

This was a decent book – I didn’t love it, but didn’t dislike it, either. And it moved at a good pace, especially in the final two-thirds.

This book comes out today, March 8th, 2022. I was given an advanced copy from the author through the Books Forward program.


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“Champagne Widows” by Rebecca Rosenberg – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Champagne, France, 1800. Twenty-year-old Barbe-Nicole inherited Le Nez (an uncanny sense of smell) from her great-grandfather, a renowned champagne maker. She is determined to use Le Nez to make great champagne, but the Napoleon Code prohibits women from owning a business.

Goodreads


This is a fun bit of historical fiction, based on real people and events. I hadn’t read much about this era in a while, so it was also a good change of pace!

Our heroine, Barbe-Nicole, has a knack for blending wine, which was a business her grandfather was in. She can’t directly inherit the business, of course, because she’s a woman. But, she does talk her childhood sweetheart into going into business with her, as a married couple.

As the title implies, her wedded bliss only lasts a few years. With Napoleon trying to take over all of Europe, she now faces multiple challenges: how to keep her business in her own name as a widow, and how to sell her products. The French people are broke, but other countries have mostly outlawed French imports. There are blockades, even. And some of her seller’s journeys are so long and treacherous that the product is ruined by the time it gets to its destination!

Barbe-Nicole has to reinvent her business several times over during the long years of the Napoleonic wars. She takes on various partners and investors, but still wants to have the last word on her wines. This makes some of her (male) partners very frustrated, as they all think they know better than she does.

There are some lean years, often due to weather harming the crops. She also employs mostly women, many of them war widows. This is one of the reasons she keeps trying again every year – she doesn’t want to leave these women without jobs. She is stubborn, but it’s for a good cause!

She also faces a lot of personal heartbreak during these years, often from the loss of family members. She also feels the losses of her freedom to practice her religion, her family’s old way of life before the wars, and the loss of cultural norms she grew up with.

There is also a lot about winemaking in here! If you have any interest in wine, vineyards, etc. – that’s a fun aspect.

The year of the Great Comet brings the best harvest in years. Napoleon is finally facing defeat. But will the laws change in time for Barbe-Nicole to sell the fruits of that year’s labors?

This book comes out in paperback today, March 1st. I was given a copy by the author, Rebecca Rosenberg, who intends it to be the first in a series of novels about real-life women in the wine business.


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“The Paradox Hotel” by Rob Hart – Review

By: Angie Haddock


For someone with January Cole’s background, running security at a fancy hotel shouldn’t be much of a challenge. Except the Paradox is no ordinary hotel. Here, the ultra-wealthy guests are costumed for a dozen different time periods, all anxiously waiting to catch their “flights” to the past. And proximity to the timeport makes for an interesting stay. The clocks run backwards on occasion—and, rumor has it, ghosts stroll the halls.

A locked-room murder mystery set at a hotel for time travelers—in which a detective must solve an impossible crime even as her own sanity crumbles.

Goodreads


One of my (many) book email lists mentioned that the publisher of this one, Random House, was auto-approving all requests for it on NetGalley. Even though I had some other things on the docket, I thought I was due for some sci-fi – admittedly one of my favorite genres. So, on a lark, I added it to my list.

It was slow-going at first. Like with many books in this genre, it took a while for me to familiarize myself with the world that exists in The Paradox Hotel. But once I got going, I read huge chunks at a time, often needing to keep turning more pages!

The story takes place in our near-ish future, in the northern United States (seemingly upstate New York), in a time when time travel is a common vacation activity. The Paradox Hotel sits near Einstein, which is the machine/portal used for time travel. People who use time travel for recreation are often the ultra-rich, so that’s who the hotel mostly caters to.

Einstein, for obvious (don’t eff up the timeline) reasons, is controlled by the government. But, being in debt, they’re currently looking to privatize it. There are four billionaire-types coming to the hotel to bid for it, and a snowstorm raging outside. All the makings of a classic locked room scenario.

January Cole used to work at Einstein, as a sort of “time cop” who jumped into the timestream to stop people from doing crazy things (like killing Hitler, the usual). People who time travel too much, though, become “unstuck,” and start having episodes where they see things that happened in the past – or in the future. Having reached level one of being unstuck, Cole was reassigned to be the head of security at the nearby Parodox.

So, as the guests arrive, Cole is put on the spot to make sure things are all up to their high security standards. But there’s a dead body that only she can see – leading her to believe the murder hasn’t happened yet? – and problems with the internal security camera footage, in which large portions of data seem to have been erased.

The story, like so many involving time travel, gets twisty and weird. And sometimes philosophical. There is a lot of action, small incidents that add up to bigger issues, clues left along the way, and three dinosaurs on the loose inside the hotel. And all the while, Cole’s mental state is deteriorating, leading us to wonder how much of any of it is even real.

But aside from the actual story, the atmosphere of the hotel plays an important part in this book. There’s an element of “we’re all in this together” that seems relevant to the times we live in – the lower class hotel staff often being pushed around by their wealthy customers inspires them to stick up for one another on multiple occasions. The staff like to think of themselves as an extended family, and they are certainly a motley crew.

The colorful characters are part of the charm, I’d say. But I also did like the story, even though it was complicated at times. If you’re the type of person who could get through “Inception,” for example, I think you’d enjoy this story. If movies or books similar to that give you a headache, this one might not be for you.

This twisty sci-fi action adventure comes out today, February 22nd, 2022.


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“Wildcat: A Novel” by Amelia Morris – Review

By: Angie Haddock



New mother, aspiring writer, and former shopgirl Leanne has lost her way. As she struggles with both her grief and the haze of new motherhood, it also becomes clear that her best friend, the default queen of East Side Los Angeles, Regina Mark, might not actually be a friend at all.

-Goodreads


This is another book about a stay-at-home mom living near L.A. – so it was a little funny that I read it back-to-back with Adult Conversation. But the similarities pretty much end there.

This story follows Leanne, a new mom in her early thirties. She also has a book coming out, a lot of well-to-do friends in L.A., and some family baggage from back home in Pennsylvania. In fact, her dad died a week before she had her baby, and she couldn’t fly back for the funeral.

The book’s real drama comes from Leanne’s friends, though, and especially one named Regina. Leanne starts to realize how Regina’s world is so “curated,” every friend and party specifically picked to look good on social media, and/or to get her some publicity for her line of home goods.

Social media plays a big role in this book. I felt like this was a part of it I couldn’t really connect with – I’m on social media, but certainly don’t define my life by how many followers I have. Maybe it’s a generational thing? (Although I’m only a handful of years older than the main characters.) Even though this aspect of the drama didn’t ring true for me, I don’t doubt that it will for some people.

The idea that we compare ourselves to our friends – or maybe seek out friends who make us look good, or can introduce us to certain people we want to connect with – is pretty universal, though. (Even if some of us don’t live all of that out on Instagram alone.)

The initial rift between Leanne and Regina opens when Leanne realizes Regina is not vaccinating her baby. The story takes place pre-COVID, and uses a local measles outbreak to illustrate their stances on this topic. But of course, it’s coming out during COVID, so this aspect of the story could be seen as a “hot-button issue.” Not to say the book is overly political- but I feel like any reader who has strong feelings on that should know ahead of time that this issue plays a strong role in the book.

This book comes out on February 22nd. I won a copy from the publisher, Flatiron Books, in a Goodreads Giveaway.


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