Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Title: Hamnet
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Tinder Press
Publication date: March 31, 2020
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

New York Times Notable Book (2020), Best Book of 2020: GuardianFinancial TimesLiterary Hub, and NPR.

Hamnet is a powerful, emotional, beautifully written story about grief, mourning, and sorrow. Also, Shakespeare.

In Hamnet, the main point-of-view character is Agnes, although we do get passages from the perspectives of Agnes’s children and husband too. Agnes is gifted with sight and special powers. A talented healer, she can also see people’s futures simply by touching them. About herself, she has one clear vision: She will be the mother of two children.

When Agnes meets her husband, the son of a disreputable glovemaker and Latin tutor to her stepbrothers, they’re immediately drawn to one another, and eventually marry. Agnes can see her husband’s unhappiness casting a shadow over their lives. He lacks purpose, a means of fulfilling his own pursuits — so she sends him off to London, ostensibly to further his father’s business interests there. They plan for him to get settled, then send for Agnes and their children.

But all does not go as intended. Already the parents of a healthy girl, Agnes soon delivers not the 2nd child she expects, but a 2nd and 3rd. The twins are a girl and a boy, the girl born so weak and fragile that she was not expected to survive. She names the babies Hamnet and Judith, and they are inseparable. It soon becomes clear that moving to London will never be an option for Agnes and her children — Judith’s health is too delicate to allow her to live in a crowded, dirty city. And so Agnes and her husband live apart, with him returning for visits when he can, although he’s achieving success as a playwright and creating a separate life for himself in the world of theater.

But Agnes can never quite forget her own vision, of herself as the mother of two children.

She fears her foresight; she does. She remembers with ice-cold clarity the image she had of two figures at the foot of the bed where she will meet her end. She now knows that it’s possible, more than possible, that one of her children will die, because children do, all the time. But she will not have it. She will not. She will fill this child, these children, with life. She will place herself between them and the door leading out, and she will stand there, teeth bared, blocking the way. She will defend her three babes against all that lies beyond this world. She will not rest, not sleep, until she knows they are safe. She will push back, fight against, undo the foresight she has always had, about having two children. She will. She knows she can.

When “pestilence” — the Black Death — reaches the family’s home in Stratford, it’s Judith who is stricken. But Hamnet will not abide the idea of losing his twin, and eventually, he is lost while Judith survives. Agnes and the family are plunged into the horrors of loss, the devastating death of a child punching a hole through the fabric of their lives.

In Hamnet, Shakespeare himself is never named (he’s always the husband or the father or the son), but we know who we’re reading about. It feels appropriate for him to be presented in this way — if the story were about him, his life and career would overshadow all the rest. Here, though, it’s a story about a family, and especially about a mother, trying to find a way to live in the shadow of unbearable grief. The father’s way of dealing with the loss, through the power of his words, is just one aspect of what the family experiences.

The writing in Hamnet is absolutely gorgeous. I’m not usually a fan of “literary” fiction, but this novel is an exception for me. The carefully constructed characters, the lyrical descriptions of their world and their lives, and even the passages describing the transmission of the plague are all presented in a way that’s beautiful and haunting and powerful.

Hamnet is a special book, and I’m so glad my book group chose it for this month’s discussion. Once again, thanks to the group, I’ve read an excellent book I might otherwise have missed!

Very highly recommended.

To read more about Hamnet:

New York Times review (written by Geraldine Brooks)
NPR review
Washington Post review

Book Review: The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate

Title: The Book of Lost Friends
Author: Lisa Wingate
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication date: April 7, 2020
Print length: 388 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A new novel inspired by historical events: a story of three young women on a journey in search of family amidst the destruction of the post-Civil War South, and of a modern-day teacher who rediscovers their story and its connection to her own students’ lives.

Lisa Wingate brings to life stories from actual “Lost Friends” advertisements that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, as freed slaves desperately searched for loved ones who had been sold off.

Louisiana, 1875 In the tumultuous aftermath of Reconstruction, three young women set off as unwilling companions on a perilous quest: Lavinia, the pampered heir to a now-destitute plantation; Juneau Jane, her illegitimate free-born Creole half-sister; and Hannie, Lavinia’s former slave. Each carries private wounds and powerful secrets as they head for Texas, following dangerous roads rife with ruthless vigilantes and soldiers still fighting a war lost a decade before. For Lavinia and Juneau Jane, the journey is one of inheritance and financial desperation, but for Hannie, torn from her mother and eight siblings before slavery’s end, the pilgrimage westward reignites an agonizing question: Could her long-lost family still be out there? Beyond the swamps lie the seemingly limitless frontiers of Texas and, improbably, hope.

Louisiana, 1987 For first-year teacher Benedetta Silva, a subsidized job at a poor rural school seems like the ticket to canceling her hefty student debt–until she lands in a tiny, out-of-step Mississippi River town. Augustine, Louisiana, seems suspicious of new ideas and new people, and Benny can scarcely comprehend the lives of her poverty-stricken students. But amid the gnarled oaks and run-down plantation homes lies the century-old history of three young women, a long-ago journey, and a hidden book that could change everything.

After reading and enjoying this author’s previous novel (Before We Were Yours), I was excited to get an ARC of The Book of Lost Friends… and yet I left it unread until now, somehow never quite feeling in the mood to get started. So, I was glad when my book group chose The Book of Lost Friends as our July 2022 Book of the Month — finally, a commitment to get me motivated!

Unfortunately, while I finished the book, I can’t say that I loved it. In fact, I’ve been wavering between rating this one 2.5 or 3 stars.

The narrative alternates between a historical timeline set in 1875 and a more modern timeline set in 1987. Both stories are situated in Augustine, Louisiana, and in both timelines, the Gossett family is at the center of the community.

In 1875, the Gossett plantation has been transformed post-war into sharecropper properties, still dominated by the plantation’s former mistress, who seems determined to undermine and cheat the formerly enslaved people now working to secure their own land. Her husband has disappeared to Texas in search of his wayward son, and the future of the land and its people is very much up in the air. The main character, Hannie, ends up accompanying the former master’s two daughters (one white and legitimate, the other biracial and illegitimate) on a dangerous journey to find their father and find the missing documents needed to secure their inheritance. Hannie’s own goal is more personal: To find the missing members of her family, all of whom were sold off while enslaved and stolen by an unscrupulous relative of the plantation owners.

In 1987, the main character is Benny (Benedetta) Silva, a young teacher who accepts a rural posting in exchange for student loan forgiveness. Benny is ill-prepared to teach in a school where there are inadequate resources, apathetic staff, and students who lack the most rudimentary skills or interest needed to pursue an education. Benny is determined to find a way to connect with her students, and begins a research project that puts her at odds with powerful town leaders.

I don’t want to go too far down the road of discussing the dual plots, so I’ll stick to some key concerns and takeaways.

In both timelines, the plot is often confusing and muddled. We alternate chapters between the two timelines, and yet as we pick up a storyline after a chapter away from it, there’s often a gap in the action from where we left off. Intervening events do get explained, but the initial impression is always that something has been missed or that the pieces don’t quite connect.

The family chronologies and connections are not well explained, and neither is the make-up of the town itself or its history. There’s a lot of detail thrown around in the book, but often through exposition rather than incorporation into the plot. The details often felt muddy to me, leading to my feelings of disengagement.

Benny’s role, in my opinion, is problematic. Her character really smacks of white saviorism. She arrives in town as an outsider, and immediate becomes the catalyst for changing the lives of the poor children and disempowered community members of Augustine. Why did it take Benny’s arrival to make this happen? Why was it Benny and the (white) descendants of the Gossett slaveowners who enable the discovery of the town’s history and the revelations that ensue?

I did appreciate learning about the Lost Friends advertisements, which were a real historical phenomenon used by formerly enslaved people to try to track down and reunite with family members. The inclusion of real Lost Friends ads is touching and powerful.

However, overall, the plot didn’t build in a way that connected the dots, and the action sequences and outcomes felt disjointed. I did not feel emotionally involved with the characters, and while certain moments elicit sympathy or sorrow or horror, these responses related more to the general circumstances described rather than being connected to actual care or concern for the specific characters.

I was also turned off by a weirdness to the ending, in which a big revelation about a character’s backstory is shared literally on the last two pages of the book. Why?? It felt awkward and unnecessary — perhaps it was intended to provide an “aha!” moment about the character, but really, it just felt tacked-on and beside the point.

Overall, this was not a great reading experience, and if not for my book group commitment, I probably would not have finished. The “Lost Friends” element is interesting from a historical perspective, but the fictional storylines built up around this element just never made me feel connected or invested.

Final note: I will add that many of my book group friends enjoyed this book more than I did, and one person who is herself an educator commented that she found Benny’s work with the students and the challenges she faced very relatable and well done. In other words… while I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, your mileage may vary!

Audiobook Review: The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk

Title: The Midnight Bargain
Author: C. L. Polk
Narrator: Moira Quirk
Publisher: Erewhon
Publication date: October 13, 2020
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 49 minute
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken

I was not prepared to get as swept away by this book as I was!

In The Midnight Bargain, we’re transported to a world in which magical powers are the key to financial success… and belong squarely to the male population. Women with powers are seen as desirable in marriage because they’re most likely to provide magically gifted children. The catch is that women are not actually allowed to practice magic or study it seriously. Upon marriage, women are locked into silver collars that cut off their access to magic for as long as they wear it — supposedly to ensure the safety of future children, but (conveniently for their husbands) also ensuring that they’re kept under tight control.

For Beatrice, the idea of never developing her magical gift is horrifying. Her father, having speculated unwisely in business ventures, is on the verge of financial (and thus, social) ruin. Only a good marriage to the son of a wealthy family can save her own family. But Beatrice dreams of studying magic and strengthening her own powers, and her secret dream is to bind a powerful spirit to herself, making her ineligible to marry and giving her the opportunity to work behind the scenes to help her father build back his fortune.

Sadly, Beatrice’s father is a rigid conformist who is only focused on money and getting ahead. Bargaining season — the time each year when “ingenues” are placed on the marriage market and wealthy families compete to secure a good match — is the Clayborn family’s last chance to dig themselves out of debt, and there’s simply no way that her father will allow her to evade her duties. Beatrice knows that it’s a race against time to find the right grimoire that will unlock the mysteries of binding a spirit.

Her plans are confounded by Ysbeta Lavan, the powerful daughter of an incredibly wealthy family, who has her own reasons for wanting to escape bargaining season unmarried. A further complication is Ianthe Lavan, Ysbeta’s (super hot) brother, who falls for Beatrice just as hard as she falls for him. Beatrice’s feelings for Ianthe stand in contradiction to her personal goals. Can she give up her dreams of developing her magical gifts for the sake of true love, even if it means locking herself in a collar for the duration of her child-bearing years?

I hesitated a bit when starting this book, having read the author’s earlier Kingston Cycle trilogy and coming away from it with mixed feelings. While I admired the author’s inventiveness, I felt that the world-building in the trilogy wasn’t strong enough to satisfy me or provide sufficient groundwork for understanding the intricacies of the society the books portrayed. I worried that I might have a similar experince with The Midnight Bargain.

Fortunately, my worries were soon set to rest. While I do feel that more explanation would have been helpful at the start of the book, I easily became immersed in the plot anyway. I wished for more explanation of the countries named and their different customs, as well as some basics on geography. The world itself felt a little shakily defined.

However, I still was able to fully engage with the characters and enjoy the story. Beatrice’s quest is fueled not by a desire for personal power, but by her need to make her own decisions and be truly free. At one point, Ianthe swears that if they marry, he’ll leave her free of the collar whenever possible and support her pursuit of magic… but even that may not be enough. As Beatrice struggles with her choices, it’s clear that being allowed freedom isn’t the same thing as actually having freedom. It’s fascinating to see the characters’ journeys and conflicts, and I appreciated that decisions for the main characters are never clear choices between a right and wrong path.

The nature of the society is, of course, horrifying. There are some truly terrible scenes later in the book when it appears that Beatrice’s independence and agency will be stripped from her against her will, and I literally found myself short of breath during these moments! This is a fantasy world, but the stakes are women’s rights and the freedom to determine one’s own path and make one’s own choices. It feels real, despite the trappings of magic and spirits.

I listened to the audiobook, which was a truly captivating experience. The narrator, Moira Quirk, is a delight. Having listened to her narration of many of Gail Carriger’s books, I knew I’d be in for a treat with the audio version of The Midnight Bargain, and I definitely was not disappointed!

I’m so happy to have experienced The Midnight Bargain. The plot zips along, but packs quite an emotional punch too. With terrific characters, a compelling fantasy set-up, and high stakes, it’s hard to stop once you get started. Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Marriage Game by Sara Desai

Title: The Marriage Game
Author: Sara Desai
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 9, 2020
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased (paperback); Library (audiobook)
Rating:

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

A high stakes wager pits an aspiring entrepreneur against a ruthless CEO in this sexy romantic comedy.

After her life falls apart, recruitment consultant Layla Patel returns home to her family in San Francisco. But in the eyes of her father, who runs a Michelin starred restaurant, she can do no wrong. He would do anything to see her smile again. With the best intentions in mind, he offers her the office upstairs to start her new business and creates a profile on an online dating site to find her a man. She doesn’t know he’s arranged a series of blind dates until the first one comes knocking on her door…

As CEO of a corporate downsizing company Sam Mehta is more used to conflict than calm. In search of a quiet new office, he finds the perfect space above a cozy Indian restaurant that smells like home. But when communication goes awry, he’s forced to share his space with the owner’s beautiful yet infuriating daughter Layla, her crazy family, and a parade of hopeful suitors, all of whom threaten to disrupt his carefully ordered life.

As they face off in close quarters, the sarcasm and sparks fly. But when the battle for the office becomes a battle of the heart, Sam and Layla have to decide if this is love or just a game.

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I mean… diverse characters, San Francisco setting, family matchmaking, and contemporary romance. What’s not to enjoy?

Sadly, this was a bust. I almost quit multiple times throughout the story, and by the end, managed to convince myself to finish by deciding to think of the book as a parody. (To be clear, it’s not a parody.)

The “marriage game” of the title has to do with arranged marriages. To start a more stable life after some dating and career disasters, Layla decides to meet the men her father secretly selected for her via a dating site focused on Indians looking for arranged marriages. Sam and Layla agree that if Layla finds a husband, she’ll give up the office they’re fighting over, but if she doesn’t, Sam has to leave.

I’m not going to rehash the plot, because I just don’t have the energy for it. But here are a just a few points about the worst elements of this book:

  • It reads as if the author is someone who has never actually stepped foot in a modern-day office and imagines all workplaces based on impressions from bad 80s and 90s movies. One the one hand, we have characters repeatedly reminding each other that “this is a place of business”, yet behaving so unprofessionally and inappropriately that it makes my toes curl. Sexual innuendo, sexual banter, sexual harassment, discussion of personal lives, comments about bodies, not to mention weird interpretations of office rules and a lack of all basic office etiquette. It’s awful.
  • Other than Sam (the lead male character), one friend of his who appears infrequently, and Layla’s dad, every male in this book is a predator, a criminal, a harasser, or just grossly blunt and crass and sexist and awful to women.
  • The “game” that Layla and Sam play makes no sense. He goes on her blind dates as her chaperone, then interferes with every single conversation and ruins/undermines every interaction, while Layla focuses on him and not the person she’s meeting. Granted, the dates are all duds, but the dudes never get a chance.
  • The blind dates are supposedly all men that Layla’s father has prescreened and put into his “yes” list of potential husbands for Layla, but either he has terrible taste or he didn’t bother doing even basic due diligence. Again, just awful.
  • So many cringe-worthy scenes. From a blind date with a restaurant owner who has menacing security goons, gang tattoos, and a prison record to one with a corporate VIP who informs Layla in the first 60 seconds that he wants to “bang” her, not marry her… it’s just not amusing at all.
  • There’s a truly disgusting scene involving Sam and his business partner’s party to woo potential clients — including strippers (and their pole), lots of booze, and even angel dust. Again, is this some sort of parody of 1980s corporate greed? Nope, it’s supposed to be set now. It’s gross, and the fact that they win the contract makes no sense at all. AT ALL.
  • The sexual banter and the way the sex scenes are written are not sexy. There’s a line about Layla being jealous of Sam’s shirt because it gets to cling to his muscles. Ugh.

I think you get the picture.

You may be wondering why I gave this book 1.5 stars when I so clearly did not like it? I figure it gets one star simply because I finished it, and the extra 1/2 star is to recognize Layla’s family. The scenes with all the aunties are fun, even if they feel too similar to every other book I’ve read about Indian American families. But the family dynamics (and the descriptions of all the food) at least provide some scenes that are enjoyable, so that’s got to count for something.

From what I see on Goodreads, there are two follow-up books currently available, centered on other characters in Layla and Sam’s world. As you can probably guess, I’m out — those books will get a hard pass from me.

Book Review: Where the Lost Wander by Amy Harmon

Title: Where the Lost Wander
Author: Amy Harmon
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Publication date: April 28, 2020
Length: 343 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy via NetGalley; audiobook purchased via Audible
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this epic and haunting love story set on the Oregon Trail, a family and their unlikely protector find their way through peril, uncertainty, and loss.

The Overland Trail, 1853: Naomi May never expected to be widowed at twenty. Eager to leave her grief behind, she sets off with her family for a life out West. On the trail, she forms an instant connection with John Lowry, a half-Pawnee man straddling two worlds and a stranger in both.

But life in a wagon train is fraught with hardship, fear, and death. Even as John and Naomi are drawn to each other, the trials of the journey and their disparate pasts work to keep them apart. John’s heritage gains them safe passage through hostile territory only to come between them as they seek to build a life together.

When a horrific tragedy strikes, decimating Naomi’s family and separating her from John, the promises they made are all they have left. Ripped apart, they can’t turn back, they can’t go on, and they can’t let go. Both will have to make terrible sacrifices to find each other, save each other, and eventually…make peace with who they are.

Where the Lost Wander is a beautiful story of love and tragedy, set in the era of westward expansion and wagon trains.

We know from the prologue that terrible events are coming, as we see a group of wagons attacked by a band of Shoshoni warriors, leaving all dead except Naomi and her infant brother, who are taken captive. How this came about, who these people are, and what happens next will be revealed over the course of the story that follows.

Naomi May is a young woman traveling west with her parents and younger brothers as part of a large wagon train. At St. Joseph in Missouri, their point of departure, she meets John Lowry, a young man of mixed heritage who’ll be traveling with the train, along with his prized set of breeding mules.

As the wagon train makes its slow journey, they face danger from every direction — perilous river crossings, cholera, accidents, hostile encounters with other travelers — but along the way, Naomi and John grow closer, falling in love despite their own personal backstories. I came to care deeply about these characters and to wish for their happiness, but experienced a growing sense of dread as well, knowing from the prologue that tragedy was coming, but not knowing when.

Where the Lost Wander is beautifully written, full of emotion as well as history. The author strikes a good balance in presenting both the dreams and desires of the emigrants and the devastating impact of the white man’s encroachment onto Native lands. The tribes encountered are portrayed with sensitivity, and we get to know certain people as individuals, giving us entry into a way of life that’s under constant threat.

Naomi and John’s story, from initial attraction to trust and longing and finally, to love and commitment, is moving and well-told. Given the era and the setting, we know this cannot be a happy, pain-free story, but I couldn’t stop hoping for good outcomes and peace for these characters, even in the most dire of situations.

Overall, this is a well-researched, vivid depiction of a time in America’s history that’s in many ways well-known, but here, presented with so much more nuance and perspective than in typical tales of the Old West. Highly recommended.

Via Amy Harmon’s author website: https://www.authoramyharmon.com/wherethelostwander.html

A note on the audiobook: The audiobook (11 hours, 46 minutes) is narrated by Lauren Ezzo and Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who read as Naomi and John. It’s a lovely performance, with each one capturing the emotions of their characters and giving dramatic, expressive expression to the more descriptive passages. I enjoyed it very much, and while I referred back to the print version for clarity on places and people, I’m glad I chose to experience this book via audio.

Audiobook Review: Heroes by Stephen Fry

Title: Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined
Author: Stephen Fry
Narrator:  Stephen Fry
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Publication date: June 2, 2020
Print length: 352 pages
Audio length: 15 hours 1 minute
Genre: Myths & legends
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this sequel to Mythos, legendary author and actor Stephen Fry moves from the exploits of the Olympian gods to the deeds of mortal heroes – Perseus, Jason, Atalanta, Theseus, Heracles.

Rediscover the thrills, grandeur, and unabashed fun of the Greek myths. Whether recounting a tender love affair or a heroic triumph, Fry deftly finds resonance with our own modern minds and hearts.

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.

• Each adventure is infused with Fry’s distinctive voice and writing style.
• Connoisseurs of the Greek myths will appreciate this fresh-yet-reverential interpretation, while newcomers will feel welcome.
• Retellings brim with humor and emotion.

“Mostly Chiron saw in the child, and the young man he became, boundless courage, athleticism, intelligence, and ambition. He saw too lots of words beginning with ‘self,’ which gave him pause. Self-belief, self-possession, self-righteousness, self-confidence, self-love. Perhaps these characteristics are as necessary to a hero as courage.”

In Heroes, Fry draws out the humor and pathos in both tender love affairs and heroic battles, and reveals each myth’s relevance for our own time.

If you have any interest at all in the stories of Ancient Greece… and/or if you enjoy listening to Stephen Fry telling a great story… then Heroes is a must-listen!

Heroes is the 2nd in a 3-book series by Stephen Fry, retelling the myths and legends of Ancient Greece with intelligence and humor. The first book, Mythos, was an absolute delight, starting with the origins of the world, the Titans and the rise of the Olympians, and putting a fresh twist on stories we’ve all heard so many times over the years.

Now, in Heroes, he picks up with the world of Ancient Greece once again, this time focusing on the mortals and semi-mortals who go off on epic quests, with either the assistance or the obstruction of the gods.

Many, if not all, of these stories were already familiar to me to some extent, but here, Fry delves deep into the details, tracing each heroic arc from origin to (potential) downfall. He cites conflicting narratives as needed, but he’s clearly done his research and has put together his own preferred versions of the stories.

Heroes includes the stories of Perseus, Heracles, Oedipus, Orpheus, and Theseus, with lots of characters and side stories and fun tangents. The book is informative and entertaining, but never feels like listening to a lecture. Instead, it’s storytelling at its finest, with a master storyteller lending his narrating skills to keep the stories flowing and fresh.

As with Mythos, I couldn’t resist treating myself to a copy of the hardcover edition of Heroes, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a beautiful book, with maps, illustrations of classical art to go with the stories, and an overall lovely presentation.

Still, while the physical book is gorgeous, I think you’d be missing out by reading it in print rather than listening to the audiobook. These are stories that are meant to be told, and in the voice of Stephen Fry, it’s an engaging and magical performance.

Upcoming listen: Book #3, Troy

Book Review: The Roommate by Rosie Danan

Title: The Roommate
Author: Rosie Danan
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

House Rules:
Do your own dishes.
Knock before entering the bathroom.
Never look up your roommate online.

The Wheatons are infamous among the east coast elite for their lack of impulse control, except for their daughter Clara. She’s the consummate socialite: over-achieving, well-mannered, predictable. But every Wheaton has their weakness. When Clara’s childhood crush invites her to move cross-country, the offer is too much to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

After a bait-and-switch, Clara finds herself sharing a lease with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive—not to mention handsome—for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the Internet…

Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realizes living with him might make her the Wheaton’s most scandalous story yet. His professional prowess inspires her to take tackling the stigma against female desire into her own hands. They may not agree on much, but Josh and Clara both believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.

You’d never know from the cover that this is one of the most explicit books I’ve read in ages.

Whoo. *wiping away sweat* *clutching my non-existent pearls*

When I read romance, I tend toward the warm and fuzzy, implied steaminess, sensual but not graphic end of the spectrum. When I picked up The Roommate, not having read anything about it but the first few lines of the synopsis, I was expecting something along those lines. Instead, what I got was a book that pushed me way outside my comfort zone — but that I ended up really liking anyway.

In The Roommate, we meet Clara, a 27-year-old recent art history Ph.D. who drops everything in her prim and proper and well-ordered life to take her lifelong crush up on an offer of a spare room in his LA home. Things do not go as planned. No sooner does he pick her up at the airport than he informs Clara that he’s about to hit the road with his band, and she’ll be rooming with a stranger he found on Craigslist.

Clara’s roommate Josh is sweet, a little goofy, very cute, and seemingly at loose ends, having recently moved out of the place he shared with his ex-girlfriend and on a nonspecific break from his work in the entertainment industry. Ho hum, another out-of-work actor, is Clara’s basic impression. But then Clara has lunch with her aunt Jill, who informs Clara that the roommate who keeps sending her goofy selfies is actually one of the hottest stars in the porn industry, Josh Darling.

Clara can’t refrain from looking up Josh’s work, and she’s pretty floored… and amazed… and turned on. And when he catches her in the act of checking out his videos, things get intense pretty quickly.

“I figured that since you’ve already seen me in in flagrante delicto, the embarrassment veil is lifted.”

Josh frowned. “Is that a fancy way of saying I gave you an orgasm? Because like I told you, that was no big deal.”

Meanwhile, Josh is a rising star in the industry (he prefers the term “adult performer” over “porn star”, thank you very much), but is stuck in a contract that takes complete advantage of him and denies him any autonomy or control in his career. He can’t even sell merchandise! The only thing he can do outside of his contract is voice-over work, which isn’t relevant in the world of porn… or is it?

Clara has an idea, and a trust fund to back it up. She sells Josh and his ex-girlfriend Naomi (also a highly successful adult performer) on the idea of creating a new subscription-based web platform — called Shameless — focused on women’s pleasure, featuring respectfully made, very hot videos with Josh’s narration offering tips and guidance encouraging exploration and enjoyment. Clara, as a very risk-averse, buttoned-up blue-blood born and raised in the WASP world of Greenwich, Connecticut, is totally up for being the silent partner, trusting in Josh and Naomi’s expertise and her own bankrolls to get the new project off the ground.

Shameless represented everything he’d ever liked about porn. A celebration of sex and pleasure that didn’t make any apologies.

Along the way, Clara is exposed to way more of the porn world than she’d ever expected, and is forced to step far outside her safe and conservative approach to life to ensure that the business will thrive. Also outside the safe and conservative zone? Her growing feelings for Josh, who seems to return her feelings — but how could a guy who has had countless sexual encounters with hot, experienced women ever be satisfied with someone ordinary like her?

Taking his clothes off tonight would test his ability to open not just his pants but his heart…

Clara is kind of a mess, despite her rigidity and love of order. She gets a Ph.D. in a field that she doesn’t really seem to be interested in pursuing, mostly to extend her time in school and avoid making hard decisions about her life, but also to satisfy family expectations for a respectable career. She’s uptight in so many ways (scared of driving, terrified of letting her family down or damaging the family reputation, obsessed with lists and rules), but she’s irresistibly drawn to Josh, and he’s just as drawn to her — despite the turtlenecks, overalls, and utter lack of chill.

There’s a subplot about the evil corporation which controls the porn industry and takes horrible advantage of the performers and crews who work for them — the company is called Black Hat, and how on the nose is that? Josh and Clara’s fight to bring down Black Hat is a bit too easy to feel at all realistic, but hey, this is romance, not crime drama.

As with any book in this genre, there’s a communications complication that nearly derails everything between Josh and Clara, as each one completely misreads the other, but again, this is a romance, and we just know there’s going to be an HEA.

I wish the wrap-up and epilogue had been clearer about Josh’s career. We know by the end that Shameless is wildly successful and that Clara, Naomi, and Josh have created a new, positive alternative to the sleazy side of the porn industry. That said, throughout the book, we understand from Josh that he really enjoys performing, but once he tries to get out of his contract with Black Hat, he is on a self-imposed performance break. So, my question is, does he go back to performing? I don’t think it would work in terms of his relationship with Clara, but at the same time, a big point of this book is that there’s no shame in enjoying sex and that the people who work in the adult entertainment field are creative, artistic, body-positive people who enjoy their work. So why should Josh stop something he enjoys and is good at? We’re left not knowing, and it kind of bugs me. I want answers!

As I said at the start, the sex in this book is very front and center and very explicit, so if that doesn’t typically work for you in fiction, you might want to skip this one. I’m not a prude, but I just happen not to gravitate toward graphic sex in fiction, so this wouldn’t have been a go-to choice for me if I’d known anything about it in advance. That said, the level of explicit sex makes a lot of sense in telling this story. The point that all people should be able to seek and give pleasure in whatever way feels right to them and that sex is a positive, enjoyable, natural part of life is really well articulated throughout the book. The sex-positive, body-positive messaging is great, and I appreciated the frankness and openness of the characters.

Also, the book as a whole as well as some of the banter is just funny, and we all need more of that in our lives, right?

“Do you regret it?” His voice came out unnaturally neutral.

“Absolutely not. If other people don’t like it, they can take a hike.”

Josh shook his head. “We gotta get you a millennial phrase book or something. Phrases like that are why telemarketers are always trying to sell you osteoporosis medication.”

I ended up really liking The Roommate, despite some of the unlikelier aspects of the plot ups and downs, and I really liked Clara and Josh as characters, as well as their undeniable chemistry. There’s a follow-up book that focuses on Naomi, newly released this month (The Intimacy Experiment), and yes, I’m going to read it!

Book Review: The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger

Title: The Heroine’s Journey
Author: Gail Carriger
Publisher: Gail Carriger LLC
Publication date: September 28, 2020
Length: 322 pages
Genre: Non-fiction – literature/writing
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Tired of the hero’s journey?
Frustrated that funny, romantic, and comforting stories aren’t taken seriously?
Sad that the books and movies you love never seem to be critically acclaimed, even when they sell like crazy?

The heroine’s journey is here to help.

Multiple New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger presents a clear concise analysis of the heroine’s journey, how it differs from the hero’s journey, and how you can use it to improve your writing and your life.

In this book you’ll learn:

* How to spot the heroine’s journey in popular books, movies, and the world around you.
* The source myths and basic characters, tropes, and archetypes of this narrative.
* A step-by-step break down of how to successfully write this journey.

What do Agatha Christie, JK Rowling, and Nora Roberts all have in common?
They all write the heroine’s journey. Read this book to learn all about it.

From Harry Potter to Twilight, from Wonder Woman to Star Wars, you’ll never look at pop culture the same way again.

I’m not a writer… so why am I reading a book about writing? Because it’s by Gail Carriger, that’s why!

Gail Carriger is a favorite writer, and her books own prime shelf real estate in my personal library. I adore her characters, her plots, her world-building, her dialogue, and her silliness. (She’s also unfailingly welcoming and warm at book signings, which can’t be easy…)

In any case — after reading about The Heroine’s Journey through Gail’s social media and newsletters, I was intrigued enough to want to check it out. Lo and behold, it was a fascinating read, even for a non-writer like me!

In The Heroine’s Journey, Gail explains in details how a Heroine’s Journey differs from the much better-known Hero’s Journey. Surprise #1 — the heroine of a Heroine’s Journey does not have to be female! The concept of the hero and heroine, at least as Gail explains, has much more to do with the types of journeys they’re on, the obstacles they encounter, the resources they use, and their ultimate goal, than with a definition based on gender identification.

Through the use of literary and pop culture references, Gail clearly identifies the key elements of a Heroine’s Journey, and explains the tropes, characters, and beats that provide the journey’s framework. She also provides excellent examples of different techniques to use to bring characters to life, get readers involved, and provide a satisfactory payoff for devoted readers.

As an avid reader, and someone who loves genre fiction of all sorts, I found this book so interesting! It really helped me understand why certain types of stories and plots resonate, and taught me a lot about structure and underlying themes as part of understanding a writer’s craft and accomplishments.

And as for the geek in me, I adored the fact that she used Harry Potter throughout the book to explain different facets of the Heroine’s Journey. It’s fine to provide a writerly explanation of different points, but the examples are what really brought the points to life for me.

The Heroine’s Journey is a great read for anyone who enjoys learning about the craft behind the stories we love. I’ll be pushing this book into the hands of a few writer friends of mine too!

Book Review: We Came Here To Shine by Susie Orman Schnall

Title: We Came Here To Shine
Author: Susie Orman Schnal
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: June 16, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

At the iconic 1939 New York World’s Fair, two ambitious young women—a down-on-her-luck actress and an aspiring journalist—form an unlikely friendship as they navigate a world of possibility and find out what they are truly made of during a glorious summer of spectacle and potential…

Gorgeous Vivi is about to begin filming her first starring role in a Hollywood picture when the studio head ships her off to New York as a favor to a friend. She’s assigned the leading role in the heralded Aquacade synchronized swimming spectacular at the World’s Fair, a fate she believes will destroy her film career. If she performs well, she’ll have another chance at stardom, but with everything working against her, will her summer lead to opportunity or failure?

Plucky Max dreams of becoming a serious journalist, but when her job at the New York Times doesn’t pan out, she finds herself begrudgingly working for the daily paper of the World’s Fair. As her ideas are continually overlooked by her male counterparts and her career prospects are put in jeopardy, Max must risk everything to change the course of her life.

When Max and Vivi’s worlds collide, they forge an enduring friendship. One that teaches them to go after what matters most during the most meaningful summer of their lives.

We Came Here To Shine takes place at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, bringing the spectacle to life through the experiences of Max and Vivi, two very different women who find themselves drawn together as they each battle sexism and misogyny.

Max is a journalism student at NYU, whose dream is to become a star reporter for the New York Times. As part of the coursework, each member of the class is assigned to a summer internship with a New York publication. Max is crushed when she loses out on her first choice with the Times, and is instead assigned to Today At The Fair, the daily paper produced at the World’s Fair to highlight the days’ events and generate buzz and excitement.

It gets even worse when she and her classmate Charlie show up to work on the first day, only to be told that Charlie will write all the articles, and Max will be responsible for the daily event listings. When she protests, she’s told that women aren’t suited for reporting, and are much better at doing detail work like lists and calendars. Max is furious, especially because she and her classmates are competing for a scholarship that will be awarded based on submission of articles written during the internship. Without the scholarship, Max doesn’t see a way that she can afford the next year’s tuition.

Meanwhile, Vivi is on track as a rising starlet in the Hollywood studio system. After supporting roles in a few films, Vivi is about to start filming a starring role in a new movie — until the studio chief informs her that she’s being replaced, and is instead being loaned out to Billy Rose, the producer of the Aquacade swimming show at the World’s Fair. The Aquacade’s star (in the role of Aquabelle Number One) has been injured, and they need someone to replace her and draw in the crowds. Vivi isn’t a movie star yet, but the producers all agree that the Hollywood cachet will boost ticket sales.

Vivi is dismayed and hurt, but has no choice. She’s under contract to the studio, which means they can do as they want with her. They also dangle a promise that after the summer, they have another starring role all lined up for. Do what they want, and she’ll get that chance. Don’t do it, and the studio will be done with her, ending her Hollywood dreams for good.

There’s a lot to like about We Came Here To Shine, but it fell flat for me in several ways.

First, what I liked:

  • Being introduced to the wonders of the Fair, which at that time would have been mind-boggling. New technologies, glorious buildings and gardens, international pavillions, glamorous restaurants, and the Aquacade — the book does a great job of conveying the awe of experiencing the Fair for the first time.
  • I liked Max and Vivi’s friendship and how they supported one another through their lowpoints, helping each other figure out how to get out of terrible situations and take control of their own paths.
  • The sense of the impact of the Depression, as shown by Max’s family life as well as by some of the negative reactions to the Fair around the ticket prices making it beyond the reach of many families.
  • The photos and historical notes included in the book, which really helped me appreciate different attractions mentioned in the story, as well as explaining which of the issues and people are real and which are created by the author.
  • The inclusion of the National Women’s Party (a real organization) as an inspiration for both Max and Vivi.

The bits that didn’t really work for me:

  • For someone who’s described as being top of her class in journalism, the tastes we get of Max’s writing just aren’t impressive. In fact, the pieces she submits for the scholarship competition are sensational without including sources or diving beyond the surface.
  • It doesn’t actually make sense that Vivi would be chosen to take on the high-profile starring role in the Aquacade. She was on her high school swim team, but has never done choreography or synchronized swimming, and is initially given just four days to rehearse before her first performance.
  • Vivi’s family drama, which drove her to Hollywood in the first place, isn’t explained well enough. We know the basics of what happened, but (see below), the presentation left me feeling that I was reading about stock characters, rather than unique people and dynamics.
  • SPOILER: Vivi, with Max’s help, finds a way to get out of her contract and leave the Aquacade and Hollywood in her past. It’s clear that she’s been mistreated, cheated, and controlled by the various powerful men who run the industry and have absolute power over her career, but I couldn’t quite accept that Vivi’s need to take back her life would include giving up her career and switching aspirations quite so suddenly. It reads as if she never really wanted to become an actress in the first place, but that’s not the impression I had at the start of the book.

The biggest issue I had with the book is the writing. The writing style makes the story feel bland, even when there’s something dramatic happening. In fact, this is probably what bothered me the most: Even as certain events unfolded, I felt like I was being told about what happened, rather than actually seeing them happen. Again and again, I felt like I was reading a summary of the big moments — some key parts felt too short or glossed over, and I never got the sense that I was there.

Still, I did enjoy enough aspects of We Came Here To Shine to make me glad I read it. I’ve now spend some time browsing images and videos to get a sense of what being at the Fair was like. To learn more about the Fair, check out https://www.1939nyworldsfair.com/index.htm. Also, here’s a short video highlighting the Aquacade (silent, but still fun to watch.)

We Came Here To Shine is my book group’s pick for January — yet another book that I likely would not have come across otherwise. Despite the problems mentioned above, it’s worth reading to experience the time and place of such a unique and exciting event.

Book Review: A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey

Title: A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow
Author: Laura Taylor Namey
Publisher: Atheneum
Publication date: November 10, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Love & Gelato meets Don’t Date Rosa Santos in this charming, heartfelt story following a Miami girl who unexpectedly finds love—and herself—in a small English town.

For Lila Reyes, a summer in England was never part of the plan. The plan was 1) take over her abuela’s role as head baker at their panadería, 2) move in with her best friend after graduation, and 3) live happily ever after with her boyfriend. But then the Trifecta happened, and everything—including Lila herself—fell apart.

Worried about Lila’s mental health, her parents make a new plan for her: Spend three months with family friends in Winchester, England, to relax and reset. But with the lack of sun, a grumpy inn cook, and a small town lacking Miami flavor (both in food and otherwise), what would be a dream trip for some feels more like a nightmare to Lila…until she meets Orion Maxwell.

A teashop clerk with troubles of his own, Orion is determined to help Lila out of her funk, and appoints himself as her personal tour guide. From Winchester’s drama-filled music scene to the sweeping English countryside, it isn’t long before Lila is not only charmed by Orion, but England itself. Soon a new future is beginning to form in Lila’s mind—one that would mean leaving everything she ever planned behind.

A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow was one of Reese Witherspoon’s YA book club picks, and I can see a lot of what makes it appealing — romance, family, grief and recovery, friendship, and cultural diversity and celebration.

The girl of the title is Lila Reyes, a 17-year-old with a broken heart who has suffered too many losses in too short a period of time. Her boyfriend breaks up with her, her best friends makes plans to work in Ghana after graduation without telling Lila, and most devastating of all, Lila’s beloved abuela dies unexpectedly.

Her abuela was the heart and soul of the family, and she taught Lila everything she knew about food and baking. Lila’s plans were set in stone already — after graduation, she and her older sister Pilar would take over the management of the family bakery. But when Lila’s grief leads her down a self-destructive path, her worried family sends her to a small town in England to spend the summer with a cousin at her family’s inn.

Lila is mad and resentful at first, and so stubborn that she refuses to alter her Miami dress code of tank tops and strappy sandals, even when confronted with chilly English weather. Slowly, though, Lila finds the beginnings of a routine for herself, baking her special Cuban pastries and treats in the inn’s kitchen, becoming friends with a local musician and her group, and getting to know Orion Maxwell, a lovely local who is determined to show Lila all the best sites and tastes of Winchester.

The story is sweet and occasionally moving, as Lila, Orion, and others deal with sorrows and challenges, and learn the various ways true friends can hold each other up when they need it most. And oh, the food! Each chapter is filled to the brim with Lila’s nonstop cooking and baking, and it all sounds amazing! Take me to her bakery now, please, so I can fill my stomach with absolutely everything!

So why only 3 stars? (And, I’ll be honest, I wavered between 2.5 and 3 for quite a while.) It’s simple — I just couldn’t get into the author’s writing style.

You know how in some books, the sentence structure or use of words is so unique or special that it makes you stop and admire it while you’re reading? This isn’t that. Instead, I was constantly pausing because I was befuddled by the odd syntax and use of language, and had to try to puzzle out what certain descriptions and phrases actually meant:

Blond hair — a dark variety his creator dyed in a murky rain puddle — curls slightly on top of a cropped cut.

Before my mouth even closes, my words strike faces.

Gray, dim, shade — those are the colors on his face before he thumbs his chin and half-smiles for me.

My culture also has too much wanting to die out in the new.

Miami. The third heart on this pavement, trying to love me harder.

The story is nice and moves pretty quickly, but I just didn’t love it enough to want to rave about it, and the writing issue definitely affected my overall enjoyment.

Recommended for the amazing food and the tribute to Cuban Miami culture, but not a must-read.