Monday, May 29, 2023

Review: Desert Phoenix

In case anyone is operating under the assumption that long form book reviews delivered via blogging are going the way of the dodo, let me introduce you to only my third A graded read of 2023, Desert Phoenix by Suzette Bruggeman.  I had no idea this book existed, and I'm fairly confident in saying I would have continued on life's journey in such ignorance, if not for this review on AztecLady's blog back in April. Is this a perfect book? Well, no. But while I have quibbles I was a blubbering, sobbing mess by the end - and any book that can leak tears from my cold, black soul nearly always goes to the head of the class.

The best way to describe this book is historical fiction with strong romantic elements. It's a romance, but it doesn't fit neatly into the conventions of the romance genre as we know it today.  AztecLady's review really hits the nail on the head when she wrote: "This is most certainly a love story with a HEA, but there’s too much tragedy and too much loss, and so, while it doesn’t fit within modern genre romance, it would have fit well with the sagas of the 70s and 80s, though– even though there is no purple prose whatsoever."

Content Warnings: Illness, Death, Rape, Murder, Forced sterilization, "frontier justice" (a hanging), violence in general.

At the start of the story we meet a young Lucinda "Lou" Taylor, whose loving parents and brother have just succumbed to yellow fever.  Lou is spared, but now an orphaned child, "rescued" by her older sister and brother-in-law.  They pack her up in their wagon and the whole family heads west to Montana. Of course her sister's no-good husband turns out to be the vilest scum who ever viley-scummed - raping Lou (on more than one occasion) for his trouble and eventually dumping her on the doorstep of an upscale brothel in Butte.  This is when Lou dies and Tempa born from the ashes.
"A sporting girl loses so much of herself, about the only thing she has left that is truly hers is her history, her memories. They are like tiny gems to bring out for a little beauty, a little comfort when life becomes too dreary and hard to bear. I learned early on to never, ever cast my pearls before swine."
I wouldn't say these chapters are graphically written, but there's enough on the page to be upsetting, and one would assume this would turn Tempa into a harden, embittered (let's be blunt here) child whose life wastes away under the blissful escape of alcohol and/or laudanum - but our girl has grit to her, a gumption to hold on to the good even as she deals with so much bad.  Then there's the books.  Our girl has a love of books and the written word that bleeds through the pages and are a constant theme running through this story.

Jumping ahead in the timeline, Tempa and "the sister of her heart" Belle end up in a nothing mining town in Nevada, having fallen on hard times, working in the cribs outside of town. Tempa gets one day of peace (Monday) where she goes to a secluded spot by a lovely creek to read a book from her collection.  That's where she finds him - and she's none to happy about it. Someone has found her secret spot, but before she can dress him down she realizes that the man, little more than a boy really, is near death, having been beaten to within an inch of his life.  And that's how the young German immigrant, Henry, comes into her life.  She nurses him back to health and as Henry settles into life in Stateline, working for one of the big mining outfits, a complicated love blossoms.

There's a lot I appreciated about this story, namely it's easy to get lost in the world-building and the various secondary characters that help prop up the love story.  This isn't a book that neatly fits into the romance genre as it's defined today - chapters go by where Henry and Tempa are not on page together, in each others' pockets. But it's in that space where the yearning builds and the love grows - even though Tempa (a good 12 years older than Henry) knows how impossible a happy-ever-after would be between them.  But Henry, this is a man not willing to give up, so deep are his feelings, no matter the trials that continue to set up roadblocks along the way.  This may make one think that Henry is a dogged Hero In Pursuit - and to a certain extent he is - but how consent is handled in this story! Chef's kiss! Henry is a man besotted, and while he wants Tempa he's not about to take anything from her by force, including her love.

So you're probably wondering, "Wait a minute Wendy - you said this wasn't a perfect book."  Well, yeah, about that - it's not.  The writing transitions between chapters isn't always smooth and the story isn't told in a linear fashion - which means, yes, there are flashbacks to previous events in the characters' lives interspersed at key moments of the story. It drove me nuts for a while that after leaving Butte the next time we see Tempe she's no longer in an upscale brothel environment, but very much in "down and out" working conditions with Belle slipping away in a haze of laudanum addiction. We eventually get that story, but it takes a while.  Also, compounding this issue is that some tell over show does creep in on occasion.

There's also the small matter that this book was "inspired by a true story."  Yes, Henry and Tempa existed in real life.  The author grew up listening to her grandfather tell stories and Henry and Tempa were friends and acquaintances of her great-grandfather (who passed before her birth).  So it's natural that the author would include an author's note and photographs.  Unfortunately the author's note is at the beginning of the book (when the reader doesn't yet give a sh*t pardon my French...) and the photographs interspersed throughout the story.  These would have a much greater impact on the reader (OK, at least this reader) after they've made it through the journey of this sweeping love story to read that author's note then, to view those photographs after the fact having the full weight of context on their side. My advice? If you read this book blow past the front matter, start with Chapter 1, and come back to the Author's Note after the fact.  I was bored by it when I started the book, but the full weight of it hit me after I reread it upon completing the final chapter.

I love the romance genre, but longer timelines and saga-like narratives are in very short supply these days. This story creates a world for the reader to get lost in and delivers a dynamite, hard-scrabble, hard-fought and earned happy ever after that made my heart sing.  It's exceedingly complicated, a woman like Tempa and a man like Henry, they both make choices that you can understand even as you want to throttle them at times. But in the end, it's a love that is true, pure and built on bedrock. Now excuse me while I order a print copy to live in my keeper stash.

Final Grade = A

Note: At the time of this review the digital version is available via Kindle Unlimited.


azteclady said...


All of this. The consent! Henry, ready to love Tempa on her terms! Tempa, loving him too much to condemn him to the only life he could have with her.

There so much loss in the book; like his friend, being murdered for the mine, and Belle, and and and...

But that love, oh my god, that love!

Author's note: seriously, I hope someone talks the author about moving that shit to the back end of the book, because holy mother of what the fuck; there's a lot of self-indulgence in it that one can forgive after reading the novel, but that I'm sure has turned readers off.

I am so glad you liked it too, Wendy.

Amy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amy said...

I'm adding this one to TBR 2.0, my new wishlist on Amazon. Im loving the pure snot out of Kindle Unlimited!

Susan Chapek said...

I miss the long, saga-style romances, too--so much that I go back and reread old favorites. A lot of genre historical feels too superficial, lacking complications and subplots. And a lot of current longer historicals lack romantic juice--what YA readers call "the slow burn" and "all the feels."

Thank you for spreading the word on this book.