Book Review: One Summer in Savannah by Terah Shelton Harris

Title: One Summer in Savannah
Author: Terah Shelton Harris
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: July 4, 2023
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A compelling debut that glows with bittersweet heart and touching emotion, deeply interrogating questions of family, redemption, and unconditional love in the sweltering summer heat of Savannah, as two people discover what it means to truly forgive.

It’s been eight years since Sara Lancaster left her home in Savannah, Georgia. Eight years since her daughter, Alana, came into this world, following a terrifying sexual assault that left deep emotional wounds Sara would do anything to forget. But when Sara’s father falls ill, she’s forced to return home and face the ghosts of her past.

While caring for her father and running his bookstore, Sara is desperate to protect her curious, outgoing, genius daughter from the Wylers, the family of the man who assaulted her. Sara thinks she can succeed—her attacker is in prison, his identical twin brother, Jacob, left town years ago, and their mother are all unaware Alana exists. But she soon learns that Jacob has also just returned to Savannah to piece together the fragments of his once-great family. And when their two worlds collide—with the type of force Sara explores in her poetry and Jacob in his astrophysics—they are drawn together in unexpected ways.

One Summer in Savannah is a difficult book to describe. It’s the story of Sara, a woman in her mid-20s who swore she’d neve return to her home town of Savannah. At age 18, she was raped and then vilified at the trial that convicted the rapist, the gifted son of a very powerful old-money family. Upon discovering that she was pregnant, Sara fled to a state that doesn’t allow rapists parental rights and kept her daughter’s existence a secret from the Wyler family. Eight years later, when Sara’s father is ill and has limited time left, she reluctantly returns, still intending to keep Alana hidden from the Wylers.

Meanwhile, Jacob — identical twin to Daniel, the rapist — also returns to Savannah. Daniel is dying of leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant, and although Jacob cut his entire family out of his life after the trial, he can’t deny his brother the help he desperately needs.

As Sara and Jacob encounter one another, she recognizes his kindness and his own painful past, and allows him to begin tutoring Alana, a genius who needs the inspiration and guidance that Jacob can provide. Sara and Jacob each navigate their own paths toward healing, seeking ways to move forward after pain and loss.

I have to be honest — at 30%, I was about ready to put the book down. The writing style did not especially work for me — very stilted in places, and then overly reliant on imagery and metaphor in others. Beyond that, there were plot elements that seemed jarring or unlikely, such as:

  • Sara’s father has spoken only in poetry since her childhood. I mean, ONLY in poetry. He conducts conversations by reciting lines of poetry that are relevant to the situation, and those who are close to him seem to be able to understand and parse his meaning.
  • There’s also the fact that the main character ends up falling in love with the identical twin of the man who raped her. Jacob is a lovely, wonderful person — but the relationship never truly felt believable.
  • Everyone in the book is super special. Sara becomes a poet; Jacob is an astrophysicist; Daniel, we are told, was destined for great things (his mother insists that he would have cured cancer, if not for that awful girl who told lies about him and ruined his life); and Alana is a genius who solves unsolvable math equations and taught herself three languages by the age of eight. It’s all a bit much.
  • Another complaint — there are plot points that are referred to, but not shown. For example, Jacob helps Sara’s father write a letter to Sara which has a huge emotional impact on her, but we don’t see the letter. Another example — Daniel gives a TV interview in which he owns up to what he’s done, but we only hear about it in passing, rather than getting to glimpse what he said.

Meanwhile, Daniel and his mother Birdie remain fairly terrible until close the end, when they both get a sort of redemption, but I’m not sure we saw enough to feel that they actually earned it.

Themes of redemption and forgiveness are dominant throughout the story, and some scenes are moving — but overall, this book just didn’t work well for me. Too many discordant notes, too many details that felt false, and a writing style that keeps the characters at a distance for much of the story.

Book Review: Half a Soul (Regency Faerie Tales, #1) by Olivia Atwater

Title: Half a Soul
Series: Regency Faerie Tales #1
Author: Olivia Atwater
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: March 29, 2020
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It’s difficult to find a husband in Regency England when you’re a young lady with only half a soul.

Ever since she was cursed by a faerie, Theodora Ettings has had no sense of fear or embarrassment – a condition which makes her prone to accidental scandal. Dora hopes to be a quiet, sensible wallflower during the London Season – but when the strange, handsome and utterly uncouth Lord Sorcier discovers her condition, she is instead drawn into dangerous and peculiar faerie affairs.

If Dora’s reputation can survive both her curse and her sudden connection with the least-liked man in all of high society, then she may yet reclaim her normal place in the world. . . but the longer Dora spends with Elias Wilder, the more she begins to suspect that one may indeed fall in love, even with only half a soul.

Bridgerton meets Howl’s Moving Castle in this enchanting historical fantasy, where the only thing more meddlesome than faeries is a marriage-minded mother.

Pick up HALF A SOUL, and be stolen away into Olivia Atwater’s charming, magical version of Regency England!

Half a Soul is a fun, light-hearted romantic caper set in Regency England — and yet, there’s a darker element that’s unusual for this type of book, and it makes it very much worth checking out.

Dora is captured by a Lord of Faerie as a young child, and loses half her soul to him — only saved from losing her entire soul by the intervention of her devoted cousin Vanessa. But from that point onward, Dora experiences all emotions on a very low setting. She’s aware of feeling warmth toward her cousin, aware of things that seem wrong or might bother her, but it’s all very distant.

As a result, Dora has a hard time following society’s rules — she has no in-built filter to make her feel uncomfortable when she steps out of line (which is often).

After the Napoleonic War, England’s head magician, known as the Lord Sorcier, is both a hero and an object of scorn. High society is forced to accept him, but they neither like nor trust him. Still, he may be the only person who has a shot at restoring to Dora what was lost — but as their paths cross, their focus instead turns to the wretched conditions in London’s workhouses and an insidious, seemingly incurable plague that strikes the poorest of children.

The plot of Half a Soul is interesting and offers new twists on tales of enchantment and the dangers of being stolen away to the world of Faerie. Dora and Elias (the Lord Sorcier) have a strong connection, and I enjoyed seeing them work together to solve problems, right wrongs, and reclaim Dora’s missing soul.

The supporting characters are quite enjoyable too, and I appreciated how Dora and Elias are united in their commitment to force their friends and relatives to see the underlying ugliness and imbalances of their world and take action to help.

Half a Soul is a quick, light read, with entertaining plot twists and interesting approaches to the conflict between the human and Faerie worlds. As a bonus, the book also includes a novella, Lord Sorcier, that provides a prequel look at Elias’s backstory — it’s very good and sheds new light on on how Elias became who he is in Half a Soul.

Half a Soul is the first in a loosely-connected trilogy (Regency Faerie Tales), and I’m looking forward to reading more!

Book Review: Queen Charlotte by Julia Quinn & Shonda Rhimes

Title: Queen Charlotte
Authors: Julia Quinn & Shonda Rhimes
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: May 9, 2023
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Julia Quinn and television pioneer Shonda Rhimes comes a powerful and romantic novel of Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte and King George III’s great love story and how it sparked a societal shift, inspired by the original series Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, created by Shondaland for Netflix.

“We are one crown. His weight is mine, and mine is his…”

In 1761, on a sunny day in September, a King and Queen met for the very first time. They were married within hours.

Born a German Princess, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was beautiful, headstrong, and fiercely intelligent… not precisely the attributes the British Court had been seeking in a spouse for the young King George III. But her fire and independence were exactly what she needed, because George had secrets… secrets with the potential to shake the very foundations of the monarchy.

Thrust into her new role as a royal, Charlotte must learn to navigate the intricate politics of the court… all the while guarding her heart, because she is falling in love with the King, even as he pushes her away. Above all she must learn to rule, and to understand that she has been given the power to remake society. She must fight—for herself, for her husband, and for all her new subjects who look to her for guidance and grace. For she will never be just Charlotte again. She must instead fulfill her destiny… as Queen.

Fans of the Bridgerton series will absolutely want to grab a copy of this prequel, which focuses on the early love story of Queen Charlotte and King George III.

As a preface by none other than Lady Whistledown herself makes clear, this isn’t meant to be a history lesson… so go into this romantic, often heartbreaking and just as often uplifting story with an open mind, and accept that this book is not attempting to stick to the historical facts.

First, the context: Queen Charlotte (the Netflix series) has already aired, so I would guess that most people reading the novel have already watched the series and have the basics of the story firmly in mind. Yes, the book was written by Julia Quinn based on the scripts written by Shonda Rhimes — and yet, it’s a fully developed novel with fresh perspectives and points of view, not just a rehash of what we’ve already seen on the screen.

In the novel, Queen Charlotte’s story is told through four shifting points of view: We get chapters from the perspectives of Charlotte, George, Agatha (Lady Danbury), and Brimsley, Charlotte’s faithful servant. Through their thoughts and voices, the story opens up in ways not possible on the screen, and getting scenes from these shifting perspectives offers insights that might not otherwise have been apparent.

Interestingly, the novel sticks with Shonda Rhimes’s vision of the ton as shown in the Bridgerton TV series — a thoroughly integrated society including all races. This is decidedly not the case in Julia Quinn’s original Bridgerton books, but in Queen Charlotte (the novel), we’re sticking with Shonda’s version. Here, we get the origin story — Queen Charlotte has brown skin and is of African descent, which is most shocking to Princess Augusta, mother of the King.

What to do? Look foolish and admit that she wasn’t aware of this when the bargain for the marriage was struck? Or, make it look intentional by launching “the Great Experiment” — essentially, claim that it was the Crown’s intention to integrate society all along, and marrying Charlotte to the King is an important first step in achieving this goal. Hastily, on the day of the royal wedding, upper class black members of the London world (but not the ton) are elevated to nobility. How can anyone doubt the Crown’s intentions, when there are so many new Lords and Ladies as proof?

The true heart of the story is the romance between Charlotte and George. While meeting only on their wedding day, they find connection and chemistry and seemed poised for true happiness — until George pushes Charlotte firmly away with no explanation, insisting that they live separately.

I won’t go into further plot details — the “madness” of King George III is well known as historical fact (although a specific diagnosis has never been completely established). George’s mental illness is the central tragedy of this story, driving a sharp wedge between him and Charlotte even as she struggles to understand. Their love proves to be unshakable even in the face of this unconquerable barrier. The book captures all the powerful romance of the TV version, and it’s lovely.

I loved getting to know Brimsley more through his chapters, and Agatha Danbury is just as wonderful here as expected. Some elements of the TV version are omitted, most notably the friendships and interactions between the women characters later in life; Violet Bridgerton is completely absent, and the related storyline involving Agatha is omitted as well. That’s fine, though — the book is still strong and full of emotion, and doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything.

Having finished the book within 24 hours of starting it (I dare you to put it down once you start!), I’m really pining for more time with these characters… and have a feeling I’ll be doing a rewatch of the TV version before two long.

Meanwhile, for all the Bridgerton fans, Queen Charlotte is a must-read!

Book Review: The Serpent in Heaven (Gunnie Rose, #4) by Charlaine Harris

Title: The Serpent in Heaven
Series: Gunnie Rose, #4
Author: Charlaine Harris
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: November 15, 2022
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Fantasy / speculative fiction
Source: Library

Rating: 4 out of 5.

#1 New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Charlaine Harris returns to her alternate history of the United States where magic is an acknowledged but despised power in this fourth installment of the Gunnie Rose series.

Felicia, Lizbeth Rose’s half-sister and a student at the Grigori Rasputin school in San Diego—capital of the Holy Russian Empire—is caught between her own secrets and powerful family struggles. As a granddaughter of Rasputin, she provides an essential service to the hemophiliac Tsar Alexei, providing him the blood transfusions that keep him alive. Felicia is treated like a nonentity at the bedside of the tsar, and at the school she’s seen as a charity case with no magical ability. But when Felicia is snatched outside the school, the facts of her heritage begin to surface. Felicia turns out to be far more than the Russian-Mexican Lizbeth rescued. As Felicia’s history unravels and her true abilities become known, she becomes under attack from all directions. Only her courage will keep her alive.

Ah, I love this series, and book #4 is a great addition to the ongoing story! Because I’ve basically read them all in a row, I didn’t bother reading the synopsis before starting The Serpent in Heaven… and was very startled to realize that we’d shifted main character and point of view!

In the first three books in the Gunnie Rose series, all events have been narrated by (and centered around)… well… Gunnie Rose herself. Lizbeth Rose, a sharpshooter/gunslinger from the nation of Texoma, whose skill with guns keeps her and her crew safe and protected, has been the focal point of the series, even as we meet her network of friends, allies, and (in book #1) her previously unknown half-sister Felicia.

The 3rd book ends with Lizbeth happily married and relatively safe with her beloved Eli back in Texoma, after a dangerous rescue mission in the Holy Russian Empire (our California and Oregon), so I suppose it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise to see the focus shift elsewhere. Let Lizbeth have a little downtime!

In this 4th book, Lizbeth’s younger sister Felicia takes center stage. Felicia has always been something of a question mark. When we first meet her, she appears to be about age 10 or 11, raised in poverty in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico by an unreliable father — a Russian grigori (magician) barely getting by, with a very shady past, who also happens to be Lizbeth’s father. When Lizbeth discovers Felicia, she’s on her own and unprotected, and Lizbeth decides to see her safely sheltered in San Diego, where she can get an education at the grigori school… and also fulfill her destiny as a blood donor for the ailing Tsar.

What’s been hinted at, but finally becomes clear here, is that Felicia has a store of great magical power herself, and that she’s also quite a few years older than she appeared to be. With her father’s influence now gone, the anti-aging spells he’d placed on her have dissipated, and Felicia has quickly grown into the size and appearance of her true age, fifteen.

Felicia also becomes the subject of a botched kidnapping plot, and soon learns that her mother was the descendant of a powerful magical family in Mexico, who now want Felicia back. What follows is a dangerous scheme to gain control of Felicia, involving raids on the school and other types of interference and infiltration. Meanwhile, the school and the city are ravaged by the Spanish influenza, and Felicia finds herself needing to draw on her strange new powers in order to survive and protect the people she cares about.

As the story unfolds, Felicia really blossoms as a lead character, and her alliance with the older, powerful grigori Felix as well as her puppy-love first romance with Peter give her interesting characters to bounce off of (and get into trouble with). The involvement of her maternal family adds a huge element of threat and conspiracy, and the action is quite good and unrelenting.

While the main plot threads are mostly tied up by the end of the book, there are many open questions still to be resolved. I really enjoyed Felicia as the main character, although I missed spending time with Lizbeth and Eli and can’t wait to see them back in action.

The series continues with book #5, All the Dead Shall Weep, to be published in September. At this point, I’m totally invested and can’t wait for more (so I may need to read the ARC for #5 early, rather than waiting until the publication date is a little closer).

I’m so glad I was introduced to this terrific series thanks to my book group. Highly recommended!

Up next: All the Dead Shall Weep – #5 in the Gunnie Rose series

Book Review: Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein

Title: Citizen of the Galaxy
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Publication date: 1957
Length: 282 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In a distant galaxy, the atrocity of slavery was alive and well, and young Thorby was just another orphaned boy sold at auction. But his new owner, Baslim, is not the disabled beggar he appears to be: adopting Thorby as his son, he fights relentlessly as an abolitionist spy. When the authorities close in on Baslim, Thorby must ride with the Free Traders — a league of merchant princes — throughout the many worlds of a hostile galaxy, finding the courage to live by his wits and fight his way from society’s lowest rung. But Thorby’s destiny will be forever changed when he discovers the truth about his own identity…

What a treat to “discover” a classic sci-fi that I might have missed if not for my book group. This was an unusual choice for us, but we do like to mix things up on occasion, and I’m so glad Citizen of the Galaxy made this year’s list!

Citizen of the Galaxy is the story of Thorby, a boy captured and enslaved at such a young age that he has no memory of anything else. Alone, mistreated, and hopeless, he’s sold at auction to a beggar named Baslim the Cripple, who is not at all what he seems. Baslim raises Thorby with love, morality, and an education. Upon Baslim’s death, teenaged Thorby must escape from the repressive planet they lived on and find his own way, assisted by subliminal messages implanted in his mind by Baslim. From there, Thorby’s adventures take him to a family of Free Traders, a military ship, and finally back to Terra, where he discovers his true origins once and for all.

This is a fast-paced book, and Thorby is a sympathetic, likable main character. His adventures take us into unusually structured societies which are fascinating to read about. Ultimately, as he reclaims his heritage on Terra and assumes adult responsibilities, he realizes that freedom isn’t about running off to follow his heart’s desire, but taking on the job he knows he needs to do in order to fix at least some of his family’s wrong-doings.

I had a great time reading Citizen of the Galaxy, although the final sections bog down a bit in untangling corporate schemes and dealing with the legal system. Still, this is a top-notch science fiction from an earlier era of sci-fi writing, and I appreciate the messages and themes tucked in amidst the fun and action.

It’s been ages since I’ve read any Heinlein, and Citizen of the Galaxy has sparked my interest in reading more.

Are you a Heinlein fan? Any favorites to recommend?

Book Review: The Russian Cage (Gunnie Rose, #3) by Charlaine Harris

Title: The Russian Cage
Series: Gunnie Rose, #3
Author: Charlaine Harris
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: February 23, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Fantasy / speculative fiction
Source: Library

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

#1 New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Charlaine Harris is at her best in this alternate history of the United States where magic is an acknowledged but despised power in this third installment of the Gunnie Rose series.

Picking up right where A Longer Fall left off, this thrilling third installment follows Lizbeth Rose as she takes on one of her most dangerous missions rescuing her estranged partner, Prince Eli, from the Holy Russian Empire. Once in San Diego, Lizbeth is going to have to rely upon her sister Felicia, and her growing Grigori powers to navigate her way through this strange new world of royalty and deception in order to get Eli freed from jail where he’s being held for murder.

Russian Cage continues to ramp up the momentum with more of everything Harris’ readers adore her for with romance, intrigue, and a deep dive into the mysterious Holy Russian Empire.

Call me hooked. I read An Easy Death, the first book in Charlaine Harris’s Gunnie Rose series, just a few months ago when my book group chose it for our January book of the month. Since then, I’ve been dying for more, and this month finished book #2 (A Longer Fall) and now, #3 (The Russian Cage).

For those not familiar with the series, the Gunnie Rose books take place in an alternate history in which the United States no longer exists, having broken up into a handful of separate countries in the early 1930s or thereabouts. Main character Lizbeth Rose is a gunslinger (a profession known as “gunnies”), a sharpshooter who works for hire protecting people or cargos, and using her wicked aim with a Colt when needed to carry out her job. At age 20, she’s wise and skilled beyond her years, and has had more than her share of adventures.

Lizbeth lives in the country of Texoma (the lands formerly known as Texas and Oklahoma), and her life has a distinctly Wild West feel to them. Her adventures in the past two books left her entangled with Russian magicians — grigoris — and here in The Russian Cage, the entanglement continues.

Our California and Oregon, in the world of Gunnie Rose, are the Holy Russian Empire, ruled by the Tsar and filled with an odd mix of Russian refugee descendants and former Americans. The HRE is the home base of most powerful grigoris — and Eli, the man Lizbeth loves, just happens to be one of these.

As The Russian Cage opens, Lizbeth receives word that Eli is in danger. He’s been arrested and imprisoned, but no one in his family seems to know why. Lizbeth is determined to do whatever it takes to set Eli free, and travels to San Diego, the HRE capitol, to carry out her dangerous plan.

Once there, she quickly becomes involved in unraveling the political forces at play, protecting Eli’s family, and ingratiating herself with the Tsar and Tsarina, among other crazy events. Lizbeth is determined to not just save Eli, but to ensure the safety of his entire family, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals.

The action in The Russian Cage is exciting and fast-paced, and I loved the mix of personal connections and perilous escapades that make up the bulk of the story. Lizbeth and Eli continue to have amazing chemistry, and their love story is the true payoff for this action/adventure story.

At this point, I absolutely have to continue! As soon as book #4 is available from my library — tomorrow, perhaps? — I’ll be diving in. I love the world Charlaine Harris has created in these books, and I adore the characters.

Up next: The Serpent in Heaven – #4 in the Gunnie Rose series

Book Review: The Woman Beyond the Sea by Sarit Yishai-Levi

Title: The Woman Beyond the Sea
Author: Sarit Yishai-Levi
Translated by: Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann
Publisher: Amazon Crossing
Publication date: March 21, 2023 (originally published in Hebrew in 2019)
Print length: 413 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A mesmerizing novel about three generations of women who have lost each other—and the quest to weave them back into a family.

An immersive historical tale spanning the life stories of three women, The Woman Beyond the Sea traces the paths of a daughter, mother, and grandmother who lead entirely separate lives, until finally their stories and their hearts are joined together.

Eliya thinks that she’s finally found true love and passion with her charismatic and demanding husband, an aspiring novelist—until he ends their relationship in a Paris café, spurring her suicide attempt. Seeking to heal herself, Eliya is compelled to piece together the jagged shards of her life and history.

Eliya’s heart-wrenching journey leads her to a profound and unexpected love, renewed family ties, and a reconciliation with her orphaned mother, Lily. Together, the two women embark on a quest to discover the truth about themselves and Lily’s own origins…and the unknown woman who set their stories in motion one Christmas Eve.

Content warning: Suicide, rape, childhood neglect and abandonment

Sarit Yishai-Levi is the author of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, an immersive novel about a Sephardic family in 20th century Israel, which has been adapted into an addictive Netflix series (and just when are we getting season 3???).

In her new novel, The Woman Beyond the Sea, we open in the 1970s with Eliya, a woman in her mid-20s who has been used and then dumped by her self-centered husband. Eliya completely falls apart, and her parents Shaul and Lily are at a loss about how to help her.

Lily herself is a strange and troubled woman. Abandoned at a convent as a newborn, she was raised by nuns with no knowledge of her past, no family and no connections. After running away from the convent as a teen, she bounces from one temporary living arrangement to another until she finally meets Shaul, a man who adores her and offers her a future that she never thought she’d have. But Lily, raised without love or family, doesn’t know how to trust or give love, and after experiencing a particularly harsh tragedy, is unable to raise Eliya with a mother’s love.

The cycle of strangled feelings and alienation continue until Eliya is able, after enduring her own psychological crises, to bridge the distance between herself and her mother. After great struggle, Eliya and Lily finally join together to understand Lily’s past and to search for the answers that have always been missing.

The Woman Beyond the Sea is quite intense emotionally, and the two women, Eliya and Lily, are not kind to themselves or to each other. It’s disturbing to see how much hurt they carry internally and the ways they hurt one another.

My reactions to this book are mixed. I loved the setting and the time period, loved seeing Tel Aviv through the characters’ experiences, loved the elements of culture that permeate the characters’ lives.

I didn’t love the writing style — although I wonder if some of this is a translation issue. Originally published in Hebrew, there are phrases and expressions that feel clunky or awkward here in English — but I know just enough Hebrew to pick up occasional moments where certain colloquial expressions in the original language might have felt more natural. (Sadly, I definitely do not have enough Hebrew to read an entire novel!)

Beyond the translation issues, the storytelling itself is not in a style that particularly works for me. Especially in the first half, chapters are painfully long (30 – 60 pages), and the narrative jumps chronologically within a character’s memories — so a character remembering her early married life will interrupt these thoughts to remember something from her school days, and then perhaps interrupt yet again for an earlier memory before coming back to the original set of thoughts. It’s confusing and often hard to follow, and kept me from feeling truly connected to the characters until much later in the book.

There’s a terrific twist and big reveal late in the book that really redeemed the reading experience for me and pulled me in completely. Truly fascinating, although I can’t say a single thing about it without divulging things better not known in advance.

Still, even this high point in the book is offset by some unforgivably cruel shaming and harsh judgments about actions taken to survive and situations outside of a character’s control. Again, I don’t want to reveal details, but I was really angered by the words used by certain characters and found their reactions totally unacceptable and awful.

Overall, there’s a compelling story at the heart of The Woman Beyond the Sea and I always wanted to know more. And yet, the problematic elements and weirdly structured storytelling left me frustrated too often to rate this book higher than 3.5 stars.

A note on content warnings: I don’t typically include these, but felt the topics of suicide and rape need to be called out in advance, for readers who are triggered by or prefer to avoid these topics.

Book Review: Happy Place by Emily Henry

Title: Happy Place
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: April 25, 2023
Print length: 385 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Harriet and Wyn have been the perfect couple since they met in college—they go together like salt and pepper, honey and tea, lobster and rolls. Except, now—for reasons they’re still not discussing—they don’t.

They broke up six months ago. And still haven’t told their best friends.

Which is how they find themselves sharing the largest bedroom at the Maine cottage that has been their friend group’s yearly getaway for the last decade. Their annual respite from the world, where for one vibrant, blue week they leave behind their daily lives; have copious amounts of cheese, wine, and seafood; and soak up the salty coastal air with the people who understand them most.

Only this year, Harriet and Wyn are lying through their teeth while trying not to notice how desperately they still want each other. Because the cottage is for sale and this is the last week they’ll all have together in this place. They can’t stand to break their friends’ hearts, and so they’ll play their parts. Harriet will be the driven surgical resident who never starts a fight, and Wyn will be the laid-back charmer who never lets the cracks show. It’s a flawless plan (if you look at it from a great distance and through a pair of sunscreen-smeared sunglasses). After years of being in love, how hard can it be to fake it for one week… in front of those who know you best?

A couple who broke up months ago make a pact to pretend to still be together for their annual weeklong vacation with their best friends in this glittering and wise new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Emily Henry.

Emily Henry’s books have become must-reads for me, and this deceptively bright-looking book is a total win.

From the eye-wateringly hot pink cover to the title itself, we readers might safely assume that this is a carefree, joyous, lighter-than-air book. Think again! While lovely and full of funny and sweet moments, there is also a great deal of sorrow, heartache, and heartbreak in this novel.

Harriet, Cleo, and Sabrina are the core of a tight-knit friend group, going back to their early college days, when the three very different young women became the best of friends. Over the years, their group expanded to include Parth (now engaged to Sabrina), Wyn (the love of Harriet’s life), and Kimmy (Cleo’s beloved). Even after their college glory years ended, the six stayed together through thick and thin, and no matter the geographical distances between them, they met up each summer at Sabrina’s summer house in Maine for a sun-splashed week of joy, laughter, and crazy adventures.

But now, everything is changing. Sabrina’s father is selling the house, and this will be their final chance for one last week there together. Harriet is shocked upon arrival to find Wyn there — the two broke up five months earlier but haven’t told anyone, and Harriet had understood that he’d stay away. She’s determined to tell the truth, until Sabrina and Parth announce that they’ll be getting married that week, just them and their best friends. How can Harriet and Wyn announce the end of their own seemingly perfect romance and put a downer on Sabrina and Parth’s wedding? They decide to fake it — they’ll pretend to still be together for the sake of the group’s happiness, then go their separate ways again once the week ends.

What could go wrong?

For starters, Harriet and Wyn clearly still love one another. Harriet is hurt and furious — Wyn dumped her over the phone without an explanation — but beneath that, she still loves him deeply. As they spend time together, it becomes clear that their relationship and break-up are much more complicated that we initially understand. There are layers of hurt, of misplaced expectations, and trauma and misguided self-doubt stemming back to their childhoods that get in the way, over and over again.

Beyond the romance, one of the best aspects of this book is the friend group and its changing dynamics. What happens when best friends grow up and grow apart? Can their closeness survive when their separate lives pull them in such different directions?

I loved how thoughtful this book is in its approach to relationships and friendships. It captures the reality of growing up yet wanting to hold on to the best parts of the past, and the challenge of finding new ways to relate as life pulls people in different directions.

The relationship between Harriet and Wyn is lovely and overwhelmingly sad at times. These are two people who love each other deeply, yet face the very real possibility that they just don’t fit together any more. I also felt Harriet’s career and future were handled quite sensitively, in ways that I wouldn’t have expected.

I may be making this sound very serious, but there are also moments of utter silliness and great joy, and the banter between the friends, as well as between Harriet and Wyn, is just so funny and amusing. There’s so much humor here, as well as the deeper emotional impact, making Happy Place a consistently enjoyable and touching experience.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the always outstanding Julia Whelan — and not surprisingly, she absolutely nails the characters’ voices and sets the right emotional tone for each scene.

What more can I say? Happy Place is a must-read.

Book Review: The Poisoner’s Ring (A Rip Through Time, #2) by Kelley Armstrong

Title: The Poisoner’s Ring
Series: A Rip Through Time
Author: Kelley Armstrong
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication date: May 23, 2022
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Edinburgh, 1869: Modern-day homicide detective Mallory Atkinson is adjusting to her new life in Victorian Scotland. Her employers know she’s not housemaid Catriona Mitchell―even though Mallory is in Catriona’s body―and Mallory is now officially an undertaker’s assistant. Dr. Duncan Gray moonlights as a medical examiner, and their latest case hits close to home. Men are dropping dead from a powerful poison, and all signs point to the grieving widows… the latest of which is Gray’s oldest sister.

Poison is said to be a woman’s weapon, though Mallory has to wonder if it’s as simple as that. But she must tread carefully. Every move the household makes is being watched, and who knows where the investigation will lead.

The Poisoner’s Ring is the 2nd book in Kelley Armstrong’s A Rip Through Time series, and while there’s a murder-mystery plot that’s complicated and compelling, I think a reader would be completely lost if they try to start here without reading the first book.

But the first book was great, so why not start at the beginning???

To recap as simply as possible, the plotof A Rip Through Time has to do with a modern-day detective who gets pulled through a rip in time while visiting Edinburgh and ends up in the 19th century. Mallory’s inner self now inhabits the 19-year-old body of housemaid Catriona… and she presumes that Catriona must be stuck inside Mallory’s body in the 21st century. (There’s a lot more to it, so check out my review for more details).

Here in book #2, The Poisoner’s Ring, about a month has passed since the events of the last book. Mallory hasn’t figured out how to get back to her own time, so she’s still stuck in a strange time and a strange body. Fortunately, Catriona’s employer, Dr. Duncan Gray and his widowed sister Isla know the truth about Mallory, and accept her. Even better, they’re both scientists, and they’re fascinated by what Mallory can teach them about advances in forensics and chemistry.

It’s an odd and consistently entertaining juxtaposition. Mallory finds herself about 10 years younger than her true age, in a much more delicate body, stuck wearing petticoats and corsets, yet in full possession of her true skills and knowledge. She has to learn to defend herself in this weaker, daintier body, and must learn to curb her natural instincts in order to fit in, at least on a surface level, in this Victorian setting. Chasing a perp down the streets just isn’t ladylike and is sure to attract unwanted attention… not to mention just how challenging she finds running and fighting in a corset.

The plot of The Poisoner’s Ring centers around a series of deaths that appear to be murder by poison. There are rumors of a poisoner’s ring — basically, an urban myth about unhappy wives referring one another to a source for illegal poison which they then use to kill their husbands. Since none of the victims appear to be connected, it’s a clever scheme… but Mallory isn’t buying it. As she, Duncan, and Isla dig deeper, they discover all sorts of secrets and misdeeds, but unfortunately, Duncan and Isla’s oldest sister ends up implicated as well. As the saying goes… now it’s personal.

This book is a delight, as is the first in the series. There’s something so completely delicious about having this 21st century detective mouthing off to her confidantes, with all of her modern-day attitude and know-how coming out of the mouth of a delicate young (and formerly illiterate and untrustworthy) housemaid.

The murder plot itself is complicated, maybe more so than really suits my reading tastes, but that’s more a matter of my preferred types of fiction than a knock against this book. After a certain point, I stopped trying very hard to keep all the various suspects and conspirators straight, and just enjoyed it for the sake of seeing Mallory in action, as well as the other main characters, who are also quite interesting and fun to spend time with.

I love Mallory’s dialogue and her inner thoughts — so amazingly out of place for where she finds herself. Her wry observations never fail to amuse:

The public house is, like most things in Victorian Edinburgh, both what I expect and not what I expect. My visual renderings of scenes like this all come from Hollywood, where’ I’m going to guess that — unless it’s a mega-budget movie — there’s a standard-issue “Victorian pub” on a soundstage somewhere.

… [T]here’s the boy just ahead of us, who has coming running from a shop a few blocks over, where he is employed to read the paper to the workers. They chip in to buy a newspaper and pay him a small wage to sit at a table and read aloud while they work. The Victorian version of a radio newscast… complete with child labor.

(I won’t give the context for this one, since it’s a bit of a plot spoiler, but I love the idea:)

It’s the Victorian equivalent of a deepfake.

The Poisoner’s Ring is a terrific 2nd book that builds on the promise of the 1st. Our main character continues to be a fish-out-of-water, surviving and thriving on her wits and 21st century know-how, stuck where she doesn’t want to be — but while stuck, making a life for herself. Because Mallory’s circumstances remain unresolved as of the end of this book, I can only assume that there will be more to come in this series, and I am here for it!

Highly recommended, and as I keep saying — starting with book #1 is a must!

Book Review: A Longer Fall (Gunnie Rose, #2) by Charlaine Harris

Title: A Longer Fall
Series: Gunnie Rose, #2
Author: Charlaine Harris
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: January 14, 2020
Length: 291 pages
Genre: Fantasy / speculative fiction
Source: Library

Rating: 4 out of 5.

#1 New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris returns with the second of the Gunnie Rose series, in which Lizbeth is hired onto a new crew, transporting a crate into Dixie, the self-exiled southeast territory of the former United States. What the crate contains is something so powerful, that forces from across three territories want to possess it.

In this second thrilling installment of the Gunnie Rose series, Lizbeth Rose is hired onto a new crew for a seemingly easy protection job, transporting a crate into Dixie, just about the last part of the former United States of America she wants to visit. But what seemed like a straight-forward job turns into a massacre as the crate is stolen. Up against a wall in Dixie, where social norms have stepped back into the last century, Lizbeth has to go undercover with an old friend to retrieve the crate as what’s inside can spark a rebellion, if she can get it back in time.

#1 New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse mysteries and Midnight, Texas trilogy) is at her best here, building the world of this alternate history of the United States, where magic is an acknowledged but despised power.

In the Gunnie Rose books, author Charlaine Harris has created an alternate version of the United States… in which the United States no longer exists. In this world, FDR was assassinated prior to being inaugurated as President, and in the aftermath, the US has split into separate countries. Main character Lizbeth Rose lives in Texoma, more or less where our current Texas is, and the US South is now the country of Dixie, where racism, sexism, and xenophobia are the norms — a place where Lizbeth has no interest in going, until she’s hired on for a job that will take her there.

Lizbeth is a “gunnie”, a gifted shooter whose sharp reflexes and dead-eye aim make her a valued member of any gun crew, typically hired for escort and protection work. After her last crew ended up dead (see book one in the series, An Easy Death), she’s found work with a new set of gunnies, and takes an eastbound train to bring cargo into Dixie.

Nothing goes as planned, naturally. The train rail is sabotaged, the gun crew is attacked, and the cargo is stolen. Lizbeth finds herself stranded in Dixie, until her former colleague and lover Eli shows up, also in pursuit of the same cargo. Eli is a “grigori” — a wizard of the Holy Russian Empire (formerly California and Oregon), a land ruled by the Tsar and protected by the highly skilled magicians who support him. Eli’s arrival shows that Lizbeth’s cargo is much more precious than she realized, and the two of them must work together to retrieve it, get it to its intended destination, and hopefully make it out of Dixie with their lives.

The world of Gunnie Rose

Once again, I truly enjoyed the world-building. Lizbeth herself is a Western-style gunslinger, but here, she’s thrust into a world that expects her to wear a dress and hose, defer to men, and be altogether proper and ladylike. The contrast is delicious, and it’s such fun to see Lizbeth’s discomfort and rebellion at these ridiculous sexist restrictions.

Meanwhile, Lizbeth and Eli have terrific chemistry, and it’s a delight to see them back together. Their work and their families destine them to have very different lives, but for the space of this adventure, they’re reunited and fully cognizant of the love and passion they share. They also make for great partners, having each other’s backs and getting one another out of impossibly dangerous situations.

Dixie is full of despicable racists, and the overall mission and the missing cargo relate to an attempt to kick off a rebellion and put an end to oppression. The cargo itself is a total MacGuffin — it’s a bit nonsensical, but as a plot catalyst, it keeps the action going full steam ahead and makes for some exciting sequences. Not all the events make a ton of sense, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing awful characters get exactly what they deserve.

The 20th century setting (mid to late 1930s, it would seem) can be a bit jarring. The story often feels like an old-timey Western, and something about the description of Dixie made me expect the women to be wearing huge dresses a la Scarlett O’Hara — I had to remind myself from time to time that these people live in an era of cars, indoor plumbing, electricity, and refrigerators. The contrasts make this series extra fun, like seeing our own history, but in a funhouse mirror.

I love Lizbeth as a character, and I love seeing new aspects of her personality and intelligence as the story progresses. I can’t wait to see where the story goes next! There are currently four published works in the series, with a fifth scheduled for release in fall of 2023. I’m definitely planning to continue, and hope to start #3 just as soon as the library’s copy becomes available.

The Russian Cage – #3 in the Gunnie Rose series