Mini-reviews: Three short takes on short-ish reads (or listens)

I managed to squeeze in a few quick and short books this week, in between a heavier book club pick and a book requiring more concentration than I anticipated. Here are my quick takes!

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Title: Fangirl (Manga), Volume 1
Author: Rainbow Rowell, Sam Maggs, Gabi Nam
Published: 2020
Length: 216 pages

The manga adaptation of the beloved novel by #1 Bestselling author Rainbow Rowell!
New York Journal of Books

Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, everybody is a Simon Snow fan, but for Cath, being a fan is her life. Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath just can’t let go. Now that they’re in college, Cath must decide if she’s ready to start living her own life. But does she even want to if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

Cath doesn’t need friends IRL. She has her twin sister, Wren, and she’s a popular fanfic writer in the Simon Snow community with thousands of fans online.  But now that she’s in college, Cath is completely outside of her comfort zone. There are suddenly all these new people in her life. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming boyfriend, a writing professor who thinks fanfiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome new writing partner … And she’s barely heard from Wren all semester!

The Fangirl manga is everything I could hope for! I loved the Fangirl novel when it came out, as well as the spin-off Simon Snow books. In the manga, it’s a wonderful chance to revisit the Fangirl characters all over again. The illustrations are clever, and the dialogue and pacing is well done. I really felt like Cath and Levi’s characters came across loud and clear.

My only complaint is that the story stops in the middle! This is volume 1 (of I don’t know how many), and it felt really jarring to have to stop just when I was getting into it.

Still, so much fun! But now, I immediately want to (a) reread Fangirl (the novel), (b) reread Carry On, and (c) know when the 2nd volume of the manga is coming out! Please let it be soon!

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Title: Serpentine
Author: Philip Pullman
Published: 2020
Length: 80 pages

A brand new short story set in the world of His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust by master storyteller, Philip Pullman.

Serpentine
 is a perfect gift for every Pullman fan, new and old.

‘Lyra Silvertongue, you’re very welcome . . . Yes, I know your new name. Serafina Pekkala told me everything about your exploits’

Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon have left the events of His Dark Materials far behind.

In this snapshot of their forever-changed lives they return to the North to visit an old friend, where we will learn that things are not exactly as they seem . . .

Illustrated throughout by Tom Duxbury, the perfect re-entry for fans of His Dark Materials and a wonderful companion to The Book of Dust.

This is a slim, hardcover volume, beautifully highlighted by woodcut-style black and white illustrations, that tells a story about Lyra and Pan set after the events of The Amber Spyglass (and before the subsequent events in the Book of Dust series).

Lyra and Pan are still dealing with their changed relationship, so terribly affected by the trauma of The Amber Spyglass. They’re still together, but everything is different. In Serpentine, it seems as though they’re finally starting to face their new reality together.

This is a lovely little book, and those invested in His Dark Materials will want to read it — but it feels a little slight to take up a hardcover of its own (and sell at a hardcover price).

(For what it’s worth, I’m glad to own it — it will look quite handsome on the shelf next to Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North, two other small but lovely installments in the greater world of the series.)

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Title: Once More Upon a Time
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Published: 2020
Audiobook length: 3 hours, 26 minutes

A dazzling fairy tale about falling in love again by The New York Times best-selling author of The Star-Touched Queen and The Gilded Wolves.

Once upon a Time, there was a king and queen in a land called Love’s Keep who once loved one another, but alas, no more. Without love, they were doomed to be ousted from their kingdom at the end of a year and a day.

A year and a day passed.

This is where their story starts.

Imelda and Ambrose can’t remember why they got married. A year and a day ago, Ambrose consulted a witch, trading their love to save Imelda’s life—and they’ve been stuck with one another ever since. When that same witch pays them a visit on the day they lose their kingdom, she promises to make their deepest wishes come true in exchange for a simple favor and a short journey. With nothing left to lose, Imelda and Ambrose agree. But, over the course of their enchanted road trip peppered with a delirious cloak, cannibals, and at least one honey badger, something magical happens…little by little, step by step, they regain what they had forgotten.

They remember why they fell in love.

When the end of their journey nears and they confront parting ways forever, a new decision faces them. Will Imelda and Ambrose choose their deepest wishes, or will they choose each other—again?

I stumbled across this fairy tale audiobook while poking around on Audible and thought it would make a nice break in between longer listens. And I was right!

Once More Upon a Time is a light, fun fairy tale that takes a happily ever after that wasn’t, and turns that into a starting place. The two main characters are king and queen of a kingdom which magically dictates that it can only be ruled by people experiencing true love. The problem is, while Ambrose and Imelda were madly in love when they married, their love was traded away for a cure for Imelda’s accidental poisoning. Ever since, they’ve been living as strangers, aware that they must have once loved each other, but unable to remember what it felt like.

Forced to leave their kingdom, they’re offered a quest, with the promise of having whatever they want at the end. Ambrose wants a kingdom, Imelda wants freedom… but what they get turns out to be just what they need.

Some of the fairy tale elements work better than others, and some are just downright silly and unconvincing, but still, this was a nice, quick listen with some sweet touches.

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Of these three, I’d say my favorite was Fangirl, but I enjoyed the other two as well. Have you read or listened to any short fiction lately? Please share anything you’d like to recommend!

Audiobook Review: Murder by Other Means by John Scalzi

Title: Murder by Other Means
Author: John Scalzi
Narrator:  Zachary Quinto
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: September 10, 2020
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 3 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From Hugo and Audie Award-winning author John Scalzi comes an exciting sequel to The New York Times best-selling, number one Audible hit The Dispatcher, performed by the incomparable Zachary Quinto.

Welcome to the new world, in which murder is all but a thing of the past. Because when someone kills you, 999 times out of 1,000, you instantly come back to life. In this world, there are dispatchers—licensed killers who step in when you’re at risk of a natural or unintentional death. They kill you—so you can live.

Tony Valdez is used to working his job as a dispatcher within the rules of the law and the state. But times are tough, and more and more Tony finds himself riding the line between what’s legal and what will pay his bills. After one of these shady gigs and after being a witness to a crime gone horribly wrong, Tony discovers that people around him are dying, for reasons that make no sense…and which just may implicate him.

Tony is running out of time: to solve the mystery of these deaths, to keep others from dying, and to keep himself from being a victim of what looks like murder, by other means.

If you’re looking for a quick audio listen that’s a noir/sci-fi treat, you have to check out this new audiobook by John Scalzi!

Murder By Other Means is the newly released sequel to The Dispatcher. Both are terrific. These Audible Originals are written by John Scalzi, narrated by Zachary Quinto, and just so much fun.

In the world of these books, death has been (mostly) defeated. For some unfathomable reason, as of about 10 years earlier, anyone who is murdered instantly zips back to life back in their own home, naked, and completely unharmed. This is not true, though, for natural or accidental deaths (basically, anything non-murdery). Die without murder, and dead is dead.

Hence, the rise of a profession known as Dispatchers. Say you’re going into surgery for a risky procedure — well then, keep a dispatcher on hand, so if things go wrong, one quick bullet in the brain will send you home again. There’s the 1 in 1000 chance that the dispatching won’t work, but most people are willing to take that chance.

In these audiobooks, our main character is Tony Valdez. Time are tough, and there aren’t as many legit dispatcher jobs these days, so when Tony is offered something that’s not entirely by the book, but that pays piles of cash, he does the job. And then things get screwy. After witnessing a robbery at his local bank branch, complete with dead and not-so-dead bodies, Tony is implicated, and when one of the investigating detectives ends up dead too, things go from bad to worse.

Tony has to figure out how to clear his name, get the cops off his back, and solve a puzzle regarding a slew of deaths in the city that can’t be murder… but they sure seem like they are.

At just barely 3 hours, this audiobook is perfect for a quick entertainment. The action is fast-paced, and the narration is terrific. The vibe is noir, but with enough weird elements to let you know you’re living in a Scalzi world. I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t a Dresden book (minus the magic) — it’s that kind of smart, quick urban storytelling.

Murder By Other Means includes enough stage-setting that you can listen to it without being completely lost, but it makes a lot more sense to listen to The Dispatcher first, to gain a full picture of what life in a death-less world feels like.

Audiobook Review: Agent 355 by Marie Benedict

Title: Agent 355
Author: Marie Benedict
Narrator: Emily Rankin
Publisher: Audible Original
Publication date: July 2, 2020
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Free download from Audible
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From Marie Benedict, best-selling author of The Only Woman in the Room and Lady Clementine, comes a captivating work of historical fiction about a young female spy who may have changed the course of American History.

The tide is turning against the colonists in the Revolutionary War, and 18-year-old Elizabeth Morris cannot sit by idly. Quietly disdainful of her Tory parents, who drag her along to society events and welcome a British soldier into their home during their occupation of New York City, Elizabeth decides to take matters into her own hands. She realizes that, as a young woman, no one around her believes that she can comprehend the profound implications of being a nation at war – she is, effectively, invisible. And she can use this invisibility to her advantage. Her unique access to British society leads her to a role with General George Washington’s own network of spies: the Culper Ring.

Based on true events, Agent 355 combines adventure, romance, and espionage to bring to life this little-known story of a hero who risked her life to fight for freedom against all odds.

Agent 355 takes a mysterious historical figure, imagines who she might have been, and gives her a moving and powerful story of her own.

Little is known about the real-life Agent 355. She was believed to be a spy in the Culper Ring, the network providing key intelligence to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Agent 355 was female, and is believed to have been someone well-connected, with access to British officers through social settings. Her identity has never been firmly established, although there are many theories (see Wikipedia) as well as a variety of pop culture interpretations.

In Marie Benedict’s version, Agent 355 is young socialite Elizabeth Morris, daughter of affluent New York Loyalists who regularly socialize with the British officers quartered in New York. Elizabeth is bored and frustrated, and aches for a way to make a difference. While at a party that her parents have forced her to attend, she realizes that the officers talk openly in her presence, as the women in attendance are not taken seriously, seen as pretty decoration and nothing more.

A chance encounter with Robert Townsend, a merchant and rebel sympathizer, provides Elizabeth with the means to put a plan into motion. Soon, she’s providing key intelligence to the Culper Ring, including data on troop movements and information about possible traitors within Washington’s own corps of officers.

The audiobook is short but powerful. As Elizabeth tells her story, we enter into the dangerous life of a brave woman who knows that any mistakes could cost her everything. The pace becomes more and more breathtaking as the story moves forward, and by the end, it’s both tragic and a moving testament to the courage of a woman lost to history — but who may have made all the difference.

Author Marie Benedict’s concluding notes describe her mission to tell the stories of the women who get overlooked in the historical records. Here, she succeeds in bringing this Revolutionary War hero to life. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Agent 355 is a free selection for Audible members this month. I strongly recommend checking it out!

Audio hilarity: Heads Will Roll by Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne

Need another reason to love Audible Originals? Check out this new one — a sublimely silly audio delight from the talented Kate McKinnon and (her sister) Emily Lynne:

 

About This Audible Original

Please note: This content is not for kids. It is for mature audiences only. This audio comedy features sexual content, adult language and themes, and violence against peasants and hobgoblins alike. Discretion is advised.

Heads Will Roll is an Audible Original from Saturday Night Live star Kate McKinnon and her co-creator/co-star (and real-life sister) Emily Lynne. Produced by Broadway Video, this is not an audiobook—it’s a 10-episode, star-studded, audio comedy that features performances from Meryl Streep, Tim Gunn, Peter Dinklage, Queer Eye’s Fab Five, and so many more.

Queen Mortuana of the Night Realm (McKinnon) and her ditsy raven minion JoJo (Lynne) receive a prophecy about a peasant uprising. Together, they must journey to find the Shard of Acquiescence, which will put down the rebellion and save the throne. Will their friendship survive sensitive generals, chatty sex slaves, whiny behemoths, princes with bird fetishes, and the notion of democracy?

This raunchy satire also includes the wicked talents of Andrea Martin, Carol Kane, Audra McDonald, Aidy Bryant, Alex Moffat, Heidi Gardner, Chris Redd, Steve Higgins, Bob the Drag Queen, Esther Perel, and more. So, hold on to your head, and let the bad times roll.

Oh my. What a blast. If you’re looking for something light and utterly ridiculous — yet ridiculously entertaining — you must check out Heads Will Roll. The episodes follow the ongoing challenges of evil Queen Mortuana, who maybe — just maybe — might be getting tired of all this queen business… or maybe it’s just the negative press that’s wearing her down.

The commercials throughout the episodes are awesome — advertising wacky concepts like floors and monotheism (okay, you really need to listen to realize how funny this it — I’m terrible at repeating jokes), and there are some truly catchy medieval melodies that move the narration forward (and had me humming along to some seriously NSFW lyrics).

Kate McKinnon is brilliant, as expected, and Emily Lynne, as the cursed princess-turned-raven Jojo, is amazing too. I’m not particularly good at recognizing voices (still not sure which character Peter Dinklage voiced), but Meryl Streep is of course instantly identifiable — gotta love her dry humor as she plays a famous actress who ends up becoming the leader of the rebellion and a political activist.

And let’s not forget the rebellion consulting team, the corporate branding of battering rams, hags and poisoners and support groups, co-dependent gods, overbearing crow in-laws, and much, much more.

Just so much fun. A mood-lifting, very funny highlight of my week!

Audible Original: 4 hours, 6 minutes

A little taste:

For more info, check out the Audible page, here.

Audiobook double feature: Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets and Have A Nice Day

Audible Originals came through for me in a big way this week, as I listened to two terrific productions that really made me happy.

 

Legendary British comic Stephen Fry is our tour guide to the highs and the lows of Victorian society. In popular culture, the straitlaced era is portrayed as one of propriety, industry, prudishness, and piety. But scratch the surface and you’ll find haunting tales of scandal, sadism, sex, madness, malice, and murder.

“They were us in different dress and slightly different codes,” says Fry, whose signature wit and whimsy are in full force in this Audible Original. Find the quirky, dark, and forbidden details and family skeletons that even the most distinguished and conventional households attempted to cover up and hide, as you listen for the humanity beyond the polished veneer of this most fascinating era.

This audio adventure is a fun look at the secrets of the Victorian era, covering everything from fashion to lunacy to sexual orientation, plus sewers, sanitation, Sherlock Holmes, and more. Stephen Fry narrates, explaining the context and the strange stories from that time, and including interviews with historical experts and excerpts from diaries and newspapers of the time — all of which make the tales come to life. Parts of Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets are quite sad or disturbing, and some topics were of greater interest to me than others… but all in all, it’s really an informative and entertaining listen.

Audible Original: 7 hours, 33 minutes

 

Have a Nice Day features a live multi-cast script reading captured over two evenings at Minetta Lane Theatre in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

Tony and Emmy Award winner Billy Crystal leads an all-star cast including Oscar winner Kevin Kline (President David Murray) and four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (First Lady Katherine Murray) in a performance of this hilarious and poignant story about a man desperately scrambling to put his affairs in order: to save his presidency, his marriage, his relationship with his daughter—and possibly his life.

President David Murray starts the day in crisis. He’s lost control of Congress, has to decide whether to run for a second term, and his wife and teenage daughter are barely talking to him. What’s more, the Angel of Death has sent a rather inept “repo man” who is at the foot of his bed, giving him only one more day to live.

Cast members include Justin Bartha, Irene Bedard, Annette Bening, Chris Cafero, Dick Cavett, Auli’i Cravalho, Billy Crystal, Rachel Dratch, Darrell Hammond, Christopher Jackson, Robert King, Kevin Kline, and Robin Thede.

Have a Nice Day was an unexpected treat! I listened to this all in one go while out for a long walk, and got completely sucked into the funny yet poignant story of a man — in this case, the President of the United States — trying to make things right on the last day of his life. The story is written by Billy Crystal and Quinton Peeples, and features Billy Crystal as death’s messenger. Kevin Kline is terrific, as is Annette Bening and the rest of the cast. The story is sweet, and includes just enough laughs to keep it from getting too sappy. Still, I found myself really moved by the story of a good man trying to make amends to his wife and daughter –while also trying to keep his security detail and White House aides from freaking out over his caught-on-video moments going viral.

This is a relatively short listen, perfect for one of those weeks when your time is limited.

Audible Original; 1 hour, 46 minutes

If you’re an audiobook fan looking for a break from longer books or wanting to switch up fictional pursuits with something a bit different, give one (or both) of these recordings a try!