Historical Fiction


I have loved all of Sarah Bird’s novels, starting with her first, ALAMO HOUSE. She’s a Romance writer in the way that Beethoven could write a catchy tune–she’s all that and so much more. Her novels are grounded in the sweaty, itchy, broken-down reality of daily life and have all the more heart because of it.

When I saw that her latest book was a Western (a category as ill-fitting and Procrustean as “Romance”), I had a moment of doubt, but I should have known better. This is a Sarah Bird novel on steroids, with an irresistible narrative voice, research so compelling you can see, hear, and (especially) smell everything, an addictive plot, and an unswerving moral compass. Like Joe R. Lansdale’s superb PARADISE SKY, it deals with nearly forgotten African-American contributions to US history, but is absolutely its own novel.

DAUGHTER has replaced THE FLAMENCO ACADEMY as my favorite Sarah Bird novel. It’s a stunning achievement and a terrific read.

Contemporary Novels

YOU WILL KNOW ME by Megan Abbott

This is a fine novel with a single exception that I’ll get to in a minute. The prose is excellent, the protagonist (the mom) is both sympathetic and scary, the kids are well drawn, and the gymnastics background is totally convincing. What I liked best is that it’s got a serious point to make about the way we push our children to succeed.

My one complaint is that, after spending virtually the entire book inside Katie’s head, Abbott jumps into another viewpoint to reveal one piece of information not available to Katie. Not only was the switch disorienting, but the info it revealed was something I would rather have been left wondering about. It felt like a genre move in an otherwise literary novel.

Despite my complaint, this is a compelling novel and recommended to fans of Paula Hawkins or Laura Lippman.

Contemporary Novels

WHO IS VERA KELLY? by Rosalie Knecht

I nearly passed on WHO IS VERA KELLY?, a new novel by Rosalie Knecht. It has a dull title, a cartoon cover, clumsy hand lettering (all the rage these days, alas), and an uninviting page design. The reviews were good, however, and since it was a library book, I didn’t have a big investment.

The quality of the prose immediately struck me–clean, vivid, unobtrusive. It took me a while longer to decide that I was willing to hang with the first-person narrator, who seemed at first to be cold and carelessly self-destructive. That initial impression proved false, however, and I was soon hooked. VERA KELLY is, for the most part, a spy story set in Buenos Aires in 1966. The protagonist is a CIA operative investigating KGB activity at the Universidad Central. Refreshingly, the tool of her trade is not seduction, but her skill with electronics. Longer sections set in 1966 alternate with flashbacks that eventually tell us how she got there.

First of all, let me say that the Buenos Aires sections were utterly convincing. Knecht obviously knows not just the geography of the city, but also its history and its heart. I’ve done a lot of the same research, and I never heard her hit a wrong note. The spy story component is also completely satisfying–the carefully laid plans collapsing, the deceptions, the narrow escapes. What elevates the story is the philosophical concerns at its center. The book is about how one betrayal leads to another, the personal to the political to the global. By the time the last piece of Vera’s past snapped into place and her own fate was resolved, I was deeply moved.

They say that SF is metaphor made literal, but the best espionage fiction does the same thing. WHO IS VERA KELLY? is a great spy story, and a great novel, period.