Author: Erika Mailman
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / San Francisco / Sex Worker / Murder Mystery / Serial Killer)
Publisher/Publication Date: (11/11/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did -- I inhaled this one.
One-sentence summary: A young Boston prostitute makes her way to San Francisco during the 19th century gold rush, in search of her own fortune, but finds herself seeking a serial killer instead.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- so eye-catching!
First line: While the other passengers disembarked, I remained in the galley lying on a rice bag.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy, buy, buy!
Why did I get this book?: Was so deeply curious about the premise, plus I love 19th century West coast as a setting.
Review: From the first page of this delightful, delicious novel, our heroine Nora Simms makes no bones about who she is. A teenaged prostitute from Boston, Nora has moved to San Francisco in search of gold of her own, and she works hard to improve her standing in life. As prostitutes are murdered, however, Nora finds herself doing a little organizing and crime-fighting in hopes of living long enough to enjoy her earnings.
There's a rave quote on the cover from Diana Gabaldon, and I have to say, it's no hyperbole: this novel is wonderful (it's just upset my top ten of 2013 list!).
This book has everything for a diverting historical read: great sense of place (19th-century San Francisco, back when it was a frontier town!), standout characters (Nora, our prostitute narrator; Mehitabel Ashe, her tender-hearted landlady; Abe, her simple-minded client); and various plot threads that are dramatic and fun (self improvement, murder mystery, and a search for a kind of happy ending).
Nora tells us her story, and she's a charming and warm narrator. And though Nora is funny and wry in her narration, Mailman doesn't use quippy banter to make light of the real desperation of Nora's life and situation. Nora is trying to improve herself, but she's not a self-loathing woman swayed by Christian reform. No, Nora wants to work in a parlor house and refashion herself a kind of courtesan rather than a common street woman. When faced with real threats on her life and those around her, Nora acts with courage and cleverness. (Why yes, I'm now a Nora Simms fangirl for life!)
Mailman's inclusion of historical detail is wonderful. With first person narrators, infodumps can be especially awkward, what with our narrator lecturing us, but Mailman never lectures. Nora shares small tidbits about 19th century San Francisco in a way that felt authentic and effortless, and I felt immersed in that dirty, grimy, frontier city. Mailman doesn't whitewash Nora's work, so those who are uncomfortable with the realities of sex workers might want to pass, but the scenes are presented without salaciousness. They were grim, hilarious, adorable, sexy, discomforting, scary, and weird, and they helped me get a sense of Nora and her world.
My only complaint is a lack of Historical Note (something I depend on now to help me separate the imaginary from the factually historical). Otherwise, this novel is flawless -- a real delight.
Highly recommended, Woman of Ill Fame will appeal to those who enjoy stories of the American West and the women who tamed it, as well as those who enjoy novels with a strong voice. This is a can't-put-it-down-once-you-start-it read, so splurge and hope for a snow day!
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