Audiobook Review: Meg & Jo by Virginia Kantra

Title: Meg & Jo
Author: Virginia Kantra
Narrators: Shannon McManus, Karissa Vacker
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: December 3, 2019
Print length: 400 pages
Audio length: 13 hours 46 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The timeless classic Little Women inspired this heartwarming modern tale of four sisters from New York Times bestselling author Virginia Kantra.

The March sisters—reliable Meg, independent Jo, stylish Amy, and shy Beth—have grown up to pursue their separate dreams. When Jo followed her ambitions to New York City, she never thought her career in journalism would come crashing down, leaving her struggling to stay afloat in a gig economy as a prep cook and secret food blogger.

Meg appears to have the life she always planned—the handsome husband, the adorable toddlers, the house in a charming subdivision. But sometimes getting everything you’ve ever wanted isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

When their mother’s illness forces the sisters home to North Carolina for the holidays, they’ll rediscover what really matters.

One thing’s for sure—they’ll need the strength of family and the power of sisterhood to remake their lives and reimagine their dreams.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.

And a Little Women retelling wouldn’t be nearly as convincing if it didn’t start with that memorable opening line!

Dangle a Little Women retelling in front of me, and naturally I’m going to read it. And while Meg & Jo has been on my TBR for a while now, I finally got the motivation to dive in thanks to my book group, since this is our February pick.

In Meg & Jo, the March sisters are all grown up and living their own lives. Meg has settled into married life with her husband John and their adorable two-year-old twins, staying put in the family home town in North Carolina. Jo moved to New York years back to pursue a journalism career, but after being laid off from her newspaper job, she’s working as a prep cook at a fancy restaurant while secretly writing a food blog. Beth is in school studying music, and Amy has an internship in the fashion world.

Meg & Jo is narrated in alternating chapters by (obviously) Meg and Jo, and it’s their stories that are the focus of this book. (Beth and Amy are still there, mostly in the background and in their occasional appearances as they visit home, but they’re not POV characters in this book.)

As the book progresses, we learn that neither Meg nor Jo is truly leading their best lives. Meg is a stay-at-home mom, and her husband gave up his teaching and coaching job to work at a car dealership so he could better support their growing family once they found out Meg was pregnant. Neither one is entirely happy. Sure, they love each other and their children, but Meg pressures herself to do it all as payback for John working so hard, not realizing how she’s shutting him out and denying him the opportunity to be a true partner. Meanwhile, John is working at a job that means nothing to him, and can’t bring himself to talk to Meg about it. The communication problems between Meg and John are the central challenge they face.

As for Jo, her blog is doing well, but she’s frustrated. She likes working in the restaurant, but it’s not exactly advancing her writing career. As the story progresses, she falls into a romantic relationship with Eric, the renowned chef and owner of the restaurant, but secrets and a lack of clear intention seem to doom the romance before it can really bloom.

Complicating Meg and Jo’s separate lives further is family drama back home. The March parents live on the farm passed down through Abby’s (Marmee’s) side of the family. Abby runs the farm and the home herself, while her husband Ashton seems to devote all his time to his calling, serving as chaplain and counselor to military vets. When Abby becomes injured, her farm duties fall to Meg — and once Meg takes over, she starts to realize the precariousness of the farm’s future.

As the sisters return home for their mother’s recuperation and for the holidays, they come together to support and love one another. Secrets are revealed, there are plenty of surprises, and ultimately, there are promises of future happiness for Meg and Jo.

So… did I enjoy Meg & Jo? Yes, for sure! It took some getting used to, but seeing the March family transplanted into modern-day lives was quite fun and for the most part, really engaging. I did want to give Meg a good shake from time to time — it was so obvious to me that her attempts to take the household burdens off of John were actually alienating him. The book does a good job of showing how she was modeling her approach to doing it all on what she saw in her own parents’ marriage and internalized as the way things should work, and I was actually proud of Meg when she finally started to understand that accepting John as a true partner was the key to their future happiness.

Jo could be pretty clueless about certain things, and OF COURSE keeping her blog a secret was going to come back to bite her. I had a hard time believing some of the fallout, good and bad, once her secret came out. I did like her relationship with Eric, although I would have liked to see it given a little more time to grow before the big blow-up.

Beth and Amy seem to be basically true to their Little Women depictions, although (150-year-old spoiler alert!) Beth is alive and well in Meg & Jo! I held my breath for about half the book, waiting for her to develop a horrible illness, but thankfully, the book didn’t go there. Beth is gentle and sweet, very shy, and is committed to her musical career. Amy is spoiled, flighty, and impulsive, just as you’d expect.

One of my favorite parts of the book is Amy calling Jo out on trying to put them all into boxes, reminding Jo that in real life, people aren’t just one thing. I loved that their argument started over Pride and Prejudice – Jo sees Meg as Jane, and herself as Lizzie — but what roles does that leave for Beth and Amy? Amy rightfully resents that Jo can’t see her as anything but the pampered, entitled child she once knew. I loved the coming to terms that starts to occur between the sisters.

Another big difference between Little Women and Meg & Jo is how the March parents are depicted, especially the father. In Little Women, Mr. March is largely absent, off in the war and doing God’s work. They miss him terribly, but know he’s following an important path and never seem to resent him. In Meg & Jo, Mr. March comes off as kind of a jerk, at least when it comes to being a husband and father. Yes, he has a calling to tend to the men and women who are suffering after giving so much to their country — but he absolutely neglects his family in order to do so, leaving his wife and children to manage on their own and taking no responsibility for their financial or physical well-being.

Meg & Jo is a little longer than it needs to be, and some interludes at the restaurant and on the farm could have been tightened up a bit. I’m glad I listened to the audiobook rather than reading a print copy, since that helped me feel less like the story was dragging (and I could listen at a faster speed when it was!) The audiobook has different narrators for Meg and Jo, but honestly, their voices are very similar, so if I picked up in the middle of a chapter, it wasn’t obvious from the narrator whose chapter I was on.

As a Little Women fan, I was happy to experience Meg & Jo and see the author’s vision of a modern-day March family. While the story is a little light-weight at times, I enjoyed the characters and their challenges, and it was amusing to see how their 19th century lives could be translated to the 21st century. A follow-up, Beth & Amy, is due out this spring, and I will definitely be reading it!

Audiobook Review: The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Title: The Giver of Stars
Author: Jojo Moyes
Narrator:  Julia Whelan
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: October 8, 2019
Print length: 388 pages
Audio length: 13 hours 52 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the author of Me Before You, set in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond.

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope and epic in its storytelling. Funny, heartbreaking, enthralling, it is destined to become a modern classic–a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post questioning whether we really needed another book about the Depression-era Kentucky pack hours librarians, after having read the excellent The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. A variety of sources had identified concerns about he similarities of this book and The Giver of Stars, which was published later in the same year.

At the time, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read another book on the same historical subject, particularly given some of the questions raised. However, I finally got around to The Giver of Stars after all, and I have to admit, it’s really good.

In The Giver of Stars, we’re introduced to the small town of Baileyville, Kentucky through the eyes of Alice Van Cleve, a young Englishwoman recently married to Bennett Van Cleve, the son of one of the wealthiest and most influential local men. Alice’s starry-eyed approach to marriage is shattered by the absolute lack of affection from Bennett and his constant deferral to his father, in whose house they live and who controls every aspect of their lives.

At a town meeting, a local woman introduces the idea of starting up a pack horse library as part of a WPA project spearheaded by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. While many townsfolk (mostly men) are scandalized, Alice is quick to volunteer, needing to find a purpose and an occupation to take her away from her domestic unhappiness.

The librarians, led by outspoken Margery O’Hare, ride up into the mountains on their mules and horses to deliver books and magazines to the families living there. The job is strenuous and difficult, but rewarding. The women of the library are clearly changing lives with each contact and each delivery.

Alice’s father-in-law is not one to tolerate disobedience, and he takes a particular dislike to Margery’s flouting of traditional feminine roles, painting her as an evil influence to anyone who’ll listen. Mr. Van Cleve owns the local mine that employs much of the adult male population of the area, and he has his own doubtful interests to protect, especially once he suspects Margery of promoting pro-union activism and helping the mountain folk to find ways to thwart his intended mine expansion. His anger becomes more and more dangerous to Alice, Margery, and the existence of the library itself.

The Giver of Stars is an absorbing read, with unique characters we come to care about a great deal, and a nice mix of focus on their personal lives with the bigger picture drama of life in Baileyville and its gossip, natural and man-made dangers, and good-old-boy politics.

The audiobook is lovely, with narration by the talented Julia Whelan, who brings the characters to life, but also beautifully narrates the more descriptive passages about the Kentucky landscapes and the quality of life in the hills.

So, I hereby take back my skepticism about this book! While there are some similarities to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (apart the most obvious, the choice of general subject matter), there was nothing that particularly jumped out at me while I was listening the The Giver of Stars enough to be disturbing or distracting.

Yes, I guess we really did need two books about pack horse librarians! Both are terrific. My main recommendation would be to read them with some time in between, so each can be appreciated on its own merits. I’m glad I finally gave The Giver of Stars a try!

Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Title: The Turn of the Key
Author: Ruth Ware
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

The Turn of the Key is my book group’s pick for November, and I suppose I’m glad to have been “forced” to read it. I’ve been hearing about this book and author Ruth Ware for a while now, so it’s good to know what all the fuss is about!

From the start, we know that there’s something off about the main character. We meet Rowan as she reaches out by letter to a lawyer she’s heard about, one who might be able to turn around her hopeless case. Rowan is in prison, awaiting trial for murdering a child left in her care. And while Rowan admits that she’s done plenty wrong, she insists that she didn’t kill the child.

From here, she relates her strange story, starting with the advertisement for a nanny. A wealthy couple is offering a huge salary for a live-in nanny for their four children at their Scottish estate. To Rowan, this is simply too good to be true. The money involves a huge step up for her, she’s ready for a change, and as we later learn, she has other reasons for wanting the position too.

It’s a weird set-up. The house is a huge, beautiful old Victorian, but the back half has been totally converted into a sleek, glass-walled modern structure. The estate encompasses acres of woods and trails that the children are free to roam about unattended. The children range from toddler to teen, and seem like a handful, but Rowan is enchanted.

Less enchanting is the smart-house design. Everything is run via an app called Happy, that controls all lights, locks and unlocks doors, interfaces with phone calls, replenishes the grocery list, plays music and audiobooks, and so much more. There are cameras everywhere. Creepy!

The parents, Sandra and Bill, are strangely hands-off, to say the least. Upon hiring Rowan, they depart on a business trip the very next day. Suddenly, Rowan is left alone with children who don’t know her (and seem very hostile), a house she doesn’t know how to operate, and only a thick binder left behind by Sandra to offer her instructions on the daily routines and needs of the children.

There are so many red flags that honestly, if I were in Rowan’s shoes, I’d be heading for the hills. Being left alone with children I’ve just met for weeks? Living in an isolated old house? The creaky floors and strange noises? The scary walled garden? The impossible-to-figure-out house app and Sandra’s remote surveillance? No thank you very much.

Still, we also suspect early on that Rowan has secrets. What was her real reason for wanting this job? Why does she hesitate when someone calls her by name? Why does she hide her necklace and just seem so damned awkward all the time?

I had a lot of guesses about Rowan’s secrets, but I was wrong. I was slightly more on target with some of my guesses about the murder — I mean, I got that wrong too, but I figured out some of the “hows” at least!

The ending is pretty abrupt and perhaps a little manipulative, and there’s an ambiguous line thrown in right before the end that has me wondering what happened to Rowan after she finished telling her story.

Overall, I was only partially engaged; hence my 3-star rating. Granted, I’m not a thriller fan in general, so take my responses with a grain of salt. Still, I thought there was something stilted about the set-up, and felt that Rowan’s actions didn’t make enough sense going along. She displays a temper toward the children that made me go in some really dark directions which turned out not to be true — which is a relief, but then why such strong displays of anger? For a childcare professional, Rowan’s anger issues seem really inappropriate and probably should disqualify her from working with children.

Also, it didn’t feel rational to me that a person would show up and take this job in the first place with no adjustment period, and the smart-house aspects are creepy without really adding to the plot. Likewise, the awful garden is in the mix as a danger sign and huge clue… except in the end, it doesn’t really have anything to do with what’s going on, except for being yet one more thing to freak out the main character.

Rowan’s letters from prison make her sound pretty unhinged, so learning that she’s not as unreliable a narrator as we’re led to believe makes me feel like I was being handled, rather than tricked by a clever story.

I don’t know. I was engaged and needed to see how it all turned out, but never particularly connected to any of the characters or cared about them as individuals — not even the children, who didn’t seem particularly realistic.

So yeah, just a 3-star read for me. *Shrug*. Kind of disappointing, considering that I have another book by this author on my shelf. Here’s hoping I have better luck with the next one!

PS – I keep having to stop myself from referring to this book as The Turn of the Screw… and I assume that’s an intentional nod to the classic. New nanny, strange and potentially haunted house, weird children… although the Henry James version doesn’t include invasive smart devices and apps!

Audiobook Review: Mythos by Stephen Fry

Title: Mythos: The Greek Myths Reimagined
Author: Stephen Fry
Narrator:  Stephen Fry
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Publication date: August 27, 2019
Print length: 352 pages
Audio length: 15 hours 26 minutes
Genre: Myths & legends
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Rediscover the thrills, grandeur, and unabashed fun of the Greek myths—stylishly retold by Stephen Fry. This legendary writer, actor, and comedian breathes new life into beloved tales. From Persephone’s pomegranate seeds to Prometheus’s fire, from devious divine schemes to immortal love affairs, Fry draws out the humor and pathos in each story and reveals its relevance for our own time. Illustrated throughout with classical art inspired by the myths, this gorgeous volume invites you to explore a captivating world, with a brilliant storyteller as your guide.

Stephen Fry’s book on Greek mythology is an absolute delight, and his narration of the audiobook is a perfect showcase for his wit and humor.

From the creation myths through the age of the Titans and the Olympians, Stephen Fry treats us to story after story that never fail to amuse. It’s a wonderful accomplishment, breathing fresh life into stories that many of us have heard repeatedly since childhood. In Mythos, even the most familiar of tales feels fresh, and there are plenty included that I’d never heard of before.

Of course, it’s all very funny too, and is kept at a very light and entertaining level. This isn’t an academic study — it’s storytelling, and it works beautifully. I also really appreciated the little nuggets of linguistic origins tucked in amidst all the gods and demigods and nymphs — the narrator always points out the modern day words and places that are related to the Greek names of the figures in the myths. As a word geek, I found it just so much fun!

Stephen Fry’s versions of the stories are light-hearted and told for maximum entertainment, and every so often there are some absolute gems, such as this line from the story of King Midas:

Everything around him glinted and glittered, gleamed and glimmered with a gorgeous gaudy golden glow but his heart was as grim and grey as granite.

After listening to the audiobook, I couldn’t resist treating myself to a physical copy of the book, and I’m so glad I did — it’s beautiful. The text is of course wonderful, and there are illustrations throughout that add to it and make it a book I’ll be happy to open at random and flip through from time to time for years to come.

This is one instance where I feel confident in saying that you’ll be missing out if you only read the print version, because Stephen Fry’s narration is just so terrific. So, if you enjoy mythology told with flair, absolutely give a listen to this great audiobook!

I can’t wait to listen to the next in the series!

Graphic Reaction: Good Talk by Mira Jacob

Title: Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations
Author: Mira Jacob
Publisher: One World
Publication date: March 26, 2019
Length: 349 pages
Genre: Graphic memoir
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Mira Jacob’s touching, often humorous, and utterly unique graphic memoir takes readers on her journey as a first-generation American. At an increasingly fraught time for immigrants and their families, Good Talk delves into the difficult conversations about race, sex, love, and family that seem to be unavoidable these days.

Inspired by her popular BuzzFeed piece “37 Difficult Questions from My Mixed-Raced Son,” here are Jacob’s responses to her six-year-old, Zakir, who asks if the new president hates brown boys like him; uncomfortable relationship advice from her parents, who came to the United States from India one month into their arranged marriage; and the imaginary therapy sessions she has with celebrities from Bill Murray to Madonna. Jacob also investigates her own past, from her memories of being the only non-white fifth grader to win a Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest to how it felt to be a brown-skinned New Yorker on 9/11. As earnest and moving as they are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, these are the stories that have formed one American life.

I can’t think of a more timely book to read this week — on the eve of a monumentally important election — than Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. In this graphic memoir, the author shares conversations between her and her six-year-old (and later, eight-year-old) son, her husband, her in-laws, her parents, her friends, and all sorts of other relatives and acquaintances. Through these conversations, she explores what it means to have brown skin in America, and how she hopes to help her mixed-race child navigate a world that still doesn’t know how to stop treating people as others.

From her son’s early obsession with Michael Jackson up through the 2016 election, she navigates the strange and treacherous landscape of race in America, using drawn characters against photographic backgrounds to highlight a variety of conversations that are funny while also sad, startling, and infuriating.

This is a quick read, but so lovely and warm and powerful. I will definitely want to read more by this author!

Book Review: The Remaking by Clay McLeod Chapman

Title: The Remaking
Author: Clay McLeod Chapman
Publisher: Quirk
Publication date: October 8, 2019 (paperback publication 9/15/2020)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Inspired by a true story, this supernatural thriller for fans of horror and true crime follows a tale as it evolves every twenty years—with terrifying results.

Ella Louise has lived in the woods surrounding Pilot’s Creek, Virginia, for nearly a decade. Publicly, she and her daughter Jessica are shunned by their upper-crust family and the Pilot’s Creek residents. Privately, desperate townspeople visit her apothecary for a cure to what ails them—until Ella Louise is blamed for the death of a prominent customer. Accused of witchcraft, both mother and daughter are burned at the stake in the middle of the night. Ella Louise’s burial site is never found, but the little girl has the most famous grave in the South: a steel-reinforced coffin surrounded by a fence of interconnected white crosses.

Their story will take the shape of an urban legend as it’s told around a campfire by a man forever marked by his boyhood encounters with Jessica. Decades later, a boy at that campfire will cast Amber Pendleton as Jessica in a ’70s horror movie inspired by the Witch Girl of Pilot’s Creek. Amber’s experiences on that set and its meta-remake in the ’90s will ripple through pop culture, ruining her life and career after she becomes the target of a witch hunt. Amber’s best chance to break the cycle of horror comes when a true-crime investigator tracks her down to interview her for his popular podcast. But will this final act of storytelling redeem her—or will it bring the story full circle, ready to be told once again? And again. And again…

Are you ready for a ghost story? How about a ghost story within a ghost story within a ghost story?

Welcome to the weird and chilling world of The Remaking, now out in paperback, in which an urban legend refuses to die, no matter how many times the story is retold.

In 1931 in the lumber-rich town of Pilot’s Creek, Virginia, a mother and her nine-year-old daughter are burned at the stake by vengeful townspeople (men, of course). For years, it’s been an open secret that Ella Louise Ford can cure what ails you, and her young daughter Jessica appears to be even more gifted. But witches living in the woods can only be tolerated for so long, and when Ella Louise’s treatments are suspected of causing a tragedy, the men of the town want the witches to pay.

In 1951, an old man tells ghost stories around a campfire, always coming back to the story of Jessica Ford, the Little Witch Girl. Ella Louise was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere deep in the woods, but little Jessica was buried in hallowed ground, in a reinforced coffin with cement filling in the grave and a fence of crucifixes to keep her in. Now, legend has it that the Little Witch Girl wants out, and she just needs someone to help her find her mother.

In 1971, a man who heard the ghost story as a child is determined to make a movie about Jessica — a shlocky horror film called Don’t Tread on Jessica’s Grave, filled with standard horror movie tropes, and starring an eerily perfect young actress named Amber. But something happens on set, and it’s the legend behind the movie that makes this a story that becomes a horror cult classic.

In 1995, Amber is a drug-dependent has-been who never had a career after her early disaster, but who instead has found fame of sorts on the horror convention circuit. When an up-and-coming director decides to make a remake of Jessica’s story, Amber seems like the perfect choice to play Ella Louise — until on-set tragedy strikes again.

And finally, in 2016, a podcaster who debunks urban legends decides to tackle the story of the Little Witch Girl and prove it’s a hoax once and for all… but is he ready for what he’ll find in the woods?

I realize I’ve just outlined the entire book, but trust me, you have to read it to get the full creepy experience. The story of Ella Louise and Jessica starts with tragedy. Ella Louise is different, a disgrace to her society parents, and it’s implied but never explained that she became pregnant with Jessica as the result of a sexual assault on the night of her debutante ball. But rather than being supported as a crime victim, she’s shunned by her parents and the town, and makes a new life for herself and her daughter, out in the woods where no one can harm them.

I had a hard time getting over the origin story of Ella Louise and Jessica, because it’s so harrowing and awful. But from there, we see how the tale takes on a life of its own… and how something that may be just a story has doomed the town and everyone connected with it. Is it truly a witch’s curse, or is it the story that haunts the town and brings destruction to everyone who encounters it?

Amber’s tale is chilling in very different ways. Forced into pursuing her big break by a mother who never realized her own dream of stardom, Amber is way too young to be able to handle the horror of shooting Don’t Tread on Jessica’s Grave. From the movie’s storyline to seeing herself transformed through makeup and prosthetics into a burned corpse, this is clearly something that will scar her forever — and that’s before she has a nearly deadly encounter in the woods.

Jessica had become a cinematic ouroboros. A serpent devouring its own tail, coiling round and round for an eternity. The longer I imagined that snake infinitely spinning, the more its scales slowly took on the shape of celluloid frames. The sprocket holes along either side of the film strip formed scales. When this snake shed its skin, the translucent husk would be fed through the projector. The images trapped within each scale caught the projector’s light and made their way to the big screen. Jessica filled that vast canvas, reaching her hand out to me.

This film would never end. It continued to play on its own endless loop. Jessica’s story would be told over and over, forever now. She found a new audience.

Fresh blood.

That was exactly what Jessica wanted.

To find new blood.

A ghost story, a consideration of urban legends, a look at the need to endlessly remake movies into something new for each generation — The Remaking provides so much to think about, even while being a chilling, creepy, intensely haunting read.

Much like the endless remakings and retellings of Jessica’s story, The Remaking will be sticking with me for a long time!

And now, if only someone would make a movie version of The Remaking, so Jessica’s story could live on…

The Remaking was released in paperback this week. Check out this perfect cover:

Also, be sure to listen to this interview with the author for insights into the origin of the Little Witch Girl:

NPR: The Remaking interview

Book Review: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Title: The Silent Patient
Author: Alex Michaelides
Publisher: Celadon Books
Publication date: August 18, 2020
Print length: 325 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.

Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.

Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him… 

I’ll be blunt — this book annoyed the hell out of me. It’s super hyped, has tons of buzz, and I have friends who’ve insisted that I just had to read it. When my book club picked it as our August book, I knew my time had come.

In brief, this is a psychological thriller about Alicia, a woman who was convicted of murdering her husband and has been confined to a mental institution ever since. From the time she was discovered near her husband’s bloody body, she hasn’t spoken a word. Alicia, a talented artist, made only one communication since Gabriel’s death — a self-portrait, with the mysterious word “Alcestis” written at the bottom.

Theo Faber is a psychotherapist who became fascinated by Alicia’s story and the ensuing notoriety. Years later, he has the opportunity to work at the hospital where she’s a patient, and there he dives into her case, determined to understand why she hasn’t spoken in six years.

From the start, I was annoyed by Theo, and because he’s our point of view character, I felt impatient with the book as a whole. Theo overcame a horrible childhood to achieve professional success, and yet from the moment he transfers to the Grove, he seems to be flouting every rule of professionalism in his obsession with uncovering Alicia’s secrets.

It’s clear that there’s more to the story of the murder than what people accept as the truth. As Theo digs, several potentially shady people emerge as either witnesses or possibly perpetrators of some terrible acts. Aaaaaand… I won’t say too much more about the plot.

The resolution to the mystery took me by surprise, but I felt that the author only managed to achieve this through some sleight-of-hand involving the plot timelines that left me feeling manipulated, rather than pleasantly shocked by the cleverness of it all.

Theo’s actions often make no sense in the big picture, and I’m not sure that I buy the crime scene set-up and explanation as presented either. Yes, it’s twisty and full of unexpected revelations, but I felt too often that I was being “handled”.

I know I’m in the minority on this one. My book group seems to have loved The Silent Patient, and so did my husband and a few other friends. It’s a very quick read, and I was never bored — I think I tore through this book in about a day and a half, and reached a point where I couldn’t put it down.

So yes, it’s an absorbing read and I needed to keep going once I started. But something about it doesn’t sit well with me, and that’s why I gave it three stars.

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?