Audiobook Review: Snow Falling by Jane Gloriana Villanueva

Title: Snow Falling
Author: Jane Gloriana Villanueva
Narrator:  Ivonne Coll and Anthony Mendez
Publisher: Adams Media
Publication date: November 14, 2017
Print length: 240 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 22 minutes
Genre: Romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s been a lifetime (and three seasons) in the making, but Jane Gloriana Villanueva is finally ready to make her much-anticipated literary debut!

Jane the Virgin, the Golden Globe, AFI, and Peabody Award–winning The CW dramedy, has followed Jane’s telenovela-esque life—from her accidental artificial insemination and virgin birth to the infant kidnapping and murderous games of the villainous Sin Rostro to an enthralling who-will-she-choose love triangle. With these tumultuous events as inspiration, Jane’s breathtaking first novel adapts her story for a truly epic romance that captures the hope and the heartbreak that have made the television drama so beloved.

Snow Falling is a sweeping historical romance set in 1902 Miami—a time of railroad tycoons, hotel booms, and exciting expansion for the Magic City. Working at the lavish Regal Sol hotel and newly engaged to Pinkerton Detective Martin Cadden, Josephine Galena Valencia has big dreams for her future. Then, a figure from her past reemerges to change her life forever: the hotel’s dapper owner, railroad tycoon Rake Solvino.

The captivating robber baron sets her heart aflame once more, leading to a champagne-fueled night together. But when their indiscretion results in an unexpected complication, Josephine struggles to decide whether her heart truly belongs with heroic Martin or dashing Rake.

Meanwhile, in an effort to capture an elusive crime lord terrorizing the city, Detective Cadden scours the back alleys of the Magic City, tracking the nefarious villain to the Regal Sol and discovering a surprising connection to the Solvino family.

However, just when it looks like Josephine’s true heart’s desire is clear, danger strikes. Will her dreams for the future dissolve like so much falling snow or might Josephine finally get the happy ever after she’s been dreaming of for so long?

This one is strictly for Jane the Virgin fans… but oh, if you’re a fan, are you in for a treat!

Snow Falling is the book that Jane Gloriana Villanueva writes in Jane the Virgin — the book that leads her to proclaim:

Jane’s inspiration for Snow Falling, her first published novel, is her own life. Taking characters from her own world, she thinly (very thinly) veils them as characters in a historical romance set in Miami of the early 1900s.

Jane herself becomes Josephine, the hotel concierge who dreams of becoming a writer. Jane’s husband (oops, spoiler?) Michael is the inspiration for detective Martin Cadden, the good, upstanding man who loves Josephine unconditionally. But then there’s also Rake Solvino, based on Rafael Solano — the playboy hotel owner with a heart of gold, and the 3rd point in Jane the Virgin‘s love triangle.

In Jane the Virgin, the entire premise is based around Jane (a virgin) becoming pregnant after an accidental artificial insemination, finding herself pregnant with Rafael’s child while engaged to Michael. Yes, it’s straight out of a telenovela!

Snow Falling can’t go the artificial insemination route, of course, so it gives darling Josephine a momentary lapse in her virginal goodness, spurred by what she thinks is Martin’s unfaithfulness (she’s wrong about that) into a champagne-induced one-night-stand with dashing Rake. Which, obviously, leads to Josephine’s pregnancy.

Snow Falling follows most of the major beats from Jane the Virgin, from the main character’s loving relationship with her mother and grandmother, to the discovery of her long-lost father, to the hunt for the terrible Miami crime boss, to the birth and kidnapping of Josephine’s child.

And yes, the love triangle is in full bloom, because that’s what it all comes down to really. Which man has Josephine’s heart? Where will she find her HEA?

As someone who was always Team Rafael, I couldn’t help but be Team Rake while listening to Snow Falling.

The mustache! How can Josephine resist?

But hey, just look at the cover and read the dedication — we already know who Josephine’s true love will be. (Sorry, Rake fans…)

Snow Falling is totally fun. Would it be a good book on its own, without the Jane the Virgin connection? Well, no. There’s really no reason to read this without the JtV love to back it up — otherwise, it’s just a silly romantic story that hits every possible romance trope along the way.

But hey, it IS a Jane the Virgin story! My recommendation is to check out the audiobook. The narrator is Ivonne Coll, who plays the wonderful Alba on the show.

Also wonderful is the occasional appearance of Anthony Mendez, the show’s narrator, adding his own special brand of commentary throughout the book.

Look, this is just plain silly fun. I’m glad I checked it out, after my obsessive binge-watching of Jane the Virgin this year. If you’re a fan, you’ll probably enjoy Snow Falling too.

I mean, Jane Gloriana Villanueva is a published freaking author! Let’s show her book a little love, shall we?

Audiobook Review: Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Glamour in Glass (Glamourist Histories, #2)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 10, 2012
Print length: 334 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 8 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

 Mary Robinette Kowal stunned readers with her charming first novel Shades of Milk and Honey, a loving tribute to the works of Jane Austen in a world where magic is an everyday occurrence.

This magic comes in the form of glamour, which allows talented users to form practically any illusion they can imagine. Shades debuted to great acclaim and left readers eagerly awaiting its sequel.

Glamour in Glass follows the lives of beloved main characters Jane and Vincent, with a much deeper vein of drama and intrigue.

In the tumultuous months after Napoleon abdicates his throne, Jane and Vincent go to Belgium for their honeymoon. While there, the deposed emperor escapes his exile in Elba, throwing the continent into turmoil. With no easy way back to England, Jane and Vincent’s concerns turn from enjoying their honeymoon…to escaping it.

Left with no outward salvation, Jane must persevere over her trying personal circumstances and use her glamour to rescue her husband from prison…and hopefully prevent her newly built marriage from getting stranded on the shoals of another country’s war. 

It’s official: I’m in love.

The Glamourist Histories is a series that’s been on my to-read shelf for far too long, and now that I’m two books in, I’m just mad I waited this long!

The first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, is a gentle comedy of manners a la Jane Austen, if only Austen’s heroines had magic at their fingertips. In book #2, Glamour in Glass, lead character Jane is newly wed to her beloved Vincent, and the two are blissfully happy living and working together, blending their lives and their glamour into a harmonious whole.

When Vincent’s old friend has a breakthrough in developing a new glamour technique, he and Jane set off for a honeymoon on the Continent, heading to Belgium to rest, relax, and further perfect their artistic talents. But Napoleon’s army is on the move, and as the situation becomes more tense, Jane and Vincent become caught up in an increasingly dangerous situation.

The mood in Glamour in Glass is quite different than in the first book, which was all about romance and courtship. Here, the focus is on what happens after the wooing. Austen’s books stop at the wedding — here, we get to see the happy couple as they begin their married life together.

Jane and Vincent are quite lovely as a couple (I swoon a little every time Vincent refers to Jane as “Muse”), and I love that their talents complement one another so well. Vincent at no time is inclined to relegate Jane to the usual wifely pursuits — they are full partners in their art, even when Jane’s presence raises eyebrows.

For brief sections in the middle, I was a little bored by the politics, but once Napoleon is on the march, the action picks up and the story regains its excitement. And if I thought Jane was awesome before, seeing her in full-on hero mode is just glorious.

Once again, I listened to the audiobook — narrated by the author — and thought it was wonderful. In the first book, her accent was a little uneven, but here, she sticks to her more natural speech patterns for the narrative and only puts on accents for the characters’ dialogue, and it works a lot better.

What more can I say? I’m hooked! I’d thought to take a break and listen to a few other books before continuing with the series, but now I don’t want to.

Two books down, three to go! I can’t wait to start the next one!

Audiobook Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: July 26, 2010
Print length: 306 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 32 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men. 

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

This debut novel from an award-winning talent scratches a literary itch you never knew you had. Like wandering onto a secret picnic attended by Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellShades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen…if only she had been a fantasy writer.  

What a delight! Just like the synopsis promises, Shades of Milk and Honey is Austen-inspired fiction, set in a world just like Austen’s — except magic is real, and is a highly coveted art form.

Men in search of a worthy wife look for someone who can create a warm and lovely home, and someone skilled in the art of glamour can turn a bare room into something beautiful, or can create music and light that enhance any gathering.

At age 28, Jane expects to remain an old maid. Her best chance for a fulfilled life is likely dependent on her younger sister marrying well, then bringing Jane into her household as companion.

Melody, ten years younger, is beautiful and flighty, without any real patience for the careful study and effort needed to reach heights of glamour similar to Jane’s talents. Melody comes across as a mix of Lydia Bennet and Marianne Dashwood, delighting in emotion, eager to flirt and captivate, and not above resorting to a little conniving to make sure every eligible man’s attention is fixed on her.

When the famous glamourist Mr. Vincent is commissioned by a wealthy neighbor to create a glamural for her home, Jane finds herself in the gruff artist’s company more than feels comfortable. At the same time, she pines for the upright Mr. Dunkirk, whose younger sister she befriends, but she fears that his attention is far more focused on Melody than on her.

The story is charming and enchanting, mixing Austen-esque society and manners with clever magical artistry and talent. Jane is a wonderful main character, gifted yet lacking the passion to lift her illusions from technical skill to true art. While she’s brutal in her self-reflection, considering herself plain at best, she’s warm-hearted and generous with the people she cares about, and ends up caught in the snares of polite society etiquette and keeping confidences.

I listened to the audiobook of Shades of Milk and Honey, which is a very entertaining way to enjoy this story. The pacing and style work really well in audio format, and the clever dialogue and social niceties come across as both polite and very funny.

Author Mary Robinette Kowal is a talented audiobook narrator, and it’s fun to listen to her narrate her own story. (She narrates Seanan McGuire’s October Daye audiobooks, which are amazing.). My only complaint about the narration is that the accent used comes across as fake from time to time, but on the whole, I was swept up enough in the story not to mind it too much.

I’m happy that this book is the first in a series. While it seems like a full and complete story, I’m looking forward to exploring more of this world in the four books that follow.

Audiobook Review: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

Title: Bookish and the Beast (Once Upon a Con, #3)
Author: Ashley Poston
Narrator:  Caitlin Kelly, Curry Whitmire
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication date: March 29, 2016
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 21 minutes
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Digital review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook purchased from Audible
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In the third book in Ashley Poston’s Once Upon a Con series, Beauty and the Beast is retold in the beloved Starfield universe.

Rosie Thorne is feeling stuck—on her college application essays, in her small town, and on that mysterious General Sond cosplayer she met at ExcelsiCon. Most of all, she’s stuck in her grief over her mother’s death. Her only solace was her late mother’s library of rare Starfield novels, but even that disappeared when they sold it to pay off hospital bills.

On the other hand, Vance Reigns has been Hollywood royalty for as long as he can remember—with all the privilege and scrutiny that entails. When a tabloid scandal catches up to him, he’s forced to hide out somewhere the paparazzi would never expect to find him: Small Town USA. At least there’s a library in the house. Too bad he doesn’t read.

When Rosie and Vance’s paths collide and a rare book is accidentally destroyed, Rosie finds herself working to repay the debt. And while most Starfield superfans would jump at the chance to work in close proximity to the Vance Reigns, Rosie has discovered something about Vance: he’s a jerk, and she can’t stand him. The feeling is mutual.

But as Vance and Rosie begrudgingly get to know each other, their careful masks come off—and they may just find that there’s more risk in shutting each other out than in opening their hearts.

It’s no surprise that Bookish and the Beast is completely charming. After the delightful Geekerella and the lovable The Prince and the Fangirl, how can Ashley Poston miss?

For those unfamiliar with the Once Upon a Con series, these books take us into the world of Starfield fandom, as devoted fans cross paths with stars of the movie reboot, all structured along the lines of classic fairy tales with a modern twist.

Starfield is a (fictional) cult TV series with a huge, obsessed fan base. In Geekerella, Starfield is being rebooted as a movie, and fans are up in arms over what they see as questionable casting and a fear that their beloved characters will be sacrificed in the name of box office success.

Two books later, the Starfield movie franchise has completely filming the second movie, and the fans are ecstatic. Unfortunately, the bad boy of the movie’s cast, Vance Reigns, who plays anti-hero General Sond, can’t stay out of the tabloids. At age 17, he parties hard and gets in trouble endlessly. Finally, fed up and wanting some serious damage control, his parents arrange for him to hide out in a small town in North Carolina at the home of the film’s director, along with a guardian to keep him in check. And Vance is not happy.

Meanwhile, in the same town, Rosie Thorne is entering her senior year of high school. She has two amazing best friends, Annie and Quinn, and lives with her dad (a former punk rocker who causes her friends to swoon, and who they refer to as Space Dad — because “he’s so beautiful that his beauty is out of this world…”. Rosie lost her mother the previous year, and she’s both still deeply grieving and also sick of everyone seeing her as the girl with the dead mother and nothing more.

Rosie and her dad’s finances are shaky, having spent all their savings and then some on medical bills, but they get by. A chance encounter with Vance’s dog leads her into his orbit, and after she accidentally ruins a rare Starfield book from his borrowed house’s library, she agrees to pay it off by working in the house, tasked with organizing and cataloging the cartons and shelves full of books.

What neither Rosie nor Vance realize is that they’ve met once before, at ExcelsiCon, the annual convention dedicated to Starfield. Wearing masks, they spent one magical evening together, but left without disclosing their true names or faces. Neither has been able to shake the memory of their first meeting or the feelings it stirred up, but both have accepted that they’ll never know who that special person was.

Until…

Well. It’s a Beauty and the Beast retelling, so you know where this is going. The house where Vance is living is known locally as the “Castle House” — a vanity project of some millionaire, not usually inhabited, with moats and turrets, located at the end of a hidden lane through the trees. Rosie stumbles upon it (at night, of course) while trying to rescue a dog that ran in front of her car, and when she follows the dog (uninvited and unannounced) into the spooky, dark house, she runs right into Vance, who is outraged by the intrusion and behaves… um… beastly.

I loved all the little B&tB references, from a diner waitress named Mrs. Potts to the rose symbolism to the library as a way to a young woman’s heart. Little lines thrown in made me smile:

They probably got sick of being the middle of nowhere and left to have grand adventures in the great wide somewhere.

… and also:

… it’s pretty, and at least — unlike most of the houses around here — it doesn’t use antlers in all of the decorating.

Then there’s the story’s villain, Garrett Taylor, a handsome, popular jock who can’t believe someone like Rosie could even dream of turning him down. Like Gaston, he’s decided Rosie is the prettiest, therefore the best, and he deserves the best. His persistence goes from annoying to overboard to damaging, and he simply won’t listen to Rosie’s rejections.

The story is sweet and clever, and keeps the Beauty & the Beast storyline going without it ever feeling forced or overdone. At the same time, Rosie and Vance are fleshed-out characters with inner lives, each dealing with pain and emotional challenges, each striving to find a new future.

The author shows us Rosie’s grief and the depths of her loss, and how dramatically losing a parent can devastate a teen’s entire world, leaving her feeling not just the loss, but also the isolation and the rootlessness that comes with being different and losing a mother’s love and support.

I really loved this book, and enjoyed the through-story bits that continue expanding the world of Starfield, its characters, and its plot twists. One of the characters refers to Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and like Fangirl, the story within the story always leaves me wanting more. Might Ashley Poston actually write a Starfield book? Because I’d love to get more Carmindor, Amara, and Sond into my reading life!

The audiobook is really well done, with two different narrators — one for Rosie, one for Vance. They keep it light and entertaining, and let me feel like I was listening to the characters telling their own stories.

I have one complaint about the audiobook, and it’s a pretty big one that, days later, still makes no sense to me. Vance’s last name is Reigns, which I assume is pronounced like “rains” — there are even some tabloid headline puns about Vance needing to be “reigned” in.

So why, then, does the Rosie narrator (and occasionally the Vance narrator too) pronounce his last name as “re-gins” (with a hard G, kind of like begins, but with the accent on the first syllable). I couldn’t figure out what I was listening to at first, and had to go back to the print version to see if I’d misunderstood. Like, is Vance Reigns his stage name, but the family name is actually Reagans or something? Nope, it’s Reigns throughout the book.

So why does the audiobook have a different pronunciation? No idea. But it’s super annoying, and constantly distracting. Did they finish recording, realize it was wrong, and decided not to go back and fix it? Honestly, it makes no sense at all.

I realize I’m harping on about this, but it was distracting throughout the entire audiobook, so as much as I loved it overall, this one thing made it really frustrating too.

Putting that aside… I wholeheartedly recommend Bookish and the Beast. I think this is my favorite of the Con books, and I really hope there are more to come! And while this could possibly be read on its own, I really recommend reading the books in order, because you might not get the Starfield elements and what they mean otherwise.

Don’t miss these wonderful books!

Me, after finishing Bookish & the Beast

Audiobook Review: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Title: News of the World
Author: Paulette Jiles
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: March 29, 2016
Print length: 209 pages
Audio length: 6 hours, 17 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, an aging itinerant news reader agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people in this exquisitely rendered, morally complex, multilayered novel of historical fiction from the author of Enemy Women that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.

In the wake of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings from newspapers to paying audiences hungry for news of the world. An elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them, the captain enjoys his rootless, solitary existence.

In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan to her relatives in San Antonio. Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister; sparing the little girl, they raised her as one of their own. Recently rescued by the U.S. army, the ten-year-old has once again been torn away from the only home she knows.

Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous. Johanna has forgotten the English language, tries to escape at every opportunity, throws away her shoes, and refuses to act “civilized.” Yet as the miles pass, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forming a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land.

Arriving in San Antonio, the reunion is neither happy nor welcome. The captain must hand Johanna over to an aunt and uncle she does not remember—strangers who regard her as an unwanted burden. A respectable man, Captain Kidd is faced with a terrible choice: abandon the girl to her fate or become—in the eyes of the law—a kidnapper himself.

In News of the World, we meet the honorable Captain Kidd, a 71-year-old widower who makes a living these days traveling from town to town in Northern Texas, reading newspaper articles aloud to gathered crowds, at a dime a piece per listener. It’s a pretty good life. Captain Kidd is respected wherever he goes, and his readings, in his authoritative voice, offer his listeners a view of the wider world and a chance to escape day-to-day reality, even if only for an hour.

The Captain’s world is turned upside down when an old friend asks him to take on the task of returning a rescued child to her relatives. At age six, Johanna’s parents were murdered and she was captured by Kiowa raiders. Now ten, Johanna considers the Kiowa her family and remembers nothing of her former life — but her adopted family has sold her back to the local government agents, so she’s truly lost all sense of belonging.

Captain Kidd reluctantly agrees to the task, which involves a very long journey through potentially dangerous territories, all the while accompanied by a hostile, strange girl who absolutely does not want to cooperate. It sounds like a nightmare.

But as the miles unwind, the two reach first a mutual tolerance, then an understanding, and finally true affection. The Captain protects Johanna, placing himself at risk to stand between her and danger, and slowly, she learns to trust him.

Their journey is slow and eventful, and they face obstacles at every turn. Yet this beautiful novel never feels like it lags. It’s lovely to see the affection building between these two complex characters, and each challenge or danger presents yet another opportunity for us to learn more about who they are and what makes them tick.

The writing is just gorgeous. The descriptions of the terrain, the towns, and the people are detailed and lovely. The author truly paints with her words, and I felt like I was there along the dusty roads and by the creeks, riding along in their creaky wagon and looking for cover when there was danger ahead.

The two main characters are both complicated people with harsh pasts to remember and come to terms with. Captain Kidd is a fundamentally loving and kind man, but he’s also fiercely protective and doesn’t have time or patience for fools or wrongdoers. Johanna has a turbulent inner life that we learn about in bits and pieces, and it’s amazing to see how she finds strength to survive.

The audiobook narration is fantastic. The narrator captures the feeling of a fireside story — I felt like I was listening to an old-fashioned tale, almost like I was attending one of Captain Kidd’s readings, if only he were sharing a Western rather than reading a newspaper.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a couple of years now, and I’m so glad to have finally read it. This was my first book by Paulette Jiles, but it won’t be my last. Highly recommended.

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!

Audiobook Review: Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: Blood of Elves
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: 2009 (first published 1994)
Print length: 324 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 55 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

For more than a hundred years humans, dwarves, gnomes and elves lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over and now the races once again fight each other – and themselves: Dwarves are killing their kinsmen, and elves are murdering humans and elves, at least those elves who are friendly to humans… Into this tumultuous time is born a child for whom the witchers of the world have been waiting.

Ciri, the granddaughter of Queen Calanthe, the Lioness of Cintra, has strange powers and a stranger destiny, for prophecy names her the Flame, one with the power to change the world – for good, or for evil… Geralt, the witcher of Rivia, has taken Ciri to the relative safety of the Witchers’ Settlement, but it soon becomes clear that Ciri isn’t like the other witchers. As the political situation grows ever dimmer and the threat of war hangs almost palpably over the land, Geralt searches for someone to train Ciri’s unique powers.

But someone else has an eye on the young girl, someone who understand exactly what the prophecy means – and exactly what Ciri’s power can do. This time Geralt may have met his match.

Blood of Elves is the 3rd book in the Witcher chronology, although the book spine calls it The Witcher, #1. Which is just confusing. While Blood of Elves is the first novel in the series, it’s preceded by two story collections that form a crucial introduction to the world of the Witcher and the events in Blood of Elves. If you tried to start these books with Blood of Elves, you’d be hopelessly confused. So don’t do it — start with The Last Wish.

Got that?

Blood of Elves is loosely Ciri’s story — Ciri being the young girl who comes under Geralt’s protection after her family and her kingdom are destroyed by the invading Nilfgardians. Geralt of Rivia probably is way down at the bottom of men to choose as father figures, but Ciri and he are destined to belong to one another, and at the end of the previous book, he finally accepts this destiny.

In Blood of Elves, we follow Ciri’s education, first at Kaer Morhen, the stronghold of the Witchers, where she trains in the ways of Witchers, learning to fight with speed and cunning. But Ciri also has nightmares and spells where she seems to be channeling a magical voice, so Geralt calls on magician Triss Merigold to help.

Under Triss’s tutelage, Ciri learns more about herself as a person and as a young woman, and Triss is able to ascertain more about the strange trances that Ciri falls into. Eventually, Geralt brings Ciri to the Temple of Melitele to learn more formally, and finally, the enchantress (and Geralt’s true love) Yennefer arrives to train Ciri in the use of magic.

Meanwhile, Geralt is off on adventures, trying to both keep Ciri hidden from those who seek her for nefarious purposes and to discover who is behind the search for her.

While there are action sequences scattered throughout, Blood of Elves feels strangely static. There are long sequences where various parties just talk and talk and talk — mostly kings and advisors and magicians, deciding whether to go to war and what Ciri’s future might bring, if only they can find her and control her.

I enjoy reading Witcher books, but maybe because this one only follows Geralt about half the time, it didn’t quite feel compelling enough, especially in comparison to the terrific two books that precede it.

On the other hand, the narration of the audiobooks continues to be outstanding. Narrator Peter Kenny does a marvelous voice for Geralt — strong, sarcastic, understated — as well as very good voices for Ciri, Yennefer, Dandelion, and more.

Having listened to the audiobooks, I think it would be hard to switch over to print. There are so many scenes that are driven by dialogue, and these are exceptionally fun to listen to. And while action sequences can get confusing, there’s enough explanation to keep them comprehensible.

Blood of Elves was somehow not as great as I’d hoped it would be, but I still enjoyed it, and I’ll definitely keep going with the series.

Audiobook Review: Well Met by Jen DeLuca

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huzzah!

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

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Title: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: August 14, 2018
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 12 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

Where the Crawdads Sing has been on bestseller lists for at least a year now, as far as I can tell. And the fact that this was a Reese’s book club pick doesn’t hurt at all when it comes to creating buzz. So is it worth all the hype?

Now that I’ve read it, I can give an answer: Definitely yes.

Where the Crawdads Sing is lovely, rich, sad, and powerful. It tells the story of Kya Clark, a girl who is abandoned at a very young age and yet manages to raise herself in the North Carolina marsh she calls home.

Kya’s family lives in a shack in the marsh, scrabbling for daily sustenance and terrorized by their abusive, unreliable father. Kya’s older siblings have already left, and as the story opens, Kya is six years old, watching her mother walk away, never to return. Kya is left behind with her father and older brother, but even her brother doesn’t stay long. Soon, it’s just Kya and her father, and he disappears for days on end, or shows up drunk or angry, and simply can’t or won’t care for his child.

And so, from the age of six, Kya raises herself. She loves her home and the marsh and the birds and wildlife that are her truest friends. She scrapes by on the pennies her father provides. Eventually, even he leaves, and she is completely alone, surviving by digging mussels and selling them to the local sundry store owner, a warm and caring man named Jumpin’ who comes to love Kya as a daughter.

Despite the love and support of Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel, Kya is alone. When a truant officer comes to take her to school, Kya only lasts one day, feeling embarassed and tormented by the town kids who call her “Marsh Girl” and make fun of her. From then on, it’s just Kya in the marsh.

She does have one friend, a boy named Tate who once upon a time was friends with her brother. Tate is fascinated by Kya and takes it upon himself to teach her to read, opening up the world of science and biology and learning to her. Kya embarks on her lifelong passion to know and understand the marsh, collecting specimens and documenting them through writing and painting, turning her old shack into a personal natural history museum of sorts.

The story alternates between chapters following Kya’s life from early childhood onward and chapters set later, in 1969, when a local young man is found dead under suspicious circumstances. Chase Andrews had a history with the Marsh Girl, and although there doesn’t seem to be any evidence, she becomes a person of interest in the case, fueled by years of the townspeople’s harsh opinions and suspicions and gossip about her.

While I was less interested in the murder plot for most of the book, by the last third, the two story elements come together as the plot centers around the court case and resolution.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a moving and lyrical reading experience. I loved the descriptions of the marsh and the way the natural world is so much a part of who Kya is and how she looks at life. Kya’s life is horribly sad, yet also beautiful in its own lonely way. It’s incredible to think that a child could survive like that on her own all those years, yet she does. Between her natural intelligence and her lifelong study of her natural surroundings, Kya adapts and manages to thrive, despite her loneliness and sorrow throughout the years.

The audiobook narrator does a very good job of breathing life into the characters, especially Kya, using her voice to show her maturing over the years yet maintaining the core of who she is.

My one issue with the audiobook is that I feel I missed out a bit on certain written passages. Kya is passionate about poetry, and the poems she recites throughout the book are worth spending time on and contemplating a bit, but because I listened to the audiobook, they passed by a little too quickly for actual reflection. I think I’ll need to borrow a print edition so I can page through and spend more time on certain passages.

I won’t get into spoilers, so I can’t say more about the ending than that I was mostly satisfied and that the ending worked out pretty much as I expected despite a few red herrings — although there was at least one loose thread that I would have liked an answer to.

Overall though, the murder/mystery elements are not the most essential part of this book, in my mind. Yes, it was interesting, and yes, I felt that the ending made sense. But the biggest impact for me was the emotional resonance of Kya’s life, her loves, her relationships, and her incredible personal and professional achievements.

Kya is a woman to admire, one who overcomes extreme adversity to carve out a life for herself that’s meaningful and joyful.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a powerful and beautiful book. Highly recommended.