Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg

34146925The stories in Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury (translated by Eliza Marciniak into crisp British English) offer glimpses into the life of a girl coming of age in the last decade of communist Poland. In the small Silesian village of Herkaty, the larger world barely intrudes into the narrator’s world. There are only the slightest allusions to the Solidarity movement or shortages. The narrator’s family’s Catholic faith and folk medicine, as well as World War II, loom larger than anything that might be happening in the big cities.

Over the course of the stories in this collection, we see our narrator—also named Wioletta—transition from a blissfully clueless child who captures may flies and cries over a lost cat to a tough young woman who has learned to turn her hand to any occupation that might earn the family money and get out of situations with overly amorous neighbors. (The stories in which Wioletta dodges sexual abuse may be triggering for some readers.) By the end of the collection, there is little joy or whimsy left in Wioletta.

One of the stories, “Masters of Scrap,” can be read as the collection in miniature. In this story, Wioletta and her classmates are given the task of collecting scrap metal from all over the town for their school. They start with the easy pickings before escalating to stealing useful bits from people’s houses and properties. In the end, they lose it all in a mishap with a cart, a quarry, and a friend in jeopardy. The story swiftly moves from good dutifulness to apathetic resignation.

“Unripe” affected me the most of all the stories. This story captures the sorrow Wioletta and her family feel after Wioletta’s father, Rysiu, dies of a heart attack. His death leaves a large emotional hole in the extended family. After returning from camp, our narrator reaches out to hold her father’s hand one more time and sees his life in flashes. These flashes show Wioletta how a life of hardship, physical labor, and war shaped Rysiu.

A reader might have expected “Neon Over Jupiter,” the last story, to include a sense of hopefulness. After all, coming of age narratives usually end with a sense of leaving the past behind to move into the bright future. This story has none of that. Instead, Wioletta is tempted to run away with her glue-huffing sort-of boyfriend before changing her mind when she sees him passed out at the bus stop. She ends up slouching home, back into the past.

By the end of this collection of short stories, I was left with an impression of a young girl who has learned to shift for herself in a little town without resources. I’ve been left with a melancholy impression of a dead end life for our narrator. We have no clue what Wioletta will do in her adult life. There are certainly few opportunities for anything other than a life of the hardscrabble poverty she, her parents, and her grandparents grew up with. Wioletta’s life can almost be read as a rebuke to the narrative of hope after decades of communist rule. Far away, things are happening that might make life better for Poles—but very little of those changes have touched our narrator’s life or the lives of the rural poor.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

Lightning Men, by Thomas Mullen

32895284Thomas Mullen’s sequel to DarktownLightning Men, made for uncomfortable but illuminating reading on the day of and day after the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. In this novel, Atlanta, Georgia’s first African American police officers get caught in the literal and figurative crossfire of blockbusting, white flight, the Ku Klux Klan, moonshine and marijuana smuggling, police corruption, and their own doubts about their ability to do their jobs in the face of persistent racism. Lightning Men gives readers a close up view of the ugliness of white racism in 1950—while the news gave me a look at the 2017 version.

Lightning Men centers on a trio of officers. Officer Lucius Boggs and Officer Thomas Smith are two of the new African American officers hired two years previously when city hall caved to popular pressure. Officer Denny Rakestraw is a white officer who tries to be progressive, but has faced a lot of social and familial pressure to toe the line in terms of race relations. The narrative bounces back and forth between the three men as a series of violent incidents—a drug drop off gone wrong, two beatings attributed to the Klan, etc.—erupt in rapid succession. At first, it looks like they’re all pursuing separate crimes but, as we learn more from various informants, the crimes start to look more like ripples from one big crime or overlapping circles in a Venn diagram.

I was a little frustrated at first, because I wasn’t sure how everything was going to fit together. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together and I was deeply irritated at the way all three seemed to be barreling on individually, instead of working together once things started to coalesce. But once Lightning Men hit its stride, I started to appreciate the realism of this messy mystery. This novel is not a traditionally structured mystery. Rather, it’s a book that shows readers the deep divisions in mid-century Atlanta and the forces that worked to keep those divisions in place.

Once the players in the various conspiracies are all introduced (which doesn’t happen in full until a third of the way through the book), Boggs, Smith, and Rakestraw are all privately digging into what happened on nights when both black and white men were attacked and beaten or killed. Boggs and Smith are trying to work out what’s going on with two rival smuggling operations in the black parts of town. Smith is also trying to help his brother-in-law and sister, who just moved into a previously all-white neighborhood, after his brother-in-law is almost beaten to death. Rakestraw, meanwhile, is trying to help his own brother-in-law, who gets into serious trouble trying to do favors for a man who says he’s a Klansman. I’m being deliberately vague, because the truth is a lot more devious.

As the novel rolled on, I wanted to yell at all three of the men for not working together. It never occurs to them to share information because the black officers and the white officer are mistrustful of each other. Much of this distrust comes from previous experience but, the longer things go on, the distrust also comes from the way the officers start to take the law into their own hands to either cover up family involvement or because there won’t be consequences for the criminals otherwise.

Racist sign posted in Detroit, 1942
(Via Wikimedia)

Once I started to understand the sprawling plot of Lightning Men and its characters, I started to appreciate the novel a lot more. Unlike most mysteries, which have a fairly simple arc of detectives tracking down a single criminal or small group of conspirators, Boggs, Smith, and Rakestraw are taking on large, established groups of criminals. Rakestraw also has to deal with the fearful fragility of his white neighbors because, the longer African American families live in their part of the city, the more likely those neighbors are to do something tragically violent.

I can’t say that I enjoyed Lightning Men as such, but I can say that I was very interested in the way the novel builds on itself as the plot expands and the backstory deepens. Perhaps the book resonated with me so much because I was reading it while Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists fought with counter protesters this weekend. At any rate, Lightning Men serves as a keen reminder that American racism has a long, ugly, hateful tradition and that we still have a lot of work to do rooting it out and destroying it.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

The Unquiet Grave, by Sharyn McCrumb

32620367The Unquiet Grave is another entry in Sharyn McCrumb’s long bibliography in which the author takes an Appalachian folk tale and turns the story into a novel. Here, she shows the depth and breadth of her research in telling the story of Zona Heaster Shue, the Greenbriar Ghost. This book has some very good characterization, but I feel there were missed opportunities, as well as a lot of repetitive text that needed to be edited out.

While The Unquiet Grave opens with James Gardner, an African American lawyer who defended Zona’s husband during his murder trial, the heart of this book is Mary Jane Heaster, Zona’s mother. The way she tells it, Mary Jane always knew Edward Shue was no-good. Unfortunately for her daughter, Zona was so stubborn and in love that she wouldn’t listen to a word of caution. It breaks Mary Jane’s heart when she learns that, only a few months after her wedding, Zona is dead.

Then Zona’s ghost shows up to tell Mary Jane the Edward killed her.

The novel shifts back between James and Mary Jane. From Mary Jane, we get the more emotional side of the story, one of a mother who will not rest until her daughter has justice. From James, we get the more rational side of the story, with dueling lawyers and a stack of circumstantial evidence. We also get a lot of local history from James, so much that I started to get exasperated at the way one anecdote would back into another so that we get a whole capsule biography of one of the lawyers and learn what happened in Greenbriar County, West Virginia, during the Civil War. It’s only towards the end of the novel that we get back to Edward’s trial and (maybe) find out what really happened.

McCrumb did a lot of research for The Unquiet Grave, but there are many sections where I feel she gave into the temptation to show off everything she knew whether it advanced the central story or not. If you are the kind of reader who enjoys listening to older relatives tell stories about the old days and folks they knew, perhaps you will enjoy The Unquiet Grave more than I did.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

The Round House

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House is one of the few perfect books I’ve ever read. I have nothing to complain about. I would change nothing about this heartbreaking, but satisfying book. Instead, I have only praise—so you’ll all need to bear with me while I gush about how stunning this book is. The Round House has so many of the things I love: explorations of justice and ethics, revenge, broken histories, and subtly beautiful writing.

We tend of think of the law as a stable thing. Laws against murder, assault, theft, and so on are always illegal. The truth is much messier than that, especially on Native American reservations. American law (like everyone else’s, I expect) is cobbled together, full of oversights, mistakes, and loopholes. When people get caught in one of these gaps, the results can be devastating. Such is the certainly the case in The Round House. The novel begins with our protagonist, Joe, and his father arriving home to discover that Joe’s mother, Geraldine, has be been brutally attacked and raped. In the first third of the book, Joe and his father, Judge Coutts, pursue the case because it’s not clear who’s jurisdiction Geraldine’s case belongs to. Once they do discover who did it, things get worse because Geraldine doesn’t know if the attack happened on tribal, state, or federal land. Because no one knows where the crime happened, no one can try the criminal.

Joe, at thirteen, burns with outrage for most of the book. He sees his mother suffer terribly in the aftermath of her rape. Then he sees his father rendered helpless by the laws that he is sworn to uphold. Joe doesn’t understand, deep down, why no one is ensuring that Geraldine gets justice. The novel makes it clear that White justice won’t work. That said, the narrative contains many hints that there are other paths to justice.

Early in The Round House, Joe and his father are reading over case files to try and find Geraldine’s rapist. While they do that, Joe thinks of the 1883 case, Ex parte Crow Dog, a curious Supreme Court ruling that established that people who had been tried by a Native American tribe could not be re-tried in another court. There are also stories, told by Joe’s grandfather, about how the Ojibwe would deal with wendigo, people who had gone so far to the bad that they needed to be killed for the safety of others. The book is so subtle about the theme of sanctioned vigilantism that it snuck up on me. When I finally understood what The Round House was trying to say, I had to marvel at the skill that went into this book.

While this theme is emerging, we see Joe and his life on a South Dakotan reservation is such rich detail that I could feel the heat and dust of summer. I’ve only been to South Dakota once, but my memories of the state and of the reservation just north of my hometown came roaring back as I read. But the reservation in The Round House is not the desolate, poverty-stricken place that we normally see in fiction and on the news. It helps that Joe has a lyrical mind:

Now the crane my mother used to watch, or its offspring, flapped slowly past my window. That evening, it cast the image, not of itself but of an angel on my wall. I watched this shadow. Through some refraction of brilliance the wings arched up from their slender body. Then the feathers took fire so that creature was consumed by light. (157*)

Joe’s reservation feels like home, as if there’s no other place that he could live and be comfortable. Joe’s exploits with his friends and his grandfather provide much needed doses of levity in an otherwise very somber book.

The Round House is one of the best written books I’ve read in a long time. The writing is so simple and gorgeous that I’m still glowing But what really made this book for me was the way that it dealt with the idea of thwarted legal justice and justified retribution. I wish I had read this with my book group because I want to get into a long discussion with someone about the outcome of Joe’s quest.

Undated photo of Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, North Dakota

* Quote is from the kindle edition by Harper.

The Tragedy of Brady Sims, by Ernest J. Gaines

The Tragedy of Brady Sims

It’s rare to find a book that is not only a book that needs to be read widely and right now and is also a masterly work of fiction. I find books-of-the-times to be, usually, too preachy or too worried about conveying a message at the expense of plot and characterization. In The Tragedy of Brady Sims, by Ernest J. Gaines, I found a book that can do both.

This book will grab every readers from the first pages, when Brady Sims stands up in a courthouse and shoots his son right after the son has been sentenced. Sims then tells the men who were escorting his son back to jail to have the sheriff give him two hours before coming after him. Understandably, everyone in the courthouse is stunned. They know Brady. He casts a long shadow in this southern town, especially among the Black inhabitants. So why would he do such a thing?

That’s what our narrator, a Black reporter who lived away from the town for a while before returning. The reporter’s White boss tells him to write up a “human interest” story on Sims—presumably to help the Whites understand what the hell just happened. The reporter goes out to gather information, after telling the sheriff that he doesn’t know what’s going on or where Sims went. When we arrive at the reporter’s source of information (the local barbershop), it becomes clear that he know a lot more than he told the sheriff. The rest of the story unfolds while the men at the barbershop tell Sims’s story.

I said The Tragedy of Brady Sims was a book for right now. What I mean by that is this book is, underneath the surface story of chasing after Sims and getting his story, about how Black people are expected to police themselves in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement has done important work raising the national (especially the White) consciousness about how often Black people are killed by police officers. Young Black children are often taught by their parents how to deal with police so that they reduce their risk of being shot and killed. In this novel, Brady Sims is the one who teaches the Black children of this town to police themselves. He’s a bogeyman who will come after kids if they put a toe out of line and then beat them until they’re too scared to do it again.

As the reporter sits in the local barbershop, the men who tell him about Sims are all very knowing. They know exactly what happened and why. None of them appear saddened or angry. They seem more resigned than anything else. Sims’ story is tragic, certainly, but not as tragic to me as an entire population who can accept the sudden, violent death of a teenager who got in trouble with the law. The Tragedy of Brady Sims says so much in an astonishingly small number of pages.

I hope this subtly instructive book gets all the attention as it deserves.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 29 August 2017.

Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend this to relatives who don’t understand Black Lives Matter and/or say racist things at family gatherings.

The History of Bees, by Maja Lunde

The History of Bees

Bees have fascinated humans for centuries, I suppose, because it’s unsettling to see such small insects build such complicated structures and societies. Even after all those centuries of study, bees are still mysterious as we learn in Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees. Lunde shows us three characters in three different countries and three different centuries who depend on bees (more closely than the rest of us do). The three seemingly disparate characters also seek to impose order on their families, so that the next generation hums along and maintains the orderly status quo. Of course, this is an engraved invitation for everything to go topsy-turvy.

Lunde first takes us to the end of twenty-first century to show us a world without bees. Tao works as a pollinator at a massive pear orchard. Everyone is hungry and poor, yet they carry on because humans tend to be stubborn in Tao’s future China. The same cannot be said for the main character at our next setting. In England in 1852, William has refused to get out of bed for months because of ennui and malaise. He’s lost his passion for everything, until his son happens to leave a book on beekeeping in his room. The book relights William’s interest in science and he returns to life (though he’s irritable and too willing to throw in the towel with things go awry). In between Tao and William is George, who manages a large beekeeping operation in the Ohio of 2007. Until he’s hit with a serious case of colony collapse disorder, George’s greatest irritation is his son, who doesn’t seem to want to take over the farm (bee ranch? I’m not sure what to call it) after he goes off to college.

The chapters alternate between the three characters. Bees are an important part of all of their lives, but I feel that they have more in common as fierce, unbending parents. In each century, the parents face children who—like children often do—want to go their own way. Tao’s young son would rather run around and play than learn math. George’s son wants to be a writer and not a beekeeper. William’s son doesn’t want to do much of anything except carouse. The character’s lives would be a lot more simple if their children behaved like bees, preprogramed to fall into their genetic roles without any fuss.

I found The History of Bees to be compulsively readable, if melancholy. I wanted to yell at William and George and tell them not to be so set in their ways, that they’re making their children miserable. I had more sympathy for Tao because of what happens to her son early in the book. Also, seeing these characters’ dependence on bees made me think more of our general dependence on bees as pollinators. Without them, as we see in Tao’s China, our society would suffer its own collapse disorder as our agricultural system fell apart. We currently don’t know what causes colony collapse disorder and we still don’t know all the hows and whys of bee behavior, yet so much depends on them keeping the status quo. The events of the book make it seem like both the children and the bees are in rebellion.

What I loved about this book was its ending. The ending just shines. When I finished it, I put down my iPad with a big smile on my face.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 22 August 2017.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent

I’ve been hearing about The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry, for over a year. I was so jealous that the British bookish folk got to read it first and I had to wait for it to be published over here. In retrospect, my envy was a fitting response to a book that deals so much with that very emotion. The plot summaries focus on the hunt for the serpent of the title in the not-so-wilds of Essex, but what I found was a story about people who grew jealous when their friends found other people to play with. The actual serpent plays only a small role in this novel, unless you consider the worm of jealousy that lives in so many of the characters’ hearts as the real snake.

For a long time, Cora Seaborne has only had one friend: her son’s nurse, Martha. That all changes once Cora is widowed. Once she’s free of her sadistic husband, Cora is able to live as she likes. She doesn’t have to conform to her husband’s desires anymore. She can finally indulge in her own desire of becoming the next Mary Anning and finding a new species of prehistoric life. When she travels out to Essex from London, following rumors of an ancient serpent that is supposed to haunt the River Blackwater, Martha and Cora’s family doctor, Luke, don’t like the changes. They really don’t like it when Cora gets friendly with the vicar in Aldwinter, who was introduced to Cora by a mutual friend.

Cora and the Reverend William Ransome are unusual friends. Will is a man of faith. Cora is a woman of science. They have (mostly) good-natured arguments with each other about conflicting points of religion and science. Martha and Luke (who hoped that Cora might fall in love with him) resent the way Cora drops their close companionship to spend time with her new friend. As I read, I saw this theme repeated over and over. One character, much loved, would find someone or something new to occupy their time and whoever was left behind would grow jealous and resentful.

I’ve never read a book about jealous like this one. Most books about jealousy that I’ve run across look at characters who are jealous of another’s material or romantic success. This jealous of a friend’s new friend reminds me a lot of the drama I encountered in junior high (that nest of vipers) when girls would add and drop friends faster than they would change their outfits. As The Essex Serpent shows us, sometimes that jealousy doesn’t go away for some people.

I wasn’t satisfied by The Essex Serpent the way I had hoped. I wanted more of the rumored serpent. I wanted more of the moments when Cora and Will saw seemingly magical phenomena that turned out to have a scientific explanation; those chapters were exactly what I wanted and expected. I definitely didn’t want Luke and his “friend zone.” Perhaps there were too many characters and too many plot lines for this book to jell for me. To be honest, I’m not even sure I really understood what The Essex Serpent was trying to tell me—unless it really was all about jealousy from the beginning, not the mythical serpent, and there’s some symbolism I’m not picking up on.

I’d be very interested to hear from other readers about this book. What did you think of The Essex Serpent?

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

The Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down,” kept popping into my head as I read Madeleine Thien’s brilliant novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing*. The novel follows three generations of two Chinese families. Each generation includes extremely talented musicians, authors, and mathematicians, who had the misfortune of living in China during its most turbulent periods of the twentieth century. The oldest generation survives the Japanese invasion and the civil war after. The middle generation has to contend with the Cultural Revolution. The last generation comes of age during the student protests in Tiananmen Square and the Chinese diaspora. This book is beautifully written and structured; I marveled at Thien’s talent.

The novel opens in the early 1990s, when Marie Jiang’s father commits suicide in Hong Kong. His death baffles, angers, and saddens her. She never knew much about his life. He never talked much about what happened to him in China and why he left. After all, he had a fairly good life as a member of the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra. Marie doesn’t make much headway in understanding her father until the daughter of her father’s lifelong friend, Ai-Ming, shows up in Canada after the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming knows some of the history of their linked families and, as she relates them to Marie, the younger girl slowly starts to understand her father and her heritage.

Ai-Ming’s stories pivot around two creative works by her great-uncle and her father. The Book of Records is a popular novel that is only passed on as samizdat, written by Wen the Dreamer. Ai-Ming’s father, Sparrow, wrote two and a half symphonies that were never performed during his life because they were politically unacceptable. Ai-Ming’s family use the novel and their music to code information to talk to each other as they are separated over and over by events or labor camp sentences. Because of their talents, some members of this family stick out like the proverbial nails and they are hammered down so hard that they never quite recover. Each generation learns how to survive their chaotic country and tries to pass on their lessons to their children, who usually don’t learn in time what is worth fighting for and what is not.

Over and over, characters in the novel make records, hide instruments and literature, and preserve the past for future generations—again, whether they appreciate it or not. It isn’t until Marie’s generation that the past becomes important, because she is so cut off from her extended Chinese family. Fortunately for her, there are characters like the Old Cat, who believes:

“The things you experience,” she continued, “are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, but on and on we copy. I have devoted my minuscule life to the act of copying.” (235**)

The records in Marie and Ai-Ming’s family are literal documents, rather than more ephemeral memories. The symphonies and the Book of Records, along with letters, capture moments in the families’ histories that help explain why family members are the way they and why they did what they did.

I’m not sure if Marie ever gets the full story of why her father died (in terms of the chain of events from the older generation to the present). We do, because this book does deep dives into the critical months and years as the geniuses in the family try not to be hammered into the ground. I loved the way Thien built up the layers of this novel, building up themes of compromising values in order to survive turmoil, finding lines in the sand one will not cross, and understanding how the traumas of parents and grandparents shapes the next generations. It’s heartbreaking to watch the nails of each generation try to dodge the hammer or stubbornly refuse to dodge.

This is one of the most skillfully and beautifully written books I’ve read for a long time.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who don’t understand their parents.

* The title is translated from a lyric in the Chinese version of The Internationale.
** Quote is from the 2016 hardcover edition by W.W. Norton and Company.

Among the Survivors, by Ann Z. Leventhal

Among the Survivors

I don’t mind unlikeable characters. As long as I can understand their actions, I can keep reading. The characters who frustrate me are the ones who do the opposite of what I would have or who make what I consider stupid choices. This was my problem with Among the Survivors, by Ann Z. Leventhal. Karla Most, the protagonist, is a woman with extraordinary lucky but who is completely clueless about what she wants out of life and who she wants to be. What made Karla incomprehensible to me is her passivity, especially as it comes to taking care of herself.

Karla was, perhaps, not destined for a life of self-actualization. Her mother dressed her in black from the very beginning, even to the point of dying her diapers black. After her mother dies—a mother who trained to always worry about the Gestapo breaking down her door—Karla is supported by her paternal grandparents. Still, she decides to work as a house cleaner while auditing courses at NYU. She’s on the job one day in the late 1970s, when she becomes transfixed by a Modigliani painting in a client’s bedroom. She is caught looking at the painting by the client, Sax, and the two immediately begin an affair that lasts more than a decade. (I’m really not kidding about the immediate part. They go to bed the very day they meet.)

Karla spends the next decade as Sax’s lover, supported by his largesse and basically continuing her aimless life. Later, she develops a yen to discover what really happened to her mother during the war after she re-discovers a picture of her mother as a young girl standing next to her swastika-wearing father. For me, the book got much more interesting at this point as Karla uncovers her mother’s lifelong secret.

I suppose what frustrates me most about Karla is that she never grows over the course of the novel. She ages from 21 to 37, but only takes a few steps towards finding a life path. Perhaps I didn’t understand her because there’s a lot more telling than showing in Among the Survivors. Perhaps I was annoyed because I kept fining other characters’ stories much more interesting than Karla’s. I’m not sure who I’d recommend this book to, to be honest.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGallery for review consideration. It will be released 22 August 2017.

A Study in Scarlet Women, by Sherry Thomas

A Study in Scarlet Women

Sherry Thomas’ A Study in Scarlet Women is an unabashedly feminist pastiche of Sherlock Holmes. In this novel—the first one in a series—features Charlotte Holmes. Charlotte and Sherlock share the same sharp observational skills and keen mind. Unlike her male counterpart, however, Charlotte is hemmed in by society’s rules about female behavior. She is also rather fond of sweets and exuberant dresses. Where Sherlock could stick his long nose into any situation that interested him, Charlotte has to plan elaborate ruses for the comfort of her clients. Even with these barriers and restrictions, Charlotte makes a smashing debut as a private consultant.

We meet Charlotte shortly after she deliberately destroys her reputation. Her mother would not let up on trying to get her married and her father failed to follow through on his promise to fund her through school, then help her set up as a headmistress somewhere. The only thing for it, Charlotte reckons, is to take herself permanently off the marriage market and leave home. Her first plans for employment do not go well, so the arrival of Mrs. Watson (a retired actress and widow of a soldier who died in Afghanistan) is a godsend. Before long, she and Mrs. Watson have set up a business for “Sherlock Holmes,” a reclusive invalid who solves mysteries.

This brief summary does little justice to the sheer amount of plot Thomas stuffs into A Study in Scarlet Women. This book also contains a frustrated romance for Charlotte and a fiendishly complex series of suspicious deaths that Charlotte solves (due to her sex and gender) mostly through second had information gathered by Inspector Robert Treadles (a disarming anagram for Lestrade). Charlotte suspects that three seemingly unrelated deaths are really a series of murders. The stories don’t add up for her, but it isn’t until Treadles does a lot of digging and her friend, Lord Ingram, investigates society gossip that the pieces start to fall into place.

It’s clear that a substantial part of this book are set ups for future entries in the series, so we are introduced to a lot of characters who do a little here but will definitely play bigger roles in the future—and we know this mostly because of these characters’ similarities to characters from the Holmes canon. Part of the pleasure of reading A Study in Scarlet Women is spotting the differences and similarities between the characters in this book and their inspiration. A few of the references had me chuckling. Others had me marveling at the way Thomas repurposes and reassigns pieces of the Holmes canon in this pastiche. If the plotting weren’t so intricately constructed and the characters so interesting in themselves, A Study in Scarlet Women would’ve been just a highly detailed and clever in-joke. Since they are, I had a great time reading this book. I’d recommend it to women Holmes fans who want to see the old stories flipped on their heads and gender-swapped.