Audiobook Review: Spare by Prince Harry

Title: Spare
Author: Prince Harry
Narrator: Prince Harry
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: January 10, 2023
Print length: 410 pages
Audio length: 15 hours, 39 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Audible (hardcover from library)
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It was one of the most searing images of the twentieth century: two young boys, two princes, walking behind their mother’s coffin as the world watched in sorrow—and horror. As Princess Diana was laid to rest, billions wondered what Prince William and Prince Harry must be thinking and feeling—and how their lives would play out from that point on.

For Harry, this is that story at last.

Before losing his mother, twelve-year-old Prince Harry was known as the carefree one, the happy-go-lucky Spare to the more serious Heir. Grief changed everything. He struggled at school, struggled with anger, with loneliness—and, because he blamed the press for his mother’s death, he struggled to accept life in the spotlight.

At twenty-one, he joined the British Army. The discipline gave him structure, and two combat tours made him a hero at home. But he soon felt more lost than ever, suffering from post-traumatic stress and prone to crippling panic attacks. Above all, he couldn’t find true love.

Then he met Meghan. The world was swept away by the couple’s cinematic romance and rejoiced in their fairy-tale wedding. But from the beginning, Harry and Meghan were preyed upon by the press, subjected to waves of abuse, racism, and lies. Watching his wife suffer, their safety and mental health at risk, Harry saw no other way to prevent the tragedy of history repeating itself but to flee his mother country. Over the centuries, leaving the Royal Family was an act few had dared. The last to try, in fact, had been his mother. . . .

For the first time, Prince Harry tells his own story, chronicling his journey with raw, unflinching honesty. A landmark publication, Spare is full of insight, revelation, self-examination, and hard-won wisdom about the eternal power of love over grief.

I know there’s been a lot of general chitchat online about Prince Harry basically oversaturating the market with multiple presentations of his story. There was the Oprah interview that more or less kicked things off, the multi-part Netflix series Harry & Meghan, and now, the release of his memoir, Spare. Given how much coverage has already been dedicated to this royal couple, is a book really necessary? Is there anything new that hasn’t already been shared? Yes, and yes.

In Spare, Prince Harry narrates his life (literally, for those listening to the audiobook), essentially starting with the devastation of Princess Diana’s tragic death in 1997. For Harry, a boy of just twelve years old, her death was beyond comprehension. In fact, as we see in Spare, he spent years deeply believing that his mother was actually in hiding, just waiting for the moment when it would be safe to reunite with her boys. Throughout the section of Spare that covers his youth, he refers to his mother’s “disappearance”, never her “death”. It’s chilling, to say the least.

The book is divided roughly into thirds, covering his childhood and youth, his army service, and his relationship with Meghan. The first third, Out of the Night that Covers Me, is the most powerful, and actually brought me to tears several times. Strip away the Royal Family trappings, and what we have is the story of a boy suffering a tremendous loss and not having the support or resources to deal with it. The events, as they unfold through Harry’s memories, are overwhelming, baffling, painful, and isolating.

As the narrative moves into Harry’s teen and young adult years, he covers his growing devotion to working and living in Africa, his search for meaning and purpose, his experiences in the army (in the book’s second section, Bloody, But Unbowed), and the ongoing strains of his family relationships, especially with his father and brother.

And finally, section three of the book, Captain of My Soul, gets into his romance with Meghan, the viciousness of the media attacks on her, and the couple’s departure from official royal life. Most of this is familiar already, but it’s still interesting to hear Harry’s perspective and gain new insights on the internal struggles he experienced and the painful interactions with the family members he should have been able to count on.

I listened to the audiobook, which I think is the way to go. Prince Harry does the narration, and of course, it’s especially moving to hear him tell his own story.

For the most part, I found him sympathetic and straightforward. Yes, I suppose we could scoff at the “poor me” aspect of it all — after all, being royal is the ultimate state of privilege, isn’t it? He acknowledges all of this, and yet also points out the absolute weirdness of suddenly being cut off after a lifetime of trained dependency. His father isn’t just his father, he’s also his boss, his business manager, and the controller of all of his funds. Harry points out that he’s never carried money or placed an order online. What kind of way to live is that? (He does mention that he has an inheritance from his mother that he and Meghan didn’t want to touch, since they wanted it to be for their children… which, okay, that’s a nice goal, but then it’s hard to feel too sorry for them when Harry gets into the extremely high cost of security, then mentions buying their perfect home in Santa Barbara).

Still, there’s a sadness throughout when it comes to telling the story of being part of an emotionally withholding family — a family that’s also a business and an institution, where closest relationships come with heavy strings and expectations and requirements, but not a whole lot of space for difference or grief or nonconformity. It’s hard to imagine the enormous pressure of being under constant scrutiny and harassment — Harry’s harshest stories and commentary are leveled at the corrupt media and the “paps” who show no mercy when it comes to getting a story or a photo, even when these stories and photos put people’s lives at risk.

Overall, I found the storytelling powerful, honest, and unflinching. Harry is open about his own flaws, his emotional struggles, and his doubts and fears. He very clearly explains and illustrates, over and over again, the ongoing impact of his mother’s death and how that informs his worldview, as well as his unending need to keep his wife and children safe at all costs, even if that means breaking with his own family and all that being royal entails.

Of course, media coverage has been focused on the big “reveals” (such as misunderstandings between Kate and Meghan, the fuss over Meghan’s wedding tiara, etc), but in actuality, Spare is at its most affecting as the story of loss, grief, and family.

Well worth reading, and I highly recommend the audio version.

Book Review: Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

Title: Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries
Author: Heather Fawcett
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: January 10, 2023
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A curmudgeonly professor journeys to a small town in the far north to study faerie folklore and discovers dark fae magic, friendship, and love, in this heartwarming and enchanting fantasy.

Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world’s first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party–or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people.

So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily’s research, and utterly confound and frustrate her.

But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones–the most elusive of all faeries–lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she’ll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all–her own heart.

In this tale of professors and faeries, Emily Wilde is an introverted scholar who’d much rather be left to her own devices than be forced to (gasp!) chitchat with the locals at the tavern. Much to her dismay, this is exactly the situation she’s forced into when she travels to the land of Ljosland to study the Hidden Ones – the final type of fae she needs to document in order to finish her masterpiece, an exhaustive encyclopaedia of all types of faerie.

Emily’s antisocial tendencies initially cause offense among the locals, but when her colleague Wendell arrives to join (or take credit for?) her studies, he immediately charms everyone and smooths over Emily’s blunders. He’s gorgeous and charming and sets Emily’s teeth on edge, but he soon transforms their rented hovel into a cozy cottage and gets access to people’s help and their stories which had previously been denied her.

While Emily’s goal is to study, not interfere, she soon becomes aware of trouble in the little village. A couple lives in torment, and Emily soon realizes it’s because their true child has been replaced by a faerie changeling. What’s more, abductions of village youth by the fae are on the rise, and the villagers have given up hope of ever seeing their loved ones again. As potential romance blooms between Emily and Wendell, Emily decides to set things right with the village by seeking out and confronting the dangerous Faerie King — but her chances of walking away from the encounter are very doubtful.

Told through Emily’s journal, we read about her arrival in Hrafnsvik, the initial enmity of the villagers, her first contact with a helpful brownie, and the complications that stem from Wendell’s arrival. As time passes, she documents her research success and challenges, her interactions with the people of Hrafnsvik, and the irritation (and secret attraction) she feels for Wendell. We also see her document her risky forays into the faerie kingdom, as well as the dismay she feels as she becomes ensnared by enchantments and loses track of time… and perhaps loses track of herself as well.

Although the beginning is a bit slow, eventually Emily’s story picks up steam. Her actions are very determined and brave, even while taking foolhardy risks. Although Emily depicts Wendell in her journal with a great sense of annoyance, it’s easy to see through her irritation and to find Wendell just as charming and delightful as she secretly sees him.

I enjoyed the inventiveness of the story, the setting, and the characters very much. I did feel that the device of telling the story through Emily’s journal became a hindrance in the latter half of the story. There’s a lack of suspense in the storytelling — if Emily is writing the story of a dangerous escape in her journal, then we know right away that she DID escape… so while the details may be exciting, there’s no question about the outcome. (I also felt confused after the big climactic moment — because Emily’s description of the event ends after she leaves the scene, yet I wanted to know what happened next in the scene she left! Sorry, being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers…)

Overall, Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries is a captivating, entertaining read. I wished for a bit more in spots, but still enjoyed reading it. There’s a planned sequel, and since several plot points are left unresolved at the end of this book, I’ll be on the lookout for #2!

The Monday Check-In ~ 1/30/2023

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My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

It’s been a really busy workweek, and I’ve fallen asleep exhausted every night — so much so that I ended up restarting a book that I’d tried reading for three days. I kept reading it before bed, being too sleepy to absorb anything, and then feeling frustrated that the story wasn’t grabbing me. Fortunately, I decided to restart it over the weekend, during daylight hours when I had time and energy, and it hooked me right away!

Note to self: Stop starting new books at bedtime!!

What did I read during the last week?

I only managed to finish one book this past week, although I’m *this close* to the end of another one.

Ms. Demeanor by Elinor Lipman: Silly entertainment, very easy to dash through. My review is here.

Pop culture & TV:

The Last of Us continues to be scary and pretty amazing. I just wish the whole season was available, instead of having to wait a week in between episodes. #tvbingeproblems

I finished season two of Hunters (Prime Video). It was… weird. Uneven. There’s one truly haunting episode, but so much is odd about the tone and overall plot. Now that it’s all done, I wish I had someone to talk about it with!

Puzzles of the week:

Another colorful puzzle from Eeboo! (This one is Copenhagen – 1,000 pieces)

Fresh Catch:

No new books!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett: After reading a bunch of rave reviews, I just had to give this one a try. Really enjoying it so far!

Now playing via audiobook:

Spare by Prince Harry: I continue to be surprised by just how good this is! I’m about halfway through. It’s fascinating and very moving (and I haven’t even gotten to the Meghan parts yet…)

Ongoing reads:

My longer-term reading commitments:

  • Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon: Over at Outlander Book Club, we’re doing a group read of BEES, reading and discussing two chapters per week. Coming up this week: Chapters 96 and 97 (of 155).
  • Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year by Allie Esiri: Just what the title promises! Shakespeare selections for each day of the calendar. As of this week, I’m even further behind. I may just give up on trying to read one passage every day and pick it up at random from here on out. I’m giving myself one more week to decide!
  • A Passage to India by E. M. Forster: My book group’s new classic read. We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week.

So many books, so little time…

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Audiobook Review: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Title: Miss Austen
Author: Gill Hornby
Narrator:  Juliet Stevenson
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: January 23, 2020
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 56 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?

England, 1840. For the two decades following the death of her beloved sister, Jane, Cassandra Austen has lived alone, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister’s reputation. Now in her sixties and increasingly frail, Cassandra goes to stay with the Fowles of Kintbury, family of her long-dead fiancé, in search of a trove of Jane’s letters. Dodging her hostess and a meddlesome housemaid, Cassandra eventually hunts down the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra bare the most private details of her life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?

Moving back and forth between the vicarage and Cassandra’s vibrant memories of her years with Jane, interwoven with Jane’s brilliantly reimagined lost letters, Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life. With extraordinary empathy, emotional complexity, and wit, Gill Hornby finally gives Cassandra her due, bringing to life a woman as captivating as any Austen heroine.

What a lovely book! I have to admit that prior to reading Miss Austen, I’ve never really spent much time reading about Jane Austen’s life beyond the occasional article or Wikipedia page. I love her novels, but somehow never found myself wanting to look beyond into the author’s actual life.

In Miss Austen, we learn about Jane and the larger Austen family through the eyes of Jane’s older sister Cassandra. As the story begins, Cassandra journeys to Kintbury in 1840, ostensibly to help Isabella Fowle pack up the vicarage after her father’s death, but in reality, Cassandra has a different mission: She knows that Jane frequently wrote to Isabella’s mother Eliza, and she worries that unless she intervenes, potentially damaging personal correspondence of Jane’s may end up in the wrong hands, possibly tarnishing her public reputation.

Note: Throughout this book, lines from Hamilton kept popping into my head: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Who gets to tell a person’s story, who decides what to keep private and what to make public — these questions are very relevant to Cassandra’s main plot arc in the 1840 chapters of the book.

Using a split timeline, we follow Cassandra’s quest as an older woman to retrieve Jane’s letters. Through flashback chapters, we also see Cassandra’s journey from young woman to older spinster, always with Jane first and foremost in her mind.

As a younger woman, Cassandra became engaged to Tom Fowle (Eliza’s brother). Over the moon in love, the two were eager to wed, but agreed that a long engagement would be prudent. However, tragedy prevents the marriage from taking place, and from that point forward, the course of Cassandra’s life is set.

As the years progress and the fortunes of the Austens rise and fall, we see Cassandra’s devotion to Jane, as she protects her, nurtures her, and cares for her during her spells of melancholy (which today would likely be diagnosed as depression). The sisters’ love is quite beautiful to read about, and eventually, they and their cousin Martha find happiness in their lives as three single women setting up a home together.

I won’t go into a ton of detail here, but suffice to say, the characters are well-drawn, and the circumstances of Jane and Cassandra’s life together invokes some sadness, even during their happier years. There were moments when I almost wished I wasn’t reading historical fiction about real people: Certain plot points had me practically begging for a different outcome, but knowing that key elements of the Austens’ lives really couldn’t be changed (you know, since they were real people!), it was frustratingly sad to see possible love and joy slip away time after time.

Still, I was also captivated by the sisters’ wit and humor, by the clever dialogue created for Jane, and by the family’s tradition of having Jane read her works in progress to the family each evening. Again, seeing how I’d never read an actual biography of Jane Austen, the depiction of her writing challenges and successes was quite informative, and based on what I’ve looked up since, largely sticks to the facts as they’re known.

I need to give a huge hurrah to the terrific audiobook narration by Juliet Stevenson. What a treat! A few years ago, I went on an Austen audiobook binge, and five of the six I listened to were narrated by Juliet Stevenson. She’s amazing. Having her narrate Miss Austen made this an especially delightful experience. Because I’m used to hearing her narrate Austen’s characters, it felt like slipping back into those worlds listening to her voice this story as well. And I had to chuckle when certain obnoxious family members (especially a self-satisfied sister-in-law) were voiced so similarly to particularly annoying Austen characters. (Mrs. Elton from Emma is one who came immediately to mind… which made me wonder, was that character perhaps inspired by Jane’s real family member?)

I’ve had my eye on Miss Austen since it came out in 2020, but hadn’t gotten around to it until my book group selected it for this month’s group read. So, once again, enormous gratitude to my book group for leading me to yet another terrific reading experience!

I very much enjoyed Miss Austen. Highly recommended for Jane Austen fans!

PS – Now that I’ve read Miss Austen, I’m much more interested in a good Jane Austen biography! Any recommendations?

Book Review: Ms. Demeanor by Elinor Lipman

Title: Ms. Demeanor
Author: Elinor Lipman
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication date: January 10, 2023
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From one of America’s most beloved contemporary novelists, a delicious and witty story about love under house arrest

Jane Morgan is a valued member of her law firm–or was, until a prudish neighbor, binoculars poised, observes her having sex on the roof of her NYC apartment building. Police are summoned, and a punishing judge sentences her to six months of home confinement. With Jane now jobless and rootless, trapped at home, life looks bleak. Yes, her twin sister provides support and advice, but mostly of the unwelcome kind. When a doorman lets slip that Jane isn’t the only resident wearing an ankle monitor, she strikes up a friendship with fellow white-collar felon Perry Salisbury. As she tries to adapt to life within her apartment walls, she discovers she hasn’t heard the end of that tattletale neighbor–whose past isn’t as decorous as her 9-1-1 snitching would suggest. Why are police knocking on Jane’s door again? Can her house arrest have a silver lining? Can two wrongs make a right?

It’s been years since I read an Eleanor Lipman novel, but when I stumbled across Ms. Demeanor at a book store and got a look at the cover, I just couldn’t resist.

In Ms. Demeanor, Jane Morgan owns a fabulous New York apartment in a posh building, has a successful law career, and a slightly overbearing but very loving twin sister. When Jane has a spontaneous hook-up with an associate from her firm late one night… on the roof of her building!! … her neatly ordered life comes crashing down. The two are arrested for public indecency after a neighbor calls the police. Instead of a slap-on-the-wrist fine (which her associate gets), she’s sentenced to six months of home confinement, along with an ankle monitor to make sure she doesn’t leave the premises.

She loses her job and has her license to practice law suspended, so ends up amusing herself by creating TikToks where she follows recipes from centuries-old cookbooks. (Boiled onions as a dish? Um, no thanks.) Jane is actually a good cook, though, and one thing leads to another — meaning that she meets the other ankle-monitor-wearing building resident and is pressured (by her twin Jackleen) into catering dinners for him three times a week.

Jane and Perry have an awkward business arrangement, which soon turns into more of a friendship. After all, if she’s bringing him meals and sticking around to take home the dishes, she might as well stay for a glass of wine, right? And maybe eat dinner with him too? And… more?

Meanwhile, the nosy neighbor from the penthouse across the street, who originally called 911 after seeing Jane’s midnight tryst through binoculars, ends up having more to her story than Jane originally thought. Soon enough, there’s a mysterious death, stuck-up Polish siblings with expired visas, and a love-starved endodontist to deal with. (I know, it sounds like a lot).

The tone of Ms. Demeanor is smart and flippant. Jane is very blunt about just about everything, can talk her way in or out of all sorts of questionable situations, and becames TikTok famous for her no-holds-barred life narratives that accompany her cooking videos.

The plot zips along with some truly ridiculous twists and turns. It’s all in good fun (but — warning — be careful not to injure yourself from too much eye-rolling).

It took me a bit to get into the writing style, which initially threw me off with some unusual phrasing choices, but I quickly got into the rhythm and started to appreciate Jane and Jackleen’s gift with banter.

I tried to suspend judging the characters too harshly — but it was hard at points not to scoff at the relative ease of home confinement in a luxury co-op. Obviously, this book is intended to be humorous, but I couldn’t help but think how dramatically different this story would be if the characters involved didn’t have quite as enormous an amount of privilege as Jane and Perry do.

Ms. Demeanor really can’t be taken too seriously. It’s fun and entertaining, and a very quick read. I’d recommend this as a nice break in between heavier reads.

Top Ten Tuesday: New-to-Me Authors I Discovered in 2022

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is New-to-Me Authors I Discovered in 2022.

I actually have a very long list for 2022 — but I’ll narrow it down to the the 10 I enjoyed the most. So hard to choose!

  • Darcie Little Badger
  • Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton & Jodi Meadows (yes, these are three people, but they co-authored the book I read!)
  • Jennifer Thorne
  • Sara Novic
  • Julia Whelan (I’ve listened to her narrate audiobooks before, but this was my first encounter with a book she wrote herself)
  • Judy Leigh
  • Malinda Lo
  • Zoje Stage
  • Alexis Hall
  • A. G. Slatter

If you’ve read any other books by these authors, please let me know which you’d recommend!

What new-to-you authors did you discover in 2022? Any particular favorites? Do we have any in common?

If you wrote a TTT post, please share your link!

The Monday Check-In ~ 1/23/2023

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My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

I feel like all I talk about in this “life” section lately is the weather — but that subject really has dominated every discussion in our area for the past few weeks! Fortunately, we’ve started drying out and had two straight days of sunshine over the weekend, so I was able to get out and enjoy long walks — bliss!

What did I read during the last week?

Episode Thirteen by Craig DiLouie: Haunted house terror with plenty of twists, from an author who never disappoints. My review is here.

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby: My book group’s pick for January — so good! Review to follow.

Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander: Lovely, sad, and unexpected. My review is here.

Pop culture & TV:

Ooooh, The Last of Us! I was hooked after just one episode! And then it got me thinking about how terrifying fungi can be, so I wrote a post about it.

I hadn’t realized that season two of Hunters had dropped (Prime Video), so I’ve been binge-watching over the past few days. Two episodes to go!

Puzzles of the week:

I finished this one mid-week — tons of tiny details made this one pretty tricky.

Fresh Catch:

One new book this week:

This is so exciting — I won a giveaway from Tammy at Books, Bones & Buffy! Many thanks to Tammy!! I can’t wait to start — I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve read by this author so far.

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Ms. Demeanor by Elinor Lipman: A really fun read — I just started it Saturday night, and haven’t wanted to put it down! Hoping to finish later today.

Now playing via audiobook:

Spare by Prince Harry: After watching Harry & Meghan, not to mention season 5 of The Crown, there was no way I was going to miss out on this one! I’ve only just gotten started, but the initial chapters are surprisingly touching.

Ongoing reads:

My longer-term reading commitments:

  • Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon: Over at Outlander Book Club, we’re doing a group read of BEES, reading and discussing two chapters per week. Coming up this week: Chapters 94 and 95 (of 155).
  • Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year by Allie Esiri: Just what the title promises! Shakespeare selections for each day of the calendar. I’m way behind already (which is kind of ridiculous, since we’re only 3 weeks into the new year), but I’ll try to do a little catching up this week.
  • A Passage to India by E. M. Forster: My book group’s new classic read. We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week, and I’m so excited! I’ve never read this book before — once again, I’m so glad that I have my book group to motivate me.

So many books, so little time…

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Book Review: Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander

Title: Meredith, Alone
Author: Claire Alexander
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: November 1, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

She has a full-time remote job and her rescue cat Fred. Her best friend Sadie visits with her two children.  There’s her online support group, her jigsaw puzzles and favorite recipes, her beloved Emily Dickinson, the internet, the grocery delivery man.  Also keeping her company are treacherous memories of an unstable childhood, the estrangement from her sister, and a traumatic event that had sent her reeling.

But something’s about to change. Whether Meredith likes it or not, the world is coming to her door.   Does she have the courage to overcome what’s been keeping her inside all this time? 

Meredith, Alone surprised me in all sorts of good ways. Based on the cover, I expected a fairly upbeat, quirky story, but it’s so much more than that.

Meredith lives alone with her cat Fred, and hasn’t left her home in over three years. As the book starts, we see Meredith having a panic attack one day while trying to leave for work, but then we jump ahead and learn she hasn’t left her house in the years since then. And really, in this day and age of online everything, she doesn’t actually need to. She orders in whatever she needs, she’s a freelance writer so she can work and support herself from home, and she gets regular visits from her best friend Sadie (who’s also available for veterinary emergencies), so she’s not entirely devoid of human contact.

In fact, at the start of the book, Meredith comes across as unusual, a bit obsessive about routine, but mostly okay with her life. She exercises every day, is an excellent cook, does jigsaw puzzles constantly, reads, and keeps herself busy. She observes her Glasgow neighborhood from her window, and opens her backdoor to look at the trees and birds. She’s content, more or less.

But as the book progresses, we learn more about Meredith’s past and why she’s been estranged from her mother and sister for all these years. Growing up, Meredith and Fiona were inseparable, providing each other with the love and support they were denied by their emotionally manipulative and abusive mother. It’s almost impossible to fathom why Meredith would have shut Fee out of her life, when clearly, she’s always been the most important person in her world.

Meredith’s calm routine is broken up by the intrusion of two new people: Tom, a volunteer with an organization that arranges visits with shut-ins, and Celeste, a young woman who strikes up a friendship with Meredith via their online support group. As Meredith gets to know each of them, she also starts to open up about her past. Between her new friendships and her tentative early work with a therapist, Meredith’s worldview starts to change… including the possibility of finally making it out her front door.

Meredith, Alone includes memories of trauma and abuse, and is terribly sad in so many ways. At the same time, Meredith herself is a caring, intelligent woman who’s just trying to cope. Despite all of her anguish and pain, she still manages to create a life for herself (and Fred), and it’s clearly not ideal, but it’s what she needs during those years to get by.

It’s lovely to see her start to emerge and reconsider her life. Having new friends allows her to explore her experiences and what they’ve cost her, and gives her incentive to try to push past her initial reluctance and skepticism about therapy. I appreciate how honestly Meredith’s experiences with anxiety and panic attacks are portrayed. Nothing is sugar-coated; her trauma and its aftereffects feel real.

Meredith, Alone is touching, often very sad, yet ends in a place of hope and optimism. I really loved Meredith as a character, and felt glad for her to have wonderful people such as Tom, Celeste, and Sadie in her life.

I wish I’d made note of how I first came across this book — I know I saw a very positive review on another blog, but I can’t remember which one! In any case, I’m so glad I came across that review, because otherwise I might have missed out on this lovely book.

Book Review: Episode Thirteen by Craig DiLouie

Title: Episode Thirteen
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: January 24, 2023
Length: 467 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy via the publisher
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A ghost-hunting reality TV crew gain unprecedented access to an abandoned and supposedly haunted mansion, which promises a groundbreaking thirteenth episode, but as they uncover the secret history of the house, they learn that “reality” TV might be all too real — in Bram Stoker Award nominated author Craig DiLouie’s latest heart pounding novel of horror and psychological suspense.

Fade to Black is the newest hit ghost hunting reality TV show. It’s led by husband and wife team Matt and Claire Kirklin and features a dedicated crew of ghost-hunting experts.

Episode Thirteen takes them to Matt’s holy grail: the Paranormal Research Foundation. This crumbling, derelict mansion holds secrets and clues about the bizarre experiments that took place there in the 1970s. It’s also, undoubtedly, haunted, and Matt hopes to use their scientific techniques and high tech gear to prove it. 

But, as the house begins to slowly reveal itself to them, proof of an afterlife might not be everything Matt dreamed of. 

A story told in broken pieces, in tapes, journals, correspondence, and research files, this is the story of Episode Thirteen — and how everything went horribly wrong.

This book was always going to be a must-read for me. I’ve read Craig DiLouie’s three most recent novels and loved them all (despite how disturbing they all are). Not only that — haunted house + found records + unexplained disappearances = just what I want in a scary book!

In Episode Thirteen, we follow the crew of Fade to Black, a ghost-hunting reality show with a twist that sets it apart. Each episode features examination of a supposed haunting, led by star and true believer Matt Kirklin — but with Matt’s wife Claire Kirklin, a scientist with a Ph.D. in physics, there to debunk every finding and offer explanations for every finding. It’s been a winning formula among fans, but of course the network honchos want bigger excitement and bigger ratings if the show is to get a second season.

As we learn from the outset, something goes terribly wrong during the filming of the show’s 13th episode. Matt and Claire, along with the tech team of Kevin and Jake, plus Jessica, an actress hired by the network to make the show more popularly appealing, investigate Foundation House in Virginia for this episode. Foundation House is infamous for the disappearance of a group of paranormal investigators in the 1970s, who mixed new age mumbo jumbo with startlingly cruel psychological experiments and plenty of hallucinogenic drugs. No answer has ever been found about this group’s fate.

In Episode Thirteen, Matt hopes to capture evidence of the supposed haunting rumored to have taken place in the house — but the crew gets much, much more. As they spend more time in the house, strange events build upon each other, promising a television episode unlike anything ever before seen… but only if they themselves survive.

Told through the crews’ journals, text messages, transcripts of video footage, and other documentation, we follow the events as they unfold. The journals especially give us insight into each character’s inner doubts and fears, what they believe, and what they want. As the book progresses, we see them all become sucked into the paranormal events they’re there to investigate, risking more and more not just for the sake of a TV show, but to pursue the inescapable obsession to find the truth that builds within each characters.

There’s a fascinating creepiness to the way the story unfolds. We learn about events through the various written records, rather than by reading a straight-forward narrative. At first, I found this somewhat distancing — but as the book progresses, the inclusion of the crew’s journals provides the deeper characters insights that might otherwise be missing. In fact, it ends up being a clever device for having an omniscient viewpoint. At various times throughout the book, we’re privy to each character’s private thoughts and doubts, and this greatly expands our understanding of why they act as they do.

Of course, as in any haunted house book, inside I was screaming at the characters as they made one dangerous or foolhardy decision after another. No, don’t go down into the dark well! No, don’t enter the scary tunnel! WHY WOULD YOU DO THESE THINGS? But, this is where obsession comes into play. These characters aren’t stupid. They understand that it would be safer to walk away, but their need to know overrides all elements of caution or common sense.

One of the plot elements that I considered a plot hole throughout the latter half of the book (I won’t say what, because it’s pretty spoilery) gets very neatly resolved right at the end, and it made me appreciate the author’s cleverness all over again.

This is not a good book to read late at night! I wasn’t scared exactly, but the building sense of dread and disaster meant that I couldn’t put the book down — and since my routine is to read in bed before falling asleep, I found myself reluctantly stopping once I realized how late it was, only to be absolutely wide awake and fully alert.

Craig DiLouie writes disturbing, strange books that stay with the reader long after finishing the final pages. Episode Thirteen is no exception. Fascinating even when the sense of nearby doom is nearly overwhelming, and what an ending!! Definitely check it out… but maybe check your fear of darkness and closed spaces before you enter.

Books & TV: Fungus among us

Having just spent an intensely creepy 80-something minutes watching the series premier of The Last of Us (HBO), I’m now forced to sit here and contemplate just how terrifying fungi can be. If you’re not scared, then you definitely haven’t watched this show… or read any of the books I’m about to talk about!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Let’s start with The Last of Us. This show has been getting tons of hype — well deserved! For those who aren’t familiar with the history, The Last of Us started as a videogame (released in 2013) that was absolutely huge — and which is generally considered a giant step forward in gaming in terms of both graphics and storytelling. (For more on the game and its significance, read here — but note that there are spoilers for the overall storyline). I’m not a gamer, so that aspect doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, but I do love a good post-apocalypse story… and this one is a doozy.

Here’s the official trailer from HBO:

Are you scared yet?

After watching the first episode, I naturally starting thinking about the scary-as-hell books I’ve read over the past several years featuring horrific fungi — and thought I’d share the case of the creeps with everyone else!

If you’re into fungal horror (or want to know what books to avoid at all costs), then check out this list. I’ve provided links to my reviews, in case you’re interested.

The Girl with All the Gifts (and the sequel, The Boy on the Bridge) by M. R. Carey:

The Girl With All the Gifts was my first exposure to zombie apocalypse via fungus, and man, was it horrifying! It’s a great story — and at the time when it was released, the marketing cleverly didn’t disclose what it was actually about. I expected a story about kids with some sort of paranormal abilities, perhaps, and instead… FUNGAL HORROR. So good…

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

This was a 2022 release, and it’s just amazing (and creep-tastic). A retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher, but with fungi! You’ll never look at a rabbit in quite the same way again.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Garcia-Moreno

I almost hesitated about including this one, since the very fact that I’m putting it here is entering into spoiler territory… but it’s a prime example of great fungus-based horror!

The Unfamiliar Garden (The Comet Cycle, #2) by Benjamin Percy

This is the 2nd book in the Comet Cycle trilogy (and I’m eagerly awaiting the release of #3!). In these books, a comet that passes close by Earth has a devastating effect on the world as we know it. The first book, The Ninth Metal, relates one aspect of the story, and here in book #2, we see an entirely different set of effects on the natural landscape, including… you guessed it… horrifying fungi! I tend to describe these books more as sci-fi than horror, although there’s plenty of ickiness too.

Those are the examples from my own bookshelves… but there’s more! If you just can’t get enough of deadly fungi, check Fangoria’s list of movies, TV episodes, and books with fungal horror plotlines.

And if you want to start on a less terrifying note, then there’s always this goodie (available via Amazon and elsewhere):

Wow, this is a cheerful post! So now that I’ve shared my selection of frightful fungal horror, I’ll ask you:

Have you read any other horror books with deadly/disgusting/horrifying fungi taking over the world (or at least a corner of it)?

Please share any recommendations… not that I need any further fuel for my nightmares.