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.

Audiobook Review: The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

Title: The Exiles
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Narrator:  Caroline Lee
Publisher: Custom House
Publication date: August 24, 2020
Print length: 370 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 17 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Orphan Train returns with an ambitious, emotionally resonant novel that captures the hardship, oppression, opportunity and hope of a trio of women’s lives in nineteenth-century Australia.

Seduced by her employer’s son, Evangeline, a naïve young governess in early nineteenth-century London, is discharged when her pregnancy is discovered and sent to the notorious Newgate Prison. After months in the fetid, overcrowded jail, she learns she is sentenced to “the land beyond the seas,” Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in Australia. Though uncertain of what awaits, Evangeline knows one thing: the child she carries will be born on the months-long voyage to this distant land.

During the journey on a repurposed slave ship, the Medea, Evangeline strikes up a friendship with Hazel, a girl little older than her former pupils who was sentenced to seven years transport for stealing a silver spoon. Canny where Evangeline is guileless, Hazel — a skilled midwife and herbalist – is soon offering home remedies to both prisoners and sailors in return for a variety of favors.

Though Australia has been home to Aboriginal people for more than 50,000 years, the British government in the 1840s considers its fledgling colony uninhabited and unsettled, and views the natives as an unpleasant nuisance. By the time the Medea arrives, many of them have been forcibly relocated, their land seized by white colonists. One of these relocated people is Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, who has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land.

In this gorgeous novel, Christina Baker Kline brilliantly recreates the beginnings of a new society in a beautiful and challenging land, telling the story of Australia from a fresh perspective, through the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna. While life in Australia is punishing and often brutally unfair, it is also, for some, an opportunity: for redemption, for a new way of life, for unimagined freedom. Told in exquisite detail and incisive prose, The Exiles is a story of grace born from hardship, the unbreakable bonds of female friendships, and the unfettering of legacy.

It’s been a few days since I finished listening to this fascinating, moving, and well-written story, and I feel like I’m still catching my breath.

In The Exiles, author Christina Baker Kline tells a powerful story of women displaced by the rules of others, struggling to survive and to find a place to call home. While the story is uplifting, it’s often so heartbreaking that it made me want to stop and sit quietly for a while to regroup and get my emotions under control.

The book starts by focusing on two very different characters: First, we meet Mathinna. At the opening of the story, she’s eight years old, already living in a sort of exile along with her tribe, who’ve been removed from their lands and forced to relocate to the harsher landscape of Flinders Island. Even there, their lives aren’t peaceful. They’re ruled by British governors, forced to adopt English speech and dress, and limited in their abilities to live as their people always have. When young Mathinna catches the visiting governor’s wife’s attention during a schoolchildren’s performance, Mrs. Franklin decides that Mathinna will be her next experiment. With no consent needed, Governor and Mrs. Franklin leave instruction for Mathinna to be brought to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), to be raised in their home as a test subject — to see if “savages” can be civilized enough to fit into proper society.

At the same time, back in London, we meet Evangeline Stokes, the inexperienced, orphaned daughter of a vicar, who seeks work as a governess with a wealthy family in order to survive after her father’s death. Evangeline is seduced and impregnated by the elder son of the family which employs her, and after she’s found with his ring in her possession, she’s arrested and imprisoned. (He, of course, is such a cad that he never lifts a finger to help her.)

Evangeline is sentenced to transportation, and begins the harrowing four-month sea voyage from England to Australia. To survive, she forges friendships with some of the other women convicts, but the voyage itself is dangerous, as are some of the crewmen onboard the ship.

During the voyage, the character Hazel is introduced as well — a teen girl convicted of robbery, after her alcoholic mother sent her out to pickpocket for their survival. Hazel is a trained and gifted midwife, and her skills become invaluable to Evangeline and the other women on the ship, as well as providing Hazel with a way to improve her own life once she arrives in Van Diemen’s land.

The relationships among the women are complex and important. While their backgrounds vary widely, all find themselves at the mercy of an unfair justice system that deprives them of their voices and their freedoms. As becomes very clear, poor and powerless women have no one to defend them, and no ability to contest or avoid the judgments handed down against them. And as one woman points out to Evangeline, it’s not just about punishment — as British colonizes the Australian territory, they need more women to build a society with, so why not solve two problems at once?

The story alternates in sections between the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and the other convicts, and the strange and awful half-life Mathinna is forced into. Again, here is a young woman with no voice and no power, treated as an object of curiosity and a plaything, but all too easily cast aside when her novelty wears off.

All of these women truly are exiles, removed from their homes and families, given no choice about where they’ll go or how they’ll live, forced to give up everything they’ve known and start over in a foreign land. In Mathinna’s case, of course, it’s not just the story of a personal tragedy but the tragedy of a people, as British colonization decimates the lives of the native people of Australia.

The Exiles is a beautiful and powerful read. I don’t want to talk too much about the individual characters and what becomes of them, because the specific storylines are best discovered by reading the book. Overall, this is a tragic and lovely story, and it left me wanting to learn more about the actual history of Australian settlement.

Book Review: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

Title: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
Author: Marie Benedict
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: December 29, 2020
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Marie Benedict, the beloved New York Times bestselling author of The Only Woman in the Room, uncovers the untold story of Agatha Christie’s mysterious eleven day disappearance.

In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Investigators find her empty car on the edge of a deep, gloomy pond, the only clues some tire tracks nearby and a fur coat left in the car—strange for a frigid night. Her husband and daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author. Eleven days later, she reappears, just as mysteriously as she disappeared, claiming amnesia and providing no explanations for her time away.

The puzzle of those missing eleven days has persisted. With her trademark exploration into the shadows of history, acclaimed author Marie Benedict brings us into the world of Agatha Christie, imagining why such a brilliant woman would find herself at the center of such a murky story.

What is real, and what is mystery? What role did her unfaithful husband play, and what was he not telling investigators?

A master storyteller whose clever mind may never be matched, Agatha Christie’s untold history offers perhaps her greatest mystery of all. 

In this fascinating new release, author Marie Benedict creates an Agatha Christie-worthy mystery out of a real-life mystery from Christie’s own life.

Agatha Christie really did disappear for eleven days in 1926, and when she was located, her missing days were attributed to amnesia. That was it — a rather vague and unsatisfying resolution to a headline-making missing person story. (Read more about the actual events, here.)

But what really happened? Is there more to the story than meets the eye? In The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, we get a tantalizing view of a possible (and highly entertaining) answer.

The novel follows two narrative streams in alternating chapters: Agatha’s courtship and marriage to Archie Christie, told from Agatha’s perspective starting in 1912, and Agatha’s disappearance in 1926, told from Archie’s point of view. As the two weave together, we come to understand Agatha’s brilliance, and just how much of herself she sacrificed in order to please her moody, controlling husband.

I laughed at his rare joke, a mad cackle that I knew was a mistake the moment it escaped my lips. It sounded brash and overreactive, and Archie wouldn’t like it. It smacked of disorderly emotions.

I really don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t talk about outcomes at all. What I will highlight is the shock and dismay I felt reading Agatha’s narration of how she devoted herself to her husband, pushing down her own successes, her natural vivacity, and even her love for her daughter in order to cater to a man who demanded to be constantly at the center of his wife’s attention. It’s heartbreaking.

On those nights when I longed to hold my baby in my arms, even sleep with her in my bed, I told myself that this distance was necessary practice. How else could I ensure that Archie maintained his position at the center of my affections?

Even after her beloved mother dies, Agatha is made to feel responsible for neglecting Archie and causing his infidelity:

It was likely my fault that he’d become fascinated with Nancy. Hadn’t Mummy always warned me never to leave my husband alone for too long? And hadn’t I emotionally and physically abandoned him this summer in my grief? Even when he was in Spain, he knew my heart and mind weren’t with him but lost to my sorrow over Mummy.

Argh. It’s just so upsetting to see this amazing woman tie herself in knots as a result of her husband’s passive-aggressive, emotionally manipulative and abusive behavior. He even manages to suck the joy out of Agatha’s early writing successes, making her feel unsupportive of her husband if she became too happy about her publishing contracts and the beginnings of her fame.

I mostly write because I adore creating worlds and puzzles, and I want to succeed at it wildly. But ambition is a dirty word when it’s used by women; it’s decidedly unladylike, in fact.

The author weaves together the historical facts to create a police procedural crime investigation in the chapters set in 1926. If it starts to feel like we’re in an Agatha Christie novel, well, kudos to Marie Benedict! She employs Agatha’s wittiness and intelligence to create a puzzle out of Agatha’s own life. According to The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, Agatha first started writing her stories as a result of a dare from her sister, who just didn’t believe that Agatha could create an unsolvable puzzle for readers — so naturally, she had to prove her sister wrong. As in an Agatha Christie mystery, this book delivers clever plotting and intriguing twists that manage to surprise and delight.

I was a little hesitant about reading The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, as I’ve only read one Agatha Christie novel (And Then There Were None), although I’ve seen adaptations of several others. I needn’t have worried. The Mystery of Mrs. Christie is perfectly accessible for a Christie novice like myself, and I imagine that it’ll be very enjoyable for the great lady’s more ardent fans too.

And now, of course, I need to read more Agatha Christie books! Do you have any favorites? Where should I start? I’m also definitely going to want to read more by Marie Benedict! So far, I’ve only listened to an audiobook novella written by her, Agent 355, and I loved it.

For anyone who’s a Christie fan, or for those who just enjoy a good literary puzzle with a strong, smart woman at its center, I highly recommend The Mystery of Mrs. Christie.