Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
The author of the dystopian trilogy The Last Policeman takes a different approach to contemporary fiction: alternate history. The Civil War never happened, slavery is still legal in several southern states, and free does not mean equal. Victor is a free black man on assignment in Indianapolis for the U.S. Marshals Service, on the trail of a runaway bonded person known as Jackdaw. Victor infiltrates a cell of the underground airline, a master of disguise. In flashbacks, we learn that Victor spent his childhood as a bonded person, so why is he tracking down runaways now? Is it just that he enjoys the privileges of his job and situation, from air-conditioning to a car to the music of Michael Jackson? And yet he befriends Martha Flowers, a young white woman with a biracial son. As Victor travels between free and slave states, the world is a fascinating one, as the economy doesn’t seem to be thriving and technology lags behind ours. Laptops, cell phones, and GPS exist, but most cars are older and foreign. This novel is not light reading, but the world-building and storytelling skills of Winters make this book very hard to put down.
Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
Teen Amani lives with her aunt, uncle, and numerous cousins, helping to run the family store in Dustwalk. Amani sneaks out one night to win money in a sharpshooting contest. The next day she hides fellow sharpshooter Jin from the Sultan’s army. A train ride to the capital city ends abruptly, sending Amani, who is disguised as a boy, and handsome Jin on the run in the desert, which is full of danger and adventure. Amani reluctantly gets involved in a rebellion against the sultan, and meets people with various magical powers, half human and half djinni. Amani finds that she can’t tell a lie, and has to make choices about where her loyalty lies. This is a fun fantasy adventure that mixes elements of westerns with Arabian Nights.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
One summer night, a private jet takes off from Martha’s Vineyard, heading to New York City. It soon crashes into the ocean, leaving two of the passengers struggling to survive and the other nine on board presumed lost. The incredible feat of survival of struggling artist Scott Burroughs, invited on the flight at the last minute, and the person he saves make for thrilling reading. Scott has recently taken up swimming again and stopped drinking, but is completely unprepared for the huge amount of publicity he faces when they reach land. The book goes back and forth in time, giving the back stories of the eight passengers, a security guard, two pilots and a flight attendant on board, including a millionaire couple, their two children, and a man about to be indicted for money laundering. Conspiracy theories abound as the search begins for the plane and any other survivors. The survivors are likable characters, drawn together by their shared experience. The pacing and suspense never let up until a satisfying conclusion. Not the right book to take on a flight, but a quick read perfect for summer.
Walking the Nile by Levison Wood
Levison Wood, who was a major in a British parachute regiment, likes a challenge. So why not hike along the banks of the entire Nile River, over 4000 miles? So off he goes, with a guide, occasionally a police escort, and even pack camels in the desert, to find his path through swamps, lakes, villages, cities, and desert. He is very discouraged at times, especially after extremely high temperatures leads to tragedy. Sometimes he can’t remember why he’s making such a challenging journey, such as when dealing with bureaucratic red tape or civil unrest. But the extremely warm welcomes he finds in small villages, and numerous wildlife encounters, including rescuing a baby monkey whose habitat has been burned, enliven the book. Wood doesn’t mention until the acknowledgements at the end that a small film crew shared parts of the journey with him, a curious oversight. I earlier reviewed his second book, Walking the Himalayas, which was more enjoyable for the reader (and probably the explorer), although less suspenseful.
The Tilted World by Tom Franklin & Beth Ann Fennelly
After months of heavy rains, the residents of Hobnob Landing, Mississippi are increasingly uneasy as the river keeps rising in the spring of 1927. Federal revenuers Ham Johnson and Ted Ingersoll are sent to the town by Herbert Hoover to investigate two missing agents, and to search for moonshiners. Friends and WWI veterans, the unbribable pair come across a botched robbery at a country store which left a baby orphaned. An orphan himself, Ingersoll wants to find the baby boy a good home, and is referred to Dixie Clay Holliver, a young woman still mourning her own baby. She takes Willy gladly, but Ingersoll doesn’t know that she’s married to Jesse Holliver, distributor of Black Lightning, bootleg whiskey.
Ingersoll and Johnson pose as engineers, patrolling the sandbagged levee as the Mississippi River levels keeps rising. Charming, lying Jesse has his own plans, and might have been the last one to see the missing federal agents. The pacing and suspense keep increasing as some levees upstream fail. History, suspense, and a little romance bring a new look at the Great Flood of 1927. A surprisingly enjoyable read full of colorful characters.
The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
The gorgeous scenery on the cover is echoed in this beautiful, melancholy novel set in Thirroul, New South Wales, Australia. It’s 1948, and a doctor and a poet are finally home from the war, trying to find their way back to normal life. Anikka Lachlan and her husband Mac are happily raising their 10-year-old daughter, Bella, when railwayman Mac is killed in an accident. Ani and Bella struggle through their grief, helped by neighbors. Ani is given a job at the railway library, where she encounters Ray, the poet with writer’s block, and Frank, the doctor who has little patience for the villagers’ minor health complaints. Mac remains part of the whole book, with scenes from the beginning of their marriage, and as Ani learns new stories about Mac. Thirroul, south of Sydney, is picturesque, with surfers, fishermen, tropical flowers, and dolphins. The author commissioned a poem for the novel, and the novelist and poet both won the Colin Roderick award. Leisurely paced and memorable, a story of loss and love.
Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, by Dawn Tripp
I enjoyed this compelling novel about artist Georgia O’Keeffe almost as much as I’ve enjoyed looking at her art. Georgia and her older husband, photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, exchanged so many letters that the author had plenty of source material to work with, along with biographies, Georgia’s memoirs, exhibition catalogs, critiques and much more. Fortunately, the author doesn’t let her research get in the way of telling a character-driven, moving, and engaging story about Georgia’s long and adventurous life. The various settings, New York City, the Stieglitz lake house in the Adirondacks, and New Mexico, are detailed and appealing. Georgia and her art change over time, as does her tempestuous relationship with Stieglitz. Recommended for fans of biographical fiction, and especially for readers of Susan Vreeland, Nancy Horan, and Paula McLain.