Lightning Round: Inside Out and Back Again and Too Much and Never Enough

IInside Out and Back Againnside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Genre: MG biographical fiction

Setting: Vietnam and Alabama

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 262 pp

Published by: Scholastic (22 Feb 2011)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

This novel is the story of Ha, who flees Vietnam with her mother and brothers to escape the war. They end up in Alabama where they are hosted by a family that Ha thinks is a family of cowboys. The story tells of her challenges in adapting to life in 1970s America.

The story is written in verse and makes for a very lyrical novel. The way Lai uses imagery in her poems makes the emotions Ha and her family are feeling visceral. They are afraid to leave their home, they worry that they don’t have news about Ha’s father or where he might be, and they feel like they are abandoning him and their culture to leave and set up a new life for themselves in America. When they get there, Ha’s fears are justified because she cannot speak English, people think she is dumb because of it, and the people in general are close-minded and unwilling to accept them as part of their community. It was a bittersweet story and a very good one to use to discuss the experiences of refugees with your children.

(I refuse to put a pic of this book cover here. I don’t want to see its ugly face)

Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L. Trump 

Genre: nonfiction/biography

Setting: mostly New York

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 225 pp

Published by: S&S (14 July 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Mary Trump is Donald Trump’s niece, if anyone at all has been under a rock and didn’t learn that by now. She has a PhD in psychology and uses it to explain the excrescence that is her uncle, by diabolical fate the President of the United States. 

While this book really didn’t give any new information to those of us who have been paying attention, it is still nice to have our suspicions about the mango Mussolini confirmed by a member of the family who is an expert in the field. However, she seems to place all the blame squarely on the shoulders of his parents, in particular his dad. Yes, I am sure their horrible parenting impacted how he grew up. But doing so also takes the blame off of him – AGAIN – and makes it so he is not responsible for his actions. There are plenty of kids who had awful childhoods, far worse than Donny’s gilded negligence, and those people didn’t turn into malignant narcissists. So fuck that. He had a shitty childhood but he is the one who chooses cruelty over compassion and is a loathsome creature. 

Also, if I had a family like that, I would drop them so fucking fast you’d think I discovered warp drive. The fact that she hasn’t done so kind of seems to me like she’s sticking around in hopes of getting some money after all. That, or a scorching case of Stockholm Syndrome. Or both. #armchairpsychiatry. Whatever the case is, it rings hollow in a lot of ways.


Marginalized Voices in SFF

With continuing and growing protests over police brutality, racial and gender inequality, and various relevant activist groups, I am made even more aware of the disparity that still exists in the publishing world. Yes, things are getting a little better and more inclusive, ever so slowly. At times, it feels as if we take one small step forward and three or four giant steps back. But it is encouraging to see that there are more women and authors of color being published and recognized for their contributions. NK Jemisin, for example, was the first Black woman to win the Hugo in 2016, and she proceeded to win the prestigious science-fiction/ fantasy (SFF) award for the next three years in a row.

I mention that Jemisin won the Hugo for three years running not because she is an awesome writer of speculative fiction (though she is). Rather, I mention it because the Hugo Awards had been nearly taken over by an alt-right subculture that wanted to silence the rising prominence of women and other marginalized groups within the SFF (Romano. 2018). The publishing industry has been working towards creating more diversity across all genres, not just SFF. But within the SFF community, a few things happened to really help kickstart a better approach to publishing and fan communities. The first of these was “Racefail,” a year-long discussion about the lack of diversity and the overwhelming dominance of white colonialism within the SFF culture. Romano (2018) notes that “the conversations around Racefail resulted in an emerging awareness of the need to not only embrace the writing of women and people of color, but also to make the community a safer space for all writers” (para 7). Racefail led to a growth of diversity and a lessening of gatekeeping on who was allowed to participate in the SFF culture.

It is important here to note that the Hugo Awards are voted on by members of the annual World Science Fiction Society (WorldCon) rather than by a voting committee, and anyone can become a WorldCon member. Doing the voting in this way effectively makes the Hugos a crowdsourced event and it also helps to show changing trends within the SFF community. Unfortunately, it also can provide a space for people to try to game the system. Most notably within the SFF community, two subgroups have tried for years to influence the Hugo Awards by getting their followers within the WorldCon community to vote en masse for certain writers. These groups, called the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies (no, really), formed when author Theodore Beale “Vox Day” was banned from the professional Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) after he made posts referring to NK Jemisin in truly awful, racist ways. Another author, Larry Correia, made a blog post in which he whined that his book wasn’t getting any Hugo nominations and asked that all his readers vote for him. Correia went on to establish the Sad Puppies, and Vox Day followed suit and made the Rabid Puppies. Vox Day has since been recognized as a leader within the alt-right movement. The Puppies went on to get ultra-conservative voting groups to vote for authors they had approved to prevent more diverse authors from making it to the Hugo list.

The first year the Puppies were active, they got 107 out of 127 authors on the initial Hugo voting ballot. So, they were right that the Hugos could be pretty easily manipulated. However, turnabout is fair play, and it seems the SFF community in general loves a good bit of revenge. Things backfired brilliantly when, while attempting to make the Hugos into a joke, the Puppies nominated Chuck Tingle, an erotic fantasy author, to the list. Tingle was well aware of what the Puppies were trying to do, so he created a page on his website to celebrate his Hugo nomination, and then he directed his audience to the sites and books of the women the Puppies were trying to block from being nominated. Similar actions over the past few years have been the way in which the Puppies and other groups like them are being stymied. Many times, authors will simply withdraw their name from consideration if they were nominated because of actions from the Puppies. Another common practice is that voters choose “no award” instead of a “Puppy approved” nominee. For the past couple years, Sad and Rabid Puppies have seen their influence drop as the Hugos, and the SFF community as a whole, have sided with the voices of the marginalized. As Jemisin said in her acceptance speech for her third Hugo award (YES, girl!), “SFF is a microcosm of the wider world, in no way rarefied from the world’s pettiness or prejudice. …  I look to science fiction and fantasy as the aspirational drive of the Zeitgeist: we creators are the engineers of possibility. And as this genre finally, however grudgingly, acknowledges that the dreams of the marginalized matter and that all of us have a future, so will go the world” (Cadenhead, 2018, 2:33).

Below are just a few SFF books written by a variety of marginalized voices that are all well worth the read. If you have other recommendations, whether in SFF or any other genre, for novels by marginalized individuals, please let me know!

NK Jemisin – I can’t start a list for an article like this without telling you to go read Jemisin’s Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy posthaste. You will not be disappointed! She also has a fabulous book of short stories out, When Will It Be Black Future Month?

Nalo Hopkinson – I’ve read several of her books, most recently The Salt Roads and Brown Girl in the Ring. Both are excellent works of speculative fiction that explore privilege, social status, and race in beautifully rendered narratives, heavy with Afro-Caribbean cultural influences.

Rivers Solomon – An Unkindness of Ghosts is set on a generational spaceship that has been divided into social classes correspondent with where one’s living quarters are situated. They have a second book, The Deep, about water-dwelling descendants of African slave women who were thrown overboard while crossing the Middle Passage. Extra diversity info: Rivers Solomon identifies as nonbinary and on the spectrum.

Octavia E. Butler – one of the queens of “traditional” SFF, Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, beginning with Dawn, is the story of Lilith, a woman cryogenically frozen by the Oankali. These aliens survive by genetically merging with other species. They wake Lilith up when Earth becomes habitable again and Lilith has to decide if she will support the Oankali’s methods of saving humanity or if she will side with humans, even if it means extinction.

Roxane Gay – OK, so she wrote Black Panther: World of Wakanda and is well respected in the SFF community. But I really want everyone to read Gay’s memoir, Hunger, which explores topics such as sex, food, body image, and health through the lens of her own personal experiences. Also, her book of essays, Bad Feminist, is a must-read for everyone, whether you identify as feminist or not.

Karen Lord – her book The Best of All Possible Worlds explores topics ranging from technology to sexuality to injustices by telling the story of the Sadiri, whose home world was obliterated by another species.

Walter Mosley – Mosley is probably best known for his Easy Rawlins hard-boiled mystery series, and that is indeed a delightful series to read. However, Futureland is a collection of nine short stories about a future society divided by technology and wealth. Kind of like society today.

Victor LaValle – LaValle’s novel The Ballad of Black Tom takes Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos for a spin by narrating the tale from the perspective of a Black man working for the protagonist, Robert Suydam.

Nisi Shawl – Everfair is Victorian! Afro! Steampunk! It speculates on what the world would look like if the tribes of the Congo had developed steam power before the Belgians colonized their land.


Cadenhead, R.. (2018, August 19). N.K. Jemisin’s 2018 Hugo Award Best Novel acceptance speech [Video]. YouTube.

Romano, A. (2018, August 21). “The Hugo Awards just made history, and defied alt-right extremists in the process.”, retrieved from


42046112Recursion by Blake Crouch (Website, Twitter, Facebook)

Genre: speculative fiction

Setting: All over the fucking place

I read it as a: hardback

Source: BOTM Club purchase

Length: 329 pp

Published by: Crown Books (11 June 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Set in contemporary times, Recursion is the story of scientist Helena Smith and Detective Barry Sutton. Helena’s mother has Alzheimer’s, which is the motivation for Helena to create a chair which can map and store a person’s core memories. However, an unscrupulous coworker realises that what she has actually created is a device which can transfer the consciousness of a person into a memory from their own past, thus rewriting history and creating false memories in the global population. Helena and Barry manage to team up across several timelines and lifetimes to try to prevent the chair from ever being created, saving the entire planet in the process. 

The theory behind this book is based on a real experiment from late 2012 in which two scientists from MIT implanted a false memory into a mouse. How the fuck they can tell what a mouse thinks or remembers is absolutely beyond me, but science is cool. Crouch took that experiment and ran with it for this novel.

It explores the risks inherent to meddling with time and history as we know it. Trying to go back and correct mistakes in one’s own life can cause significant changes to the world all on its own. When the government gets involved, trying to prevent major events like horrific school shootings or WWI and WWII or anything else of global importance, everything gets completely screwed up and people are suddenly confronted with memories of different lives, different families they have, different children, etc. This leads to mass suicides and eventually mutually assured destruction. 

I loved this book, even though it stressed me out. Especially once we got to the “let’s launch all the nukes at once!” part. But I also understand the desire to go back and change tragic events. If anything ever happened to my daughter and such technology existed for me to save her, I would absolutely burn everything down to save her. 

The characters in this were multi-dimensional, in part because they had to be across several lifetimes and different timelines. It was fun to see how each manifestation varied slightly from the one previous. I do wish we had gotten some closure on a couple minor characters, got to know what happened to them in the end. I have my assumptions, but perhaps others will come to different conclusions. 

Highly recommended for folks who enjoy a good, thought-provoking work of spec fic.

Tales of Ming Courtesans

52662129Tales of Ming Courtesans by Alice Poon (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 17th century China

I read it as an: ARC from the author (thank you, Alice!)

Source: review copy

Length: 354 pp

Published by: Earnshaw Books (1 June 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tales of Ming Courtesans is the interwoven story of three young women who trained and worked as courtesans in 1600s China. Rushi, Yuanyuan, and Xiangjun were all real women, and they had a shared background of being sold as children to “thin horse traders,” who were essentially sex traffickers. Their paths cross in a performance house in Nanjing and their friendship sustains them through some truly awful events, ranging from small personal tragedies to sweeping national crises. 

The thing I liked best about this book was how incredibly descriptive it was. Images, smells, and locations were all so vividly described, I felt like I could see the river, smell the flowers or the cooking, hear the birds and noise of the town. I liked the names of a lot of the houses or other places – Villa of Alluring Fragrance, for example. It’s descriptive and mysterious and lyrical. I loved it. It makes me want to take a trip to China to see some of these places. 

The women themselves were a force to be reckoned with – or should have been except that life, men, and the caste system kept them down. I know literally nothing about Chinese history, and even less about this particular period transitioning between the Ming and Qing dynasties. I enjoyed learning some of the history and culture of that time. It is such a rich culture with many interesting rituals, art, and literature. 

I have a very likely inaccurate vision of these courtesans as something akin to Inara Serra from Firefly. My understanding is that courtesans were pretty well educated, trained in poetry, dance, music, performance, and yes, bedroom skills. But they could choose whether or not to take a patron to bed for money, and that choice was the real defining difference between courtesans and prostitutes, who had no choice at all. At any given moment, all three women in this novel worried they would have to sell themselves to a brothel to pay off a debt or avoid homelessness. Owing a debt literally meant you could be sold like chattel to anyone who could pay off the debt by buying you. It is a horrifying thought that the women effectively were forced to participate in their own slavery and sale of their bodies. The courtesans seemed to be in high demand as well, which gives a really interesting dichotomy because it isn’t the sort of role I typically associate with being desirable. The ways in which families sought to have a child by using concubines was new to me. I guess I just need to read more since I am woefully ignorant about this part of the world, in any time period. 

Literally the only quibble I had was that, sometimes, the dialogue between characters felt a bit odd. Sometimes it seemed really formal, especially for just talking to friends or family, but maybe that is how people talked to each other in 17th century China. Other times it had some anachronisms that I am not sure about, like saying a courtesan can “hook up” with anyone she chooses to. That drew me out of the story a little bit, but the rest of it was so good that I got over it quick. 

I definitely recommend this one! It made me curious and want to know more about a place or time or culture, which, to me, is the very best thing any book can do!

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • You can strive all you can to change a condition, but people can choose to ignore facts and cling to their bigoted views.
  • It sickened me to realize that Zhengyu was one of those people who could turn their back on a good friend just because standing up for the truth would inconvenience them. As Fo had remarked previously, it often took a critical incident to reveal the true nature of a person.
  • You must never let anyone make you doubt your own worth.
  • Time rushes forward and never back, oblivious of human joy or pain. We cannot but be driven by the tide of life.
  • What gives one person the moral right to call another human worthless? It’s just not right. A human is a human, regardless of high or low birth.
  • I’ve always believed food is the best glue to bind people together. 
  • Love alone can transcend time.
  • Look at the flowing water. Water is humble. It always heads to a low point. Water is soft, formless and flexible. It slides meekly and wittily around rocks, and it nurtures the plants on all sides. That way, it is content and it sings. If you are humble, wise and nurturing in the same way as water, you will not feel shame. You will have peace.




Guest Post: The Tubman Command

42869630This is a guest post by Cathy Smith.

When we hear the name Harriet Tubman, the first thing that may come to mind is the Underground Railroad, but Tubman, also known as Moses, contributed much more to the American Civil War than what she did to help slaves escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Tubman also worked as a spy for the Union army, and The Tubman Command is an historical fiction account of a raid Tubman could have helped plan that took her behind enemy lines and into the heart of danger.

Elizabeth Cobbs is a skilled historian who uses her knowledge and research of the time period to build a story that connects readers directly to the soul of a woman who opened the door of change for hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children. Cobbs skillfully weaves together a story about Tubman and her world that paints a vivid picture of the lives of people during one of the bloodiest wars in American history.

As I read The Tubman Command, I found myself stepping back into the 1860s, living Tubman’s life through her everyday experiences. I could taste her homemade gingerbread to the point that I found myself searching the internet for a similar recipe. I could sense the spirit of the culture through the bits and pieces of the words to the songs that Cobbs weaves into the dialogues and descriptions of the scene that moves the story forward. Cobbs masterfully creates a world mixed with emotions that makes you smile on one page and brings you to tears on the next. It was hard putting the book down as you lived a short part of one woman’s life while she worked unconditionally to save others from fates worse than death.

Tubman was a hero to the people whose lives she touched and changed throughout her lifetime. Tubman’s strength and courage remain an inspiration today. Cobbs does an outstanding job taking readers into Harriet Tubman’s world, and joys and heartaches of people who lived suppressed lives until Tubman was able to help them find their way to their Promised Lands.

Reading outside your comfort zone

Lately, while we are all on new ground with Covid-19 and quarantine, I thought it might be a diversion to talk about our reading comfort zones. We are most of us living outside our comfort zones right now, anyway, so it seems apropos. A big passion of mine is to try to encourage people to read more diversely, be more aware of blind spots or failures within the publishing industry, and to boost readership and marketing for authors in marginalized communities. To do these things in my own reading life, I use various reading challenges like Book Riot’s Read Harder, Pop Sugar’s annual reading challenge, or Goodreads’ A-Z Challenge.

I like these kinds of reading challenges because they all have at least one category that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of reading myself. Which is, of course, the point. Over the years of doing reading challenges, I have learned of some excellent authors that I would not have read had it not been for a challenge task. Some of my favorite tasks have, in past years, included reading a debut novel by an author of color or member of the LGBTQ community; a book in any genre by a Native American, First Nations, or Indigenous author; a book by or about a refugee; a nonfiction STEM book written by a woman; a classic you have never read; a book that won either a LAMBDA, Audie, or Booker award (or all of the above); a book written in the year you were born; a book about a religion other than your own; a book about a food cuisine you have never tried before; and a mystery where the victim(s) is not a woman or child. I haven’t always liked the books I’ve selected for these reading challenge tasks, but that’s ok. I am never sorry for having read a book, even if I didn’t like it much, and if it does some good to bring more awareness to an issue, then I consider it time well spent.

What usually happens, though, is that I do end up enjoying the books, and sometimes they even turn into one of my favorite books ever. A couple years ago, one of the challenges I was doing called for reading a Western. I do not do Westerns. I don’t like Western movies, I don’t like cows, I don’t like gun fights, I don’t like many of the things that make Westerns, Westerns. So, I was not too thrilled about that particular task. I picked a book that was definitely a Western but was written by an author I was already somewhat familiar with. And it ended up being one of my favorite books I read in that year! If you’re curious, I picked Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell. I listened to it on audiobook from the library and loved it so much I got my own copy of it from Audible, as well as its sequel.

I have read some classics that I somehow managed to miss throughout my college and grad school years. I’ve read books that are beloved and been confounded as to why they are so popular; I’ve read books that got panned and felt they were among the best literature I’ve ever encountered. I’ve learned about more things to look for when trying to find a new book or author to try. And, most importantly, I’ve had a ball doing it. For me, reading is and always has been an escape, not something that should be a chore or something that causes any stress. So what if you don’t finish that reading challenge? So what if you only read 10 books all year but had planned to read 100? Did you have fun in the process? Then that is all that matters.

Here are a few of the books I have learned about from various reading challenges and ended up loving, in no particular order. Have you done any reading challenges? Where or how do you learn about new books and authors? What books did you discover that you wouldn’t have otherwise?

The Tale of Hill Top Farm

51rrpca9nbl._sl500_The Tale of Hill Top Farm* by Susan Wittig Albert

I read it as an: audiobook

Source: my own collection

Length: 09:17:00

Publisher: Recorded Books

Year: 2011 (print published 2004)

The first in Albert’s Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter series, The Tale of Hill Top Farm focuses on Beatrix Potter’s move to Sawrey, purchase of Hill Top Farm, becoming acquainted with the townsfolk, and witnessing several mishaps and mysteries. The town is thrown into disarray when one of their own, Miss Toliver, dies unexpectedly. Naturally, the death being so unexpected, everyone wonders whether Miss Toliver had been poisoned, and by whom. Then it is discovered that the church register has been stolen, followed by the disappearance of a rare painting from Miss Toliver’s house, cash funds to repair the local school’s roof, and the question of who would inherit Miss Toliver’s cottage. The town devoutly hopes it does not go to her disagreeable nephew. All are surprised when, upon the reading of Miss Toliver’s will, the cottage goes to a Miss Sarah Berwick, a complete stranger. Further shocks come when the village learns why the register and roof repair funds have gone missing, as well as the true fate of Miss Toliver. 

This is an utterly charming cozy mystery! While many of the plot details are, of course, pure fiction, the location and events of Beatrix Potter’s life are historically documented and reflected in the story. She did live in Sawrey for many years, and she did travel with a menagerie of pets like hedgehogs, bunnies, and mice. The animals are point-of-view characters throughout the book, and they are the ones who solve all the mysteries well before the humans ever do. 

I enjoyed, too, the Victorian manners and etiquette the characters adhere to. I am so glad I am not a Victorian, but it is fun to read all the same. 

I definitely plan to read the rest of this series, and probably the other series Albert has written. Highly recommended!

*Amazon affiliate link.

The Year the Swans Came*

42323212The Year the Swans Came: Where historical fiction and fantasy collide by Barbara Spencer

Cathy read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 384 pp

Publisher: Troubador

Year: 2018

The Year the Swans Came is tale of love and mystery that revolves around Margrit “Maidy” Bader and Ruth Endelbaum, their families, and the friends the two girls meet while attending college. The story takes place after the end of an unnamed war, in a village whose townsfolk are slowly trying to get back to normal after the departure of the occupied forces. When Maidy is young, she is devastated when her older brother, Pieter, unexpectedly leaves home. Years later, Pieter reappears around Maidy’s 16th birthday. With Pieter’s return comes the trials and tribulations of love and the deepening mystery of where he was and why he left home in the first place. Even more puzzling is Pieter’s connections to the mysterious Van Vliet, Zande, Jaan, and others who seemed to be a part of a small bevy of select young men.

Spencer masterfully uses detailed descriptions to bring this story to life. I easily came to respect and admire Maidy, her humble courage and her natural strength, even though she seemed to see herself as lesser than her best friend, Ruth.  Opposite Maidy’s character is Ruth, who is the girl that has it all, from money, to beauty, and to what both girls feel is the admiration of everyone she comes to meet, especially the young men at the college. Spencer also does an excellent job of weaving historical details throughout the narrative that give it a strong sense of past. Even though it is not clear as to when or where the actual story took place, the intricate details throughout the novel build wonder and curiosity as to the time period and setting.

As I followed the lives of the two girls and the connections between their families and their friends, the magical realism was not easily realized throughout the first part of the story.  Even though Spencer integrated small hints of fantasy as she thickened the plot of the love triangles and deep friendships, the tale felt more like a love tragedy with small hints of mystery. It was not until the last few chapters that the magical realism was realized. I was able to reflect back through the story to recognize how the legend of the swans was the foundation for Spencer’s story and how the subtle hits dropped throughout Maidy’s and Ruth’s journeys were a part of the magic that helped the story to unfold.

The Year the Swans Came is a tragic story for anyone who wants to become captivated by the lives of two girls who are literally polar opposites of each other.  It is a story of one girl’s love of herself and her physical world, and the story of another girl’s unconditional love for the people in her life. It is a story of passion and a story of anguish. Spencer has done a wonderful job subtly showing how magical realism is a real part of the mythologies of a culture.  

*This is a guest post by Cathy Smith.

Not Your Angel: Feminism and Social Commentary in The Hollow of Fear

Author photo by Jennifer Sparks of Sparks Studio

Sherry Thomas is no stranger to defying social expectations. Her Lady Sherlock series (starting with A Study In Scarlet Women (The Lady Sherlock Series Book 1)) tackles many of these expectations head on, to the delight of her readers. From gender-flipping and gender fluidity to body positivity, Thomas takes the best of the Sherlock tradition and pushes its boundaries. The newest book in Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, The Hollow of Fear (The Lady Sherlock Series), challenges assumptions more than ever, couching some important and relevant discussion about modern social issues in the guise of a fun Victorian mystery.

One of the most interesting aspects of Thomas’s novels is the interplay of gender identity and expected Victorian gender roles. From the start, Thomas’s Sherlock is a woman who takes on a man’s role in solving crimes, a gender-flipped version of the traditional Sherlock. Thomas explains that she decided to make her Sherlock a woman because it was “the only thing left to do.” Citing Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series as an inspiration, Thomas says that was “the first story in the Sherlock Holmes pastiche that made me want to write an adaptation of my own…” Then along came the BBC’s Sherlock, set in the 21st century, and CBS’s Elementary with its female Watson. After that, Thomas explains, making Sherlock a woman seemed the logical thing to do. Not only does this set the stage for the rest of the series, but it cracks the illusion of the sweet-tempered, sheltered Angel in the House the upper class Victorian woman was expected to be. In so many ways, this mirrors modern society, especially politics, where women are still often expected to hold traditional roles and be likeable peacemakers

Thomas takes the issue of gender several steps further in The Hollow of Fear. Whereas the previous books in the series simply had Charlotte Holmes acting in a man’s role by solving mysteries – she pretends to be her “brother’s” interpreter, who clients are not permitted to see since, of course, there is no brother – in The Hollow of Fear, Charlotte actively flips genders by dressing as a man so that she may travel to the site of a crime. More than that, her friend, Lord Ingram, knows what she is doing and helps her carry out the ruse, treating her as he would any other man despite his qualms about it. There is so much to unpack in this new dynamic, which upends those traditional gender roles and expectations in wonderful ways. The Victorian ideal of the Angel in the House is discarded utterly, both by Charlotte Holmes herself and, by extension, Thomas as her creator. In a time when women were largely expected to be under the care of a man, whether father, brother, or husband, Charlotte bucks expectations by carving out a niche all of her own, on her own, without a man to guide her. She further highlights her own abilities and disregard for social mores when she dresses as a man to carry out her self-designed duties. Doing so was shocking to Lord Ingram, and even somewhat to Mrs Watson, who helped her become Sherlock, but it helps highlight how the institutions of society would keep women subservient to men. These social establishments are still in effect today in many ways, from the hyper-feminine and unrealistic measurements portrayed in films and TV to the way that the majority of emotional labor falls to women.

An element that is closely woven with gender, particularly those who identify as female, is the issue of body image and relationship to food. Charlotte Holmes is not shy about the pleasure she takes in sweets, and makes reference several times to the “maximum tolerable chins” she can have. Some may view this as Charlotte’s use of food as her apparent drug of choice in lieu of Sherlock’s cocaine, as Conan Doyle’s character uses in the traditional tales. However, Thomas explains that, whereas Sherlock took cocaine recreationally when he was bored, he had the disposable income to do so since he is likely from the lower aristocracy or upper gentry. “Charlotte Holmes is in a different situation,” Thomas says. “She does depend on her work to pay the bills and doesn’t have the luxury of whiling away her hours on drugs. So for solace she turns to food, especially sweet thing.” And since she still wants to fit into her clothes and can’t afford to buy new ones, she uses her “maximum tolerable chins” as a gauge to tell when she can have another slice of cake or when she needs to stop. This system may sound very familiar to a lot of women today, using the waistband of our jeans to tell us when we need to start counting calories. More importantly, though, is Charlotte’s views of her body. While she did at one point attempt to fit into the ideal Victorian model of womanhood by being a slim and dainty figure, she recognized that it did not suit her in a variety of ways. When she left her parents’ home, she resumed her preferred habits with regard to food, and she does not feel ashamed of being a bit heavier than the so-called ideal for women of her time. In this as well, Thomas has created a role model of body positivity for women who might be feeling guilty over that second (or third!) slice of cake they just ate.

The real gem with this narrative is the way it highlights women’s intelligence. Charlotte forces Ingram to go along with her ruse, so he treats her as he would treat any other man of his acquaintance. To his consternation, she more than holds her own, blending into the male sphere easily and comfortably, shattering the illusion that women are fragile creatures who need to be tended and cared for. While this may not be the catalyst for a women’s movement within the novels, it does promote awareness that women have a life and interests beyond the men in their lives, something of a novelty to Ingram and even to other women in the book. It further provides a sharp lens through which to view modern feminism, for these topics are still relevant to women in the 21st century as well as the 19th. Even after 200 years of women’s rights activism, that it still comes as a surprise to some that women are intelligent beings with interests outside their homes, marriages, and children is both maddening and discouraging. Thomas’s method in using her characters and their approach to gender to highlight these points creates the perfect way to open a discussion about women and our role in an ever-changing society. We’ve come from the Angels in the House to the Hellions on the [U.S. Capitol] Hill. With characters like Charlotte Holmes and authors like Sherry Thomas, historical fiction remains a vibrant and relevant medium for discussing social change and the issues arising from it.

*Originally published on the Historical Novel Society site.

The Long Road to Empathy: The Tragedy of Oedipal Love in The Story of Kullervo and The Kalevala

In 1911, J.R.R. Tolkien read The Kalevala, collected by Elias Lonnrot and translated by W.F. Kirby. Tolkien later crafted his own variant, condensing the plot and emphasizing the grimness of the narrative. Throughout both versions of Kullervo’s story, there is a sense of inevitability and doom which is highlighted in several scenes. A pivotal scene is Kullervo’s rape of his sister, which Tolkien made darker by enhancing details leading up to it, highlighting the narrative’s sense of inevitability, and ultimately creating a character who is more empathetic.

Examining the different rape scenes and events leading up to them is a multifaceted task. A striking difference in Tolkien’s version is that Kullvero and his sister were raised together. They were twins and “dear to one another from their first hours…” (Tolkien 7). This bond is absent in The Kalevala. Tolkien also gives the sister a name. In literature, names imbue power, agency, and identity. The fact that Wanona has a name at all, and that it means “weeping,” strongly foreshadows a future tragedy. While naming Wanona allowed her a voice, Tolkien later emphasizes Kullervo’s inevitable encounter with her, thus negating her ability to choose for herself. Tolkien was drawn to the bleakness of the story and may have given her a name to underscore the tale’s relentless sense of doom.

A further element relating to the later rape is the curse of Ilmarinen’s wife. In The Kalevala, Ilmarinen’s wife curses Kullervo with death out of revenge. She begs the god Ukko to use his best crossbow, take a bolt of copper, and “Shoot it quickly through the arm-pits,/ Shoot it that it split the shoulders./ Thus let Kalervo’s son perish,/ Shoot thou dead this wicked creature…” (Runo 33, lines 263-276). Ilmarinen’s wife is angry, afraid, and asks the gods to kill Kullervo for murdering her. There is no sense of prophecy in her words, but her formal tone suggests that her curse catalyzes Kullervo’s fated death. Although vague enough to allow for the possibility of fate or events of chance causing his death, later events support the argument that her curse was successful, rendering foreshadowing irrelevant.

In Kullervo, the curse foreshadows a coming tragedy. Tolkien writes,

Woe thou Sari Kampa’s offspring

Thou has trod the ways of thralldom

And the trackless waste of exile

But thy end shall be more awful

…a fate of woe [and] horror

Worse than anguish in Anuntu.

Men … shall shudder when they hear them

Thy fate and end of terror. (31-32)

Immediately obvious is the phrase “thy end shall be more awful,” which provides the prophesying that The Kalevala lacks. Kullervo has been a slave and an exile but his death will be worse than these things. Moreover, the idea that fate plays a role is highlighted by the repeated use of the term. The wife implies that Kullervo is destined for a bad death, though it is unclear whether her words are the catalyst to this or merely foreshadow it.

Both narratives feature the Blue Lady of the Forest. In The Kalevala, the Lady does not warn Kullervo away from entering the forest. On the contrary, she steers him directly toward it. “Through the forest must thou journey,/ By the river thou must travel,/ …/ Till you reach a wooded mountain,/ Then march on beneath the mountain,/ …/ By the riverside go further,/ Till three waterfalls rush foaming,/ When thou comest to a headland…  (Runo 34, lines 143-154). Her instructions do not appear prophetic, but since Kullervo meets his sister in the very forest the Lady directs him to, it raises the possibility that she sends him there intentionally. Failing to build anticipation, The Kalevala moves the story forward without detail. Tolkien gives ample attention to the woods and the Lady’s instructions, building tension. She says:

Thou must follow the river’s path and … thou wilt find a wooded mountain. Fare not towards it lest ill find thee. March on under the shadow often bending to the left when thou comest to another river and when thou hast followed its banks soon thou wilt strike a fair spot and a great glade and over a great leap a triple waterfall foaming. … continue pushing up the river toward its source: and the ground will slope against thee and the wood darken … stumble across bleak waste and then soon wilt thou see the blue of woods of Untamo rising afar off: and mayhap these thou hast not yet quite forgotten. (Tolkien 35)

Unlike Kirby, Tolkien creates a deeply shadowed forest, fostering a sense of foreboding. His Lady also warns specifically not to go to the wooded mountain because some unnamed tragedy will occur there. In the most interesting departure from The Kalevala, Tolkien’s Kullervo willfully disobeys the Lady’s instructions and goes into the forest where, of course, he meets his sister. The final comment from the Lady becomes relevant at this point, for in telling Kullervo that maybe he hasn’t quite forgotten the blue woods of Untamo, she is implying that he is back in the woods of his childhood where he and Wanona played. Being in once-familiar surroundings could make him remember Wanona when he sees her. That he remembers neither the woods nor his sister, thus missing a chance to avoid the tragedy, is a masterful way Tolkien emphasizes its bleakness.

The narrative culminates with the rape of Wanona. In Kirby’s translation, Kullervo encounters three maidens, all of whom reject him, and drags the third one into his sledge. She resists, but Kullervo shows her the riches he has in his coffers and she changes her mind: “…To a bride the money changed her,/ … Then he sported with the maiden,/ Wearied out the tin-adorned one…” (Runo 35, lines 169-186). Kirby’s translation overwrites the wife’s initial refusal and replaces consent with materialism. This is a very misogynistic approach, for she appears indifferent that she will be raped as long as he is rich. She is merely a nameless object with no identity, her agency illusory, who has no objections until she realizes that Kullervo is her brother. There is also no mention of the curse of Ilmanen’s wife, and Kullervo met the maidens by chance (Runo 35, line 133), implying that fate is irrelevant and the curse has no bearing.

Tolkien’s Kullervo, while grimmer, brings far more detail and emotional depth to the tale. Rather than having three separate maidens reject Kullervo, the same maiden rejects him thrice. She’s uninterested in his wealth, unlike her Kalevala counterpart. Kullervo loses his temper and takes her not into his sledge but away into “the depths of the woods” (Tolkien 36), the forbidden place. Not only does Kullervo fail to avoid the tragedy here, he fulfills it. Tolkien writes, “Yet was she fair and he loving with her, and the curse of the wife of Ilmarinen upon them both, so that not long did she resist him and they abode together in the wild…” (37). Professor Verlyn Flieger suggests that Tolkien means for this to be a seduction rather than a rape (Flieger). She interprets this passage such that they reach an accord and share a legitimate relationship. However, she does not account for the fact that Wanona is “…adread and sped like a wild thing through the woods…” (36). This is mortal terror, not accord. Women often have to choose survival through acquiescence; however, acquiescence should not be confused for consent. Additionally, Tolkien writes that “the curse of the wife of Ilmarinen [was] upon them both” (37), indicating that the wife’s curse includes Wanona, linking her fate irrevocably to his.

The defining difference between the two texts lies not in the disparity in length, emphasis on darkness, or even the rape itself. It is Kullervo’s reaction and how he acts afterward. Kullervo responds with horror in The Kalevala, saying he had outraged his mother’s child, presumably referring to his sister; however, he could actually be talking about himself considering that he makes self-centered references to the difficulties in his life ten times in that same stanza (Runo 35, lines 271-286). Tolkien’s Kullervo tries and fails to stop Wanona from throwing herself into the river. He hears her “last wail” (38), a haunting image juxtaposed against the beauty of the setting. Kullervo sits beside the waterfall for several hours “as a lump of rock” (39). Tolkien paints a picture of a deeply grieving man who only later understands Wanona’s final words. Tolkien writes, “… foreboding gnawed at his heart for something in the maiden’s last speech …and her bitter ending wakened old knowledge in his heart …he felt he would burst for grief and sorrow and heavy fear. Then red anger came to him…” (39). At this point, Kullervo goes into a rage, far too late to prevent the tragedy the Lady had warned him about. Tolkien’s Kullervo is now a much more believable figure than Kirby’s. His emotions are complex: he is grief-stricken, he loves Wanona as a woman, yet he feels terrible guilt about loving her and her death. In both versions, Kullervo is an unsympathetic figure up to this point. Tolkien’s Kullervo, though, learns to grieve for others and have empathy. It is only then that he can find “the death he sought for” (40).

Although all events lead to Kullervo’s suicide, Tolkien’s emphasis on the rape and the relentless pain in the story build a character who is far more realistic than the one in The Kalevala. Kirby’s translation describes a historically rich narrative but it is lacking in emotional depth. Tolkien’s Kullervo, though frequently repugnant, is ultimately more believable because of the various emphases Tolkien makes. Focusing more on the inevitability of Kullervo’s tragedy, as well as crafting a situation which he could have avoided at multiple points, allows Tolkien to refine the character, explore the concept of fate, and deeply examine how details of a story can influence narrative.



Flieger, Verlyn. “Tolkien’s Kullervo.” Tolkien and Tradition class lecture archives, Signum University,

The Kalevala, the Land of Heroes. Compiled by Elias Lonnrot, translated by W.F. Kirby, Project Gutenberg, 2010.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Story of Kullervo. Edited by Verlyn Flieger, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.