Book Review: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss

Title: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #3)
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Print length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mary Jekyll and the Athena Club race to save Alice—and foil a plot to unseat the Queen, in the electrifying conclusion to the trilogy that began with the Nebula Award finalist and Locus Award winner The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

Life’s always an adventure for the Athena Club…especially when one of their own has been kidnapped! After their thrilling European escapades rescuing Lucinda van Helsing, Mary Jekyll and her friends return home to discover that their friend and kitchen maid Alice has vanished— and so has their friend and employer Sherlock Holmes!

As they race to find Alice and bring her home safely, they discover that Alice and Sherlock’s kidnapping are only one small part of a plot that threatens Queen Victoria, and the very future of the British Empire. Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine save their friends—and save the Empire? Find out in the final installment of the fantastic and memorable Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club series.

Now THIS is how you end a trilogy! Author Theodora Goss delivers another rolicking escapade with the brave women of Athena Club, adding even more “monstrous” women to the mix.

For those new to these books, the main characters are all the daughters of famous men — mad scientists and members of the Alchemical Society, who used their own daughters as subjects of their dastardly experiments. Their goal? Biological transmutation. The outcome? Unusual women with strange, hidden talents and gifts, such as Beatrice Rappaccini, who thrives on rain and sunshine and gives off poison with her breath, and Catherine Moreau, transformed from a wild, free puma into a young woman with decidedly sharp teeth and claws.

This found family also includes the two daughters of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, each one representing a different facet of his personae, Justine Frankenstein, Professor Van Helsing’s daughter Lucinda, and a young housemaid named Alice who turns out to have unusual powers of mesmerism.

In this 3rd book, the woman of the Athena Club have just returned from their adventures in Vienna and Budapest (described in book 2, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman) — but there’s no time to rest! Alice and Sherlock Holmes are missing, and there seems to be a terrible plot underway involving evil mesmerists, an Egyptian mummy, and a bunch of powerful, treasonous men who want to overthrow the Queen and purify the British Empire.

Luckily, our band of heroines are on the case, and they go chasing off to Cornwall to rescue their friends, save the Queen, and defeat the bad guys once and for all! It’s all high-spirited fun, with the quips and bickering that the characters seem to love so much.

I thought this was a terrific wrap-up for the trilogy, with heightened adventures and plenty of surprises and adrenaline-rushes. There are perhaps too many characters to keep track of, as the circle of acquaintances grows and grows with each book, but it’s all good fun.

If I had to choose, I’d still say that the first book in the trilogy, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, is really and truly the best, because of the emphasis on the main characters’ origin stories and their creation of a family of their own. But that doesn’t take away from how satisfying the other two books are, or how well all three fit together to create one glorious whole.

If you enjoy sparkling, witty characters in a Victorian setting, with touches of the fantastic and supernatural, then you just must check out the Athena Club books!

Book Review: Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald

Title: Time After Time
Author: Lisa Grunwald
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: June 22, 2019
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A magical love story, inspired by the legend of a woman who vanished from Grand Central Terminal, sweeps readers from the 1920s to World War II and beyond.

On a clear December morning in 1937, at the famous gold clock in Grand Central Terminal, Joe Reynolds, a hardworking railroad man from Queens, meets a vibrant young woman who seems mysteriously out of place. Nora Lansing is a Manhattan socialite and an aspiring artist whose flapper clothing, pearl earrings, and talk of the Roaring Twenties don’t seem to match the bleak mood of Depression-era New York. Captivated by Nora from her first electric touch, Joe despairs when he tries to walk her home and she disappears. Finding her again—and again—will become the focus of his love and his life.

As thousands of visitors pass under the famous celestial blue ceiling each day, Joe and Nora create a life of infinite love in a finite space, taking full advantage of the “Terminal City” within a city. But when the construction of another landmark threatens their future, Nora and Joe are forced to test the limits of their freedom–and their love.

This beautiful love story is set at New York’s Grand Central Terminal, and the setting imbues the story with a truly majestic, timeless feel.

Joe Reynolds is a Grand Central leverman, working the intricate switches that move trains from track to track — the train equivalent of an air traffic controller, essentially. As the story opens, it’s 1937, the Great Depression is still having an impact, and Joe is grateful for a steady job.

Then he meets Nora, a beautiful young woman whose clothing is about ten years out of date. As Nora looks around Grand Central and tries to get her bearings, she and Joe strike up a conversation. Sparks fly, but they have different places to be, and they part. A year later, Joe sees Nora again, and their connection snaps right back into place. She’s wearing the same clothes and seems unchanged in every way. The two spend time together, but when Joe tries to walk her home, she disappears.

Thus begins a romance across time, in which Nora reappears over the years. She and Joe fall deeply in love, and start to unravel the mystery of why Nora continues to return, why she can’t seem to leave Grand Central, and how they can possibly be together when Nora’s reality is so different than Joe’s.

Their love story is set against the backdrop of World War II, as New York and the world change and the young men of the generation head off to war. As a leverman, Joe is considered essential to the war effort and is not allowed to enlist, but all around them, they see soldiers departing — some to return wounded, some never to return. Joe faces increasing challenges balancing his obligations to his brother’s family in Queens and his need to spend every possible moment with Nora.

I started this book thinking I’d be reading a time-travel story, and it’s not that — but I don’t want to say more about what the truth is behind Nora’s appearances and disappearances and her strange tether to Grand Central.

The setting is just so perfect. There’s something magnificent about Grand Central, and having it figure so prominently into the storyline of Time After Time is really special.

Joe and Nora are fully developed characters who feel like real people. We get to know their hopes and dreams, their passions and secrets, and understand the obstacles to their love story even while rooting for them to find a way to make it all work.

The ending is bittersweet, and while my inner romantic might have wished for a different outcome, I can’t say that any other possible ending would make quite as much sense.

Time After Time was my book group’s selection for July, and I’m so happy to have read it. This is a beautiful book, and just should not be missed!

Book Review: Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

Title: Hollow Kingdom
Author: Kira Jane Buxton
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length: 308 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

One pet crow fights to save humanity from an apocalypse in this uniquely hilarious debut from a genre-bending literary author.

S.T., a domesticated crow, is a bird of simple pleasures: hanging out with his owner Big Jim, trading insults with Seattle’s wild crows (those idiots), and enjoying the finest food humankind has to offer: Cheetos ®.

Then Big Jim’s eyeball falls out of his head, and S.T. starts to feel like something isn’t quite right. His most tried-and-true remedies–from beak-delivered beer to the slobbering affection of Big Jim’s loyal but dim-witted dog, Dennis–fail to cure Big Jim’s debilitating malady. S.T. is left with no choice but to abandon his old life and venture out into a wild and frightening new world with his trusty steed Dennis, where he discovers that the neighbors are devouring each other and the local wildlife is abuzz with rumors of dangerous new predators roaming Seattle. Humanity’s extinction has seemingly arrived, and the only one determined to save it is a foul-mouthed crow whose knowledge of the world around him comes from his TV-watching education.

Hollow Kingdom is a humorous, big-hearted, and boundlessly beautiful romp through the apocalypse and the world that comes after, where even a cowardly crow can become a hero.

If you think a book whose lead character is a crow must be weird, well, you’re right. It’s also amazing and fabulous, and I loved it a bunch!

In Hollow Kingdom, something is very wrong with the humans (referred to as MoFos by our hero, S.T. (whose name stands for Shit Turd, in case you’re wondering). There’s the fact that Big Jim’s eyeball has fallen out. And their heads are all at weird angles. And they run their fingers over surfaces until they’re worn down to bone and beyond. And they’ve become feral. Yeah, the world has definitely changed. And S.T. doesn’t like it one bit.

All S.T. wants is for things to go back to normal, so he can watch TV and eat Cheetos with Big Jim, but sadly, it’s looking less and less likely. Finally, S.T. decides to set out with Big Jim’s dog Dennis to find out what’s going on with the rest of the MoFos outside their Seattle home.

It’s not pretty. The world has fallen apart. As S.T. learns from the murder of crows who hang out at the university, all of humanity has been destroyed by a technology-spread virus. Now, it’s time for nature to reassert a sense of balance in the world. The zoo animals have been released, and giraffes and elephants wander the city. There’s a trio of tigers on the loose as well, and a local stadium has become home to hippos. S.T. and Dennis set out on a mission to free the domestics — finding ways to break into homes and release the pet animals who would otherwise starve to death, locked inside houses where there are no more humans to open the doors or provide food.

It’s a dangerous and awe-inspiring adventure, and S.T. is a magnificent narrator. He considers himself more human than crow, and his journey gives him an opportunity to reconsider where he fits in the natural world and to reconnect with his crow-ness.

The mythology of the animal world is inventive and oddly logical, and the interplay between species works so well. And it’s not just animals — for those who listen, even the trees have wisdom to impart.

S.T. is an opinionated, foul-mouthed anti-hero, who finds himself in the hero business purely by accident, and then rises to the occasion. That doesn’t mean that he loves everyone he meets or revises his condemnation for lesser creatures, including his loathing of penguins — as when he encounters the welcome sign at the zoo:

You can imagine how elated I was to discover that they’d placed cutouts of frolicking penguins all over their sign. Fucking newspaper-colored, ice-balled dick goblins, yeah, that’s who you want as your brand ambassador.

He looks down on lots of birds and animals, to be sure:

It had become clear on this second attempt at going airborne that I now had the aviation skills of an obese chicken. Again, I tried to focus on the positive and not the comparison to a bird who likes to sing while ovulating and has the worst retirement plan of all time (pot pie).

But there are also moment of adulation:

We were utterly surrounded. Plovers, kingfishers, ospreys, sapsuckers, larks, nightjars, shrikes, and buntings. I got starstruck at the sight of a snowy owl, because, I mean, Harry Potter.

S.T. isn’t the only narrator — in brief chapters mixed in throughout the book, we get scenes from the point of view of cats, dogs, trees, and even a polar bear. One of my favorites is Genghis Cat, who has a unique worldview, especially when it comes to taking care of the orangutan who’s come into his life:

Orange needs my protection. He is very, very fat. I summon my feline kin to join me in his protection. Striped ones with laser-pointer moves, jumpers, long-haired assassins, night kings, mousers, shadow stalkers, tree scalers, and one strange naked one that looks like an uncooked chicken. We are killers, warriors, hunters.

I could go on, but you probably get the idea. Hollow Kingdom is strange and wonderful, incredibly fascinating and surprisingly funny and moving. It’s a brave new world, one without MoFos like us, and the animal kingdom is ready to take it on.

Hollow Kingdom is, plain and simple, a great read, unlike anything else I’ve read in the past few years. Don’t miss it.

S.T., is that you?

Audiobook Review: Well Met by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Met
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 45 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All’s faire in love and war for two sworn enemies who indulge in a harmless flirtation in a laugh-out-loud rom-com from debut author, Jen DeLuca.

Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

This summer was only ever supposed to be a pit stop on the way to somewhere else for Emily, but soon she can’t seem to shake the fantasy of establishing something more with Simon, or a permanent home of her own in Willow Creek. 

Okay, show of hands: Who among us hasn’t ever wanted to lace up a corset, grab a turkey leg, and head to ye olde Renaissance Faire for some old-timey fun? Not just me, right?

In Well Met, Emily Parker is 24, unemployed, and temporarily living in small-town Willow Creek while helping her older sister April recover from a serious car accident. Part of this help is ferrying around her 14-year-old niece, Caitlin, including taking her to sign up as a volunteer cast member for the upcoming summer’s Renaissance Faire. The catch, however, is that minors can’t volunteer unless they have a responsible adult volunteering with them, so Emily reluctantly finds herself roped into volunteering as a tavern wench for the summer.

Emily takes an immediate dislike to the Faire’s organizer Simon, who seems rigid and overly obsessed with filling out forms correctly. He causes further offense by accusing Emily of not taking Faire seriously — which, granted, she’s only half-heartedly doing, at least at first.

But as rehearsals warm up and the big event approaches, Emily is more and more drawn into the excitement, the pretend world of Faire, and the real world of Willow Creek. She’s had a hard few years, but is finally starting to feel like she might have found a place to put down roots and create a life for herself.

It doesn’t hurt that she and Simon seem to be developing some real chemistry — especially when they’re in their Faire personae of tavern wench and swaggering pirate.

Well Met is so much adorable fun! First off, the Faire goings-on are amazing and made me want to be there! Jousting, troubadors, Queen Elizabeth, ladies in waiting, kilted men… there’s just so much to love! And it’s so cute to see how into it everyone is, from giddy high school students to long-time Faire veterans.

I enjoyed Emily’s character,and there are plenty of great supporting characters too — such as April, Caitlyn, Emily’s new-found bestie Stacy, local bookstore owner Chris, and more.

Emily and Simon both have painful baggage, and their histories hold them back from fully exploring what they want and what they need to find happiness. When they do finally get together, it’s not all smooth sailing, as they both put up their defenses, misinterpret each others’ communications, and just generally mess things up quite a bit.

One of my standard romance complaints comes into play, which is that if people would only talk to each other rather than jumping to conclusions, life would be a whole lot easier! Of course, then the story would have less drama, but still. Emily spends a week worrying that she’s being fired from her job and that Simon played a part in it — but a), that’s a ridiculous assumption that’s really not based on anything concrete, and b) she could have asked one simple questions and clearly up her confusion instantly.

Still, what’s a romance novel without stumbling blocks? It would have all wrapped up much too quickly if Emily and Simon got together when they did and then remained blissfully happy until the end. So yes, we get the requisite drama, fight, and break-up, but hey, it’s a romance, so of course there’s going to be an HEA to end the story!

My one lingering complaint about Well Met is that there’s a storyline thread I would have loved to see get tied up. Part of Emily’s backstory is that she dropped out of college about a year short of an English degree in order to support her (awful) ex-boyfriend through law school. While Emily is happily employed and fulfilled by the end of the book, I would have loved for her to decide to go back to school and finish the education that clearly meant so much to her. Well, hopefully we’ll find out that that’s exactly what she did by the time the sequel comes out!

A note on the audiobook: I originally picked up a print version of this book, but I’m so happy I ended up going the audio route instead! I really enjoyed the narration. The dialogue is crisp and funny, and the narrator did a great job showing us the characters putting on their fake accents for the Faire personae and getting into the spirit of it all.

Well Met is the first in a trilogy of novels centered around Faire, each one focusing on a different couple’s love story. Book #2, Well Played, due out this coming September. And yes, I absolutely want to read it!

Well Met is good, romantic fun, and a great choice for a summer read.

Huzzah!

Audiobook Review: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: August 21, 2018
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 14 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Fated Sky continued the grand sweep of alternate history begun in The Calculating Stars. It is 1961, and the International Aerospace Coalition has established a colony on the moon. Elma York, the noted Lady Astronaut, is working on rotation, flying shuttles on the moon and returning regularly to Earth.

But humanity must get a foothold on Mars. The first exploratory mission is being planned, and none of the women astronauts is on the crew list. The International Aerospace Coalition has grave reservations about sending their “Lady Astronauts” on such a dangerous mission. The problem with that is the need for midjourney navigation calculations. The new electronic computation machines are not reliable and not easily programmed. It might be okay for a backup, but there will have to be a human computer on board. And all the computers are women.

I read The Fated Sky a year ago, but apparently didn’t write a review at the time. Don’t ask me why! But in any case, I’ve just completed a re-read via audiobook, and loved it all over again… so I think it’s about time to share my thoughts.

The Fated Sky is the follow-up to The Calculating Stars, which I love, love, love, love, love. A second book in a series is never quite as breathtaking as the first, in my humble opinion, because there’s already a familiarity with the world presented in the book. And so, while The Fated Sky didn’t blow me away the way The Calculating Stars did, it did keep me engaged in new and different ways, and was an altogether satisfying return to the world of the Lady Astronaut.

To get anyone new to this series caught up, here’s what you really need to know: It’s been about 10 years since a devastating meteor struck Earth, resulting in global catastrophe. The planet faces accelerating climate change, which will eventually become so extreme that human life on Earth will no longer be possible. In these dire circumstances, the international community comes together to pursue space exploration. After all, if people can’t live on Earth, they’ll have to live off Earth.

In book 1, we met Dr. Elma York, brilliant mathemetician and physicist, as well as a top-notch pilot who flew with the WASPs during WWII. Elma is married to Dr. Nathaniel York, an equally brilliant engineer. As the space program gets underway, Nathaniel becomes one of the lead engineers, while Elma pursues her dream of becoming an astronaut. It’s simply fascinating, and I urge you to read the book if you haven’t yet!

In The Fated Sky, we pick up in the early 1960s. Humans have established a colony on the moon, and the next target is Mars. The first Mars mission is about 18 months away — but not all on Earth are happy about the space program.

Earth Firsters are angry — they believe that space travel and colonization will end up being a privilege for the elite. How are the people left behind supposed to survive? With poorer areas still suffering the aftermath of the meteor’s destruction, with food, housing, and medical shortages, they feel that the country’s resources are being unfairly allocated to the space program. The protesters are becoming more outspoken, to the point of violence, in expressing their dissatisfaction.

Elma gained fame in book #1 as “the Lady Astronaut”, and when the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition) assigns her to the Mars mission, it’s clearly with an eye on public relations. But with this assignment, Elma replaces a dear friend who’d already been training for the mission, so she’s not only behind in her training but also facing resentment and hostility from the other crew members who see her as an interloper taking someone else’s place.

The Fated Sky takes place during the preparation for the Mars expedition, as well as the months of the actual journey to Mars. And while the science is absolutely fascinating, it’s Elma’s personal struggles and challenges that make it all so real and so deeply affecting.

Elma is a brilliant scientist. She’s also a devoted wife, a Southern Jew, a woman in a man’s world, and a white woman who’s not always as aware of her privilege as she should be. In the world of the Lady Astronaut books, the social unrest and upheavals of the real-world 1960s has largely been moved forward a decade along with the scientific advancements. We see women struggling for opportunity, even while being expected to maintain traditional standards of femininity (like always having their hair and makeup done before public appearances and deferring to their male counterparts even when they have superior knowledge or technical expertise. Not to mention that the female astronauts seem to be the only ones assigned laundry duty on their space mission. Argh.)

Racial inequality and civil rights feature much more prominently in The Fated Sky than they did in The Calculating Stars. There’s suspicion of the Black astronauts and whether they’re conspiring with Earth Firsters. Mission Control assigns them less prestigious assignments during the Mars expedition than their white colleagues, even when they’re clearly the better choice, which leads to disastrous results. And in myriad other, more subtle ways, the matter of race permeates the crew relations, so that even someone as well-intentioned as Elma ends up causing offense, until she’s finally told point-blank:

“One thing: Don’t explain my experience to me. It’s annoying as hell.”

On top of all this, one of the expedition crew members is a white South African, and remember, this is the early 1960’s — he’s so full of apartheid-era hate that it’s incredible that he was actually allowed to participate in the mission, and if not for international pressure related to South Africa’s financial backing of the IAC, he probably would not have been. By showing the Earth protests, the more subtle racial profiling and preferences on board the ship, and the blatant racism of this one particular astronaut. the author evokes a time of change and volatility — and sadly, exposes issues that still permeate society today.

Elma struggles too with her mental health. She’s suffered from anxiety for most of her life, which she’s worked hard to control. Her coping mechanisms are put to the test during the mission in response to the ongoing hostility she experiences from her fellow astronauts early on, especially as she realizes that she’s the only crew member who doesn’t really fit in and isn’t completely trusted.

I think maybe one of the reasons I had time loving this book the first time I read it had to do with how entangled my feelings were with Elma’s experiences. I felt so awful reading about Elma’s struggles and personal pain and how terrible she often felt. So it’s not that the book isn’t excellent — just maybe that I become overly invested in Elma as a person and didn’t like seeing her feel bad!

Anyhoo… the audiobook is such a treat! Author Mary Robinette Kowal is the narrator, and she’s a total pro. (She also narrates Seanan McGuire’s October Daye audiobooks, and does an amazing job with them.) She clearly knows these characters and what makes them tick, and I could feel Elma’s personality, as well as many of the other characters’, coming through so clearly. Fabulous.

I love the world of the Lady Astronaut, which the author first introduced in her short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars (which actually takes place many years after the events of the books, but provides some additional context — you can read the story for free here.)

Listening to the audiobook was a perfect way for me to revisit the story of The Fated Sky. The 3rd book in the series, The Relentless Moon, will be released in July, and I absolutely can’t wait to read it!

The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.

Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

Book Review: Laughter at the Academy by Seanan McGuire

Title: Laughter at the Academy
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication date: October 31, 2019
Length: 376 pages
Genre: Horror/fantasy (short story collection)
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From fairy tale forest to gloomy gothic moor, from gleaming epidemiologist’s lab to the sandy shores of Neverland, Seanan McGuire’s short fiction has been surprising, delighting, confusing, and transporting her readers since 2009. Now, for the first time, that fiction has been gathered together in one place, ready to be enjoyed one twisting, tangled tale at a time. Her work crosses genres and subverts expectations.

Meet the mad scientists of “Laughter at the Academy” and “The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells.” Glory in the potential of a Halloween that never ends. Follow two very different alphabets in “Frontier ABCs” and “From A to Z in the Book of Changes.” Get “Lost,” dress yourself “In Skeleton Leaves,” and remember how to fly. All this and more is waiting for you within the pages of this decade-spanning collection, including several pieces that have never before been reprinted. Stories about mermaids, robots, dolls, and Deep Ones are all here, ready for you to dive in.

This is a box of strange surprises dredged up from the depths of the sea, each one polished and prepared for your enjoyment. So take a chance, and allow yourself to be surprised.

There are two things I think I’ve established by now over the course of many years of writing book reviews: 1 – I love Seanan McGuire. 2 – I’m not a big fan of short stories.

So when Seanan McGuire releases a collection of stories, what’s a fan to do? Buy it immediately, then stick it on the shelf and delay, delay, delay…

Well, I’m here to say I’m an idiot. Because OF COURSE I ended up loving this book once I finally sat myself down and gave it a try. It’s Seanan McGuire! What’s not to love?

This collection brings together stories from 2009 through 2017, and as the author makes clear in her introduction, all stories take place outside of her “pre-existing universes” — so you won’t find October Daye or the Incryptid’s Price family members anywhere in these pages. All stories appeared in other publications and anthologies over the years, and it’s a treat to have so many available in one glorious collection.

Quick aside: I purchased the pretty hardcover special edition from Subterranean Press as a splurge, but it’s also available in e-book format for a much more reasonable price.

These 22 stories cover a wide range of themes, topics, and tones. Some are funny, some are sad, some are terrifying, and some are just downright creepy. Absolutely none are boring or skippable! One of the things I loved about this book was the mix — from story to story, it’s always something new, and so many surprises!

I’ll share just a few highlights about my favorites of the bunch:

The title story, “Laughter at the Academy”, is all sorts of awesome about mad scientists and a condition called “Schizotypal Creative Genius Personality Disorder”. It’s brutal and fun and, well, mad.

“Lost” is creepy and disturbing and sad, as is any story about children all over the world acting strangely at the same time. It made me think of Torchwood and Childhood’s End, although it isn’t really much like either one.

Seanan McGuire is excellent at unleashing hell on the world, so a story about viruses ravaging humankind is scary and perhaps too timely right now, but I loved “The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells” all the same. Super frightening. And prescient — this is from her introduction to the story:

I also believe that the modern world’s disdain for quarantine and willingness to support structures which encourage its violation is going to do a great deal of damage one day… and that with the new diseases emerging regularly from a variety of sources, that day may not be particularly far in the future.

And as the story itself describes:

If they were to stay home, avoid the company of strangers, and wait for a vaccine, they might stand a chance. But no one listens to the doctors, or to the newspaper headlines begging them to stay indoors.

One of the coolest stories in the collection — so weird and unexpected — is “Uncle Sam”. Ever wonder why women go to the bathroom together? Read this and find out.

There’s also a story about Valkyries, a western sci-fi story…

Cherry’s first to the cattle call, her guns low and easy on her hips, her hair braided like an admonition against untidiness.

… military mermaids, a steampunk invasion of carnivorous plant-based aliens…

“A… diplomat?” Arthur blinked at me as our carriage rattled to a stop, presumably in front of our destination. “But the first thing you did was eat my sister’s maid.”

… a Peter Pan story, a Twitter-based ghost story, more end-of-the-world/end-of-humankind scenarios, a GoFundMe for bringing on eternal Halloween…

… and the story that’s given me nightmares ever since, “We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War”. There are dolls. And they’re scary as hell. This is creepy and brilliant, and if I ever get over my first reading of this story, I’ll come back and read it again!

Seanan McGuire’s writing is as amazing as always, and this collection shows her range and ability to try on any genre or style and make it work.

Obviously, I loved this book, and I’m so glad I got over my reluctance to read short story collections. Laughter at the Academy is a must-read for Seanan McGuire fans, but you don’t have to have previous experience with her work to appreciate the funny, scary, and strange worlds presented here.

Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Title: Ask Again, Yes
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: May 28,2019
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

How much can a family forgive?

A profoundly moving novel about two neighboring families in a suburban town, the bond between their children, a tragedy that reverberates over four decades, the daily intimacies of marriage, and the power of forgiveness.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, two rookie cops in the NYPD, live next door to each other outside the city. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne—sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Francis and Lena’s daughter, Kate, and Brian and Anne’s son, Peter. Luminous, heartbreaking, and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story, while tested by echoes from the past, is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.

In Ask Again, Yes, we follow the trajectories of two families over the years, seeing how their connections follow them and affect their entire lives.

Kate and Peter, born within months of each other, grow up as next door neighbors and best friends. Their fathers served on the police force together, and the families’ background are entwined in shared history and parallel origins. For Kate and Peter, they have no memory of life without the other. But a tragic, violent incident when they’re fourteen shatters both families’ lives, and cuts short the romantic relationship just starting to bloom between Kate and Peter.

Ask Again, Yes traces the roots of the family dynamics at play, and then follows Kate and Peter as their lives diverge and then come back together.

There’s a lot to unpack here — themes of mental illness, alcoholism and addiction, infidelity, parenthood and abandonment, the ups and downs of a long marriage — and yet, the story for the most part left me cold.

This story of family and suburban drama covers a lot of years, but feels diffuse somehow. The POV shifts between characters, so we view events through Kate and Peter’s eyes, but also through the experiences of their parents and others. Perhaps as a result, we often don’t stick with one character long enough to see an event through, and there seem to be some odd choices in terms of which events we experience in detail and which only get referred to in passing or in summary.

There are certainly some tragic occurrences, and places where tragedy could possibly have been avoided if appropriate mental health resources had either been available or sought out. I never really bought into the central love story between Kate and Peter, and the troubles they experience later in their marriage felt sort of shoe-horned in for me.

I read Ask Again, Yes as a book group read, and I’m thinking that I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up on my own. That said, the relationships are complex and thought-provoking — it’s simply not my preferred subject matter, and the writing didn’t engage or move me.

Still, I look forward to the book group discussion later this week. Maybe I’ll find more to appreciate once I hear what my book friends have to say about it!

Book Review: The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay

Title:The Printed Letter Bookshop
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Length: 324 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Love, friendship, and family find a home at the Printed Letter Bookshop

One of Madeline Cullen’s happiest childhood memories is of working with her Aunt Maddie in the quaint and cozy Printed Letter Bookshop. But by the time Madeline inherits the shop nearly twenty years later, family troubles and her own bitter losses have hardened Madeline’s heart toward her once-treasured aunt—and the now struggling bookshop left in her care.

While Madeline intends to sell the shop as quickly as possible, the Printed Letter’s two employees have other ideas. Reeling from a recent divorce, Janet finds sanctuary within the books and within the decadent window displays she creates. Claire, though quieter than the acerbic Janet, feels equally drawn to the daily rhythms of the shop and its loyal clientele, finding a renewed purpose within its walls. When Madeline’s professional life takes an unexpected turn, and when a handsome gardener upends all her preconceived notions, she questions her plans and her heart. She begins to envision a new path for herself and for her aunt’s beloved shop—provided the women’s best combined efforts are not too little, too late.

The Printed Letter Bookshop is a captivating story of good books, a testament to the beauty of new beginnings, and a sweet reminder of the power of friendship.

What a difference a year makes!

And reading moods certainly make a difference too.

Last year, I received an ARC of The Printed Letter Bookshop via NetGalley. And I was excited to read it, because I’ve enjoyed several of this author’s books previously. But according to my Goodreads post, I DNFd this book at about 25%, saying that I just wasn’t interested and couldn’t get into it.

This could probably be an entirely different post about reading according to a schedule (I was trying to read ARCs on or before publication date) and feeling obligated when choosing what to read… but suffice it to say, for whatever reason, this just wasn’t the right book for me at that particular time.

So here I am, a year later, and I received an ARC of Katherine Reay’s soon-to-be-released newest book (Of Literature and Lattes) — and as I started reading it, I realized (a) it’s set in the same town as The Printed Letter Bookshop, and (b) while it appears to be focusing on different characters, there’s definitely crossover. And even though I was already five chapters in, and enjoying it, I decided it was time to go back to The Printed Letter Bookshop and give it another try.

Whew. All that is just context for the actual review! So here goes…

The Printed Letter Bookshop is charming! It’s a look at women’s friendship, centered around a bookshop located in small-town Winsome, Illinois, just an hour’s drive from Chicago, but worlds away in terms of the cozy, quaint, close-knit nature of the community.

When the store owner Maddie dies, her two colleagues and close friends Janet and Claire are devastated by her loss, and then immediately have to begin worrying about their future of their beloved store. Maddie leaves all her belongings, including her house and the bookshop, to her niece Madeline, a hard-charging young lawyer who hasn’t visited Maddie in years.

Madeline doesn’t want the store or any permanent link to Maddie. While they used to be close, some rift between Maddie and Madeline’s parents years in the past caused horribly hurt feelings, and Madeline has never forgiven Maddie. Now, though, Maddie’s holdings are her responsibility, and they come at a time when Madeline’s professional life has taken a sudden detour.

Madeline’s plan is to get in, get the store’s finances in shape, and sell. But life seems to have other plans.

Once she begins to get involved at The Printed Letter Bookshop, Madeline starts to understand how much it means to Janet, Claire, and the town. She also gains fresh insight into Maddie as a person, how badly she misunderstood her parents’ estrangement from Maddie, and just how much she herself needs a fresh perspective on her own life.

Janet and Claire are also POV characters. Each has her own reason for being drawn to Maddie, who gave them purpose and connection by welcoming them into the bookshop. They each have troubled home lives, but through their work at the bookshop, they reinvent themselves and start to understand where their lives’ turning points were, and how to choose different directions.

Although the book opens with Maddie’s funeral, she’s a large presence throughout the story. She’s a warm, lovely person who truly understands the way books can transform lives. She has the knack of finding the right book for each person who enters The Printed Letter Bookshop, and as her parting gift to Madeline, Janet, and Claire, leaves each a list of books to read — no explanation, just a list. And for each woman, the book list helps her grow and change.

The Printed Letter Bookshop is a lovely book. I’ve seen it shelved as Christian fiction (publisher Thomas Nelson specializes in Christian content) — but if I hadn’t known that, I don’t think I’d classify this book that way. (Full disclosure: I am not Christian, and would not normally read books classified at Christian fiction. I’m glad I didn’t see a “label” before picking up this book!)

There are discussions about faith and God in the book, but I never felt like those discussions dominated the novel or that I was being hit over the head with religion. Instead, these themes are a part of the women’s journeys, as they think about their lives, their families, their relationships, and the meaning of it all. While their beliefs don’t align with my own, I was actually quite moved by some of their inner processes and how they decide, each in their own way, to make important changes in their lives.

There’s also a love story for Madeline, but that’s probably the part that I cared about least in this book. I mean, it was nice, but I didn’t get a good feel for the relationship or how it grew, and didn’t feel all that invested in that piece of the plot.

All in all, I’m really glad I decided to give this book another chance! It’s a quick, engaging read, with heart, emotions, and LOTS OF BOOKS. (The author helpfully includes a list of all the books mentioned or referred to in the story at the back of the book… and we all know how awesome books about books can be!)

And now, I feel ready for Of Literature and Lattes.

Sometimes, it’s all about the timing.

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

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2) by Philip Pullman

Title: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2)
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 3, 2019
Length: 641 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.

It is seven years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child . . .

The second volume of Sir Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed.

Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.

Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost – a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust.

How to describe this long, strange book, set in the world of His Dark Materials?

The Secret Commonwealth is very much a middle book. It’s packed with details and characters, most of whom are people on a journey or quest. There’s a lot of travel from here to there… but we leave off before anyone actually arrives at their destinations.

In La Belle Sauvage, the installment in The Book of Dust that precedes The Secret Commonwealth, we see Lyra as an infant. She’s the object of hot pursuit by nefarious agents of the Magisterium, the ruling religious entity, and a person to be protected by an assortment of good guys and heroes, chief among them young Malcolm Polstead, an 11-year-old boy with unflinching bravery and a very steady canoe.

Here, we re-meet Lyra at age 20. She’s a student at St. Sophia’s, and still lives at Jordan College, the Oxford college where she’s been sheltered under rules of scholastic sanctuary since infancy. Lyra’s life is difficult as the story opens. Her comfortable home at Jordan is no longer a safe place for her, the money supporting her has run out, and shady characters are once again intent on tracking her down.

Closer to home, Lyra and her beloved daemon Pantalaimon are not getting along, which is a huge deal, considering that daemons are the external representation of a person’s soul. Daemon and human are two halves of one whole; neither is complete without the other. It’s almost beyond imagining that Lyra and Pan should be so estranged. Pan believes that Lyra has come too deeply under the influence of literary and scholarly works that prize only what’s real and can be seen, discounting completely the value or even existence of subtlety, imagination, and unseen forces and worlds.

Meanwhile, there’s a movement behind the scenes within the Magisterium to consolidate power even further, pushing toward total religious authoritarianism, leading to fear, civil unrest, and a growing flood of refugees throughout Europe. There’s also a quest by the Magisterium to root out a particular type of rose oil that’s believed to have certain properties that are considered threatening and heretical, and the efforts to wipe out all roses is being conducted by force.

As Lyra is forced into a quest across Europe and into the Eastern lands, she faces incredible danger and constant pursuit, meeting some allies and encountering enemies of all sorts. We also see events through Pan’s perspective, as well as accompanying Malcolm and others on their own strange and dangerous journeys.

It’s a little hard to figure out just who the intended audience of this book is. It’s clearly a youth-oriented book, based on the publisher and where it fits into the greater world of His Dark Materials, but this book is different. For starters, it’s the first novel in either series with no children as characters. Lyra, at age 20, is the youngest, and she’s truly a young woman and not a girl any longer.

More than that, though, is the tone and feel of the book. This book is DARK. Really bad things happen. This rarely feels like fantasy-level danger, with mystical forces or supernatural threats. The danger in The Secret Commonwealth is from people, and it’s awful. Lyra suffers through terrible ordeals, and so do many of the other characters in the book.

The pieces that are revealed about human/daemon connections and certain things that can happen (being deliberately vague here) are pretty horrible too, and are really startling in the context of the series as a whole.

Finally, the Lyra/Pan relationship and where it is in The Secret Commonwealth is heartbreaking and demoralizing. There’s really no ray of sunshine in this book whatsoever.

I suppose that the bleakness of the story is appropriate to the political conditions of Lyra’s world, but it makes for a pretty dismal reading experience. Philip Pullman is masterful as always, and I do love the world he’s created.

However, The Secret Commonwealth is so unrelentingly dark and full of misery that it’s hard to consider it an enjoyable read at all. After 600+ pages, it ends more or less on a cliffhanger, with all threads still to be resolved. The book is building toward something, and I hope the final book in the trilogy is successful in tying it all together and, hopefully, bringing back a little of Lyra’s fire and optimism.

I will absolutely want to read the 3rd and final book in The Book of Dust, and hope the conclusion will make all the suffering of the 2nd book worthwhile. Meanwhile, The Secret Commonwealth has left me feeling sad, upset, and worried about Lyra, and that’s not a fun way to be left hanging.