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Queen of the Underworld    by Gail Godwin order for
Queen of the Underworld
by Gail Godwin
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2007 (2006)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

It's the summer of 1959 and Cuba's troubles have escalated, under Fidel Castro's rule. Implementing land reform, Castro has been seizing plantations from their owners and giving sixty acre plots to small farmers. The plantation owners have joined the exodus from their homeland with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Emma Gant, fresh from her journalism course in college, lands a job as a reporter. At the same time, she is in the midst of a torrid affair with a married man. His wife considers Emma a good friend! Who needs enemies with friends like that? She is living in a hotel, where the Cuban exiles have congregated, and is trying to learn their language while still writing for the paper. She meets a woman whose experiences would make good fodder for a story. This woman was dubbed Queen of the Underworld at her trial, for being a madam who had a thriving business and was connected to the mob.

Queen of the Underworld is peppered with larger than life characters whom you would like to have in your social circle maybe not to know them well, but rather to be able to observe them and enjoy their lives through a slight association. The pace of this tightly written novel - about a young woman seeking to make her mark on the world - moves with agility through Emma's life in her first week as a reporter. Sensitive and at the same time written with humor, it is inundated with Spanish words that left me in the dust. But what's happening around these words makes clear the context, so the story never falters.

The period in time was a treat, as I was also just starting out in the world then but as a wife and mother rather than working at a paying career. The music of the times, the clothing, even the slang all ring true, and helped to make this book from a prolific writer that much more of a delight to read.

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