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SUNNY GALE

A moving, memorable, and fully realized rodeo saga.

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In Forbes’ historical novel, a woman fights for the right to compete in rodeos—and becomes a star in the process.

When Hannah Brandt, who comes from a hardscrabble background in Ohio and Nebraska, first gets to ride a horse in 1895 at the age of 14,she realizes that there is no going back to the way things were: Her destiny is to be a rodeo star and break new ground as a female bronco rider. She wins first place in a race at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo at 18, and soon she’s known by a new name: Sunny Gale. Her marriage to her first husband, Luke Mangum, ends in divorce and she’s taken in by the Pickering clan, who are rodeo royalty. After she marries Tad Pickering, her star continues to rise as she and her spouse amaze crowds with “Roman Riding,” each of them standing astride two galloping horses. When tragedy occurs, Sunny quits the clan and moves on again, leaving behind her mother, Francine; her daughter, Mollie; and her son, Scott. She experiences more ups and downs as the years go by, including times of great sadness. She finds a refuge in New Mexico with one-legged rancher Angus Laroche, who dispenses tough love to her when she really needs it. But her love life continues to be complicated, and the novel’s resolution sees her life come full circle, after a fashion.

This is a story of rodeos, marriages, sexism, and social mores—all churned together. In a wonderful afterword, Forbes offers a little-known real-life account of when women competed in the roughest of rodeo events from the very end of the 19th century to the early 1930s, In fact, Sunny Gale is modeled on the real-life Prairie Rose Henderson, and her rival, Ruth Pickering, is inspired by Bonnie McCarroll. These women’s competitions became as big a draw as the men’s, and they were quite lucrative; it was only after some tragic mishaps that censorious men took the opportunity to subjugate female riders again. The uneasy truce between the sexes is evident on every page of the novel; for example, after Hannah’s first outing and win, Luke proudly announces to the press that she’s “Mrs. Luke Mangum.” However, it’s made clear that, for Sunny, the rodeo always comes first—no matter how rough that is on her spouses and, notably, on her children. Forbes effectively portrays her as a sympathetic rather than annoyingly self-involved. Most readers will understand her actions, simply because she’s consistently self-aware and never forgets the costs of her choices. Forbes is an experienced author, and her latest novel is beautifully, even poetically, written with well-developed characters. At one point, while sidelined by pregnancy, Sunny glumly realizes that “fecundity, not horsemanship, was the exalted state toward which women were to aspire.” Yet, years later, reflecting on the vital dates on Mollie’s tombstone, a stricken Sunny gazes on “Time locked in brackets which even the stoutest heart couldn’t break.”

A moving, memorable, and fully realized rodeo saga.

Pub Date: May 30, 2024

ISBN: 9781941052723

Page Count: 340

Publisher: Pronghorn Press

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2024

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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SWAN SONG

Though Hilderbrand threatens to kill all our darlings with this last laugh, her acknowledgments say it’s just “for now.”

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A stranger comes to town, and a beloved storyteller plays this creative-writing standby for all it’s worth.

Hilderbrand fans, a vast and devoted legion, will remember Blond Sharon, the notorious island gossip. In what is purportedly the last of the Nantucket novels, Blond Sharon decides to pursue her lifelong dream of fiction writing. In the collective opinion of the island—aka the “cobblestone telegraph”—she’s qualified. “Well, we think, she’s certainly demonstrated her keen interest in other people’s stories, the seedier and more salacious, the better.” Blond Sharon’s first assignment in her online creative writing class is to create a two-person character study, and Hilderbrand has her write up the two who arrive on the ferry in an opening scene of the book, using the same descriptors Hilderbrand has. Amusingly, the class is totally unimpressed. “‘I found it predictable,’ Willow said. ‘Like maybe Sharon used ChatGPT with the prompt “Write a character study about two women getting off the ferry, one prep and one punk.”’” Blond Sharon abandons these characters, but Hilderbrand thankfully does not. They are Kacy Kapenash, daughter of retiring police chief Ed Kapenash (the other swan song referred to by the title), and her new friend Coco Coyle, who has given up her bartending job in the Virgin Islands to become a “personal concierge” for the other strangers-who-have-come-to-town. These are the Richardsons, Bull and Leslee, a wild and wealthy couple who have purchased a $22 million beachfront property and plan to take Nantucket by storm. As the book opens, their house has burned down during an end-of-summer party on their yacht, and Coco is missing, feared both responsible for the fire and dead. Though it’s the last weekend of his tenure, Chief Ed refuses to let the incoming chief, Zara Washington, take this one over. The investigation goes forward in parallel with a review of the summer’s intrigues, love affairs, and festivities. Whatever else you can say about Leslee Richardson, she knows how to throw a party, and Hilderbrand is just the writer to design her invitations, menus, themes, playlists, and outfits. And that hot tub!

Though Hilderbrand threatens to kill all our darlings with this last laugh, her acknowledgments say it’s just “for now.”

Pub Date: June 11, 2024

ISBN: 9780316258876

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 9, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2024

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