Sunday, July 14, 2024

Libbie Hawker's Mercer Girls brings three determined women to frontier Seattle

Libbie Hawker’s Mercer Girls takes its name from a group of enterprising young women from around Lowell, Massachusetts, who were recruited by Asa Mercer in the 1860s to travel to Washington Territory, which suffered from a major gender imbalance. They journeyed via ship from New York via Panama and up the Pacific coast to Seattle, debarking at a grimy, half-built frontier town where they – educated women of respectable backgrounds – found their reputations challenged by a society who believed only females with low morals would leave their homes behind as they did.

Hawker smoothly shifts the viewpoints among three main characters, each of whom has different reasons for wanting a fresh start: thirtyish Josephine, fleeing a secret past; impoverished mill owner’s daughter Dovey, whose combined naivete and uncontrollable ambitions prove dangerous; and prim Sophronia, whose Christian uprightness is off-putting. Each is uniquely sympathetic yet flawed, and their personalities realistically transform over time.

This isn’t a standard heartwarming story of female cooperation during adversity, since Jo, Dovey, and Sophronia frequently clash (especially the latter two). Despite expectations they find husbands asap, the women forge their own paths. The historical background will attract fans of Western heroines and, especially, those who enjoyed Robin Oliveira’s recent A Wild and Heavenly Place, set amid the gorgeous but rough landscape of Washington Territory a bit later.

The plot unfolds with details on the early suffrage fight (this bogs down the story at the end), prostitution (seen as a lucrative career choice), and the process of tax collection (more interesting than it sounds). Overall, it’s a fast-moving portrait of the scrappiness needed for survival on the frontier, and how three “Mercer girls” found it within themselves.

I read Mercer Girls (Lake Union, 2016) from a NetGalley copy I'd left unread for too long. Read more about the original "Mercer girls" via the New England Historical Society.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Tropical glamour and gothic suspense in Chanel Cleeton's The House on Biscayne Bay

Cleeton’s dual-period mystery intermixes tropical heat and gothic chills in a satisfying way as two women, decades apart, face up to shocking truths. The glamour factor is high as Anna Barnes and Carmen Acosta each arrive at Marbrisa, a palatial Miami showpiece, but despite its ornate furnishings and beautifully manicured grounds, neither finds their new home comfortable at all.

Just after the Great War, Anna’s longtime husband, Robert, a wealthy businessman, whisks her from New York to Florida and presents her with Marbrisa as a birthday gift. Anna is a shy woman with subdued tastes; the architect notes her dismay and tries adapting it to her preferences, but just when she’s getting accustomed to her new residence, a young woman attending the Barneses’ glitzy evening gala is discovered drowned. 

In 1941, eighteen-year-old Carmen moves from Cuba after her parents’ deaths to live with her older sister Carolina and brother-in-law Asher Wyatt, Marbrisa’s new owners. Carolina, to whom Carmen was never close, seems unnaturally guarded and may be having an affair. With nowhere else to go, and Asher overseeing her inheritance, Carmen doesn’t know who to trust.

How well do we really know the people we love? This important question guides the novel’s suspense. To Anna, Robert has always been a devoted partner, but does he have secrets? Who is causing disturbances at Marbrisa in the ´40s, and how do they relate to the reasons why the house was abandoned and believed cursed?

The action moves fast, and Cleeton proves a daring writer as the plot twists unexpectedly. Alongside deadly alligators, shrieking peacocks, and fierce winds whipping off the bay, the uneasy atmosphere suits the historical backdrop, with rich northerners swooping in on undeveloped Florida land, and locals eyeing the rich interlopers with curious envy and resentment. The ending is perfect, too.

The House on Biscayne Bay was published in April by Berkley. This is the 2nd novel by Cleeton that I've read, the first being The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba.

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

New reader survey emphasizing historical fiction: invitation to participate

Please excuse the recent delay with new posts, as I've been out of town.

M.K. (Mary) Tod, a friend from the historical fiction community who writes in the genre and compiles the A Writer of History blog, has come out with a 5th survey taking a look at reading habits and preferences. This year's survey asks questions about book formats, social media interactions, and how you as a reader find out about books. There's a special focus on historical fiction, so you'll get to weigh in on your time period preferences, what genres you enjoy most, and more.

Take the survey here:
Reader Survey image

The survey is likely to remain open through late July.  For the results of earlier surveys (2012 through 2018), see A Writer of History.