Highway of Tears

Cover image for Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmidby Jessica McDiarmid

978-0-385-68757-7

 “Many of the girls who vanished were not hitchhiking, nor were they sex workers, nor were they doing anything much different than many other young people. But to many of the people living in predominantly white communities, it seemed as though disappearing off the face of the earth was something that happened to other people. And it was, because this is a country where Ramona Wilson was six times more likely to be murdered than me.”

In June 1994, sixteen-year-old Ramona Wilson disappeared from Smithers in a remote part of British Columbia. It was graduation weekend in the small town of about five thousand, and it was several days before her friends and family realized she was gone. It would be nearly a year before someone stumbled upon her remains in the woods near the airport. In that time, two more Indigenous teenage girls were found murdered along the highway that strung together the small communities they called home. Wilson was neither the first nor the last young Indigenous woman to disappear from the area, but for white journalist Jessica McDiarmid, whose focus on human rights abuses and social justice would eventually bring her home to northern British Columbia to tell this story, Wilson’s was the first face on a missing poster that she remembered. For decades, women and girls disappeared along this remote stretch of road, until it earned the Highway of Tears moniker. McDiarmid’s account centres the stories of the missing, and those they left behind, examining the cultural tension between settlers and Indigenous peoples, and between the Indigenous peoples and the colonial police forces charged with both policing those communities and investigating the disappearances and murders that plagued them.

I grew up in Prince George, a city in central British Columbia that marks the eastern end of the stretch of Highway 16 most commonly known as the Highway of Tears. Author Jessica McDiarmid was raised in Smithers, a small, alpine-style village about halfway between Prince George and Prince Rupert, the city that marks the highway’s western terminus at the Pacific Ocean. On the far side of Prince George, the highway carries on eastward, through Jasper and the Rocky Mountains, and on to Edmonton, the capital of Alberta. Some definitions of the Highway of Tears extend to encompass that eastern stretch as well, but the heart of McDiarmid’s story lies on that “lonesome road that runs across a lonesome land” from Prince George to Prince Rupert. This book traversed familiar territory, bringing to life young women who were posters on telephone poles, and faces on the news throughout my childhood.

McDiarmid focuses largely on the missing and murdered Indigenous women who define the typical victim of the Highway of Tears. However, one significant case also covered is that of the white tree planter Nicole Hoar, who disappeared from a gas station at the western edge of Prince George while trying to hitch a ride to Smithers in June 2002. McDiarmid’s account of Hoar’s case highlights the discrepancy in resources, and the importance of the connections of the missing person’s family. Hoar’s case garnered national and international attention precisely because she did not fit the typical victim profile. Her family was well enough off to be able to travel in from out of the province, and spend months searching for her, and advocating her case to the police and media. Her sister worked in communications, and her father’s employer, the Hudson’s Bay Company, helped put up a reward for information about her disappearance. McDiarmid profiles the Hoar case in the middle of the book, and by that point the contrast with the investigations and resources available to the other, Indigenous families is appallingly, starkly clear. Nevertheless, Hoar’s case remains unsolved.

Highway of Tears centres on the missing and murdered indigenous women of this particular British Columbia corridor, but as McDiarmid highlights, the issue is by no means restricted to that region. In the latter part of the book McDiarmid profiles Walk4Justice, a project that collected 3000 names of missing women in a cross country trek from British Columbia to Ottawa in 2008. When the walkers arrived in Ottawa after an eighty-three day journey, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declined to meet with them. The issue is not just British Columbia’s shame, but as advocate Gladys Radek put it, “Canada’s dirtiest secret.”

Highway of Tears is a true crime narrative, but one that does its best to focus on the lives of the victims, and the perspectives of their families, as well as the cultural forces that both placed them in danger, and left their cases largely unsolved. McDiarmid’s familiarity with the region is evident, and her sympathy for the families clear as she synthesizes the stories of so many missing women, from Virginia Sampare who disappeared in 1971 to Mackie Basil who went missing in 2013. Highway of Tears makes for a harrowing read, but one that is essential if we are to understand the complex factors that continue to endanger Indigenous women and girls to this day.

You might also like The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Deadly Little Scandals (Debutantes #2)

Cover image for Deadly Little Scandals by Jennifer Lynn Barnesby Jennifer Lynn Barnes

ISBN 978-1-3680-1517-2

 “I couldn’t forgive my mom for deceiving me, but every day, I got up and let Aunt Olivia and Lily and John David go about life like normal. It was hard not to feel like the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.”

Last year, Sawyer Taft became a debutante, infiltrating the high society world her mother left behind, for the sole purpose of finding her biological father, the man who was responsible for the teen pregnancy that got Ellie Taft disowned. Of course, it didn’t hurt that her grandmother Lillian Taft was also offering Sawyer a trust fund that would more than pay her college tuition. But the family secrets she uncovered ended up being more than Sawyer bargained for, and the revelation of her birth father’s true identity threatens to destroy the family she has only just regained. So when her cousin Lily convinces her to participate in the pledge process of an elusive secret society composed solely of women, known as the White Gloves, Sawyer throws herself into the distraction. After all, these well connected women from her mother’s world might just have the answers to the unsolved half of Sawyer’s mystery—what happened to the other girl who got pregnant at the same time as Ellie, and where is her baby now?

After the events of Little White Lies, Sawyer is still grappling with the revelation that her Uncle JD, Aunt Olivia’s husband, and Lily’s dad, is her dad, too. Her mother had long led her to suspect that Senator Ames was her real father, but the events surrounding his downfall and arrest led to the awful truth. Sawyer can’t bring herself to tell Lily and Aunt Olivia what she knows, but the fact that her then twenty-three-year-old uncle slept with her then eighteen-year-old mother, who was deliberately trying to get pregnant as part of a pact with two other girls, has threatened to bring Sawyer’s world crashing down around her, and challenged everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. To be honest, the revelation of the pregnancy pact from book one continued to squick me out in book two, and the fact that Ellie was technically of age didn’t make the situation feel any less icky. Sawyer is similarly disturbed, and becomes increasingly desperate to find the one other child in the world who came into existence the same way, and might be able to relate to her plight. But her mother’s friend Ana proves elusive, and her child even more so.

Like the previous volume, the main part of the story is intercut with flash forwards, which feature Sawyer and Sadie-Grace trapped at the bottom of a hole, waiting for the drugs that are immobilizing them to wear off. The main part of the action takes place over the course of a summer, which the Taft family spends at their summer home on Regal Lake. Lily, Sawyer, Sadie-Grace and Campbell are all trying to pledge the White Gloves, but only eight new girls will be chosen. However, Deadly Little Scandals incorporates a third timeline as well. Set twenty-five years earlier, it features the parents of many of the main characters, in the summer after Edward Taft’s death, and before their senior year of high school. Jennifer Lynn Barnes carefully balances the three intertwining parts to a twisty conclusion, as old secrets finally come to light.

After spending Little White Lies carefully building up Sawyer’s friendships, and rebuilding her extended family, Barnes threatens to tear it all down in Deadly Little Scandals. The “perfect” family that Sawyer found a place in against all the odds isn’t so perfect after all, but Sawyer is afraid to be the one who causes it to implode, even as her secret festers. She despises her mother for keeping the secret for so long, but somehow ends up joining in keeping it from the people it will affect most. It is challenging to top the revelations of the first volume, but Barnes delivers, even as the plot twists often stretch credulity. Nothing can be taken for granted, but at the same time Deadly Little Scandals remains a great romp through the world of debutantes and secret societies.

You might also like The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2019

This year proved to be a great year for reading non-fiction, with many wonderful books to choose from. These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2019. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

The Best We Could Do

Cover image for The Best We Could Do by Thi BuiThi Bui’s haunting, beautifully illustrated graphic memoir opens on the birth of the author’s first child in an American hospital. Her arrival at the milestone of parenthood prompts her to reflect on her family history, and the difficult choices her parents had to make as refugees who came to America from South Vietnam in the 1970s after an unlikely courtship. The reality of creating her own family prompts new reflections on the one she was born into, and sympathy for choices she had previously struggled to understand. The result is a poignant reckoning with both her family history and her heritage, and the fraught relationship between the two countries at the root of her identity. The Best We Could Do captures the dreams that parents hold for their children, contrasted with the harsher realities those children are often born into, and yet pervaded by hope for the next generation. The result is a moving work that seeks to bridge the gap of silence between those generations.

Categories: Memoir, Graphic Novel 

Covering

Cover image for Covering by Kenji YoshinoKenji Yoshino is a legal scholar of civil rights, known for his work on marriage equality. Covering addresses what he perceives to be the next frontier for civil rights. Today, the gay people who are most often penalized for their identity are those who act “too gay,” who refuse to cover behavioural aspects of their identity in order to make those around them more comfortable. In the legal sphere, Yoshino cites numerous cases in which “courts have often interpreted these [civil rights] laws to protect statuses but not behaviors, being but not doing,” thus creating a legal enforcement of this state of affairs. Yoshino is arguing not only for our rights to our identities, but our rights to say and express those identities, and reject demands to convert, pass, or cover our differences. Although Yoshino is a legal scholar, his style is literary. Because he integrates elements of his own story within the broader argument, it is possible to locate this stylistic choice in his earlier dreams of being a writer or poet. His command of language, both legal and literary, puts him in a unique position to articulate the gaps that remain, and the legal challenges that stand in the way of bridging them.

Categories: Social Justice, LGBTQ+

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie RubenholdIn 1888, in one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that brought them to a common end. Although Jack the Ripper’s victims are remembered as prostitutes, Rubenhold contests this narrative, laying bare the cultural assumptions that gave rise to an equivalency between homeless women and sex work that is difficult to substantiate. The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling uncomfortable with true crime narratives. Rubenhold’s stylistic avoidance of the killer is clean; he is elided and deemphasized at every turn. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

Categories: History

Range

Cover image for Range by David EpsteinMost people by now are familiar with the ten thousand hour rule. Journalist David Epstein examines an opposing approach to learning, putting aside the concept of early specialization, followed by many hours of deliberate practice, in order to explore the potential benefits of wide sampling for learning, creativity, and problem solving, before specialization takes place. His inquiry takes the reader through the unconventional career paths of famous innovators such as Vincent Van Gogh, tracks the surprising scientific breakthroughs made by outsiders in fields in which they have no formal training, and highlights how the ability to integrate broadly remains a uniquely human strength. It is important to note that Epstein is not dismissing this earlier research, or discounting specialization altogether. Rather, Range is interested in dissecting our mythologization of this one method of learning, and figuring out in which realms this strategy is applicable, and in what areas it puts us at a disadvantage. The resulting reporting reveals a fascinating range of situations where unusual training paths, and outside collaborators have had an outsize influence on innovation, creativity, and problem solving.

Categories: Science

A Woman of No Importance

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia PurnellIn the midst of Nazi-occupied France, an American woman with a prosthetic leg who appears to be working as a journalist seems an unlikely candidate for one of World War II’s most successful spies. However, it was precisely this uncanny set of circumstances combined with her language skills and unique personality that allowed Virginia Hall to become an instrumental force in arming and organizing the French resistance movement. In contrast to many of her peers, she was so good at recruiting and coordinating that she gained a dangerous level of infamy in Lyon and beyond as The Limping Woman, soon becoming one of the Nazi’s most-wanted, until she was forced to flee over the Pyrenees into Spain on foot. A Woman of No Importance brings to light the accomplishments of one of the war’s quietest heroes, a woman who avoided recognition, and even turned down a White House ceremony when it found her anyway. Sonia Purnell’s fascinating account takes the reader deep into the underground of the French Resistance, and behind the scenes of how the Allies worked to arm and coordinate with fighters inside the occupied country to end the war. Hall’s remarkable adventures make for a gripping, if bittersweet read.

Categories: History

Honourable mentions go to Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch, and Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells. I really was spoiled for choice this year, and it was terribly hard to narrow it down!

What were your top non-fiction reads of 2019?

Top 5 Fiction 2019

Another year of reading draws to a close. These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2019. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

Cover image for The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara CollinsFrances Langton was born on a sugar estate in Jamaica, the property of a depraved scientist who gave her his name, and educated her for his own ends. But Sara Collins’ novel is the story of Frances’ free life in London, and how she came to be accused of murdering her employers. The Mulatta Murderess is a broadsheet sensation, the talk of London, the boogieman in the Old Bailey, but Frannie is a woman determined to tell her own story, and to be seen as a real person, one who loved and was loved, and paid a terrible price for daring to reach above her station. By far the strongest feature of the novel is Frances’ voice. She is an avid reader, and that love of language seeps into her own writing, colouring her descriptions and insights. She consciously writes back against the slave narrative, the formulaic accounts peddled by abolitionists and anti-slavers to further their cause. Although framed by a murder mystery, The Confessions of Frannie Langton is, at heart, a tragic gothic romance.

Categories: Historical Fiction, LGBTQ+

The Dragon Republic

Cover image for The Dragon Republic by R. F. KuangGrappling with the consequences of her genocidal actions in Mugen, her involvement in Altan’s death, and her new responsibility for the Cike, Runin “Rin” Fang turns increasingly to opium to dampen the whispers of the god of fire and vengeance. Her mission to assassinate the Empress is the only thing giving her purpose, but to do so she will need to make common cause with Yin Vaisra, the Dragon Warlord, and father of her old school rival, Nezha. Vaisra promises a democratic republic that will usher in a new age of prosperity for Nikara, but when the other warlords refuse to join him, he turns to Hesperia for help. While The Poppy War focused on the conflict between Mugen and Nikara, with The Dragon Republic attention begins to turn back towards the old wounds left by Hesperia’s imperialist ambitions. In her second novel, R.F. Kuang brings all the strengths of The Poppy War, and continues to combine 20th century Chinese history with the best conventions of dark fantasy, taking the series to new highs as Rin continues to fight for her future, and try to figure out how best to wield her power for the good of Nikara, despite terrible trauma and impossible choices.

Categories: Fantasy

The Kingdom of Copper

Cover image for The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. ChakrabortyIt has been five years since Nahri and Muntadhir were forced into a marriage alliance, and Ali was exiled to Am Gezira. Ghassan’s iron-fisted rule has only tightened on the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. In the second volume of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy, rival factions collide, and war is brewing. Tensions between the clans within the magical city are escalating, with the half-blood shafit always paying the largest price for the conflict between the Daevas and the Geziri. Chakraborty has developed a fraught dynamic by granting the reader access to multiple narrative perspectives. The warring groups are not speaking to, or sometimes even aware of, one another, but the reader can see the collision course that is being charted as the generation festival of Navasatem approaches. Their prejudices threaten to poison everything, and even Nahri is not immune to this thinking as she struggles to find her way out from under Ghassan’s thumb.

Categories: Fantasy 

Ninth House

Cover image for Ninth House by Leigh BardugoAlex Stern never expected to end up at Yale. She spent most of her teen years going from fix to fix, looking to numb out, to forget. But when an overdose lands her in the hospital, she wakes up to an unexpected visitor. Dean Sandow of Yale University knows much more about her than any stranger should, and he has an offer to make Alex; come to Yale on a full scholarship, in exchange for serving as the watchdog to Yale’s secret societies. When she arrives on campus, Alex descends into a world of privilege and magic, monitoring the arcane rights of the societies, and ensuring that they follow the proper occult forms for their rituals. Told in alternating chapters, Ninth House toggles between Alex’s arrival at Yale in the autumn, and the investigation into the murder of Tara Hutchins during the winter. Leigh Bardugo carefully peels back the layers, doling out information in dribs and drabs. This novel might be best described as a dark fantasy with horror vibes. It is set in our own world, but to the privilege of wealth is added the privilege of magic, the one contributing to the other. The fact that it feels just one step to the left of what is real only serves to make it that much more eerie.

(Trigger warnings for this title include, but are not limited to: rape and sexual assault, ritual gore, drug use, and self-harm. Bardugo is examining these events from the point of view of the victims and survivors, but nevertheless, some of these occurrences make for difficult reading.)

Categories: Fantasy, Horror

Sorcery of Thorns

Cover image for Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret RogersonAs a child of the Great Libraries of Austermeer, orphaned Elisabeth Scrivener has been raised surrounded by the magical grimoires that house the arcane secrets of the kingdom. Since sorcery is only possible via demonic bargain, magic users are necessary to the security of the kingdom, but also suspect, and never to be trusted. Librarians and their apprentices, like Elisabeth, tightly control access to magical knowledge, and are responsible for containing and protecting the most dangerous books. Worse, if a grimoire is a damaged, it can transform into a violent Malefict, wreaking havoc until it is bound or destroyed. When a disaster at the Great Library of Summershall forces Elisabeth to ally with the taciturn young sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his demonic servant, the precepts of the Great Libraries are called into question, with the fate of Austermeer hanging in the balance. In Sorcery of Thorns, Margaret Rogerson has created a tantalizing world, both filled with magic, and where magical knowledge is forbidden, with the practice of sorcery tightly controlled by law. But while sorcerers are dangerous, they are also powerful, and the checks and balances of power in such a world make for intriguing politics. Who gets access to knowledge, and who gets to decide?

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy 

Looking for more great reads? You can check out my Top Picks from past years. Or check back later this week, when I’ll feature my top non-fiction reads of the year.

What were your top fiction reads of 2019?

On the Come Up

Cover image for On the Come Up by Angie Thomasby Angie Thomas

ISBN 9780-06249856-4

 “Ever since that boy got killed, my heart races whenever I see a cop. I could’ve been him, he could’ve been me. Luck’s the only thing that separated us.”

Bri Jackson is Garden Heights royalty, thanks to her father, the late great rapper Law, whose star was rising when was gunned down when she was four. Bri dreams of being a rapper, but she wants to stand on her own feet. After all, her dead father didn’t teach her anything about rapping; he’s dead. But when Bri’s Aunt Pooh finally gets her in the Ring for her first rap battle, she finds herself facing off against Milez, the son of her father’s former manager, Supreme, with whom he had a falling out before his death. Bri wants to rap on her own terms, but the neighbourhood, and the world, have their own preconceived ideas about who she is, and she will have to face up to family history in order to fulfill her dream.

On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’s sophomore novel, following The Hate U Give, which has become a perennial presence on the YA bestseller list. Originally scheduled for publication in June 2018, On the Come Up was pushed back and released on February 5, 2019. In the meantime, Thomas was caught up in the whirlwind of having her debut novel adapted for the big screen. However, the wait was well worth it, as Thomas has delivered a solid follow-on that is set in the same world, and even the same neighbourhood, as The Hate U Give, but with a distinct protagonist and narrative voice.

One the Come Up takes place in the aftermath of the riots occasioned by Khalil’s murder in The Hate U Give. Bri is from the same neighbourhood, though she is bussed out to a magnet school for the arts in a middle-class neighbourhood. She and her other black and brown classmates are often targeted by the school’s security guards, a situation they have become less tolerant of as the protests resulting from Khalil’s death raise their social awareness and cause them to consider taking action. Bri lights a spark when she writes a song about a violent encounter with the guards, and how she is perceived by the world for being a black girl.

As in The Hate U Give, On the Come Up highlights a complex family dynamic that strengthens the surrounding story. Bri’s mother is a recovering addict studying to be a social worker. Her older brother Trey has finished his degree, and wants to go to grad school, but he is working in a local pizza shop to help his mom make ends meet, and get Bri through school. With an entrepreneurial spirit, Bri decides to sell candy out of her bag at school, a situation which leads to a rumour that she is a drug dealer, like her Aunt Pooh, a member of the Garden Disciples gang. Although Bri has always wanted to rap, her urgency is heightened by the knowledge that if she could just make it in the music industry, her mother wouldn’t have to choose between keeping the lights on and putting food in the fridge. She also has to struggle with her relationship with Pooh her aunt, and Pooh the drug dealer, a woman who is her number one supporter when she is around, but who disappears for days on end when “business” arises. And when Pooh disappears, Supreme comes knocking.

On the Come Up is largely told in prose, but contains a number of Bri’s raps and rhymes, including the full song that catapults her to infamy when the public chooses to take her verses and interpret them in the worst way possible. However, she rhymes almost instinctively, turning her daily experiences into little bits of verse that she jots down in her notebook for later use. Thomas strikes a nice balance between the two, and shows off her solid grasp of both in the process. The result is an immersive story that will drag you head first back into Starr and Bri’s world, even though their paths never cross.

The Everlasting Rose (The Belles #2)

Cover image for The Everlasting Rose by Dhonielle Clayton by Dhonielle Clayton

ISBN 978-1-4847-2848-2

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“What is the truth in Orléans?… You and your sisters spent your entire existence altering appearances, shifting reality, catering to the most shallow whims. The birth of this world came out of a rotten, poisonous seed—and now, the framework is laced with it. Everyone spends all their time trying to look like something else. The masses will believe what is presented to them, as long as it is compelling and beautiful. Thanks to you, they no longer have any idea what’s real—what’s true.”

Camille, Edel, and Rémy are on the run from the tyrannical Princess Sophia, soon to be crowned Queen of Orléans, unless they can find the rightful heir, the recently awakened Princess Charlotte. Sophia claims her sister is dead, and that she will present her body to the court before her coronation, but Camille has to believe that she is still alive, and she knows that the dead Queen Celeste would not want her cruel younger daughter to inherit the crown. But it seems impossible that they will find Charlotte before Sophia’s ascension, and the scheming Princess is already hard at work ensuring that new imperial decrees will make it almost impossible to unseat her once she is crowned. A resistance movement is afoot in Orléans, but can the Belles really make common cause with the Iron Ladies, a group of women who reject beauty treatments altogether in favour of living with the gris?

I was excited to return to Orléans, but reading The Everlasting Rose reminded me that while I mostly enjoyed the world of The Belles, I was still upset about Claudine’s fate, as she was by far my favourite character in the first volume. Claudine’s lover, Violetta, reappears here, and it did seem at first as if Clayton was going to cast her as the grieving avenger with a grudge against Camille. Fortunately she does not significantly pursue that tired angle. However, there were a couple more deaths that felt engineered for heavy-handed melodrama, in ways that seemed merely intended to traumatize Camille. I was more interested in the parts of the book that explored the origin of the Belles, the calcifying control over their traditions, and the possibilities for a different future. In short, the society, rather than the plot, grabbed my attention.

With the remaining Belles either captured or on the run, The Everlasting Rose relies heavily on interjected new snippets to convey what is going on elsewhere in Orléans, and keep both the reader and the rebels apprised of Sophia’s machinations. Of course, the news nets are not entirely to be trusted, as Sophia manipulates certain outlets to her own ends. Only the underground newspapers can fully defy her censorship. While the first book was set mostly at court, the second volume is free to range over Clayton’s world, to explore the other cities and teahouses, and the shadowy corners no regular Belle would ever have a chance to see. This tour also incorporates a few fun nods to Clayton’s colleagues, including a peacock named after her Tiny Pretty Things coauthor, and a millinery named for Justine Larbalestier.

I expected the Iron Ladies to play a more significant role in the story based on the plot description, but they do not feature in the early parts of the book. It is only later that they form an uneasy alliance to depose Sophia, and set Charlotte in her place. But ultimately, the Belles and the Iron Ladies have different goals, and different visions for the future of Orléans, and I expect we will get to see this dynamic play out further if this series gets another installment. Currently, no third book has been announced.

You might also like Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra

American Duchess

Cover image for American Duchess by Karen Harperby Karen Harper

ISBN 978-0-06-274833-1

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“Funny, but in the midst of all this, I thought how very regal was dear, blind Mrs. Prattley in the almshouse with her black shawl pulled over her shoulders and her graceful, blue-veined hands folded in her lap while I read to her. She, too, had lost her husband years ago, and there was such an inherent, silent nobility about her. God forgive me, but I would have preferred to be spending time with her.”

In 1895, Consuelo Vanderbilt, eldest child and only daughter of railroad heir William K. Vanderbilt, became one of the most famous of the wealthy American heiresses to trade money for title, when she married the 9th Duke of Marlborough in a lavish ceremony at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Manhattan. The marriage, however, had been masterminded by Consuelo’s mother Alva, a determined social climber who arranged the engagement, planned the wedding, and carefully leaked choice information to the press to whip up a stir in advance of the ceremony. American Duchess follows Consuelo’s life in a mismatched mercenary marriage, her scandalous, much publicized divorce, and her efforts to chart her own course and find happiness in the second part of her life, even as Europe was torn apart by the second great war of her lifetime.

American Duchess is narrated in the first person by Consuelo, beginning around the time of her social debut in 1893, but somehow manages to fail to achieve the intimacy usually created by being inside a character’s head. Rather, the way Consuelo depicts herself feels measured and carefully constructed, as if she is presenting herself for public scrutiny, and wishes to put her best foot forward. As a result, while I felt I learned interesting details about her unusual life, I didn’t feel much in the way of emotional attachment to her character. In fact, Harper seems to be trying a bit too hard to hit the notable public highlights of Consuelo’s life, even when they figure little in the emotional arc of the story she has chosen to tell, which is more focused on the contrast between her two marriages.

A similar problem exists with another figure who pops up regularly, but does not actually play a prominent role. Harper frequently name drops Winston Churchill, who was cousin to Consuelo’s husband, heir to Blenheim Palace before the birth of their son, and a good friend of the Duchess. However, this quickly becomes tiresome since he is more of a novel historical reference than a fleshed out character. Perhaps Harper was worried that a more substantial presence would take over the story, but in that case, less would have been more. As it stands, he is an often referenced, but otherwise underdeveloped figure.

Unfortunately I think this is a case where I would have been better served by a biography, since I was more interested in the period and subject matter than the story Harper was trying to tell. I kept finding myself stepping away from the text to go look up historical details, contemporary newspaper accounts, photographs, etc., rather than wanting to read the book itself. So if you have a good non-fiction account of the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt, or the other Million Dollar American Princesses to recommend, let me know in the comments!

You might also like Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin

Slayer

Cover image for Slayer by Kiersten White by Kiersten White

ISBN 978-1-53440495-3

 “And that’s my struggle, the truth of my life among the Watchers, growing up and aiding a society that exists because of Slayers: I hate them. What they are, what they do. And I hate none of them as much as I hate Buffy.”

When Buffy destroyed the Seed of Wonder, magic went out of the world. The hell mouths were sealed, cutting Earth off from the infernal realms. But the demons who were on Earth when the portals closed are now trapped here forever. Some latent magic still remains; vampires have not stopped existing, though they can no longer properly sire new vampires, and all of the Potentials who became Slayers still have their powers. Nina is the last Slayer, her powers activated in the final moments before magic left the world forever. And as the daughter of Watchers, this is the last thing she ever could have wanted. Because Nina hates Slayers, and Buffy in particular. Her father died serving as Buffy’s first Watcher, after all. Buffy is the Slayer who rejected the Watcher tradition Nina was raised to respect and uphold. And Buffy is responsible for destroying magic, taking away what little power the remaining Watchers had to protect themselves in this brave new world.

The group of young Watchers that form the cast of Slayer are among the last survivors of the ancient organization that has watched over the Chosen One for generations. There are a handful of older Watchers, forming what is left of the Council, and a few very young children, but teens Nina, Artemis, and Rhys, along with the slightly older Honora, Leo, and Imogen make up the bulk of the survivors. Together, they form the Watcher version of the Scooby Gang, figuring out how to fight evil and stay safe in a world that is somehow no less dangerous for magic’s passing. The once-warded Irish castle they now call home has been stripped of its protections, vengeful demons might be lurking anywhere, eager for a bit of revenge, and the end the Watcher line forever.

I think some people will probably find Nina’s hatred of Buffy off-putting, because it is an intense and ill-founded dislike of the character at the heart of this universe. However, it felt like a genuine and honest motivation for someone who has never actually met the Slayer in person, but has suffered for her choices nevertheless. Buffy and other characters from the original canon do not appear directly, but do make various cameos by way of mention, as well as dream sequences. Wesley’s status as a fallen Watcher working for a vampire detective, for example, is the butt of many jokes. Nina also has her own characterization and backstory beyond hating the Slayer. She has carved out a place for herself as healer, since she has never been deemed strong enough for proper Watcher training, while her twin sister Artemis is more of the warrior. Her relationship with her mother is fraught, but she is tight with her sister, and her best friend Rhys

The tone of the book is very much in keeping with the middle seasons of the show, where Buffy was about the same age as Slayer’s protagonists. Kiersten White is on point with the quippy dialogue and off-beat humour in the face of danger that characterized the show’s writing style. The camp and melodrama counter-points the typical teen angst of the Buffyverse, making for a familiar return to a beloved world, even if the characters are different.