The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubTitle: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Author: Genevieve Valentine
Published: 3 June 2014
Publisher: Atria Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 9/10

For years the twelve Hamilton sisters have been prisoners in their own home. They are the shameful evidence of their wealthy father’s inability to have a son, so he keeps them hidden from the world. No one except his staff knows how many daughters he has. He hasn’t even met some of them.

But although they never get to go out in the daylight, the sisters go out dancing in New York’s jazz clubs every night, from the Salon Renaud and the Swan, to the Kingfisher club they eventually call home. Jo, the eldest, the “General”, is the one in charge of every outing. She calls the cabs, watches over her sisters and decides when to leave. She’s the only one who speaks to their father, so she’s the one who has to break the news when he decides to marry them off, basically selling them to men of his choosing.

The girls might not know much about the daylight world, but they know a lot about men, and they know exactly what kind of men would marry a girl who’s been locked up in the house all her life – men like their father. As their leader, Jo needs to figure out a way to save her sisters, and for once it seems she can’t do it all by herself. She’ll have to turn to a bootlegger she met ten years ago for help. She’ll also have be extra careful to keep their dancing a secret, after a newspaper report about dancing girls and gin makes their father suspicious. Not only are their outings a defiance of his will, but their behaviour will spoil his plans “to sell them off one at a time as untouched goods who had never been so wild as to go out dancing”.

In case you haven’t realised it yet, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is based on the fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. And was exactly what I wanted it to be – a relatively quick light read but with an in-depth psychological portrait of Jo and her sisters, and a close look at the whole idea of these trapped girls and women who escape into a vibrant world every night. It perfectly balances introspective character studies and the relationships between the sisters with the excitement of the dancing in jazz clubs and the tension of the threats posed by their father. It’s the kind of novel that makes me feel an intense and varied mixture of emotions, and I absolutely loved reading it.

I’m also glad that it eschewed the use of sexual violence. I kind of assumed that it would be an inevitable and discomforting part of the story, given that it’s about twelve beautiful girls and women who go dancing and drinking every night, but Valentine does not victimise them in this way. On the contrary, the Hamilton sisters are pretty street smart. They could drink most men under the table, and you don’t see them flopping around drunk and helpless. They learn how to read people and handle them, so they can spot trouble or soothe a tense situation. We don’t know the full extent of their sexual experiences (there are only references to little flings and heartbreaks) but whatever they do, you never get the sense that they’re not in control.

The girls’ strengths actually go a long way in making this a pleasant read. It could be really depressing, but the way the girls handle themselves, whether they’re having fun, being sold to men like property or alone and terrified, makes it satisfying rather than disturbing. You tense up and worry at the challenges they have to face, but every little triumph makes you smile.

This is particularly true with Jo, whose character we get to know in the greatest detail. Jo is in the incredibly difficult position of being the girls’ guardian. The blurb suggests that she’s the closest thing to a mother that they have, but the novel specifically says otherwise. It’s Ella with her kind, nurturing nature, who is more like the mother figure. Jo on the other hand is strict and commanding. Jo snaps her fingers and her sisters obey. She speaks to their father and enforces his commands. After a failed affair with a young bootlegger, Jo stopped dancing, deciding that it was too dangerous for her, no matter how much she wanted to. The result is that her sisters think she’s heartless. It’s even suggested that she’s just as much their jailer as their father is. Jo finds this deeply hurtful, especially since it’s already occurred to her.

As the reader however, you see how much Jo’s ‘heartlessness’ has done for her sisters. She describes her nickname “General” as ” the mortar that let her stand in both places at once and not fall”. She can only be the amazing sister they need by also being an authoritarian leader. It’s only because she’s so strict and careful that her sisters are able to go out every night and not get caught. She protects from their father, and it’s only when some of the girls actually have to be in Mr Hamilton’s presence as he starts trying to marry them off that they realise what a monster Jo has been fighting with on their behalf. She was the first one to learn to dance and start teaching her sisters. She initiated the first trip to a jazz club (imagine doing this when you almost never go outside), but everyone remembers it being Lou, the second eldest’s idea, because it’s hard to imagine Jo being so spontaneous.

You also see Jo trying too hard, sacrificing too much, wanting her sisters to need her because she’s become so wrapped up in her identity as the General. So part of the story involves her giving in to the things she wants, and being a sister rather than a General. It can be quite sad, but it makes for great reading. I also like the way Valentine wrote Mr Hamilton’s character. Again, she exercises restraint by not making him grossly monstrous. He’s quietly evil, with a very calm, polite manner that makes his cruelty stand out like an unexpected slap.

Overall, the book is also just beautifully written, and I highlighted many quotes on my Kindle. It’s one of the few that leaves me satisfied but also sad to leave behind because I’m not going to find another book like this any time soon. However, that does give me good reason to re-read it a few times 🙂

Advertisements

Six-Gun Snow White: limited edition pictures

I’m a big fan of Catherynne M. Valente, and when Six-Gun Snow White came out – her rather brutal, Old-West retelling of Snow White – I was able to snag one of the gorgeous limited-edition signed hardcovers from Subterranean Press (via Book Depository). Check it out:

Six-Gun Snow White

Six-Gun Snow White signature

 

Six-Gun Snow White has been nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo awards for Best Novella. I’m still working on my review, and in the meantime I couldn’t resist showing off one of the coolest books on my shelf 🙂 If you don’t know what the story is about, here’s the blurb:

From New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente comes a brilliant reinvention of one the best known fairy tales of all time. In the novella Six-Gun Snow White, Valente transports the title’s heroine to a masterfully evoked Old West where Coyote is just as likely to be found as the seven dwarves.

A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parents—a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother’s death in childbirth, so begins a heroine’s tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new. 

April Round-Up

April was a pretty productive reading and reviewing month. I managed to read 8 books, and I’d actually have finished more if it wasn’t for a little snag…

Anyway, first to be read this month was the very popular military sf novel Germline  by T.C. McCarthy, first in a series known as The Subterrene War. I’d received the sequel, Exogene, on NetGalley, so in order to review that I bought Germline. Not really my thing unfortunately. There was loads of action, but coupled with paper-thin characters and a lack of world-building it was a bit of a bore.

Westlake Soul by Rio Youers was a short, somewhat experimental novel narrated by a 23-year-old surfer named Westlake Soul who is in a vegetative state after a surfing accident. He no longer has any control over his body, but the brain ‘damage’ turned him into a genius with the ability to project his soul/mind beyond his body. With these powers, Westlake sees himself as a superhero, especially since he has a supervillain to battle – Dr Quietus, an incarnation of death. The novel had its flaws, but it could also be very touching, particularly when we see Westlake’s family struggling to deal with his condition. So I didn’t love it, but I enjoyed it, and I admired what the author was able to do with the story.

Faustus Resurrectus by Thomas Morrissey is an occult thriller based on the myth of Faustus – the man who sold his soul to the devil in return for earthly knowledge and power. A madman commits a series of murders in preparation for a ritual to resurrect Faustus, and thereby take revenge on those that wronged him, and claim the power he feels he should wield. Occult scholar Donovan Graham assists the NYPD in the serial killer case, but gets pulled in deeper than expected. There’s a lot of cool stuff about the occult and performing arcane rituals, and on the whole it’s a good read. The author is also planning to turn this into a series featuring Donovan Graham.

I had a great time reading local YA zombie novel Death of a Saint by Lily Herne, the second book in the Mall Rats series. I wasn’t all that keen on the first book, Deadlands, so this one was a wonderful surprise. The characters and writing were much stronger than in Deadlands, and that drew me in and had me devouring the book in a very short time. It also uses one of my favourite YA stories – the journey. The Mall Rats series will be published in the UK next year, and it’s always exciting to see local genre fiction getting an international audience.

My leisure read for April was Dissolution by C.J. Sansom, the first in  series of historical mystery novels featuring the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake. I read it with a friend who was pretty disappointed in it, finding it to be far too similar to The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, but totally inferior to it. I hadn’t read the Eco though, and I thought Dissolution was a good read and an entertaining history lesson.

Then on to something completely different – the seedy, violent urban fantasy Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig, featuring the jaded, foul-mouthed Miriam Black. When Miriam touches someone she can see exactly when and how they’re going to die. She knows it’s pointless to try and save anyone, but then she meets a trucker named Louis who’s going to die just because he tried to help her. For his sake, she’s going to try and stop fate. Good, brutal writing and an interesting story.

My next read was a much softer one – the steampunk-ish YA The Peculiars  by Maureen Doyle McQuerry. It’s a coming-of-age story laced with themes of prejudice and imperialism, but it’s spoiled by the main character Lena, who tends to be really stupid and ungrateful.

My last read was the lovely Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge. It features modern takes on fairytales, written in short prose poems. They’re funny, disturbing, violent and insightful, full of themes and subtleties that I think would be better-appreciated by adults. Review to follow closer to the publication date (10 July 2012).

I’d intended to read two more books this month – The Croning, a horror novel by Laird Barron, and Strindberg’s Star, a Dan-Brown style mystery by Swedish journalist Jan Wallentin. Unfortunately, with The Croning, the publishers sent me the wrong eBook, and haven’t replied to any of my requests for the right one, so I might not be reviewing that at all. I’d made up a nice reading schedule that I’d managed to stick to, and not having the next book totally threw me off track. I could have just moved on to the next book, but for whatever reason I just didn’t feel like it, and I wasted a few days. Eventually I started Strindberg’s Star. My intention was to have finished it by now, but it’s boring. Less than glowing review to follow, once I manage to reach the end.

Anyway, I’m off for now. Happy Worker’s Day/May Day to everyone for tomorrow – I hope you can enjoy some time off!