Book Review: The Mermaid by Christina Henry

From the author of Lost Boy comes a historical fairy tale about a mermaid who leaves the sea for love and later finds herself in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum as the real Fiji mermaid. However, leaving the museum may be harder than leaving the sea ever was.

Once there was a mermaid who longed to know of more than her ocean home and her people. One day a fisherman trapped her in his net but couldn’t bear to keep her. But his eyes were lonely and caught her more surely than the net, and so she evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore. The mermaid, Amelia, became his wife, and they lived on a cliff above the ocean for ever so many years, until one day the fisherman rowed out to sea and did not return.

P. T. Barnum was looking for marvelous attractions for his American Museum, and he’d heard a rumor of a mermaid who lived on a cliff by the sea. He wanted to make his fortune, and an attraction like Amelia was just the ticket.

Amelia agreed to play the mermaid for Barnum, and she believes she can leave any time she likes. But Barnum has never given up a money-making scheme in his life, and he’s determined to hold on to his mermaid.

You guys. I LOVED this book.

I was blown away by the story itself, as well as by the gorgeous writing and the passion that comes through on every page.

She loved him almost as much as she loved the sea, and so they were well matched, for he loved the sea almost as much as he loved her. He’d never thought any person could draw him more than the ocean, but the crashing waves were there in her eyes and the salt of the spray was in her skin and there, too, was something in her that the sea could never give. The ocean could never love him back, but Amelia did.

In The Mermaid, we first meet Amelia as a beautiful, wild being of the sea. After being freed from a net by the kind fisherman who finds her, she can’t stop thinking about the look in his eyes, and finds herself leaving the sea to find him. Once reunited, Amelia and Jack fall deeply in love — and while she leaves his seaside shack to swim in the ocean at night, she sees him as her heart and her home… until the day he goes out fishing and doesn’t return.

For ten long years, Amelia watches the sea, mourning yet refusing to believe that her beloved will never return to her. Meanwhile, far off in New York, rumor has reached the ears of P. T. Barnum and his associate Levi Lyman about a beautiful woman in coastal Maine, whom the locals believe to be a mermaid. Barnum dispatches Levi to find her and bring her back to New York, dreaming of the riches that will pour into his pockets once he puts the mermaid on display in his American Museum.

Amelia has other ideas, though. At a time when women defer to men on all matters, Amelia refuses to become any man’s belonging. She sets her own terms and makes the rules for how, when, and how often she’ll be on display. She yearns to travel the world and knows she needs money to do this, which is why she agrees to Levi and Barnum’s plans in the first place — but once she arrives in New York, she begins to realize how difficult it will be to fit into the world of humans and to survive in a crowded, dirty city full of people who see her as a curiosity, or even worse, as an abomination.

“A bird in a cage still knows it’s in a cage, even if the bars are made of gold,” Amelia said softly.

The Mermaid tells a beautiful story of a woman’s strength, while highlighting the devastating circumstances of woman who lack all power in the world. We see friendship, loyalty, and love, as well as greed and disdain and cruelty. Amelia herself is a marvelous character, intelligent and passionate and determined to stand her ground. The magical elements are lovely — mermaids here are not the objectified versions as seen in drawings and sailors’ tattoos, but beings who are indisputably other, not half-fish, half-woman, but people who are wholly something beyond human understanding or definition.

The ocean was a violent place, yes, but it was violence without malice. When a shark ate a sea lion, it did not hate the sea lion. It only wanted to live.

Author Christina Henry draws on the historical record — Barnum really did have an exhibit called the “Feejee Mermaid”, although it was a grotesque fake, not a live woman swimming in a tank of sea water before a mesmerized public — and then builds a story of wonder and magic and love.

I couldn’t help thinking about The Greatest Showman whenever Barnum and wife Charity and the museum appear, although Barnum’s portrayal in The Mermaid is not at all admiring or sympathetic — he’s a greedy con artist looking for the next big attraction, a lousy husband and father, and overall a cold-hearted, scheming man. Still, reading this book made me itch to watch the movie again… and I will, soon.

I really, really loved this book and will want to read it again before too long. Meanwhile, I look forward to reading more by Christina Henry. Earlier this year, I read her newest novel, The Girl in Red, and (big surprise) loved that as well. Time to go back and read her earlier books too!

Click on the image to read my review of this amazing book!

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The details:

Title: The Mermaid
Author: Christina Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 19, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Audiobook Review: Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy

 

A bold, heartfelt tale of life at Green Gables . . . before Anne: A marvelously entertaining and moving historical novel, set in rural Prince Edward Island in the nineteenth century, that imagines the young life of spinster Marilla Cuthbert, and the choices that will open her life to the possibility of heartbreak—and unimaginable greatness

Plucky and ambitious, Marilla Cuthbert is thirteen years old when her world is turned upside down. Her beloved mother has dies in childbirth, and Marilla suddenly must bear the responsibilities of a farm wife: cooking, sewing, keeping house, and overseeing the day-to-day life of Green Gables with her brother, Matthew and father, Hugh.

In Avonlea—a small, tight-knit farming town on a remote island—life holds few options for farm girls. Her one connection to the wider world is Aunt Elizabeth “Izzy” Johnson, her mother’s sister, who managed to escape from Avonlea to the bustling city of St. Catharines. An opinionated spinster, Aunt Izzy’s talent as a seamstress has allowed her to build a thriving business and make her own way in the world.

Emboldened by her aunt, Marilla dares to venture beyond the safety of Green Gables and discovers new friends and new opportunities. Joining the Ladies Aid Society, she raises funds for an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity in nearby Nova Scotia that secretly serves as a way station for runaway slaves from America. Her budding romance with John Blythe, the charming son of a neighbor, offers her a possibility of future happiness—Marilla is in no rush to trade one farm life for another. She soon finds herself caught up in the dangerous work of politics, and abolition—jeopardizing all she cherishes, including her bond with her dearest John Blythe. Now Marilla must face a reckoning between her dreams of making a difference in the wider world and the small-town reality of life at Green Gables.

After reading the entire Anne of Green Gables series this year for the very first time, I felt a need to stay immersed in Anne’s world a bit longer, and decided to read this prequel book, written by contemporary author Sarah McCoy and published in 2018. I’m often skeptical when modern authors decide to continue or riff off of a beloved older book or series (I’m thinking about the debacle that was Scarlett, the “sequel” to Gone With the Wind, among others).

Can a modern author pull off the tone and feeling of the original? Does the new story add anything in terms of character development? Does it feel true to the heart of the original story?

In the case of Marilla of Green Gables, the answer is YES to all questions. While not completely perfect, Marilla is a worthy addition to the Green Gables saga, and I enjoyed it start to finish.

As readers of Anne of Green Gables know, Marilla is the aging spinster who, along with her older brother Matthew, adopts an 11-year-old orphan girl (while actually thinking they were bringing home a boy to help with the farm), and completely up-ends their orderly life. Anne Shirley is a wonder, and her bright, inquisitive, imaginative nature brings new life to Marilla and Matthew and changes their world forever.

But what do we really know about Marilla from the Green Gables books? We only see her through Anne’s eyes –an older woman who keeps house while her brother farms, who has never left the family home and never married. She’s a pillar of the community and has many close friends… but we really don’t know much at all about her childhood or adult life prior to Anne’s arrival.

Marilla of Green Gables starts when Marilla is thirteen. Her mother Clara is pregnant, her brother Matthew works the farm with their father Hugh, and their home life is simple but happy. Marilla has a growing friendship with a classmate of Matthew’s, John Blythe, who is a few years older than Marilla. They seem to be on the verge of romance, but when Clara dies during childbirth, everything changes for Marilla.

Having promised her mother to always take care of Hugh and Matthew, Marilla knows that she will never leave Green Gables. As her relationship with John strengthens over the years, she feels torn between her feelings for him and her responsibility toward her family. On top of this, there’s growing political unrest in Canada, and the Cuthberts are on opposite sides of the issue from John. Finally, it’s the political disagreements that drive a wedge between Marilla and John, leading to an estrangement that lingers for many years.

Over the years, Marilla becomes more and more involved in the issue of runaway slaves from America, motivated initially by orphaned children she encounters who were rescued from enslavement but are still pursued by bounty hunters. While on the surface a simple farm woman with an ordinary, house-bound life, Marilla becomes involved in the abolition movement and works to arrange shelter as part of the underground railroad.

There’s something really heartbreaking about a prequel. You know where the players have to end up, having read the original story. So, seeing Marilla and John’s romance blooming over the years was incredibly bittersweet. On the one hand, they’re just so lovely together, and their affection and regard for one another is sincere and pure and heartfelt. At the same time, I know that Marilla never marries, and that John must end up married to someone else, since his son Gilbert is Anne’s love interest and eventual husband in the Anne books. It really felt terrible at times to see Marilla’s happiness with John and see her experiencing all the sweet emotions of a young first love — not knowing how it will go wrong, but knowing all along that they simply can’t end up together.

Author Sarah McCoy does a lovely job of emulating the feel and style of the Anne books, reveling in the natural world of Prince Edward Island, the simple joys of a small community in an earlier time, and the daily routines and habits that build a full life. Marilla’s voice and perspective feels clear and authentic — we’re able to see a young Marilla and see the roots of the woman she’ll become someday.

The only jarring note for me was the emphasis on politics. Politics rarely gets mentioned in the Anne series, and here, the unrest within Canada is a large focus and becomes the driving point for the breakdown of Anne and John’s relationship. It’s not that it’s uninteresting; simply that it doesn’t feel all that well aligned with the tone of the original series.

Still, I found the book as a whole delightful. It felt like a revelation to get to know a young Marilla and understand how she became the stern spinster we meet in Anne of Green Gables. I love the depiction of life in Avonlea, and was moved by Marilla’s devotion to improving the life of those less fortunate, including putting herself at risk in order to protect children fleeing enslavement.

Marilla of Green Gables is a lovely addition to the world of Anne of Green Gables. For those who haven’t read the original series, I’d say start with those books, at the least the first three or so, before reading Marilla. While Marilla of Green Gables could stand on its own, I think the heart and soul would somehow have much less impact without the greater context of the Anne series.

A note on the audiobook: Lovely! The narrator captures Marilla’s sweetness, the gossipy nature of Marilla’s friend Rachel, the compassion of John, and all the flavor of the many other characters in the story. Really a terrific listen.

I highly recommend Marilla of Green Gables for any fans of the Anne series, and really applaud author Sarah McCoy for adding a new and interesting storyline while staying true to the essence of the original books.

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The details:

Title: Marilla of Green Gables
Author: Sarah McCoy
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 23, 2018
Length (print): 320 pages
Length (audiobook): 9 hours, 14 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

Book Review: One of Us by Craig DiLouie

Known as “the plague generation” a group of teenagers begin to discover their hidden powers in this shocking post-apocalyptic coming of age story set in 1984.

“This is not a kind book, or a gentle book, or a book that pulls its punches. But it’s a powerful book, and it will change you.” – Seanan McGuire

They’ve called him a monster from the day he was born.

Abandoned by his family, Enoch Bryant now lives in a rundown orphanage with other teenagers just like him. He loves his friends, even if the teachers are terrified of them. They’re members of the rising plague generation. Each bearing their own extreme genetic mutation.

The people in the nearby town hate Enoch, but he doesn’t know why. He’s never harmed anyone. Works hard and doesn’t make trouble. He believes one day he’ll be a respected man.

But hatred dies hard. The tension between Enoch’s world and those of the “normal” townspeople is ready to burst. And when a body is found, it may be the spark that ignites a horrifying revolution

One of Us is not for the faint of heart. That said, it’s an incredibly powerful book that leaves an indelible mark, despite being really hard to take at times.

In One of Us, something has happened to human genetics. A sexually-transmitted bacterium that causes genetic mutations has spread like wildfire. By 1970, one in three births is teratogenic — the babies are born with inhuman features, some resembling animals, others mostly human but distorted, such as the boy whose face is upside down.

Prenatal testing has become mandatory, with mandatory abortion of abnormal babies. High school students’ most serious class is health education, where they learn the risks of the bacterium and where abstinence is promoted as the only way to be sure not to pass it along. And the teratogenic babies are never, ever kept by their parents — instead, they’re deposited in homes, where the children are raised in abysmal conditions, watched over, controlled, and kept separate from the “normal” population.

As the book opens, it’s 1984, and the first generation of plague children is in their teens. The question looms — what will happen when then become adults? Do they have rights? What sort of future might await them? Complicating matters further is the discovery that some of the plague children seem to have special powers — like Goof, the boy with the upside-down face, whose funny ability to finish other people’s sentences is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his telepathic abilities.

The plague children are well aware of how the rest of the world views them — and for some, it’s time to demand more. Do they rise up and overthrow their masters? Is non-violent protest the way forward, or is the only way to tear down an unjust world to burn it down completely and rebuild it themselves?

The characters in One of Us are remarkable and unforgettable. Enoch is known to his friends as Dog (Enoch being his “slave name”, according to the group’s intellectual leader, Brain). Dog has the facial characteristics of a dog, but he has the soul of a boy who just wants friendship and freedom and a happy life. Brain is described as looking like a mix between a gorilla and a lion, and his intelligence is off the charts. Then there’s Edward, known as Wallee, who is described as looking like a bowling pin with a face, moving on a mass of roots/tentacles. The plague children’s appearances may be frightening, but inside, they’re still children, and they live life on a daily basis knowing that they’re hated, feared, and shunned.

It’s a powder keg, and yes, it does explode. The build-up makes it clear that violence is inevitable, even as we see all the places along the way where different actions or decisions might have led to different outcomes.

There’s so much to One of Us. It’s an exploration of societal injustice and divisions, and what happens when unreasoning hatred takes the lead. It illustrates the terrible outcomes of an “us vs them” mentality, where a middle ground is never an option. And it’s also just a flat-out terrifying, deeply engrossing story of genetics run amok and what such a world might look like.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not a book for the squeamish — there are some scenes with very high ick factors, so trust me and stay away if you can’t stomach such things.

That aside, I wholeheartedly recommend One of Us. It’s disturbing and awful, and also an incredibly powerful read.

Interested in this author? Check out my review of his recent novel, Our War, one of my top reads of 2019.

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The details:

Title: One of Us
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: July 17, 2018
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Science fiction/horror
Source: Purchased

Book Review: The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

An addictive psychological thriller about a group of women whose lives become unexpectedly connected when one of their newborns goes missing.

They call themselves the May Mothers—a collection of new moms who gave birth in the same month. Twice a week, with strollers in tow, they get together in Prospect Park, seeking refuge from the isolation of new motherhood; sharing the fears, joys, and anxieties of their new child-centered lives.

When the group’s members agree to meet for drinks at a hip local bar, they have in mind a casual evening of fun, a brief break from their daily routine. But on this sultry Fourth of July night during the hottest summer in Brooklyn’s history, something goes terrifyingly wrong: one of the babies is abducted from his crib. Winnie, a single mom, was reluctant to leave six-week-old Midas with a babysitter, but the May Mothers insisted that everything would be fine. Now Midas is missing, the police are asking disturbing questions, and Winnie’s very private life has become fodder for a ravenous media.

Though none of the other members in the group are close to the reserved Winnie, three of them will go to increasingly risky lengths to help her find her son. And as the police bungle the investigation and the media begin to scrutinize the mothers in the days that follow, damaging secrets are exposed, marriages are tested, and friendships are formed and fractured.

I feel like I should start this review with a disclaimer:

Thrillers are not my jam. And neither is the so-called mommy-drama genre, where domesticity and gossip and childraising are backdrops for intrigue and danger.

So why did I pick up The Perfect Mother? Easy. My book group made me do it.

This is our book of the month for October, and — feeling guilty for missing the last couple of months — I was determined to participate this time around.

So let’s get to it:

In The Perfect Mother, a group of Brooklyn women who all became new mothers in the same month form an ongoing support and social club, where they exchange online tips and gather at the park for company and (it seemed to me) to compare their little darlings against all the others, and hopefully feel smug and self-satisfied as a result.

Oh dear, I’m not going to be very good at writing this review. Again, forgive me, but the odds of me liking this book were pretty slim from the start.

As the story progresses, a baby is kidnapped from his crib while his mother is out partying with the other women on a rare, adults-only outing. Immediately, there’s recrimination and blame and remorse. How could she leave her baby with a nanny she’d only just met? How could all these new moms be out getting so rip-roaring drunk when they have babies at home? Whose bad idea was it really to even go out in the first place? Why does everyone feel so pressured to be there?

Why are these people so in each others’ business and so damned judgy? Ugh.

Anyway, the mystery proceeds from this point. It turns out that everyone is keeping a secret or ten. Certain characters become overly involved (um, obsessed) with Winnie and her past and her connections and her life. It’s all just toooooo much.

The ending is supposed to be a twist, but is it patting myself on the back too much to say I saw it coming from really early on? Not to be too spoilery, but if you’ve seen The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, you’ll at least have a good hunch about why the kidnapping happened, if not whodunit exactly.

Okay, I’m pretty much sucking at writing this review, but I just don’t think I can maintain my interest long enough to say much more that’s meaningful. But let me attempt to at least inject a little positivity in this thing:

The book does move quickly, and made for an engaging read on a long flight. I wasn’t bored while reading it… just increasingly annoyed by the sniping and the mommy stereotypes and the ridiculousness of some of the relationships.

I guess it’s clear that I didn’t like this book. Oh well, at least I’ve been a faithful book club member this month!

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The details:

Title: The Perfect Mother
Author: Aimee Malloy
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length: 341pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

Take A Peek Book Review: Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

“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.

Cover for Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land by artist Sarah Anne Langton

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Lior Tirosh is a semi-successful author of pulp fiction, an inadvertent time traveler, and an ongoing source of disappointment to his father.

Tirosh has returned to his homeland in East Africa. But Palestina—a Jewish state founded in the early 20th century—has grown dangerous. The government is building a vast border wall to keep out African refugees. Unrest in Ararat City is growing. And Tirosh’s childhood friend, trying to deliver a warning, has turned up dead in his hotel room. A state security officer has identified Tirosh as a suspect in a string of murders, and a rogue agent is stalking Tirosh through transdimensional rifts—possible futures that can only be prevented by avoiding the mistakes of the past.

From the bestselling author of Central Station comes an extraordinary new novel recalling China Miéville and Michael Chabon, entertaining and subversive in equal measures.

My Thoughts:

Wow, what a crazy read! I can’t say I’ve ever come across Israeli science fiction before, and I enjoyed the heck out of this one.

The initial premise is intriguing — and based on true events. Back in 1904, the Zionist Congress, led by Theodore Herzl, sent an expedition to Uganda to explore land that had been proposed as a site of a future Jewish state. In our (real) world, that didn’t work out particularly well, and the idea was shelved in favor of pursuing a homeland in the “holy land”, resulting in modern-day Israel. In the world in which we begin Unholy Land, the Africa expedition was a success, resulting in the birth of Palestina, a Jewish homeland located between Uganda and Kenya. Certain of our realities exist in this world as well — native populations displaced by the creation of the state, resulting in ongoing border crises and refugee camps, a border wall, debate over the Right of Return, and never-ending peace negotiations.

But wait! There’s more. Certain people are able to travel between alternate realities, including one like our own, one in which the entire Middle East is at peace and unified after the horror of a limited nuclear event which destroyed Jerusalem, and other, more exotic and frightening worlds. There are Kabbalistic elements involved which mingle with discussion of quantum physics, and it’s all packaged up inside a very noir-feeling detective/spy plot.

I was fascinated by the descriptions of life in Palestina — the language, the culture, the food, the geography. The author does an incredibly inventive and persuasive job of making it seem like a real and viable country, while also demonstrating that in this world or any other, certain problems and challenges and misfortunes seep through no matter what.

The entire plot is somewhat mind-boggling, and I think I’ll need to let this one percolate for a bit and then return and read it all over again. It’s a quick read, but with plenty to think about. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: Unholy Land
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Audiobook Review: From Twinkle, with Love by Sandhya Menon


An aspiring teen filmmaker finds her voice and falls in love in this delightful romantic comedy from the New York Times bestselling author of When Dimple Met Rishi.

Aspiring filmmaker and wallflower Twinkle Mehra has stories she wants to tell and universes she wants to explore, if only the world would listen. So when fellow film geek Sahil Roy approaches her to direct a movie for the upcoming Summer Festival, Twinkle is all over it. The chance to publicly showcase her voice as a director? Dream come true. The fact that it gets her closer to her longtime crush, Neil Roy-a.k.a. Sahil’s twin brother? Dream come true x 2.

When mystery man N begins emailing her, Twinkle is sure it’s Neil, finally ready to begin their happily-ever-after. The only slightly inconvenient problem is that, in the course of movie-making, she’s fallen madly in love with the irresistibly adorkable Sahil.

Twinkle soon realizes that resistance is futile: The romance she’s got is not the one she’s scripted. But will it be enough?

Told through the letters Twinkle writes to her favorite female filmmakers, From Twinkle, with Love navigates big truths about friendship, family, and the unexpected places love can find you.

From Twinkle, with Love is my third book by Sandhya Menon this year, and while I loved the other two, this one was only okay.

Perhaps the issue for me is the focus on teen drama, rather than exploring the richer cultural aspects portrayed in the other novels. And yes, it’s quite true that I’m not at all a member of the YA demographic, so maybe I should have adjusted my expectations!

In From Twinkle, with Love, we meet Twinkle Mehra, a high school junior who dreams of changing the world through her films — but meanwhile, she’s an outsider who’s lost her best friend to the in-crowd, and who crushes from afar on school hottie Neil. But when Neil’s brother Sahil suggests making a movie together, he and Twinkle find a connection that takes her by surprise, and as the movie-making progresses, Twinkle finds her voice and her passion, as well as discovering a new set of friends and a place to fit in.

All this is sweet and fine, but then the story introduces a secret admirer who — for no reason at all — Twinkle assumes must be Neil. Why? Because his name starts with N, basically. Not that he’s ever paid any attention to her or is even present throughout most of the story. Still, Twinkle thinks there’s maybe a possibility that N is Neil, and that if she starts going out with Neil, she’ll finally move from outsider to insider status — so even though she’s very aware of the sparks and chemistry between her and Sahil, she leaves Sahil hanging so she can give N a chance.

I think I might have strained something through excessive eye-rolling. For a book about a smart girl, the whole N storyline was particularly dumb. The other thing that truly irritated me was the framing device of having Twinkle write in her diary as if she’s writing to various female filmmakers — Sophia Coppola, Ava Duvernay, Jane Campion, etc. This was so artificial and unnecessary, except as a way of saying ‘look how passionate Twinkle is about film!’. Also, her diary entries are written in the car while driving with people, at school, at parties, etc — really? She carries it with her everywhere? And writes obsessively, even when at Sahil’s house while he’s in the next room? It just felt weird and fake. Sorry.

So… as far as the audiobook experience itself, it was fine. The story is mostly told through Twinkle’s voice, but there are occasional blog posts and text messages by Sahil, and these have their own narrator. I’m not sure listening to the audiobook particularly added to the experience for me.

Sandhya Menon is a talented writer with a gift for creating unusual characters, and I love that she writes about teen girls who feel passionately about their talents and their goals. From Twinkle, with Love isn’t a bad read — it just doesn’t have the special something that really elevates her other works.

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The details:

Title: From Twinkle, With Love
Author: Sandhya Menon
Narrated by: Soneela Nankani, Vikas Adam
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: May 22, 2018
Length (print): 330 pages
Length (audiobook): 9 hours, 32 minutes
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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

Audiobook Review: Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Readers of Jodi Picoult and Liane Moriarty will also like this tenderhearted debut about healing and family, narrated by an unforgettable six-year-old boy who reminds us that sometimes the littlest bodies hold the biggest hearts and the quietest voices speak the loudest.

Squeezed into a coat closet with his classmates and teacher, first grader Zach Taylor can hear gunshots ringing through the halls of his school. A gunman has entered the building, taking nineteen lives and irrevocably changing the very fabric of this close-knit community. While Zach’s mother pursues a quest for justice against the shooter’s parents, holding them responsible for their son’s actions, Zach retreats into his super-secret hideout and loses himself in a world of books and art. Armed with his newfound understanding, and with the optimism and stubbornness only a child could have, Zach sets out on a captivating journey towards healing and forgiveness, determined to help the adults in his life rediscover the universal truths of love and compassion needed to pull them through their darkest hours.

Be careful reading Only Child. There’s a good chance it’ll rip your heart out.

As Only Child opens, six-year-old Zach is crammed into a closet in his classroom, listening to popping sounds from somewhere outside the door his teacher is desperately holding closed. When the police finally move in and escort the children to safety in a nearby church, Zach can see that there are some people lying on the floor in the school hallway, and he sees splashes of red, even though the police officer keeps telling the kids to keep their eyes forward and not look around. When Zach’s mother arrives at the church to get him, we hear the terror in her voice as she asks Zach where his brother is. At that moment, the world begins to fall apart for Zach and his parents.

Zach’s older brother Andy is one of nineteen fatalities in a horrific school shooting, along with many of Andy’s classmates and the school principal. The shooter is the mentally ill adult son of the school’s long-time security guard Charlie — a man who has cared for the children of McKinley Elementary for 30 years.

How do we learn about these events? Through Zach. Only Child is narrated throughout by Zach Taylor, so we see all events unfold from this six-year-old’s perspective. We’re with Zach as he undergoes confusion, discomfort, misunderstanding, and terror. Zach’s first-person narration lets us into his thoughts, as he sorts through his feelings about Andy, who wasn’t always the kindest of brothers. We also can feel Zach’s terror at thoughts of returning to school, his boundless loneliness in his house, and his need for parents who are so wrapped up in their own grief and horror that they can’t always see what’s going on with Zach.

Look, this book is heart-breaking, no two ways about it. At the same time, I found it hard to spend the entire book looking at the world through Zach’s eyes. I had a similar response to Room. It’s a powerful story, but the limitations caused by having a child narrator can be frustrating. We never know more than Zach knows. We can only participate in conversations that Zach’s present for, so even though he does a fair bit of lurking in hallways to hear what his parents are talking about, we only ever get bits and pieces.

I had a hard time too suspending my disbelief in places where Zach recounts what he’s heard on TV or comments made by adults he’s overheard. His inner thoughts are a little precious on occasion, and maybe a bit more sophisticated for his age than is truly believable. My other complaint (sorry, I realize I’m being a curmudgeon): As you might expect in a story told by a six-year-old, I think I heard more than enough about pee, poop, snot, and puke. Oh my, little boys can be gross. (Sorry, truly.)

Still, I was very engaged by the story and the characters throughout. I had the unusual experience while reading this book of trying to analyze why I felt certain ways about characters, and forcing myself to embrace empathy even when I was having a visceral reaction against a particular person. For example, Zach’s mother comes across as pretty awful for much of Only Child, when viewed through the lens of Zach’s fears and unmet emotional needs. She’s unable to see past her own fury and loss to truly see Zach’s suffering, consumed by the need to get revenge on the parents of the shooter, pursuing TV interviews and making  lots of noise about their role and their responsibility for the children’s deaths.

Meanwhile, I typically have little sympathy for unfaithful spouses in novels, but despite the fact that we learn that Zach’s dad was having an affair prior to Andy’s death, he comes across as the supportive, loving, gentle parent who’s present for Zach and who attempts to find a way toward healing. I ended up liking the father much more than the mother, and had to continually remind myself that there’s no wrong way to grieve. She was not being a good mother to Zach following the shooting, but who among us can say how we’d behave in that unimaginable, terrifying type of situation? As much as I wished for better for Zach — like for his parents to be on the same page long enough to get him counseling — I couldn’t hate the mother for being swallowed up by her pain and grief.

Kudos to the talented young narrator of the audiobook, Kivlighan de Montebello, who does a terrific job with Zach’s voice, really giving life to Zach’s emotions. The audiobook is an immersive listening experience, and in places the raw emotions of the characters are almost too painful to hear.

I’m thankful to my book group, as always, for choosing terrific books to read and discuss. I finished Only Child right in time for our discussion, and can’t wait to share impressions and thoughts with my bookish friends. Only Child is a powerful, timely, deeply affecting book, and I strongly recommend it.

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The details:

Title: Only Child
Author: Rhiannon Navin
Narrator: Kivlighan de Montebello
Publisher: Knopf Publishing
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Print length: 304 pages
Audiobook length: 9 hours, 10 mintues
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

Put this on your nightstand: Gmorning, Gnight! by Lin-Manuel Miranda, illustrated by Jonny Sun

From the creator and star of Hamilton, with beautiful illustrations by Jonny Sun, comes a book of affirmations to inspire readers at the beginning and end of each day.

Good morning. Do NOT get stuck in the comments section of life today. Make, do, create the things. Let others tussle it out. Vamos!

Before he inspired the world with Hamilton and was catapulted to international fame, Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspiring his Twitter followers with words of encouragement at the beginning and end of each day. He wrote these original sayings, aphorisms, and poetry for himself as much as for others. But as Miranda’s audience grew, these messages took on a life on their own. Now, at the request of countless fans, Miranda has gathered the best of his daily greetings into a beautiful collection illustrated by acclaimed artist (and fellow Twitter favorite) Jonny Sun. Full of comfort and motivation, Gmorning, Gnight! is a touchstone for anyone looking for a lift.

Sometimes it’s nice to give yourself a little treat… and so I did! I bought myself a copy of Gmorning, Gnight! a few months ago, and finally cracked the cover and started reading it.

And was totally charmed.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s introduction explains the genesis of this sweet book:

I’m really quite hooked on the Twitter,
They should take my phone out and lock it.
The biggest distraction for someone like me?
An audience up in my pocket.

So I start the day with a greeting.
And end with a night variation.
It safeguards my evenings and weekends at home,
To sign off, a mini-vacation.

Each double-page spread features a good morning wish and a corresponding good night wish. Sometimes these are variations on the same thing, sometimes they’re basically the same with only a few words tweaked for getting up and going to bed.

The simple black-and-white line drawings highlight each set of wishes and adds a little visual treat to go with the words.

This is a fun, sweet book with a positive message throughout. It feels like it would be too much if read straight through. That’s why I consider this a great nightstand book. Leave it handy for a few weeks, pick it up and read one or two pages at a time, or maybe just grab it and open at random when you need a little pick-me-up.

I got a bit of a Shel Silverstein vibe from the layout and presentation — the line drawings, the simple rhymes, the overall cheery, you-can-do-it attitude.

Really, this book is just full of smiles waiting to happen, and it would make a great feel-good gift (for yourself, or for someone else!)

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The details:

Title: Gmorning, Gnight! Little Pep Talks for Me & You
Author: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Illustrator: Jonny Sun
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 207 pages
Genre: Advice/Affirmations
Source: PurchasedSave

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