Book Review: The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey

Title: The Book of Koli
Author: M. R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: April 14, 2020
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Beyond the walls of the small village of Mythen Rood lies an unrecognizable world. A world where overgrown forests are filled with choker trees and deadly vines and seeds that will kill you where you stand. And if they don’t get you, one of the dangerous shunned men will.

Koli has lived in Mythen Rood his entire life. He knows the first rule of survival is that you don’t venture beyond the walls.

What he doesn’t know is – what happens when you aren’t given a choice?

The first in a gripping new trilogy, The Book of Koli charts the journey of one unforgettable young boy struggling to find his place in a chilling post-apocalyptic world. Perfect for readers of Station Eleven and Annihilation

I got a story to tell you. I’ve been meaning to make a start for a long while now, and this is me doing it, but I’m warning you it might be a bumpy road. I never done nothing like this before, so I got no map, as it were, and I can’t figure how much of what happened to me is worth telling.

Meet Koli. Koli lives in the village of Mythen Rood, a town of 200 people — which to Koli, is a “terrible big place”, located in “a place called Ingland”. Mythen Rood is surrounded by walls, because everything in the outside world can kill. Koli is the youngest child of the town’s woodsmith — and in a world where trees are deadly, this is indeed a dangerous job.

Everything that lives hates us, it sometimes seems. Or at least they come after us like they hate us. Things we want to eat fight back, hard as they can, and oftentimes win. Thing that want to eat us is thousands strong, so many of them that we only got names for the ones that live closest to us. And the trees got their own ways to hurt us, blunt or subtle according to their several natures.

The world of Mythen Rood is protected by Ramparts, people who have a special connection to old-world tech, and use the tech to fight off the dangerous elements — like wild animals, deadly drones, and killer trees — that threaten the town. According to the town’s rituals, fifteen-year-olds enter a year of seclusion called Waiting, then undergo a test to become a Rampart. If the tech wakes when they touch it, then they become a Rampart too. But in Mythen Rood, it seems that one family in particular has the gift of waking tech, so despite Koli’s dreams of becoming a Rampart, it’s a long shot.

And when Koli learns a secret that might upend the world of Mythen Rood and threaten the power of the dominant family, he faces punishment and exile, and is cast out into the harsh world to fend for himself… or die.

Koli’s story fits the pattern of the hero’s journey, and the new world in which the story takes places is absolutely fascinating. The setting is centuries into the future, when old cities have all died, tech is something people view as practically magical, human settlements are scattered and isolated, and the natural world is deadly. The idea of trees being able to move, hunt, and kill is simply terrifying. People only venture into the forest to hunt for food and catch wood for lumber when it’s cloudy, because the trees wake up and become active when the sun shines, and if you’re caught out in the forest when it’s sunny, you’re most likely not coming back.

The interweaving of technology and mythology is so well done. Because of course, to people who have no access to technology and the knowledge of how it works, such things would appear to be magic, and the people able to use them must be favored with great powers.

Koli himself is a terrific characters, smart but illiterate, aware of his own flaws and honest about them. Koli’s life changes when he comes into contact with an old Sony music player powered by AI. The Dreamsleeve is programmed with the voice of a Japanese pop star from the old days, whose voice is perky and full of Tokyo party slang and attitude. Monono becomes the central focus of Koli’s life, and his interactions with her are what propels his story out of the safety of village life and into the unknown.

I can’t say enough good things about this book! I’ve heard that some readers find Koli’s voice irritating. I didn’t experience it that way. The author has created a unique personality in Koli, and his speech patterns let us know right away how different his world is from ours.

The Book of Koli is the first book in a trilogy, with the second book, The Trials of Koli, due out later this year. I will absolutely be reading #2 the second I can get my hands on it!

Book Review: The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren

Title: The Honey-Don’t List
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: March 24, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Carey Duncan has worked for home remodeling and design gurus Melissa and Rusty Tripp for nearly a decade. A country girl at heart, Carey started in their first store at sixteen, and—more than anyone would suspect—has helped them build an empire. With a new show and a book about to launch, the Tripps are on the verge of superstardom. There’s only one problem: America’s favorite couple can’t stand each other.

James McCann, MIT graduate and engineering genius, was originally hired as a structural engineer, but the job isn’t all he thought it’d be. The last straw? Both he and Carey must go on book tour with the Tripps and keep the wheels from falling off the proverbial bus.

Unfortunately, neither of them is in any position to quit. Carey needs health insurance, and James has been promised the role of a lifetime if he can just keep the couple on track for a few more weeks. While road-tripping with the Tripps up the West Coast, Carey and James vow to work together to keep their bosses’ secrets hidden, and their own jobs secure. But if they stop playing along—and start playing for keeps—they may have the chance to build something beautiful together…

From the “hilariously zany and heartfelt” (Booklist) Christina Lauren comes a romantic comedy that proves if it’s broke, you might as well fix it. 

I’ve been a fan of author duo Christina Lauren since I first encountered one of their books a couple of years ago. They specialize in bright, contemporary romances, typically between characters who are forthright, professional, and looking for that special someone (even if they don’t always think they are).

The Honey-Do List fits the pattern, and is a charming but light-weight addition to their work. Carey and James are clearly destined for one another, despite their mutual animosity and resentment at the start of the story. They find one another pushy and annoying, and Carey is so over James’s insistence that he’s an engineer while he’s clearly filling the role of gopher/all-around assistant.

Their bosses, Melly and Rusty, are self-obsessed celebrities who built a brand on their adorable chemistry and star-power marriage, but behind the scenes, they’re bitter and angry and barely in control of their hostility. The success of their upcoming book tour and new Netflix series rests on them presenting a united, cheerful, loving front, but Carey and James face an uphill battle trying to get them to comply.

Meanwhile, Carey and James are just naturally drawn together, slowly building trust and sharing secrets while also giving in to their crazy attraction for one another.

You’ll want to slap Melly, and to give Carey a good shake and tell her to wake up and assert herself and own her talents and contributions to the Tripps’ success. There’s of course a misunderstanding that seems like it’ll sink Carey and James’s new relationship, but honestly, if you’ve ever read a romance before, then you’ll have no doubt how it will all work out.

It’s a fun read, very quick and easy, but doesn’t exactly break new ground. I liked the book, and parts were quite funny, but I don’t think this one will stick with me for long. Then again, I’m not much of a romance reader, so I may have exceeded my limits for this type of thing so far this year.

The Honey-Do List is entertaining but inconsequential, which is fine if you’re in the mood for some fluffy reading.

And hey, who doesn’t need that right about now?

Audiobook Review: Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Title: Get A Life, Chloe Brown
Author: Talia Hibbert
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Print length: 373 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 17 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐

Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. The next items?

• Enjoy a drunken night out.

• Ride a motorcycle.

• Go camping.

• Have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.

• Travel the world with nothing but hand luggage.

• And… do something bad.

But it’s not easy being bad, even when you’ve written step-by-step guidelines on how to do it correctly. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.

Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior… 

I have such mixed feelings about this book. I really liked the main characters, Chloe and Red, and appreciated so much about their story. And yet, there are parts of this book that I simply, literally, could not take and had to fast-forward through.

So, 3-stars is a really apt rating for my experience — squarely in the middle.

Let me back up and explain.

Chloe is an awesome main character. She’s a smart and talented black woman from a wealthy family, and is aware of the privilege she’s grown up with. She’s also chronically ill, suffering with fibromyalgia and continuous pain that leaves her completely debilitated at frequent intervals. Chloe protects herself fiercely; having been burned by a previous relationship and left with awful feelings of abandonment, she’s determined not to be vulnerable that way ever again.

And constantly living with physical pain, Chloe is not a risk-taker. She knows her limits, and sticks with them, until the day she has a near-miss with a drunk driver, and realizes it’s time to do more with her life. Hence her “get a life” list — because Chloe loves her life spelled out in neat and orderly lists, so a list is absolutely necessary if she’s going to make a change.

Meanwhile, Red is the red-headed, white, tattooed, super-hot superintendent of the building Chloe moves into, and while he’s lovely to everyone else, he and Chloe immediately rub each other the wrong way. He’s sure she’s a stuck-up snob, and she’s sure he’s rude and too into his bad-boy image.

Eventually, of course, they experience a breakthrough (thanks to Chloe pursuing a lost cat up a tree, and Red having to enact a seriously adorable rescue of both woman and kitty.) As they start to warm up and trust one another, a physical and emotional connection blossoms, each finding that one special person to help them move forward after painful pasts.

Here’s what I really liked about this story:

  • The playful flirtation and banter between Chloe and Red.
  • How Chloe and Red are each talented in their own fields, and wholeheartedly appreciate one another’s talents.
  • How they support each other’s weak points as well as their strengths, and show caring and concern in all sorts of little and big ways.
  • How freaking cute they are together at all times.
  • The sensitive way the author portrays Chloe’s disability.
  • The sensitive way the author portrays the emotional abuse that’s left Red traumatized.
  • How Chloe and Red learn together how to make room for their differences and their emotional wounds.

So what didn’t I like? Well, I suppose it gets down to my preferences when it comes to romances. I like steam… and I’m no prude… but I don’t need anatomical details when it comes to love scenes. And there’s a LOT of anatomy in this book.

The sex scenes are very graphically described — and again, good for Chloe and Red for having such a great time together! But I prefer my fiction to leave more to the imagination… and when that many body parts and secretions are described that often and in that much detail, that’s just not going to appeal to me. So, somewhere in the 2nd half of the book, I realized I could save myself some agony by using the fast-forward button in 10 second increments until I got to the afterglow, when the plot would safely pick back up.

Like I said, I know that’s just a personal preference, so no judgment for readers who like this sort of thing. It’s just not for me, and that’s too bad, because in the case of Get A Life, Chloe Brown, I really liked the characters and their story. But I found myself wishing that I had a magic editing button on my Audible app to allow me to edit out the explicit scenes and just stick to the plot (although that would have cut this audiobook down to about 60% of its length, I’d guess).

A note on the audiobook — the narrator is quite good! I liked her portrayal of Chloe. She made her so adorable! And Red’s voice was really good too, growly and rough, but also loving and appreciative of the wonder of Chloe Brown.

All in all, a good love story wrapped up in a package that just doesn’t 100% work for me. Which is too bad. There’s a new book coming out about Chloe’s sister, and part of me is intrigued — but after my experiences with this book, I’m not sure I could stand another round of anatomy lessons. Ah well. Can’t win ’em all.

Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.

In these crazy, unsettled times, who doesn’t need a perfect pick-me-up of a book?

If you’re looking for something special and heart-warming, have I got a book for you!

The House in the Cerulean Sea is utterly lovely and altogether charming. It makes me smile just thinking about it.

The main character is a buttoned-up pencil-pusher named Linus Baker, who is a caseworker for DICOMY — the Department In Charge of Magical Youth. DICOMY is a marvel of bureaucracy, supposedly invested in the well-being of magical children, but really focused more on containment and concealment.

And don’t be fooled into thinking we’re talking a Hogwarts-type setting here. In this world, there are magical children, but they’re problems to be solved, not gifted youth to be nurtured. And for at least the children we meet in The House in the Cerulean Sea, they don’t (mostly) have human appearances. These children are very clearly other, and they live in a world in which they’re adamantly and obviously unwanted.

Linus’s job is to visit orphanages housing these children and to file reports. His life and his job haven’t changed in years and years — until he’s summoned to a meeting with Extremely Upper Management, who send him on a classified, top-secret mission to Marsyas Island and the orphanage there. Linus’s new assignment is to spend four weeks at Marsyas, filing weekly reports on the headmaster and the children in his charge, and ultimately to recommend whether the orphanage should remain open or be shut down.

Linus is not at all prepared for what he finds there. First of all, it’s on the sea — and he’s never seen an ocean or a beach before. It’s beautiful, and he’s immediately enchanted. And then there are the children. All are strange and different, and at first, Linus is more or less terrified, yet before long, he sees how truly special the children are… once he gets past the somewhat scary and strange exteriors of a few of them.

The story is just lovely. I loved seeing how Linus reluctantly opens up and connects with the children and headmaster of Marsyas, and how his warmth brings out new interests and confidence in each of them. This is a perfect example of a found family story, and it’s marvelous.

The writing is descriptive and lively and funny, but also has great emotional depth. The author does an excellent job of showing us the individuals living inside each of the odd exteriors that the public sees.

My favorite has to be Lucy — short for Lucifer — a six-year-old boy who’s adorable and also happens to be the Antichrist. He’s prone to making such statements as:

“Mr. Baker… Can I get you something to drink? Juice, perhaps? Tea?” He leaned forward and dropped his voice. “The blood of a baby born in a cemetery under a full moon?”

… and

“There,” he said brightly. “You’re welcome! And I’m not even thinking about banishing your soul to eternal damnation or anything!”

Really and truly, this book was a special read, and was a perfect distraction for me from the chaos and confusion of our current world. But I’m sure that even in relatively normal times, I’d love this book! Don’t miss it.

Book Review: Smoke Bitten (Mercy Thompson, #12) by Patricia Briggs

Title: Smoke Bitten (Mercy Thompson, #12)
Author: Patricia Briggs
Publisher: Ace
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Mercy Thompson, car mechanic and shapeshifter, faces a threat unlike any other in this thrilling entry in the #1 New York Times bestselling series.

I am Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman.

My only “superpowers” are that I turn into a thirty-five pound coyote and fix Volkswagens. But I have friends in odd places and a pack of werewolves at my back. It looks like I’m going to need them.

Centuries ago, the fae dwelt in Underhill–until she locked her doors against them. They left behind their great castles and troves of magical artifacts. They abandoned their prisoners and their pets. Without the fae to mind them, those creatures who remained behind roamed freely through Underhill wreaking havoc. Only the deadliest survived.

Now one of those prisoners has escaped. It can look like anyone, any creature it chooses. But if it bites you, it controls you. It lives for chaos and destruction. It can make you do anything–even kill the person you love the most. Now it is here, in the Tri-Cities. In my territory.

It won’t, can’t, remain.

Not if I have anything to say about it.

A new Mercy book is always cause for celebration! Twelve books in, the Mercy Thompson urban fantasy series is still going strong. Long may Mercy reign!

Mercy, our favorite VW mechanic and mate of the Columbia Basin werewolf pack Alpha, is tough, strong, determined, loyal… and also easily hurt by anything that damages the bond between her and Adam.

And, in a move that absolutely broke my heart, author Patricia Briggs kicks off this newest adventure in the series by letting us know that something is very, very wrong with Mercy and Adam’s mate bond. He’s holding himself apart from Mercy, and it’s tearing her heart to pieces.

But there’s other trouble as well. A dangerous new enemy is taking over people’s minds and making them do terrible things. A group of outsider wolves are trying to invade Adam’s territory. And the scary vampire Wulfe seems to be newly obsessed with Mercy.

In typical Mercy fashion, she never backs down when her loved ones are in danger, and she throws herself into the fight against everything threatening her marriage, her friends, and her pack.

I won’t say too much about the plot, but I loved the answer to the riddles about the bad guy’s identity, and I was thrilled when a certain magical artifact makes an appearance after being gone for a while.

I tend to give all Mercy books 5 stars because I just love this series so much! But, relative to some of the other books in the series, I’d put Smoke Bitten as maybe a smidge less earth-shaking, so I’m being a little stingy here and only going with 4.5! Still a great book, but not quite the best of the best!

As I said, a new Mercy book is always cause for celebration… but also sadness, because now that I’ve read the newest, it’ll be another year of waiting for the next installment.

For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading this series yet, jump in! I love the characters, the world-building, the relationships… just really everything. Mercy is an amazing lead character — you’ll love her too!

Book Review: Hearts of Oak by Eddie Robson

Title: Hearts of Oak
Author: Eddie Robson
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The buildings grow.

And the city expands.

And the people of the land are starting to behave abnormally.

Or perhaps they’ve always behaved that way, and it’s normality that’s at fault.

And the king of the land confers with his best friend, who happens to be his closest advisor, who also happens to be a talking cat. But that’s all perfectly natural and not at all weird.

And when chief architect Iona wakes from a long period of blindly accepting the status quo, she realizes there’s a mystery to be solved. A strange, somewhat bizarre mystery, to be sure, but no less dangerous for its improbability.

And the cat is almost certainly involved!

How does a book featuring a king with a talking cat turn into science fiction?

I’m not telling!

But I will say this: Hearts of Oak is all sorts of awesome, and was exactly the sort of punchy, engaging read I needed this week.

The setting is weird and perplexing. We’re in a city where everything seems to be made of wood, and the entire focus of the city is building. Architects are practically rock stars, and the only city functions that seem to matter are building and planning.

And then there’s the king (and his cat Clarence), who observe the growth of the city from their window in the king’s tower, reading daily reports and signing off on plans, but really not doing much of anything else.

Everything seems to change when chief architect Iona is approached by a woman asking to be tutored in architecture. Something about Alyssa seems off, and her presence starts to bring forward words and images that Iona associates with her odd, recurring dreams.

And I’m not going to say what happens next! There are plenty of cool twists, and I actually laughed out loud over certain developments — like, OH, so THAT’s where this is going!

Seriously, this book just needs to be read! It’s great fun, full of surprises and really amazing and inventive elements, and I just could not put it down. I can see returning to Hearts of Oak and reading it again from time to time — it’s that good!

And a final great thing — it’s worth taking a closer look at the cover! I love the detail!

Audiobook Review: Becoming by Michelle Obama

Title: Becoming
Author: Michelle Obama
Narrator: Michelle Obama
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: November 13, 2018
Print length: 426 pages
Audio length: 19 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.

In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same. 

I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.

Michelle Obama tells it all beautifully. In this powerful memoir, our former First Lady narrates her life with grace, dignity, and intelligence, from her childhood in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago to her life in the White House. It’s quite a journey, and by listening to the audiobook, I was able to hear the author’s own voice, and it was amazing.

There’s so much to love about this book. Michelle Obama is plain spoken as she shares her love for her family, talking about her parents, brother, and extended family, their challenges and their optimism, their dedication to making sure that no doors would be closed to them.

I really didn’t know much about her background prior to reading Becoming, and found myself impressed over and over again while hearing about her early education, her determination, and her hard work, as well as her devotion to the friends she met along the way.

The early stages of her romance with Barack Obama are simply charming, and I appreciated her no-nonsense approach to their story, getting across their mutual love and respect while also giving a sense of their challenges and where they differ as people.

Hearing more about the campaign trail and life in the White House was also fascinating, and I couldn’t help but admire the Obama’s commitment to raising their daughters with as normal a life as possible despite living in the ultimate fishbowl.

Becoming is a wonderful book, a moving memoir and an inspiring depiction of what two people dedicated to improving the world around them can accomplish. It also made me a little sad, missing the grace and intellect that the Obamas brought to the presidency, and made me wish for a time when doing good would mean more than political power.

Highly, highly recommended — and the audiobook experience is a treat.

Book Review: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt by Andrea Bobotis

Title: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt
Author: Andrea Bobotis
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: July 9, 2019
Length: 311 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Some bury their secrets close to home. Others scatter them to the wind and hope they land somewhere far away.

Judith Kratt inherited all the Kratt family had to offer—the pie safe, the copper clock, the murder no one talks about. She knows it’s high time to make an inventory of her household and its valuables, but she finds that cataloging the family belongings—as well as their misfortunes—won’t contain her family’s secrets, not when her wayward sister suddenly returns, determined to expose skeletons the Kratts had hoped to take to their graves.

Interweaving the present with chilling flashbacks from one fateful evening in 1929, Judith pieces together the influence of her family on their small South Carolina cotton town, learning that the devastating effects of dark family secrets can last a lifetime and beyond. 

Miss Judith Kratt has lived in the imposing family home in Bound, South Carolina all her life. Now in her mid-70s, she lives contentedly with Olva — an African American woman who seems to be both servant and companion, the two women having spent their entire lives together. Judith has the idea to start an inventory of the house’s objects, all of which seem to hold a piece of the family history.

The Kratt family rose from nothing with Judith’s father, a bully of a man who strong-armed and cheated his way into a fortune in the cotton and mercantile business. He ruled his family and his town with an iron fist, inspiring fear and obedience whever he went.

In alternating chapters, we visit Judith’s memories of her teen years, going back to the fateful year of 1929 when her family’s fortunes changed dramatically.

Meanwhile, in the present of 1989, a local man and his six-year-old daughter take shelter in the Kratt home after being pursued by the grandson of Daddy Kratt’s former business partner. We see the cycles of hate and violence being carried through the generations, as the descendants of the grown-ups from Judith’s childhood still carry their forefathers’ handed-down grudges.

Judith seems odd and standoffish at first, but the more we learn about her childhood, the more her strange life starts to make sense. There are powerful family secrets buried in her and Olva’s pasts, and these secrets are still weighty enough to change lives all these years later.

As Judith makes her inventory, we come to understand the meaning of all the difference objects in her house, and how they relate to the family tragedy. It’s a clever and strangely moving approach to showing the weight of memories, and how those can add up to an entire life defined by the past.

The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt isn’t exactly what I expected, especially based on the book cover (which was what originally caught my eye). The image made me expect a work of historical fiction, maybe 1950s era or thereabouts, about Southern belles and their families. That’s not this book at all, though.

Instead, The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt is about a 15-year-old girl and the older woman she becomes, and the family secrets that shadow her entire life. This book is my book group’s pick for March, and I can wait to hear what everyone else thought and to pick apart the tangled web of secrets with them. Definitely a recommended read!

Book Review: The Deep by Alma Katsu

Title: The Deep
Author: Alma Katsu
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Horror/Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐

Someone, or something, is haunting the Titanic.

This is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the passengers of the ship from the moment they set sail: mysterious disappearances, sudden deaths. Now suspended in an eerie, unsettling twilight zone during the four days of the liner’s illustrious maiden voyage, a number of the passengers – including millionaires Madeleine Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, the maid Annie Hebbley and Mark Fletcher – are convinced that something sinister is going on . . . And then, as the world knows, disaster strikes.

Years later and the world is at war. And a survivor of that fateful night, Annie, is working as a nurse on the sixth voyage of the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, now refitted as a hospital ship. Plagued by the demons of her doomed first and near fatal journey across the Atlantic, Annie comes across an unconscious soldier she recognises while doing her rounds. It is the young man Mark. And she is convinced that he did not – could not – have survived the sinking of the Titanic . . .

I had high hopes for The Deep, but sadly, I finished the book feeling underwhelmed after struggling throughout to stay engaged.

Partially, this may have been due to mistaken expectations. I expected a story about something coming from the deep to menace the Titanic and the people on board. I mean, based on the cover and the title, that’s reasonable, right? But that’s not really the story here, not exactly.

The Deep reads mostly like a fictionalized recounting of the Titanic’s doomed voyage. We meet the famous real-life first class passengers, including the Astors and Guggenheims, and see the luxury of their accommodations. At the same time, we’re introduced to the fictional Annie Hebbley, a stewardess working in the first -class cabins, as well as several other fictional passengers.

Much of the story is a straight-forward narrative of upper class and lower class, the gossip and intrigue that ensues by having so many people of privilege in this exclusive setting, and the below-stairs pressure on the ship’s serving crew. We don’t actually spend any time in steerage, coming closest in the presence of two boxers who charm the first-class passengers while running cons and planning for a new life in New York.

The supernatural elements creep in as weird things happen involving Annie, her strange connection to a couple and their baby, and some unexplainable interludes with a few of the top tier passengers.

The Titanic scenes alternate with scenes on board the Britannic four years later, where Annie works as a nurse to wounded soldiers, and which undergoes its own nautical tragedy.

Look, a novel about the Titanic has to hit certain beats. It needs to follow the historical events, present some of the real-life characters, and give a sense of the scope of the tragedy. The Deep is only partially successful here. The scenes amongst the first-class passengers focus on their petty interactions, but as a whole fail to really captivate or give a sense of the grandness of the sailing. And there’s more or less a complete disregard for the passengers in steerage. They’re referenced in passing, but we really don’t get any sense of their experience.

As far as the iceberg and the sinking, these are told through the eyes of the characters we’ve come to know, but again, the main events seem just like backdrop.

I ended up interested in the ghost-story twists revealed toward the end of the book, but that’s not enough to rescue what was mostly a struggle to stay interested. The supernatural elements are scattered throughout the story, but not strongly enough to create any sense of suspense or horror.

Perhaps the ghost story would have been better served by being set on an anonymous, fictional ship. You don’t need the Titanic for the story that was ultimately told, and that piece of the narrative just isn’t grand enough to have an impact on what we know of the true tragedy of the Titanic and its passengers.

I’ve read other works of fiction set on the Titanic which hew very closely to the real events and yet manage to bring us up front and center. The two that come to mind most strongly are Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge and The Midnight Watch by David Dyer. Both are excellent.

For me, The Deep was not a great reading experience. And it’s up to you whether you’d consider this a plus or a minus, but I’ve had images of Titanic (the movie) firmly embedded in my brain ever since starting the book. And obviously, Celine Dion’s soundtrack has been haunting me ever since…

Book Review: A Murderous Relation (Veronica Speedwell, #5) by Deanna Raybourn

Title: A Murderous Relation (Veronica Speedwell, #5)
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian colleague Stoker are asked by Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk to help with a potential scandal so explosive it threatens to rock the monarchy. Prince Albert Victor is a regular visitor to the most exclusive private club in London, known as the Club de l’Etoile, and the proprietess, Madame Aurore, has received an expensive gift that can be traced back to the prince. Lady Wellie would like Veronica and Stoker to retrieve the jewel from the club before scandal can break.

Worse yet, London is gripped by hysteria in the autumn of 1888, terrorized by what would become the most notorious and elusive serial killer in history, Jack the Ripper–and Lady Wellie suspects the prince may be responsible.

Veronica and Stoker reluctantly agree to go undercover at Madame Aurore’s high class brothel, where another body soon turns up. Many secrets are swirling around Veronica and the royal family–and it’s up to Veronica and Stoker to find the truth, before it’s too late for all of them. 

Five books in, the Veronica Speedwell mystery series remains delightfully fun, with intrigue, arch dialogue, and an undeniable sexual chemistry between the main characters.

Veronica and Stoker have been through all sorts of hair-raising escapades by this point. They’re each strong, opinionated, and stubborn, but also fiercely devoted to one another and to helping those in need. Being highly intelligent natural scientists is just icing on the cake.

The story in book #5 picks up a couple of weeks after their latest adventure (A Dangerous Collaboration, book #4). Veronica and Stoker are looking forward to getting back to a normal routine and final consummating their relationship, but it’s not to be — at least, not yet.

They’re called upon to use their adept sneaky ways to save the royal family from a potentially explosive scandal… and since Veronica herself has a connection to the royals, she feels both an obligation and a resentment over this latest intrusion into her life.

Nonetheless, it’s Veronica and Stoker to the rescue, throwing themselves into a costumed ball at a high-end brothel and ending up in mortal peril themselves. Their adventures are, as always, fast-paced, full of danger and absurdly self-sacrificing moments of bravery, and plenty of snark.

There’s a tangential connection to the Whitechapel murders, and the disquieting threat of Jack the Ripper hangs over the story as a backdrop. Meanwhile, there are feats of physical daring, although ultimately it’s Veronica and Stoker’s smarts and instincts that make all the difference.

This series is so entertaining and delightful! It’s not terribly serious. And who doesn’t need a breezy Victorian romp every once in a while? Veronica and Stoker are terrific characters on their own, and together, they’re a powerhouse couple who can achieve just about anything without losing a hint of their devotion and attraction to one another.

I definitely recommend this series as a whole — but as with any good series, it’s always best to start at the beginning. Fans of the Veronica Speedwell books will not be disappointed by this book! And I’m happy to know that at least two more books in the series are planned. Excelsior!

Want to know more? Check out my reviews of the previous books in the Veronica Speedwell series:
A Curious Beginning
A Perilous Undertaking
A Treacherous Curse
A Dangerous Collaboration