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.

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.

Book Review: The Holiday Trap by Roan Parrish

Title: The Holiday Trap
Author: Roan Parrish
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: September 6, 2022
Length: 442 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

For fans of Alexandria Bellefleur and Alexis Hall comes a charming, hilarious, and heartwarming LGBTQIA+ romcom about two separate couples finding love over the holidays from acclaimed author Roan Parrish!

Greta Russakoff loves her tight-knit family and tiny Maine hometown, even if they don’t always understand what it’s like to be a lesbian living in such a small world. She desperately needs space to figure out who she is.

Truman Belvedere has just had his heart crushed into a million pieces when he learned that his boyfriend of almost a year has a secret life that includes a husband and a daughter. Reeling from this discovery, all he wants is a place to lick his wounds far, far away from New Orleans.

Enter Greta and Truman’s mutual friend, Ramona, who facilitates a month-long house swap. Over the winter holidays, each of them will have a chance to try on a new life…and maybe fall in love with the perfect partner of their dreams. But all holidays must come to an end, and eventually Greta and Truman will have to decide whether the love they each found so far from home is worth fighting for.

The Holiday Trap has some cute moments, but is far too long and has way too many implausible plot points and annoying characters moments to rise above a 3-star read.

Our two main characters, Greta and Truman, are stuck in lives that clearly aren’t working for them. Greta’s large family is smothering and overly involved and controlling, and living on an island in Maine, there’s really no escaping their endless interference. Truman thinks his life in New Orleans is going well, until he discovers that his boyfriend of one year actually has a family, and Truman is just the bit on the side.

When a mutual friend suggests that they swap places for the holidays, Greta and Truman both agree — because really, it couldn’t be any worse than their current situations. And of course, in their new locations, they each find exactly what they’re looking for — love, community, and purpose.

Greta falls immediately in love with an outspoken, quirky woman who demands honesty and teaches Greta about stating one’s own needs and listening to others. She also finds meaning through a local gardening club, and becomes involved with a community garden and the beekeepers she meets.

Truman arrives on the island with low expectations, but soon discovers that his very favorite author may once have lived there, and then stumbles across the man of his dreams at the local florist shop.

For both, true love seems to arrive within approximately three weeks, so that before their brief swap agreement is even over, they’ve both resolved to make it permanent and start their lives over in their new locations. They’ve also changed themselves in significant ways, learning to speak up and pay attention to what they really want and what makes them happy.

Also (and annoyingly) in this brief time, they find themselves overflowing with amazing new ideas for how to improve their friends’ business ventures, which the friends seem to appreciate and embrace. (If I were in any of the friends’ shoes, I would find this intrusive and presumptuous AF, but hey, maybe that’s just me).

There are sweet interludes and funny moments, but overall, this romance drags on, has too many personal epiphanies crammed into such a short amount of time, and takes its perfect romances far over the edge into not-at-all-believable territory. And the fact that Greta and Truman seem to always have the perfect idea that perfectly solves other people’s challenges… so incredibly annoying.

I’m not sure why this is called The Holiday Trap. It’s not especially about the holidays, other than taking place during December when holidays are happening, and I have no idea what “trap” has to do with anything. Nobody ends up trapped in their new locations or relationships. May The Holiday Swap was already taken?

In terms of steaminess, this book’s sex scenes are graphic, so be aware of that if you prefer understated steam rather than outright step-by-step descriptions of intimate encounters.

Overall, the plot really doesn’t hold up particularly well. Truman is an endearing character and Greta is okay, but their huge personal awakenings and finding of soulmates just don’t feel plausible. The Holiday Trap is good entertainment, but I’ve read a lot better.

Audiobook Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers, #3) by Becky Chamber

Title: Record of a Spaceborn Few
Series: Wayfarers, #3
Author: Becky Chambers
Narrator:  Rachel Dulude
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication date: July 24, 2018
Print length: 368 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 36 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Brimming with Chambers’ signature blend of heart-warming character relationships and dazzling adventure, Record of a Spaceborn few is the third standalone installment of the Wayfarers series, set in the sprawling universe of the Galactic Commons, and following a new motley crew on a journey to another corner corner of the cosmos—one often mentioned, but not yet explored.

Return to the sprawling universe of the Galactic Commons, as humans, artificial intelligence, aliens, and some beings yet undiscovered explore what it means to be a community in this exciting third adventure in the acclaimed and multi-award-nominated science fiction Wayfarers series, brimming with heartwarming characters and dazzling space adventure.

Hundreds of years ago, the last humans on Earth boarded the Exodus Fleet in search of a new home among the stars. After centuries spent wandering empty space, their descendants were eventually accepted by the well-established species that govern the Milky Way.

But that was long ago. Today, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, the birthplace of many, yet a place few outsiders have ever visited. While the Exodans take great pride in their original community and traditions, their culture has been influenced by others beyond their bulkheads. As many Exodans leave for alien cities or terrestrial colonies, those who remain are left to ponder their own lives and futures: What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination? Why remain in space when there are habitable worlds available to live? What is the price of sustaining their carefully balanced way of life—and is it worth saving at all?

A young apprentice, a lifelong spacer with young children, a planet-raised traveler, an alien academic, a caretaker for the dead, and an Archivist whose mission is to ensure no one’s story is forgotten, wrestle with these profound universal questions. The answers may seem small on the galactic scale, but to these individuals, it could mean everything.

Argh… again with a misleading synopsis blurb! Why does whoever writes things keep coming back to a “motley crew”? That is SO not what this book is about! Anyway…

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the 3rd installment in the fabulous Wayfarers series, and it leaves me in absolute awe of author Becky Chambers and her vision of this sprawling fictional world. Here, she moves the story to a place we’ve heard about but not seen — the Exodan Fleet.

Many generations earlier, humans left Earth as it became uninhabitable, creating a fleet of homesteader ships that headed out into the galaxy with no idea of an endpoint or destination. Eventually, the human fleet encountered other sapient species, much more advanced in technology and in the social complexities of cross-species relations. After some time, the humans were accepted into the Galactic Commons (kind of like a UN for alien species), and many of the humans of the fleet sought out new homes on already established worlds or set out to colonize new human habitations on unsettled planets.

Not all, though. Many remained with the fleet, where their ancestors had lived already for centuries. Among the ships of the fleet, a shared community of sustainability, common interest, respect for the past, and well-ordered social expectations had been built over time. For the Exodans who stayed with the fleet, they were no longer on a journey — the fleet was home.

Within this setting, we follow the lives of several very different characters — some lifelong residents of the Asteria homesteader ship, some newcomers, some alien visitors. Through each, we learn more about Exodan life, their rituals, their beliefs, and the reality of their day-to-day.

The action starts with an unprecedented tragedy — one of the Exodan ships is destroyed in a freak accident. For the rest of the fleet, this is not only a human tragedy with countless deaths, but also a stark reminder of the potential danger and precariousness of their own homes. As the story moves forward, we see the ripple effect on the different characters, some of whom question their commitment to the fleet and wonder about other options, and some of whom reinvest in making sure that the fleet society has a future.

It’s all quite fascinating. In some ways, life in the fleet reminds me of a traditional kibbutz — communal life, with all jobs valued, each giving back to the community through labor, with shared communal living spaces balanced with family spaces, and a shared responsibility for daily tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare. I was also intrigued by the deeply ingrained ethos of reusing and repurposing. When resources are scarce and the world is a closed system, everything serves a purpose, and nothing can be wasted.

The characters themselves are unique individuals, each with their own interesting lives and sets of joys and worries. These include an archivist, who tends the collective memories of the fleet; a newcomer seeking new meaning after growing up planetside and without connections; a caregiver whose job is to lovingly tend the dead through carefully established rituals; an alien sociologist spending time on the Asteria to study this example of human society, and a teen who isn’t sure where he’s meant to be or what his purpose is. They’re all wonderful, and I can’t say there was any one storyline I preferred over the others.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is loosely connected to the first book in the series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, as one of the characters is the sibling of the ship captain from the 1st book. Otherwise, this is a stand-alone story within a shared universe. I love how each book in the series opens up a new aspect of life within this fictional universe, broadening our understanding of what life is like for these future humans — among the stars, on a planet, or on a homesteader ship.

While these books are science fiction, there are no raging space battles or chases or high-tech weaponry. The series is about a society, about what it’s like to live in a galaxy where one’s own species is both a novelty and a minority, dependent on the tolerance and generosity of others species. The characters we meet, the choices they make and the dilemmas they face, are far more important to the overall tone and themes of the books than the details of water recycling, propulsion system, or the mechanics of keeping a spaceship working for centuries.

It’s all fascinating, and a remarkable creation. I’ve been listening to the audiobooks — narrator Rachel Delude gives an incredible performance, voicing so many different characters, keeping them distinct and identifiable, and bringing emotion and humor whenever needed. It’s been a terrific listening experience.

I can’t recommend this series strongly enough! Each book is a delight, and each one adds new dimensions to our understanding of the world of the series.

Next in the series: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

I have one book left in the series — The Galaxy, and the Ground Within — and can’t wait to keep going (although I’ll be sad to finish). After hearing about this series for so long, I’m so glad that I finally made it a point to dig in! I’m just sorry that it took me so long.

Book Review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (Classics Club Spin #32)

Title: O Pioneers!
Author: Willa Cather
Publication date: 1913
Length: 159 pages (Kindle edition)
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Synopsis (Goodreads):

O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather’s first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier—and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather’s heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra’s devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself.

At once a sophisticated pastoral and a prototype for later feminist novels, O Pioneers! is a work in which triumph is inextricably enmeshed with tragedy, a story of people who do not claim a land so much as they submit to it and, in the process, become greater than they were.

And from Wikipedia:

O Pioneers! is a 1913 novel by American author Willa Cather, written while she was living in New York. It was her second published novel. The title is a reference to a poem by Walt Whitman entitled “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” from Leaves of Grass (1855).

O Pioneers! tells the story of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish-American immigrants in the farm country near the fictional town of Hanover, Nebraska, at the turn of the 20th century. The main character, Alexandra Bergson, inherits the family farmland when her father dies, and she devotes her life to making the farm a viable enterprise at a time when many other immigrant families are giving up and leaving the prairie. The novel is also concerned with two romantic relationships, one between Alexandra and family friend Carl Linstrum and the other between Alexandra’s brother Emil and the married Marie Shabata.

O Pioneers! is my most recent Classics Club Spin book, and once again, it’s been a great experience getting that little push to read a book that I might have missed out on otherwise.

Prior to O Pioneers!, the only work of Willa Cather’s that I’ve read was My Antonia, which I read once during high school and again more recently when I came across a copy at a library sale. I loved Cather’s writing style and the sense of beauty that comes through her descriptive passages, and I’ve always meant to seek out more of her books.

O Pioneers! centers on Alexandra Bergson, whom we first meet as a young woman. From the earliest chapters, we understand that she’s the backbone of her family. Her parents arrived on the Nebraska plains years earlier as immigrants, struggling to establish a home and a livelihood in harsh conditions. As the book opens, Alexandra’s father is dying. While she has three brothers — two teens and five-year-old Emil — her father’s dying instructions are clear:

“Boys,” said the father wearily, “I want you to keep the land together and to be guided by your sister… I want no quarrels among my children, and so long as there is one house there must be one head. Alexandra is the oldest, and she knows my wishes. She will do the best she can. If she makes mistakes, she will not make so many as I have made.”

As the book continues, we see Alexandra doing what no one else in the family can. She keeps the farm going, but not only that — she’s determined to do more than scratch by. She learns, thinks, and grows, and despite her brothers’ objection to what they see as risky ventures, Alexandra uses her wits and strategic planning to acquire more land, invest, and ultimately succeed in becoming one of the best established farmers and landowners in the region.

Of course, the older brothers aren’t always content to abide by Alexandra’s decisions. Rather dull-minded and resentful of hard work, they still uphold the manly tradition of being sexist jerks when it comes to their sister:

Oscar reinforced his brother, his mind fixed on the one point he could see. “The property of a family belongs to the men of the family, because they are held responsible, and because they do the work.” Alexandra looked from one to the other, her eyes full of indignation. She had been impatient before, but now she was beginning to feel angry. “And what about my work?” she asked in an unsteady voice.

[…]

Lou turned to Oscar. “That’s the woman of it; if she tells you to put in a crop, she thinks she’s put it in. It makes women conceited to meddle in business.”

Success takes a toll, as Alexandra remains largely alone. She has friends and neighbors and community, and while she seems content with her life, she’s never pursued romantic love of any sort. As she moves through her adult years, she’s devoted to Emil, now a young man, envisioning herself making a future and inheritance for him. Emil, though, like many young people raised on the plains, doesn’t necessarily want a life as a farmer — he attends college, travels, and seems to have a myriad of options available to him. Ultimately, though, a passionate love affair threatens his and Alexandra’s dreams for his future.

O Pioneers! covers about 20 years of the family’s lives, and we see how time changes them all. Through it all, Alexandra remains the steady, devoted head of the family and keeper of the land, and it’s only a tragedy near the end of the story that forces more extreme change upon her.

The writing in O Pioneers! is simply lovely. Willa Cather’s words are spare, but evocative. From her descriptions of the land itself to her illustration of the characters’ lives and thoughts, the words she uses bring the people and place to life.

ONE JANUARY DAY, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.

But this land was an enigma. It was like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces.

He best expressed his preference for his wild homestead by saying that his Bible seemed truer to him there. If one stood in the doorway of his cave, and looked off at the rough land, the smiling sky, the curly grass white in the hot sunlight; if one listened to the rapturous song of the lark, the drumming of the quail, the burr of the locust against that vast silence, one understood what Ivar meant.

A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves.

But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.

The dawn in the east looked like the light from some great fire that was burning under the edge of the world.

One could easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever.

Other versions of O Pioneers!:

As far as I could discover, there’s been just one O Pioneers! film adaptation — a 1992 made-for-TV movie starring Jessica Lange and David Strathairn. I have no idea if it’s easily available, but I’d love to check it out!

Wrapping it all up:

I’m so happy to have finally read this beautiful, powerful book. Many thanks to the Classics Club for inspiring me to read O Pioneers! and other classics!

Can’t wait for the next CCSpin!

Book Review: Lost in the Moment and Found (Wayward Children, #8) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Lost in the Moment and Found
Series: Wayward Children, #8
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 10, 2023
Length: 160 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A young girl discovers an infinite variety of worlds in this standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Wayward Children series from Seanan McGuire, Lost in the Moment and Found.

Welcome to the Shop Where the Lost Things Go.

If you ever lost a sock, you’ll find it here.
If you ever wondered about favorite toy from childhood… it’s probably sitting on a shelf in the back.
And the headphones that you swore that this time you’d keep safe? You guessed it….

Antoinette has lost her father. Metaphorically. He’s not in the shop, and she’ll never see him again. But when Antsy finds herself lost (literally, this time), she finds that however many doors open for her, leaving the Shop for good might not be as simple as it sounds.

And stepping through those doors exacts a price.

Lost in the Moment and Found tells us that childhood and innocence, once lost, can never be found.

You might wonder whether, by the 8th book in a series, an author might run out of fresh stories to tell.

If the author is Seanan McGuire, then the answer is — not a chance! In Lost in the Moment and Found, she puts a fresh spin on the ongoing Wayward Children series, once again moving the focus to a completely new character in a completely new circumstance.

While all the Wayward Children books feature children who’ve had lousy childhoods in one way or another, the circumstances here are particularly awful — enough so that the author includes a note prior to the opening of the story:

While all the Wayward Children books have dealt with heavy themes and childhood traumas, this one addresses an all-too-familiar monster: the one that lives in your own home. Themes of grooming and adult gaslighting are present in the early text. As a survivor of something very similar, I would not want to be surprised by these elements where I didn’t expect them.

I just want to offer you this reassurance: Antsy runs. Before anything can actually happen, Antsy runs.

I have to say, I very much appreciated the warning. While the sense of dread builds in the early part of the book, at least I could proceed without fearing the absolute worst. And as the author promises, the main character, Antsy, does in fact run. When her fear and sense of isolation and lack of support gets to the point that she can no longer stand it, she finds a way out and escapes.

… as she got older, she would come to think that the ability to cry was the third thing she’d lost in a single day.

Antsy, at age six, a year after a terrible loss, gains a stepfather whom she never wanted, but she hopes her mother’s happiness will allow her to feel happy too. It doesn’t work that way. Her sense of wrongness and unease whenever she’s around her stepfather only continues to grow. He’s insidious, undermining Antsy in small ways through lies and contradictions, so that Antsy knows that if she goes to her mother with her big worries, she won’t be believed. It’s utterly heartbreaking.

When Antsy finally does reach her breaking point and runs away, she ends up at a strange little thrift shop that she never noticed before, with the words “Be Sure” written over the door frame. Once inside, the door she entered through disappears, and Antsy finds herself in a new home with an odd elderly woman and a talking magpie as companions.

As she stays in this store, she discovers new doors leading to new worlds, where she meets all sorts of strange and fascinating people and brings back more goods for the infinite shelves of the store she lives in. And for a long time, she forgets that there’s anything else out there and doesn’t think to question certain very odd occurrences…

Eventually, Antsy realizes that there’s a steep price to be paid for all the miraculous new worlds she visits — and that she may run out of options sooner than expected. The ending is moving and fitting, very sad, but with a small sliver of hope too.

Yes, I’m being vague!

As in all the Wayward Children books, the writing is simply gorgeous. These stories are never just straight-forward action — there’s a sense of mythic scope embedded in the descriptions of sad, lost children, and loss permeates so much of the storytelling.

The toll of childhood trauma becomes literal here: Antsy’s loss of safety and innocence leads to her new reality in the strange world of endless doors and lost things:

She should have had a childhood, ice cream and matinees and sunshine and cookies, not working in a dusty shop while she grew up faster than she should have been able to, rocketing toward adulthood, spending hours she’d never be able to recover! She should have had time. It was hers, and she had never agreed to give it away.

Antsy’s story is particularly tragic — obviously, no small child should ever have to doubt whether the one person they count on will actually believe them when they speak up. We can cheer Antsy on as she saves herself, but still, we can’t avoid mourning her shattered childhood and sense of faith in family and love.

The Wayward Children books include beautiful drawings by the very talented Rovina Cai. See more at https://www.rovinacai.com/portfolio/wayward-children-series/

As a whole, the Wayward Children series is beautiful, sad, emotional, and full of heartache and redemption. There’s hope and joy to offset the sorrow, but an undercurrent of sadness never quite leaves the stories or their characters.

I love the series, and I’m so happy that Lost in the Moment and Found lives up to my (very high) expectations. Please do start from the beginning if you haven’t read any of these yet! Each book is novella -length, but don’t rush through them — the lovely writing should be savored.

Audiobook Review: Beyond the Wand: The Magic & Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard by Tom Felton

Title: Beyond the Wand: The Magic & Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard
Author: Tom Felton
Narrator: Tom Felton
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Print length: 286 pages
Audio length: 6 hours, 36 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

They called for a break, and Gambon magicked up a cigarette from out of his beard. He and I were often to be found outside the stage door, having ‘a breath of fresh air’, as we referred to it. There would be painters and plasterers and chippies and sparks, and among them all would be me and Dumbledore having a crafty cigarette.

From Borrower to wizard, Tom Felton’s adolescence was anything but ordinary. His early rise to fame saw him catapulted into the limelight aged just twelve when he landed the iconic role of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films.

Speaking with candour and his own trademark humour, Tom shares his experience of growing up on screen and as part of the wizarding world for the very first time. He tells all about his big break, what filming was really like and the lasting friendships he made during ten years as part of the franchise, as well as the highs and lows of fame and the reality of navigating adult life after filming finished.

Prepare to meet a real-life wizard.

Draco speaks!

In Beyond the Wand, actor Tom Felton shares stories from his early childhood, the Potter years, and beyond. Unlike some of the seriously dire and disturbing celebrity memoirs of the past year, Beyond the Wand is a mostly upbeat, light-hearted romp through the life of an actor whose professional work will forever be defined by the sneering Slytherin he portrayed so well.

Significantly younger than his three older brothers, Tom grew up with a healthy dose of love and fun, but also humility — his brothers were always happy to cut him down to size before celebrity could go to his head. After roles in two smaller films, Tom’s life changed forever when he was cast as Draco Malfoy… without ever having read the Harry Potter books. (His description of the audition scene, where he had to fake knowledge of the story — and failed — is very funny).

His descriptions of the early years of filming are sweet, humorous, and eye-opening. There’s nothing scandalous here, don’t worry! Tom shares stories of on-set experiences, filming challenges, and lots of fun little stories — for example, his grandfather, acting as Tom’s required on-set chaperone, had such an impressive white beard that director Chris Columbus ended up casting him as a Hogwarts professor!

Because Draco was a lower-profile character than the big three of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, Tom’s profile as a star was somewhat lower-key as well. And because he had fewer scenes over all, he was able to continue attending his Muggle school in between filming, which he credits with enabling him to have a semi-normal childhood. Yes, he had a lead role in one of the biggest movie franchises ever, but he also had regular school, friends, and older brothers to keep him grounded (and occasionally get him into trouble as well).

The tone of Beyond the Wand is light and funny. Listening to the audiobook is a pleasure — he narrates his own story, and speaks it all as if he were hanging out with you and telling stories. It feels accessible and personal, and he injects a sense of fun into it all.

One of the elements I really appreciated in Beyond the Wand was Tom’s depiction of the older cast of Harry Potter and their influence on him and his child co-stars. As he describes, walking onto set as a 12-year-old, he had no idea of the stature of the adult cast members. And yet, over time, he came to realize just how fortunate he was to act alongside actors such as Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman. He shares plenty of lovely anecdotes about their interactions with the children, their influence, and their generosity, and he also pays loving tribute to the cast members no longer with us, which is quite touching.

It’s only in the last couple of chapters that we get to anything darker, as he describes his post-Potter Hollywood years, his sense of loss of direction, a brief period of alcohol abuse, and struggles with mental health. The focus is mostly on the positive, though — on the importance of being able to get help without shame, and the value he’s found in seeking treatment when needed.

Other than those chapters, the tone is very fun and full of larks, and overall, Beyond the Wand is a really enjoyable listen. Even for huge Potter fans, there are plenty of behind-the-scenes tidbits shared here that will be new and fresh. (Nothing scandalous — it’s all good fun, with a sense of Tom’s enjoyment at being a bit of a rascal.)

This would be a great gift for any adult who grew up on Potter. Tom Felton presents his story with humor and modesty, as well as deep appreciation for the experiences he’s had and the people he’s worked with. He comes across as very human and not overly impressed with his own celebrity — it’s a friendly, chummy memoir about a boy who ended up following a very unusual path. Lots of fun — definitely recommended.

Book Review: Poster Girl by Veronica Roth

Title: Poster Girl
Author: Veronica Roth
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Science fiction/dystopian
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

WHAT’S RIGHT IS RIGHT.

Sonya Kantor knows this slogan–she lived by it for most of her life. For decades, everyone in the Seattle-Portland megalopolis lived under it, as well as constant surveillance in the form of the Insight, an ocular implant that tracked every word and every action, rewarding or punishing by a rigid moral code set forth by the Delegation.

Then there was a revolution. The Delegation fell. Its most valuable members were locked in the Aperture, a prison on the outskirts of the city. And everyone else, now free from the Insight’s monitoring, went on with their lives.

Sonya, former poster girl for the Delegation, has been imprisoned for ten years when an old enemy comes to her with a deal: find a missing girl who was stolen from her parents by the old regime, and earn her freedom. The path Sonya takes to find the child will lead her through an unfamiliar, crooked post-Delegation world where she finds herself digging deeper into the past–and her family’s dark secrets–than she ever wanted to.

With razor sharp prose, Poster Girl is a haunting dystopian mystery that explores the expanding role of surveillance on society–an inescapable reality that we welcome all too easily.

Most of the YA dystopian novels I’ve read follow a similar story arc. We learn about the society and all the ways in which it’s awful, we follow a plucky hero as they work to overthrow the government, and we end with a victory.

But what happens after the victory? When the bad guys are toppled from power, what takes their place? And what happens to the many people who lived under the old regime — not major evil-doers, but those who, one way or another, ended up on the wrong side of history?

In Poster Girl, marketed as an adult novel rather than YA, author Veronica Roth shows us one particular post-dystopian world. We meet Sonya Kantor, daughter of an influential figure within the Delegation, the toppled autocratic government. Sonya herself was deemed “mediocre” by the Delegation and never did anything considered particularly important… until her father asked her if she’d like to be featured on an official Delegation poster. Ten years after the Delegation’s demise, Sonya is still known as Poster Girl — and nobody means that as a good thing anymore.

Sonya is imprisoned in the Aperture, a former block of apartment buildings heading slowly toward decay, now a prison for people associated with the Delegation (but not having done anything quite heinous enough to get sent to a more formal prison, or worse). The outside world seems content to let the residents of the Aperture fade away, in shoddy living conditions and inadequate food, and absolutely no hope of anything other than remaining there until they eventually die.

But when a new policy comes into effect by which Children of the Delegation — those imprisoned while minors — can be freed, Sonya remains just the wrong side of the age cut-off. Initially imprisoned at seventeen, she’s now 27 and just a teeny bit too old to qualify for release… until a former acquaintance offers her a too-good-to-be-true deal: Find a long-missing child on behalf of the Triumvirate, the new governing body, and she’ll earn her freedom at last.

As Poster Girl moves forward, we see Sonya navigate the changed city outside the Aperture’s walls, learning what has changed (and what hasn’t) in the years of her incarceration. It’s hard to hope, but harder to walk away, even though the idea of freedom doesn’t necessarily offer her any promise of happiness. With no family or friends on the outside, what could possibly await her?

I found Sonya’s challenge to be quite intriguing. She’s not a straight-forward hero. She’s done some lousy things in her past, blithely went along with the Delegation’s rules, victimized others for her own benefit. And yet, the prospect of a hopeless life within the Aperture makes Sonya sympathetic. Despite her past, she’s clearly trying to help others in her present, and her complicated mix of guilt and remorse make her an interesting character, morally grey, but trying and hoping to be better.

For me, this look into a post-dystopian world presented a unique take on a disjointed imagined future. As I mentioned earlier, I’m used to dystopian fiction that ends right after the victory. Hurray, the evil government has been overthrown! But the question of what comes next presents more nuanced questions to consider. Is the replacement government truly better? What’s life like for average people in the new society? Are people better off? Who determines which people end up on the right side of history?

Poster Girl features fascinating characters in a thought-provoking situation. While some of the action and investigation sequences felt a little unrealistic, overall, I thought the storyline was well written. Fast-paced and never dull, Poster Girl is well worth the read!