Book Review: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

A big-hearted romantic comedy in which First Son Alex falls in love with Prince Henry of Wales after an incident of international proportions forces them to pretend to be best friends…

First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz is the closest thing to a prince this side of the Atlantic. With his intrepid sister and the Veep’s genius granddaughter, they’re the White House Trio, a beautiful millennial marketing strategy for his mother, President Ellen Claremont. International socialite duties do have downsides—namely, when photos of a confrontation with his longtime nemesis Prince Henry at a royal wedding leak to the tabloids and threaten American/British relations.

The plan for damage control: staging a fake friendship between the First Son and the Prince. Alex is busy enough handling his mother’s bloodthirsty opponents and his own political ambitions without an uptight royal slowing him down. But beneath Henry’s Prince Charming veneer, there’s a soft-hearted eccentric with a dry sense of humor and more than one ghost haunting him.

As President Claremont kicks off her reelection bid, Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret relationship with Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations. And Henry throws everything into question for Alex, an impulsive, charming guy who thought he knew everything: What is worth the sacrifice? How do you do all the good you can do? And, most importantly, how will history remember you?

Swoon.

Swoony swoon swoon.

For whatever reason, probably based on the cover, I thought this was going to be a sweet, light YA romance. But considering that the main characters are in their 20s, two healthy, lusty, consenting adults, I’m not sure how to categorize this. Is this what’s meant by new adult? Can we just agree that this is fiction featuring young-ish grown-ups, and forget about putting it on the correct shelf?

Red, White & Royal Blue is a delicious mix of sexy romance, hearts-and-flowers-worthy first love, politics, scandals, and plenty of hot and heavy action between two very attractive 20-ish young men. Who are, you know, royalty and the American version thereof.

Alex is the son of the first woman president, now up for reelection. He’s a smart-aleck who acts out plenty, but at heart he’s a policy geek who dreams of a career in politics for himself, following in the footsteps of his mother and his Congressman father. Henry is the second son of the heir to the British throne, the younger brother who’s handsome and pampered and kept very isolated from authentic experiences and relationships. The two have collided repeatedly over the years and are, at best, frenemies (without the friendship part), but after a public spectacle involved smooshed royal wedding cake, Alex and Henry are thrown together in a public relations ploy to defuse the media focus on their supposed fight.

As they start spending time together, Alex and Henry develop a strange connection via late night phone calls and texts, discovering unexpected shared life experiences and connecting through the strange reality of living life in a fishbowl, always under the scrutiny of the press and the public. When their fake friendship develops into true friendship, Alex finally realizes (after a surprise New Year’s kiss) that his friendly feelings for Henry run deeper than expected, and also, he finally understands that he’s bi and just never actually faced it.

Things blossom pretty quickly between Alex and Henry, and their encounters are hot and steamy and full of passion. But there’s also a lot of hiding and creating false narratives to throw their families and the public off their trail, and it’s exhausting. In this day and age, you wouldn’t expect coming out to be such a big deal, but Alex and Henry are not at all people in normal circumstances. The tabloids are already obsessed with their every move. What would happen to US/British relations if the truth was revealed? What would it mean for the President’s chances at reelection? What what it mean for the British monarchy to have an heir to the throne (third in line, in fact) publicly acknowledge that he’s gay?

Red, White & Royal Blue handles the issues with humor, political savvy, and a surprising depth of feeling. It’s hard not to feel sorry for both Alex and Henry. Each faces different sorts of pressure, and while either on their own coming out might be news for a bit, putting the two of them together can only lead to an explosion of scandal. Alex and Henry are adorable together, and their romance is lovely and funny and passionate in all the best ways. At the same time, it’s amusing to see the scurrying of secret service and campaign managers who need to keep the two in line, and how simple things like dating require NDAs and removals of cell phones just to get off the ground.

The politics is really entertaining too. First off, yes, it’s just as awesome as you’d think to have a story about a woman in the White House. I loved the President’s relationship with her kids, how no-nonsense she is, and yet how she comes through when she needs to. Seeing the royal family in action is a whole other set of fun, especially as the younger generation confronts the Queen about what they want out of life and what they’re willing to do to get it.

I was a little doubtful at the beginning, but pretty quickly, I was swept up in the giddy fun and the super-cute romance of the story. There are definitely lots of pretty steamy, detailed sex scenes, so ya know, if you prefer your fictional romances to be more flowery and less sweaty, you might think twice about picking up this book. But otherwise, prepare to swoon! Red, White & Royal Blue is escapist romantic fiction that hits lots of high points, starring very public figures without losing out on the personal, emotional connections that make a good love story.

And a final word — Red, White & Royal Blue would be adorable as a movie! Netflix, are you listening?
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The details:

Title: Red, White & Royal Blue
Author: Casey McQuiston
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: Storm Cursed (Mercy Thompson, #11) by Patricia Briggs

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In this powerful entry in the #1 New York Times bestselling series, Mercy Thompson must face a deadly enemy to defend all she loves…

My name is Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman, and I am a car mechanic.

And a coyote shapeshifter.

And the mate of the Alpha of the Columbia Basin werewolf pack.

Even so, none of that would have gotten me into trouble if, a few months ago, I hadn’t stood upon a bridge and taken responsibility for the safety of the citizens who lived in our territory. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. It should have only involved hunting down killer goblins, zombie goats, and an occasional troll. Instead, our home was viewed as neutral ground, a place where humans would feel safe to come and treat with the fae.

The reality is that nothing and no one is safe. As generals and politicians face off with the Gray Lords of the fae, a storm is coming and her name is Death.

But we are pack, and we have given our word.

We will die to keep it.

My Thoughts:

Mercy is back home in the Tri-Cities, and that means peace and quiet are pretty much out of the question. There’s never a dull moment for the Columbia Basin pack, so when black witches come to town intent on harvesting nasty power and preventing a peace negotiation between the human and fae governments, Mercy is forced to intervene in a big way.

Eleven books in, the Mercy series is as strong as ever, with more of our beloved characters, some fun lighter moments, and plenty of danger and action. Here, we learn more about a newer pack member and his mysterious past, as well as seeing the ongoing fall-out of Mercy’s declaration (a couple of books ago) that the werewolves would provide sanctuary in their territory to all who seek it.

We get some lovely Mercy and Adam moments too, which just warm my heart, and gain new insights into supporting characters such as Wulfe, Tad, Mary Jo, and Larry the goblin king. (And yes, his name is really Larry. I know.)

This series is just so wonderful. I hope Patricia Briggs never stops writing about Mercy… and I promise never to stop reading about Mercy… or the rest of the wolves… or Charles and Anna… or anyone else in this terrific urban fantasy world.

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The details:

Title: Storm Cursed (Mercy Thompson, #11)
Author: Patricia Briggs
Publisher: Ace
Publication date: March 7, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Purchased

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Audio hilarity: Heads Will Roll by Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne

Need another reason to love Audible Originals? Check out this new one — a sublimely silly audio delight from the talented Kate McKinnon and (her sister) Emily Lynne:

 

About This Audible Original

Please note: This content is not for kids. It is for mature audiences only. This audio comedy features sexual content, adult language and themes, and violence against peasants and hobgoblins alike. Discretion is advised.

Heads Will Roll is an Audible Original from Saturday Night Live star Kate McKinnon and her co-creator/co-star (and real-life sister) Emily Lynne. Produced by Broadway Video, this is not an audiobook—it’s a 10-episode, star-studded, audio comedy that features performances from Meryl Streep, Tim Gunn, Peter Dinklage, Queer Eye’s Fab Five, and so many more.

Queen Mortuana of the Night Realm (McKinnon) and her ditsy raven minion JoJo (Lynne) receive a prophecy about a peasant uprising. Together, they must journey to find the Shard of Acquiescence, which will put down the rebellion and save the throne. Will their friendship survive sensitive generals, chatty sex slaves, whiny behemoths, princes with bird fetishes, and the notion of democracy?

This raunchy satire also includes the wicked talents of Andrea Martin, Carol Kane, Audra McDonald, Aidy Bryant, Alex Moffat, Heidi Gardner, Chris Redd, Steve Higgins, Bob the Drag Queen, Esther Perel, and more. So, hold on to your head, and let the bad times roll.

Oh my. What a blast. If you’re looking for something light and utterly ridiculous — yet ridiculously entertaining — you must check out Heads Will Roll. The episodes follow the ongoing challenges of evil Queen Mortuana, who maybe — just maybe — might be getting tired of all this queen business… or maybe it’s just the negative press that’s wearing her down.

The commercials throughout the episodes are awesome — advertising wacky concepts like floors and monotheism (okay, you really need to listen to realize how funny this it — I’m terrible at repeating jokes), and there are some truly catchy medieval melodies that move the narration forward (and had me humming along to some seriously NSFW lyrics).

Kate McKinnon is brilliant, as expected, and Emily Lynne, as the cursed princess-turned-raven Jojo, is amazing too. I’m not particularly good at recognizing voices (still not sure which character Peter Dinklage voiced), but Meryl Streep is of course instantly identifiable — gotta love her dry humor as she plays a famous actress who ends up becoming the leader of the rebellion and a political activist.

And let’s not forget the rebellion consulting team, the corporate branding of battering rams, hags and poisoners and support groups, co-dependent gods, overbearing crow in-laws, and much, much more.

Just so much fun. A mood-lifting, very funny highlight of my week!

Audible Original: 4 hours, 6 minutes

A little taste:

For more info, check out the Audible page, here.

Take A Peek Book Review: There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Ashish Patel didn’t know love could be so…sucky. After he’s dumped by his ex-girlfriend, his mojo goes AWOL. Even worse, his parents are annoyingly, smugly confident they could find him a better match. So, in a moment of weakness, Ash challenges them to set him up.

The Patels insist that Ashish date an Indian-American girl—under contract. Per subclause 1(a), he’ll be taking his date on “fun” excursions like visiting the Hindu temple and his eccentric Gita Auntie. Kill him now. How is this ever going to work?

Sweetie Nair is many things: a formidable track athlete who can outrun most people in California, a loyal friend, a shower-singing champion. Oh, and she’s also fat. To Sweetie’s traditional parents, this last detail is the kiss of death.

Sweetie loves her parents, but she’s so tired of being told she’s lacking because she’s fat. She decides it’s time to kick off the Sassy Sweetie Project, where she’ll show the world (and herself) what she’s really made of.

Ashish and Sweetie both have something to prove. But with each date they realize there’s an unexpected magic growing between them. Can they find their true selves without losing each other?

My Thoughts:

It’s been a while since I’ve read any YA — and There’s Something About Sweetie was a great pick to reintroduce myself to the genre! A sweet, empowering romantic story about love and family, this book follows two teen children of Indian-American descent as they navigate dating, love, and standing up for themselves. Sweetie is a terrific lead character — a talented singer and athlete, a good friend, a successful student, but she’s held back by her mother’s view that she won’t be truly acceptable unless she loses weight. Sweetie is tired of the fat-shaming. She actually likes herself as is, and wants her mother to see her as beautiful and not in need of fixing. Meanwhile, Ashish is broken-hearted and feels like his whole energy is off. Maybe it’s time to rethink his avoidance of Indian girls and Indian traditions?

The story becomes truly charming as Sweetie and Ashish go on a series of parentally-planned excursions, during which they open up and get to know one another while also embracing their heritage and traditions. You might argue that Sweetie and Ashish fall in love in the blink of an eye… and you wouldn’t be wrong. I took this as more of a fairy tale version of teen love than a realistic look at dating and romance. There was just so much cuteness in the chemistry between the characters that a lack of reality can be forgiven.

I really like how this author makes a point of showing the importance of family and tradition, even while supporting the characters in standing up against family pressure and expectations when they don’t align with self-expression and feeling healthy and empowered. Sweetie and Ashish respect and value their parents, even when they disagree, and in general, the family relationships are quite lovely. Also, I love the inclusion of Hindi language, Indian-American foods, dress, and customs, and the respect the author shows for these elements.

Big shout-out too for the body-positive message this book provides. As Sweetie makes clear, “fat” is just a word — it’s society that gives it a negative meaning. Sweetie takes a stand and chooses to embrace herself as is — she’s a healthy, athletic, pretty, fat girl, and that’s more than okay.

Reading note: There’s Something About Sweetie is a follow-up and companion novel to When Dimple Met Rishi. It’s not essential to have read the first book to appreciate this one, but it does add something to understanding Ashish’s history, his family dynamics, and how he feels about his older brother.

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The details:

Title: There’s Something About Sweetie
Author: Sandhya Menon
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Audiobook Review: The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

 

“Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a king with two sons….”

Thus begins one of the most unique tales that master storyteller Stephen King has ever written—a sprawling fantasy of dark magic and the struggle for absolute power that utterly transforms the destinies of two brothers born into royalty. Through this enthralling masterpiece of mythical adventure, intrigue, and terror, you will thrill to this unforgettable narrative filled with relentless, wicked enchantment, and the most terrible of secrets….

I originally read The Eyes of the Dragon ages ago, probably not long after its release in the late 80s. And honestly, I didn’t remember much about it, other than (a) it was a real departure for Stephen King at that point, and (b) I liked it.

Why did I decide to revisit this story? I’m not really sure what brought it back to my attention — I think maybe it popped up on my Audible recommendation list? In any case, the audiobook caught my eye right when I was in between listens and I decided to give it a try. Great choice!

The Eyes of the Dragon, as far as I can tell, is one of King’s early departures from writing straight-up horror. It’s not a horror story at all — instead, it’s fantasy set in a far-off kingdom, where an evil magician is determined to thrust the land into chaos and bloodshed in order to satisfy his own dark purposes.

King Roland the Good is an okay king, kind but not particularly effective, and perhaps a little too under the sway of his advisor, the magician Flagg. Roland has two sons — his heir, Peter, and a younger son, Thomas, who grows up in his older brother’s shadow, always plagued by feelings of inadequacy and jealousy as he watches Peter grow into a fine, beloved young man. When Flagg’s schemes end with Peter falsely imprisoned on charges of murdering his father, Thomas gains the throne, but he’s guided in all things by Flagg, who uses Thomas’s weakness to destabilize the country. But Peter is strong and smart, and doesn’t give up so easily…

Such a terrific story! I was completely enthralled by this tale of loyalty, royalty, friendship, betrayal, and the evil that threatens to undermine families and kingdoms. The characters are so well drawn, showing shades of personality and motivation, and finding hidden dimensions in characters that might otherwise seem like a stock type.

The audiobook is narrated by actor Bronson Pinchot, and he’s wonderful. He captures the folksy nature of the storytelling (as the book’s narrative voice often interjects the narrator’s own opinions and speaks directly to the reader/listener), and also does an amazing job with the voices, from old King Roland to timid Dennis the butler to upright Peter, and of course, most especially, the insidiously scary Flagg.

The Eyes of the Dragon is an excellent adventure — don’t miss it!

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The details:

Title: The Eyes of the Dragon
Author: Stephen King
Narrator: Bronson Pinchot
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: February 2, 1987
Print length: 484 pages
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 23 mintues
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Book Review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

 

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.

Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.

Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.

Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.

Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

Y’all know how much I love Seanan McGuire, right? I mean, I have gobbled up pretty much everything of hers that’s come my way, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. And I’m not now.

Which is to say… I thought Middlegame was weird and challenging, and I loved it.

Let me start by adding that the synopsis above doesn’t feel very accurate to me. Yes, Roger and Dodger are twins… kind of. But I don’t think the books itself refers to attaining godhood. So I’m glad I didn’t read the synopsis very carefully before starting, because it might have created some bizarre expectations that definitely would have gone unfulfilled.

In Middlegame, Dodger and Roger are creations, but they spend most of their lives not knowing this. They were created by a powerful alchemist, himself a creation of a powerful, game-changing alchemist, and they have a specific purpose in life — to manifest the alchemical concept of the Doctrine of Ethos.

Huh?

Yup, that was my reaction… but the confusion is part of the experience of this book, and I was happy to just go with it. Roger and Dodger each have a gift — language for Roger, math for Dodger. Raised on opposite sides of the country by adoptive parents, they discover a psychic connection as young children, and as they grow up, their bond develops, strengthens, and becomes powerful, dangerous, and more and more inexplicable. Meanwhile, Reed and his allies monitor the pair carefully, charting their progress toward manifestation, making sure to keep them apart when their progress threatens the greater goals of the project.

It’s all just so twisty and timey-wimey and mind-bending and GOOD. And as always, I love Seanan McGuire’s writing. Does she have a bit of Roger’s ability to create reality through her words? All signs point to yes.

I won’t go into a lot of detail, mainly because I just finished this long, complicated book and I’m still sifting through it all in my mind. There’s a lot to puzzle through and unravel. So rather than digging further into plot threads, I’ll share some lines and quotes that jumped out at me as I was reading:

…and she can no more conceive of failure than a butterfly can conceive of calculus.

Roger thinks that’s the trouble with grownups. The more effort they put into deciding what kids are going to do or think or be, the more things so wrong for them.

People who say “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” don’t understand how words can be stones, hard and sharp-edge and dangerous and capable of doing so much more harm than anything physical. […] Words can be whispered bullet-quick when no one’s looking, and words don’t leave blood or bruises behind. Words disappear without a trace. That’s what makes them so powerful. That’s what makes them so important.

That’s what makes them hurt so much.

You can’t skip to the end of the story just because you’re tired of being in the middle.

Everything is perfect. Everything is doomed.

On and on they go, the shorthand becoming more extreme, the air going hot and heavy around them, like an electric storm rolling in, like another fire getting ready to ignite, a fire that needs no flame but only the constant friction between the two halves of something which has never, in all the long years of their lives, been fully realized.

Roger has never understood the math that calls to her, but he feels it now, thrumming in his veins like a promise of miracles to come. Dodger has never grasped the need to put a name to the things she knows to be true, but she understands it now, and accepts the names he throws her way gladly, transforming them through the alchemy of her observations before she throws them back to him.

Here’s one that makes my brain ache:

She knows that, as surely as she knows that every second takes away more of her slim opportunity to escape becoming the future self of a girl she, as yet, never was.

And on a slightly lighter note:

“Wake up,” he says. “We need to let my terrifying ex-girlfriend tell us how we’re supposed to manifest a primal force of reality before asshole alchemists set us the fuck on fire.”

I really don’t think there’s much I can say or add that will do justice to the headlong rush of tragedy, violence, excitement, and true deep emotion that mixes together in Middlegame. So I’ll just wrap by saying that this is an awesome adventure of a read, and I’m sure I’m going to want to read it again after my mind relaxes.

Oh, and I love the fact that one of the super-powerful alchemists wrote a best-selling children’s fantasy book series, full of magical quests along the lines of a Narnia/Fillory tale — but that these stories really are code for alchemical inquiries into controlling the powers of the universe. Which made me wonder just a bit if there’s more to, I don’t know, Harry Potter? than meets the eye…

Extra gold points for great use of San Francisco landmarks (Sutro Baths!)… and how can you not love a book that includes the phrase killer death alchemists as if it’s a normal thing to say?

Seanan McGuire fans, rest assured — our beloved author strikes again, and it’s fabulous.

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The details:

Title: Middlegame
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: May 7, 2019
Length: 528 pages
Genre: Science fiction/fantasy
Source: Purchased (and also, review copy via NetGalley)

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Take A Peek Book Review: Storm of Locusts (The Sixth World, #2) by Rebecca Roanhorse

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

It’s been four weeks since the bloody showdown at Black Mesa, and Maggie Hoskie, Diné monster hunter, is trying to make the best of things. Only her latest bounty hunt has gone sideways, she’s lost her only friend, Kai Arviso, and she’s somehow found herself responsible for a girl with a strange clan power.

Then the Goodacre twins show up at Maggie’s door with the news that Kai and the youngest Goodacre, Caleb, have fallen in with a mysterious cult, led by a figure out of Navajo legend called the White Locust. The Goodacres are convinced that Kai’s a true believer, but Maggie suspects there’s more to Kai’s new faith than meets the eye. She vows to track down the White Locust, then rescue Kai and make things right between them.

Her search leads her beyond the Walls of Dinétah and straight into the horrors of the Big Water world outside. With the aid of a motley collection of allies, Maggie must battle body harvesters, newborn casino gods and, ultimately, the White Locust himself. But the cult leader is nothing like she suspected, and Kai might not need rescuing after all. When the full scope of the White Locust’s plans are revealed, Maggie’s burgeoning trust in her friends, and herself, will be pushed to the breaking point, and not everyone will survive.

My Thoughts:

I loved Trail of Lightning, the first book in Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World series, and Storm of Locusts is an amazing follow-up! Picking up right from where book #1 left off, the story rejoins Maggie after the big fight at Black Mesa, where she battled a Navajo god and seemingly lost her only friend. Now, mere weeks later, she’s healing emotionally and physically, when she’s called on by a sometimes-ally to help with a bounty hunt that goes badly wrong. After the bloody incident, Maggie has a new responsibility, her ally’s niece Ben, a teen girl with clan powers of her own.

Immediately on the heels of this event comes news that Kai has been kidnapped, and Maggie is soon on the trail of a cult leader whose powers include the ability to summon and control hordes of locusts. Gross. And scary. Storm of Locusts ends up as a road trip/quest kind of book, as Maggie, Ben, and Rissa, sister of the boy kidnapped along with Kai, set out to track their missing friends and get vengeance on the White Locust. For the first time in these books, their search takes them outside the walls of Dinétah and into the greater world beyond the Navajo people’s protected lands, where corruption and extreme danger come in many forms, and where despite the strangeness of the new reality, the gods still have powers too.

I’m really adoring The Sixth World series, its characters, legends, and world-building, the mix of old traditions and a new post-apocalyptic landscape. Author Rebecca Roanhorse has a magical, masterful touch with her storytelling, creating a people and society that feel real and lived-in. Maggie is a terrific, layered, conflicted heroine, a total win as a lead character. I want much more of her story! The book ends with a final scene that makes it clear that Maggie’s troubles are far from over, which is fine with me — more trouble for Maggie means more excellent stories for us to enjoy.

Can’t wait for #3!

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The details:

Title: Storm of Locusts (The Sixth World, #2)
Author: Rebecca Roanhorse
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: April 23, 2019
Length: 230 pages
Genre: Speculative/dystopian science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Raven’s Tale by Cat Winters

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Seventeen-year-old Edgar Poe counts down the days until he can escape his foster family—the wealthy Allans of Richmond, Virginia. He hungers for his upcoming life as a student at the prestigious new university, almost as much as he longs to marry his beloved Elmira Royster. However, on the brink of his departure, all his plans go awry when a macabre Muse named Lenore appears to him. Muses are frightful creatures that lead Artists down a path of ruin and disgrace, and no respectable person could possibly understand or accept them. But Lenore steps out of the shadows with one request: “Let them see me!”

My Thoughts:

In The Raven’s Tale, muses are considered dangerous to the soul, yet at the same time, they’re acknowledged to exist. The Sunday sermon exhorts the congregation to “Silence your muses!” lest they lead you into temptation and keep you from pursuing an honest, hardworking, upright life. Such is the world in which we meet young Edgar Allan Poe, a 17-year-old devoted to poetry whose foster father wants to see him settled in the family business as a clerk. It’s all about respectability!

Poor Eddy! He’s consumed by thoughts of a deadly Richmond theater fire from eleven years earlier, and from his obsession with the fire, his muse emerges into life. His attention makes her more and more real, a girl of smoke and ashes who assumes human form and accompanies Edgar through the streets and in his home, leading him to greater and greater devotion to his writing. Edgar’s goal is to escape his awful father and begin his university studies, where he hopes to achieve greatness through his poetry — but the dream is on the verge of slipping away as his financial situation becomes dire and he’s forced into debt and out of control gambling in a futile attempt to pay for his fees.

The idea of personification of muses is an interesting one (and there’s also a secondary muse, who represents Poe’s forays into satire). We see how Edgar becomes consumed by his obsessions with his art, and if we didn’t know that his friends and family are all able to see his muses as well, we might think he’d tumbled into madness.

The concept is unique and inventive. The author weaves together her extensive research into Poe’s youth with her flights of fancy in his interactions with the muse. Sprinkled throughout are both lines from what will become his published work and other rhymes and verses that are written by Cat Winters in the style of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s fun to see the use of his style, and seems credible that his great works could have started in bits and pieces, with all sorts of variations, as they do here.

Overall, I thought The Raven’s Tale mostly (but not totally) successful. It’s an interesting and engaging read, but the reality of the muses was not entirely believable. I’m not sure that the balance between established history and invented fantasy really works well, but as someone not previously familiar with Poe’s early years, I found the parts based on real-life events especially interesting.

The writing takes on all sorts of rhythms and moods that feel true to the Poe of popular imagination, and that makes reading The Raven’s Tale a treat (despite some of the plot bumps).

Whenever I’m not writing, time trudges forward with the maddening, mortifying, miserable, morose, moribund pace of a funeral procession.

Don’t you just love that line?

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The details:

Title: The Raven’s Tale
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: April 16, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

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Novella Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone by Mira Grant

 

We live in an age of wonders.

Modern medicine has conquered or contained many of the diseases that used to carry children away before their time, reducing mortality and improving health. Vaccination and treatment are widely available, not held in reserve for the chosen few. There are still monsters left to fight, but the old ones, the simple ones, trouble us no more.

Or so we thought. For with the reduction in danger comes the erosion of memory, as pandemics fade from memory into story into fairy tale. Those old diseases can’t have been so bad, people say, or we wouldn’t be here to talk about them. They don’t matter. They’re never coming back.

How wrong we could be.

It begins with a fever. By the time the spots appear, it’s too late: Morris’s disease is loose on the world, and the bodies of the dead begin to pile high in the streets. When its terrible side consequences for the survivors become clear, something must be done, or the dying will never stop. For Dr. Isabella Gauley, whose niece was the first confirmed victim, the route forward is neither clear nor strictly ethical, but it may be the only way to save a world already in crisis. It may be the only way to atone for her part in everything that’s happened.

She will never be forgiven, not by herself, and not by anyone else. But she can, perhaps, do the right thing.

We live in an age of monsters.

Mira Grant is indisputably a master of horrifying disease and science run amok. There’s the zombie apocalypse of the Newsflesh trilogy, brought about by an unfortunate mixing of two manufactured viruses. There’s the Parasitology trilogy, featuring tapeworms (ick) genetically engineered for medical use. There’s her short fiction, including Apocalypse Scenario #683: The Box, about a viral outbreak that may or may not be part of a game, and Emergency Landing, a recent release via Seanan McGuire’s Patreon that’s creepy as hell, also about a viral outbreak linked to bioterrorism and basically the end of humankind.

Which brings us to Kingdom of Needle and Bone, which is terrifying in how real and ripped-from-the-headlines it feels. It starts with a measles outbreak, but it’s a deadlier version of the disease that spreads like wildfire and kills its victims within days or even hours of the appearance of symptoms. Not only that, those who survive the disease are left immuno-compromised and their previous vaccinations rendered ineffective. Millions die. And still, the anti-vaxxer movement holds on, strangely allying themselves with the pro-choice movement and claiming bodily autonomy as a legal construct negating mandatory vaccination.

The initial section of the novella deals with Lisa Morris, the 8-year-old who becomes the first fatality of the disease bearing her name. The story of how the disease infected visitors to a theme park is almost enough to make me swear off crowds forever. From there, the focus shifts to Lisa’s aunt Isabella Gauley, a pediatrician who fights to keep the public aware of the importance of vaccination and herd immunity — until she comes up with a different way of making sure at least some people survive the unstoppable epidemics sweeping the planet.

Any story about epidemics and killer viruses creeps me the hell out… but also really fascinates me. Kingdom of Needle and Bone has plenty of creep factor, scary medical scenarios, and slightly off-kilter people who may or may not be mad scientists and/or unhinged survivalists. So yeah… I loved it.

And shuddered extra hard when I picked up this morning’s newspaper and saw a headline about yet another measles outbreak.

Maybe I need to consider a hermetically sealed bug-out shelter… just in case?

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The details:

Title: Kingdom of Needle and Bone
Author: Mira Grant
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication date: December 31, 2018
Length: 128 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

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Audiobook Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to 12 years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.

Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

This stirring love story is a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward – with hope and pain – into the future.

Once again, my book group has chosen an emotional, thought-provoking book that’s sure to prompt some passionate discussion. We seem to really know how to pick ’em this year!

In An American Marriage, Celestial and Roy are a devoted couple, but they’re still finding their groove as husband and wife after a year and a half of marriage. Their levels of trust seem to rise and fall, and in some ways, despite the obvious love between them, they’re still learning and growing together and establishing who they want to be together.

When Roy is accused of a violent crime and then convicted, they end up separated by his incarceration, facing a sentence that’s many years longer than their time together as a married couple. At first, Celestial visits regularly and they communicate constantly through letters, but over time, the physical separation becomes emotional separation as well — and when Roy’s conviction is overturned, he no longer knows if he has a wife to return to.

This book contemplates marriage, love, commitment, as well as the role of race in American society and the American justice system. Roy and Celestial are young, upwardly mobile African American professionals, but their run-in with the law in rural Louisiana — while awful and ghastly and unjust — doesn’t seem at all far-fetched in today’s society. Sadly, as shown through the experiences of the characters in this book, the threat of incarceration for African American males is very real and not avoidable simply by living a good and honest life.

Spoilery bits ahead:

I’ve said in other reviews that truly thought-provoking books evoke emotions, then make us question our emotions and get involved in internal debates. An American Marriage definitely had that effect on me.

Here come the spoilers:

While Celestial and Roy seem committed at the beginning of his prison time and determined to stick together no matter what, their relationship is eroded by time, distance, and the simple fact that they no longer share a life and experiences. After a few years, Celestial reaches the point where she stops visiting and finally tells Roy that she can no longer be his wife, even though she does not file for divorce. When Roy is released, he takes the lack of divorce papers as a sign that he has a marriage to return to, although he finds out soon enough that Celestial is in love with another man and planning to remarry.

Part of me was really angry with Celestial. Roy’s innocence is never in doubt. The reader, and Celestial, know absolutely that Roy is innocent of the rape for which he’s convicted. He’s sent away from her through a miscarriage of justice, not through any fault of his own. It made me really upset to see Celestial abandon Roy. BUT, at the same time, every time the narration switched to her point of view, I began to (unwillingly) feel sympathy. Celestial and Roy had only a short time together as husband and wife, and by the time a few years of his sentence passed, they’d been apart longer than they’d ever been together. They never really got to find out what sort of marriage they’d have. Roy is stuck in prison for all those years, but Celestial is out in the world, pursuing her artistic passions and starting to make a name for herself. Maybe if they’d been on this journey together, their marriage would have grown along with their developing talents and careers, but here, every change for Celestial means a change away from the marriage that’s had no chance to be anything other than stagnant.

It’s not at all fair to Roy — nothing that’s happened is fair in any way — but I had to grudgingly admit that Celestial had impossible choices to make and didn’t deserve to face what was supposed to be a 12-year sentence with no life of her own.

So while I was often angry with Celestial, I also made a point of trying to understand her actions and to feel pity for her experiences, not just for Roy’s. It was hard, because he’s the one victimized by a false conviction and my sympathy was naturally drawn to him. As I said, I had a full-fledged internal debate going on, and it was next to impossible to fault one or the other without also immediately feeling sorry for them.

In terms of the plot itself, I did have one minor quibble — Roy was convicted on rape charges, and the woman who accused him was raped by someone, just not by Roy. Why wasn’t there a rape kit done? Shouldn’t a DNA analysis have been able to clear him right away?

Even so, the story is tragic and so, so sad. Roy has a moment when he’s thinking about the trial and how the woman who accused him looked straight at him while describing the attack in the courtroom, telling her terrible story while being 100% sure that Roy was the rapist. Roy remembers feeling shame and guilt, despite knowing that she has the wrong man, simply from realizing how strongly the woman is convinced that this is who Roy is.

The book is told from multiple perspectives, mainly Roy’s and Celestial’s, and the audiobook uses different narrators for their pieces. Both do a very good job conveying their personalities, although it’s sometimes disconcerting hearing the “Roy” narrator doing Celestial’s voice when narrating a conversation between the two of them, and vice versa.

Overall, I’m very happy to have had the experience of listening to An American Marriage, and recommend it highly, whether in print or audio. There’s much to think about and digest, and I think this story will really stick with me. Looking forward to discussing it with my book group!

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The details:

Title: An American Marriage
Author: Tayari Jones
Narrators:  Sean Crisden, Eisa Davis
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication date: January 29, 2018
Print length: 308 pages
Audiobook length: 8 hours, 59 mintues
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased