Novella: Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

The little town of Castle Rock, Maine has witnessed some strange events and unusual visitors over the years, but there is one story that has never been told… until now.

There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day in the summer of 1974 twelve-year-old Gwendy Peterson has taken the stairs, which are held by strong (if time-rusted) iron bolts and zig-zag up the cliffside.

At the top of the stairs, Gwendy catches her breath and listens to the shouts of the kids on the playground. From a bit farther away comes the chink of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball as the Senior League kids practice for the Labor Day charity game.

One day, a stranger calls to Gwendy: “Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me.”

On a bench in the shade sits a man in black jeans, a black coat like for a suit, and a white shirt unbuttoned at the top. On his head is a small neat black hat. The time will come when Gwendy has nightmares about that hat…

Whoosh. I read this novella all in one sitting… and I think you will too. Stephen King fans will just eat this up. It’s a quick story that casts an eerie spell, just the right length to sink its unsettling claws into your brain.

I wouldn’t call it horror, exactly. There’s very little outright blood or gore, although bad things do happen. Most of the tension and horror is psychological, as we see what happens to Gwendy after that fateful encounter at the top of Castle View.

The strange man gives Gwendy an oddly beautiful box, with eight differently colored buttons on top and levers on the sides. He shows her the levers: One dispenses a tiny piece of chocolate, which will be absolutely delicious, but which will also eliminate her cravings for junk food. The other lever dispenses a rare old silver dollar in perfect condition. As for the buttons on top, the man provides cryptic explanations, and then entrusts the box into Gwendy’s care.

And soon, her life begins to change. Gwendy at 12 is a little on the heavy side, and she’s determined to reinvent herself before starting middle school in the fall. Between her daily runs up the Suicide Stairs, and her new-found freedom from the lure of desserts and sweets, Gwendy gets in better and better shape. Is it Gwendy’s own effort paying off… or does the box have something to do with it?

Other positive changes soon follow. Gwendy’s vision improves to the point where she no longer needs glasses. She becomes a star athlete and a top student. Boys want to date her and girls want to be her friend. Her parents’ over-indulgence in alcohol seems to dwindle away with any noticeable effort. But the box is still there, hidden away for safe-keeping, and Gwendy never quite manages to get it out of her thoughts or to stop wondering what would happen if she actually pressed any of those colorful buttons.

Man, this is a good story! Even though Gwendy’s life gets better and better, there’s a dangerous undercurrent that plagues her — and us. What’s the price of all this good fortune? And who will pay it?

I don’t want to say much more. It’s a quick novella that can be read in one gulp, which is really what I recommend. There’s something about getting from start to finish without breaking the disturbing mood that lends the story even more power.

Gwendy’s Button Box is a must-read for King fans (which probably goes without saying) — but really, anyone who enjoys a tightly woven plot with an air of mystery and dread should check it out.

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The details:

Title: Gwendy’s Button Box
Author: Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
Publisher: Cemetery Dance Publications
Publication date: May 16, 2017
Length: 175 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Pearl Thief

Before Verity…there was Julie.

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scottish Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister, Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

In this coming-of-age prequel to Code Name Verity, we meet a much younger Julie — a privileged daughter of an aristocratic Scottish family, home for the summer from her Swiss boarding school. Julie and her siblings are converging on their late grandfather’s estate one last time as the grounds, manor house, and belongings are being either sorted for auction or repurposed into a boys’ school.

At the beginning of the summer, Julie is free-spirited and ready for fun. When Julie arrives earlier than expected (and ahead of her luggage), she grabs an old kilt that belonged to her brother and sets off to explore along the river that runs through their property — where she’s konked on the head and knocked unconcious.

As Julie recovers, she develops a connection with the Traveller family who rescued her, and begins to dig through her foggy memories to figure out who knocked her out, and what’s going on with the ancient and priceless Scottish river pearls that were a beloved part of her grandfather’s treasure trove.

Through Julie’s eyes, we get to know the family of Scottish Travellers and see the prejudice and cruelty they’re so casually subjected to, even by people Julie otherwise had respected. Likewise, through Julie, we meet a reclusive, disfigured librarian and gain an understanding of what it truly means to look beyond the surface.

The adventure and mystery of the story are quite entertaining, and there’s nothing here that would earn anything more scandalous than a PG rating. That said, Julie does explore her sexuality through a series of important kisses, and discovers that her orientation may be more complicated than she’d been prepared for. At the same time, we see the great love and loyalty that Julie is capable of, whether directed toward her immediate family, long-time acquaintances, or fast friends.

This is important to note, because of course this is Julie from Code Name Verity, and while The Pearl Thief is set earlier than that stellar book, it’s an interesting look at the young woman Julie was before her life was changed forever by World War II. In The Pearl Thief, Julie is still a half-formed woman, but she’s already well on her way toward establishing her outsized bravery, talent for mimicry and pretending to be someone else, keen mind that zooms in on details, and of course, the absolute devotion to her friends.

It’s not essential to have read Code Name Verity before reading The Pearl Thief, but I think it does add a great deal of meaning. Without the context of CNV, The Pearl  Thief is an interesting and entertaining adventure story, with a beautiful setting and a very neat interweaving of Scottish history and folklore within the more contemporary mystery plot. But having read CNV, The Pearl Thief is all above the above, plus.

It’s a beautiful look into the life of a young woman who we know will go on to be remarkable. For that reason, while The Pearl Thief itself isn’t a highly emotional story, reading it manages to be a moving experience. Here is Julie —  Queenie — in her early days, and it’s easy to see the roots of who she will one day be.

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The details:

Title: The Pearl Thief
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: May 2, 2017
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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Audiobook Review: Waking Gods

 

As a child, Rose Franklin made an astonishing discovery: a giant metallic hand, buried deep within the earth. As an adult, she’s dedicated her brilliant scientific career to solving the mystery that began that fateful day: Why was a titanic robot of unknown origin buried in pieces around the world? Years of investigation have produced intriguing answers—and even more perplexing questions. But the truth is closer than ever before when a second robot, more massive than the first, materializes and lashes out with deadly force.

Now humankind faces a nightmare invasion scenario made real, as more colossal machines touch down across the globe. But Rose and her team at the Earth Defense Corps refuse to surrender. They can turn the tide if they can unlock the last secrets of an advanced alien technology. The greatest weapon humanity wields is knowledge in a do-or-die battle to inherit the Earth . . . and maybe even the stars.

Wow. What a ride.

At the advice of the fabulous Bonnie at For the Love of Words, I decide to listen to Waking Gods rather than read a print version. And also thanks to her input, I first listened to book #1 of the Themis Files — Sleeping Giants — as a refresher. (I read — and loved — Sleeping Giants last year. Check out my rave review.)

Waking Gods picks up the story ten years after the ending of Sleeping Giants. Over the course of the intervening decade, the ragtag team of scientists and robot-wranglers has evolved into an organized global force called the EDC (Earth Defense Corps). Dr. Rose Franklin heads up the efforts, under the ever-present guidance of the unnamed man who pulls the strings. Meanwhile, robot pilots Kara and Vincent enjoy their life on the road with Themis, taking the giant robot on a worldwide goodwill tour to promote international cooperation and harmony.

Until… more robots arrive. Now Earth and all its people are threatened by an alien force that they have no hope of overpowering. If Rose and her team can’t come up with solutions, there may be nothing left.

Okay, wow again. Waking Gods is an absolutely stunning and addictive sequel that kept my attention from the very first moment all the way through to the end. As with Sleeping Giants, Waking Gods is told via transcripts of interviews, lab notes, radio broadcasts, and military communications. It works beautifully. Focusing for a moment on the audio listening experience, I was blown away by the intensity of listening rather than reading. While the transcripts work well on the page, it’s another thing entirely to listen to the talented narrators essentially act out each intense moment.

The audiobook is a full cast recording, so that each character has his or her unique voice, full of expression and personality. The unnamed narrator from the first book is back, and his voice in particular is odd but powerful. The rest of the cast is quite good (if you’ve read the books, you’ll be happy to know that Mr. Burns is just perfect), and the listening experience brings a tension and immediacy to the action scenes.

Waking Gods is a thrilling follow-up to Sleeping Giants. I do, however, have one minor complaint. I thought this was a two-book project. I haven’t seen anything anywhere referencing a 3rd. And it seemed as though Waking Gods finished the story (with an awesome climax, I might add)… until the very last moment, which took the concluding scene and turned it into a cliffhanger. So is there a book #3 on the way? So far, I haven’t been able to find a hint of it online.

I highly recommend both Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods — and definitely recommend checking out the audiobook versions, if you’re at all an audio person. Both books make for excellent listening experiences, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time!

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The details:

Title: Waking Gods (The Themis Files, #2)
Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: April 4, 2017
Length (print): 325 pages
Length (audiobook): 9 hours, 2 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: E-book review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook downloaded via Audible

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Take A Peek Book Review: Less Than a Treason (Kate Shugak, #21)

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Kate Shugak is a native Aleut working as a private investigator in Alaska. She’s 5 foot 1 inch tall, carries a scar that runs from ear to ear across her throat and owns a half-wolf, half-husky dog named Mutt. Resourceful, strong-willed, defiant, Kate is tougher than your average heroine – and she needs to be to survive the worst the Alaskan wilds can throw at her.

Two thousand people go missing in Alaska every year. They vanish in the middle of mountain footraces, on fishing boats in the Bering Sea, on small planes in the Bush. Now a geologist known for going walkabout with his rock hammer has disappeared from the Suulutaq Mine in the Park. Was it deliberate? An accident? Foul play? Kate Shugak may be the only person who can find out.

But for the fact that Kate, too, is now among the missing…

My Thoughts:

Kate is back! Kate is back! Kate is back!

Yes, I’m excited. And yes, I loved this book!

If you’ve read my blog at all over the last couple of years, then you may know that I developed a full-on obsession for Dana Stabenow’s amazing Kate Shugak series. Kate is tough, devoted, smart, and resilient, and lives in one of the most beautiful places in the world. In the Kate Shugak series, the author serves up mystery after mystery — but really, what pulls me back for book after book is Kate herself, the “Park rats” who make up the tiny community in Niniltna, the troopers and cops and aunties and pilots who form the backbone of Kate’s world, and the richly entangled storytelling that builds up over the course of the series.

We’re now 21 books in (plus the Liam Campbell series of 4 books, which somewhat intersect with the Kate books and add yet another facet to her world). The series is still going strong. I gobbled up the previous 20 books (and the 4 Liams) in something like 18 months, and then was bereft over having to wait for Kate’s return, especially as #20 ended with a super cruel cliffhanger.

Well, now my girl is back! The mystery in #21 is standard Kate fare (mining, ore rights, missing persons); the real treat is in seeing Kate recovering from a traumatic event and reconnecting with all the various people who love her. All the old favorites are here — Bobby, Dinah, Katya, the aunties, and more — and Kate’s love interest Jim is as devoted (and hot) as ever. There are call-backs to earlier episodes, and some hair-raising action scenes, but mostly Less Than a Treason is a delight simply because we see Kate reclaiming her place in her own life and community.

Ah. I love these books, and I love the characters. This one made me so, so very happy, and I adored the ending too. I can only sit here now and hope and pray that Kate Shugak will live on in many, many, many more books. Do you hear me, Dana Stabenow??? I want more Kate, now and forever, amen.

Reading note 01 – The Kate books are full of super fun pop culture, literary, and musical references, and this one is no exception. Watch out for a selection in my Thursday Quotables post this week.

Reading note 02 – In case it’s not perfectly obvious, the books in this series do not — in my humble opinion — work as stand-alones. There’s simply too much world-building, full of rich and varied characters with unique and often complicatedly interconnected backstories, to be able to jump in with book #21! So take my advice, start at the beginning, and enjoy!

Reaidng note 03 — I’ll never get tired of Dana Stabenow’s gorgeous descriptions of Alaskan wildlife and scenery, even though she makes me mad that I’m not there right at this very moment!

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The details:

Title: Less Than a Treason
Author: Dana Stabenow
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: May 6, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Mystery
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Boy on the Bridge

In the 2014 book The Girl With All the Gifts, author M. R. Carey introduced us to a terrifying world in which humanity has been overrun by “hungries” — humans turned into zombies after being infected by a virulent and unstoppable fungus. At an isolated army base in England, a military and medical crew work with a bunch of young hungries, who seem to be a different sort of species, still drawn to flesh for sustenance but able to speak, think, and feel as humans do. (If you haven’t read The Girl With All the Gifts, you need to check it out! My book review is here. The movie is worth seeing too!)

The new release The Boy on the Bridge is a prequel to The Girl With All the Gifts, set about 10 years earlier. Humanity has already been decimated by the Hungry plague, and the remaining humans in England live in a barricaded settlement called the Beacon. The Beacon sends out a team of scientists and soldiers in an armored vehicle, the Rosalind Franklin, to travel the country, collect samples, and search for some sort of cure or treatment for the plague — likely a hopeless cause.

The crew is an uneasy mix of career soldiers and geeky scientists, plus a gifted teen boy, Stephen Greaves, who is considered by most of the crewmembers to be possibly autistic, definitely odd, and generally a burden. The exception to this is Dr. Samrina Khan – Rina — who insisted on bringing Stephen along for the mission, and who acts as a surrogate mother to the boy. Stephen is brilliant, and Rina considers him to be crucial to any chance of making a scientific breakthrough.

We spend the entire book on the journey aboard Rosie, getting to know the crew as they bump along the countryside in very cramped quarters. There are rivalries and resentments, and the enormous pressure of knowing that they may be humanity’s last hope. The team is constantly in danger as well. Beyond taking samples, they venture outside of Rosie’s safety to do cullings along the way — basically, using their firepower to mow down as many hungries as possible.

The scenes of dormant hungries just standing wherever they happen to be, motionless and inert until triggered by movement or smell, are frightening and creepy. The danger is always present, and the reading experience can be almost as claustrophobic as it must be traveling inside Rosie.

I found the book to be slow at first, as it takes a while to get to know the twelve team members as individuals, and the first half or so of the book occasionally feels like one really unpleasant road trip. However, once the team encounters a group of feral children, the tension and the mystery definitely amp up. Who are these children, and where did they come from? What do they want… and can they be stopped? Meanwhile, Stephen and Rina each have secret agendas, and as the plot moves forward, their struggles become the central focus.

I spent much of the book wondering how this story would connect to The Girl With All the Gifts, and by the end, it becomes clear in a way that’s satisfying. The climax is action-packed and dramatic, and I was happy with the resolution presented in the epilogue.

I wouldn’t rate this one as high as the first book, but I did find it an enjoyable, entertaining read. Needless to say, it’s not for the squeamish — but if you enjoy a good twist on a a zombie apocalypse, check out The Boy on the Bridge.

Side note: The title doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and neither does the book’s synopsis as it appears on Goodreads. So ignore those, and just read the book anyway!

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The details:

Title: The Boy on the Bridge
Author: M. R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: May 2, 2017
Length: 392 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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Book Review: The Book of Etta

 

In the gripping sequel to the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, one woman undertakes a desperate journey to rescue the future.

Etta comes from Nowhere, a village of survivors of the great plague that wiped away the world that was. In the world that is, women are scarce and childbearing is dangerous…yet desperately necessary for humankind’s future. Mothers and midwives are sacred, but Etta has a different calling. As a scavenger. Loyal to the village but living on her own terms, Etta roams the desolate territory beyond: salvaging useful relics of the ruined past and braving the threat of brutal slave traders, who are seeking women and girls to sell and subjugate.

When slavers seize those she loves, Etta vows to release and avenge them. But her mission will lead her to the stronghold of the Lion—a tyrant who dominates the innocent with terror and violence. There, with no allies and few weapons besides her wits and will, she will risk both body and spirit not only to save lives but also to liberate a new world’s destiny.

The Book of Etta is an interesting follow-up to The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (review), but I didn’t wholeheartedly love it. It’s incredibly interesting and compelling, but there are ways in which I felt it fell a bit short of its potential.

Etta takes place a couple of hundred years after the plague, and it’s fascinating to see how written and oral histories capture the time before and the new types of societies that have arisen afterward. The people living at the time of Etta live mostly in isolated settlements, relying on the rare traveler or trader for outside news, mainly ignorant of anything happening in the greater world or really anything outside their own communities’ walls.

In Nowhere, Etta’s home, women are either Midwives or Mothers. While there are far more men than women, the men are subservient, working for the good of the women and living in Hives built around a central woman. The books left by the unnamed midwife have become holy scriptures to the people of Nowhere, and make clear that most surviving women live as slaves, in abusive situations, or in hiding.

Nowhere seems ideal in some ways, yet even there, Etta feels stifled. As we learn in The Book of Etta, Etta’s gender identity is fluid and she’s romantically and sexually attracted to women, and there’s really no place in the Nowhere community for someone who doesn’t fit the approved roles, even in a woman-centric society.

When Etta ventures out into the world in her role as a raider, she changes into male clothing and thinks of herself as Eddy. The author switches pronouns when Etta is Eddy, which is actually a pretty neat narrative trick that requires the reader to pay attention, yet gives us immediate clues about Etta/Eddy’s inner life and how she/he views her/his self at any moment. Through Etta/Eddy’s eyes, we see just how bad things can get for women. The worst is Estiel (STL = St. Louis), where a tyrant known as the Lion rules by force and terror, holds all females captive for breeding and sex, and raids outlying areas to take any females he can find, including babies and toddlers. Many women are “cut”, and many are drugged or beaten into submission as part of the Lion’s harem. In other communities, the men and women live separately, with men being allowed into the women’s zone for breeding rituals. Young boys may be catamites, castrated and forced into sexual servitude. Each community shows a different aspect of the horrors of the time. Through Etta/Eddy’s journey, we see what may be a hopeless yearning to find a place where labels and rigidly assigned roles are a thing of the past.

The plot is fast-paced and hard to look away from. And yet, there are certain things that made this book not quite successful for me. The Etta/Eddy distinction is interesting, but we end up spending too much time in Etta’s head, often to the detriment of the story’s continuity. It’s not entirely clear to me why Nowhere’s society would frown on relationships between women the way it does, other than a need to show that even a matriarchal power structure contains its own restrictions and limitations. A segment later in the book centers on a community that it literally underground, living in a series of tunnels and bunkers completely hidden below the earth. It’s quite interesting, but certain aspects of that society — its abundant fertility and the role of its leader and prophet — need more explanation, especially as Alma (the prophet) seems to have abilities that verge on the magical, an odd choice in a dystopian novel.

There are some truly horrifying scenes of abuse and rape. This is not an easy or pleasant book. I was reminded in some parts of Octavia Butler’s outstanding (and brutal) books, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents.

The Book of Etta has an open ending, as one chapter of Etta’s world ends and the next has yet to be written. The author is working on book 3, The Book of Flora, which I’m very much looking forward to, as Flora is a fascinating and complex character who enters Etta’s life in this book, and clearly has her own story to be told.

All in all, I’m glad that I read The Book of Etta and plan to continue with the trilogy, even though the writing verges on being preachy from time to time. It’s still an interesting look at a terrible vision of the future, and provides some thought-provoking scenarios about gender and identity.

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The details:

Title: The Book of Etta
Author: Meg Elison
Publisher: 47North
Publication date: February 21, 2017
Length: 316 pages
Genre: Dystopian/post-apocalyptic
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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A Miniature Review of Miniatures by John Scalzi

The ex-planet Pluto has a few choice words about being thrown out of the solar system. A listing of alternate histories tells you all the various ways Hitler has died. A lawyer sues an interplanetary union for dangerous working conditions. And four artificial intelligences explain, in increasingly worrying detail, how they plan not to destroy humanity.

Welcome to Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi.

These four stories, along with fourteen other pieces, have one thing in common: They’re short, sharp, and to the point—science fiction in miniature, with none of the stories longer than 2,300 words. But in that short space exist entire universes, absurd situations, and the sort of futuristic humor that propelled Scalzi to a Hugo with his novel Redshirts. Not to mention yogurt taking over the world (as it would).

Spanning the years from 1991 to 2016, this collection is a quarter century of Scalzi at his briefest and best, and features four never-before-printed stories, exclusive to this collection: “Morning Announcements at the Lucas Interspecies School for Troubled Youth,” “Your Smart Appliances Talk About You Behind Your Back,” “Important Holidays on Gronghu” and “The AI Are Absolutely Positively Without a Doubt Not Here to End Humanity, Honest.”

Okay, if those story titles don’t already have you laughing til your belly aches, then this may not be the book for you.

For me, it was perfect! John Scalzi’s science fiction never lets me down, and these (very) short pieces are just a treat. Funny, creative, unexpected, and silly, there’s plenty here to tickle and delight (unless you’re a total curmudgeon and have no patience for silliness… in which case, move along. Nothing to see here.)

The book itself is adorable, slightly smaller than usual for a hardcover (here’s a photo of my book plus some desk accessories, to give you a sense of scale without forcing me to get up and leave my desk):

The original hardcover printing was a limited run (and I think may no longer be available), but it is available in e-book format. Here’s the inside of my book, all numbered and everything!

Besides the utter cuteness of the physical book, what about the content?

Fabulous, of course! If I had to pick, I’d say my favorites are a dialogue among different AIs who are definitely not planning to take over the world, a cat’s-eye view of domestic domination, a supermarket workers’ guide to dealing with unusual alien life forms and their customs, and the interview with a celebrity agent for superheroes.

Oh, and let’s not forget the interviews with smart appliances, who spill the dirt on their owners. Makes me quite sure that I never ever need smart machines in my house. I couldn’t take the gossip.

Those are a just a few of the highlights, but really, all of the stories are terrific. What’s more, they’re super short, so this book can be enjoyed in bite-sized pieces or all in one sitting — either way, not a big time commitment.

If you like your sci-fi with a big heaping of funny, you’ll definitely want to treat yourself to this collection. I think I’ll be thumbing through Miniatures pretty regularly, whenever I need a little jolt of silly to brighten my day.

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The details:

Title: Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication date: December 31, 2016
Length: 142 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Honestly Ben

Ben Carver is back to normal. He’s getting all As in his classes at the Natick School. He was just elected captain of the baseball team. He’s even won a big scholarship for college, if he can keep up his grades. All that foolishness with Rafe Goldberg last semester is over now, and he just needs to be a Carver, work hard, and stay focused.

Except…

There’s Hannah, a gorgeous girl who attracts him and distracts him. There’s his mother, whose quiet unhappiness he’s noticing for the first time. School is harder, the pressure higher, the scholarship almost slipping away. And there’s Rafe, funny, kind, dating someone else…and maybe the real normal that Ben needs.

If you’ve read my blog at all in the last couple of years, then you’ve probably seen me rave about Openly Straight (review), Bill Konigsberg’s amazing, touching, funny, sweet story of a gay teen trying to recreate his life on his own terms. In Openly Straight, we see the world through the eyes of Rafe, as he enters private school determined to shed his previous life as THE gay kid — completely out, giving talks, mother head of PFLAG, etc — and just see what it feels like to be one of the crowd. However, things get complicated when Rafe falls in love with his best friend Ben, who is startled to discover his own feelings for Rafe. In a nutshell, Ben doesn’t know Rafe is gay, so he believes that they’re exploring new ideas and options and feelings together, and feels completely betrayed when he learns what Rafe has been hiding from him. Seriously, this book made me laugh and broke my heart and was just so powerful!

But then we were left hanging… what happened next?

Well, thank you, thank you, thank you to the author for creating this beautiful sequel! Honestly Ben picks up just a few weeks after the events of Openly Straight. In Honestly Ben, Ben himself is the narrator, and we start to see more deeply into Ben’s life and world, and to understand what drives him and what scares him.

Ben grew up on a farm in New Hampshire, where working hard and not embarrassing the family are the values drilled into Ben and his brother from a young age. And when Ben starts to shine as a student, he’s not praised, but warned not to get a big head. For all that, Ben does succeed, and lands a scholarship to Natick, the poor boy among rich peers, striving to fit in and to do well enough to earn a scholarship to college. Ben keeps his head down, and tries to be what everyone wants him to be — a decent guy, a good baseball player, a top student — fitting in, but not one to call attention to himself.

Ben’s feelings for Rafe changed everything he understood about himself. In Honestly Ben, he digs deeper. Is he gay? The label doesn’t seem to fit. Bi? He doesn’t think so. He’s never been attracted to boys before, and his fantasies are generally about girls. Is he, as he puts it, just “gay-for-Rafe”? After the initial anger wears off, Ben and Rafe cautiously inch forward with their friendship. Ben is thrilled to reconnect with Rafe, but it’s a struggle for him to understand what this means. At the same time, he’s also facing pressure academically that threatens his scholarship, and he struggles with learning the truth about a former student whom the school idolizes — for all the wrong reasons, as Ben discovers.

The book’s exploration of labels is deftly handled. One of the Natick boys comes out as gender fluid, which takes much courage on  his part, as well as a lot of explaining — but he’s determined to start living his authentic life. As Ben tries to understand himself in the context of a relationship with Rafe, even well-meaners try to push him into claiming an identity he’s not comfortable with. Why does he need to put a label on what he is? He knows who he loves — why isn’t that sufficient?

Ben’s eyes are finally opened by a girl he briefly dates, who gets him to start to understand what he loses by hiding behind a front that doesn’t reveal the real him:

I’ve been doing some reading. This woman talks about vulnerability, and she says that it’s basically the key to everything. Vulnerability is allowing people to see you exactly as you are, which is really hard, because when you’re vulnerable you can get hurt. Most people armor up with bravado or something, but those people are missing out, because without allowing yourself to be vulnerable, it’s tough to have, like, any emotional experience at all.

The characters are just as wonderful as in the previous book. It’s touching to see Ben’s life through his own eyes and to understand the constant pressure he feels to be what he isn’t. The writing is outstanding, conveying both the challenges and the joys of Ben’s ongoing experiences and really capturing the sense of wonder that comes with sex in the context of love.

Obviously, I highly recommend this book! It’s a wonderful look at the inner lives of teens, and for those who read Openly Straight (which, really, you must do), it’s a terrific reunion with characters we absolutely love and care about. Check it out!

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The details:

Title: Honestly Ben
Author: Bill Konigsberg
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Publication date: March 28, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

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Novella: Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

When the Imagine Network commissioned a documentary on mermaids, to be filmed from the cruise ship Atargatis, they expected what they had always received before: an assortment of eyewitness reports that proved nothing, some footage that proved even less, and the kind of ratings that only came from peddling imaginary creatures to the masses.

They didn’t expect actual mermaids. They certainly didn’t expect those mermaids to have teeth.

This is the story of the Atargatis, lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy. Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the bathypelagic zone in the Mariana Trench…and the depths are very good at keeping secrets.

If this is how you like your mermaids:

or this:

… then Rolling in the Deep may not be the reading choice for you. No singing. No flowy red hair or adorable fishy friends. No teen angst or cute Australian accents.

Nope. The mermaids in Rolling in the Deep have claws and lots of sharp teeth, and they seem to especially enjoy biting off faces, then dragging their prey into the darkest ocean depths.

I adored Rolling in the Deep! It’s gross and scary, packing a lot into a little. In a very short time, we get to know the crew of the Atargatis, the film crew and on-screen personality from the TV station, the scientists on the expedition who are supposed to lend credibility to the otherwise potentially cheesy “documentary”, and a troupe of performing mermaids, to add a little sexy flavor in case the exploration comes up empty.

Each section of the story is preceded by an excerpt from a book written to explore the tragedy and mystery of the Atargatis — so we know from page 1 that everyone on board the ship is doomed. The story is pieced together from the footage found on board the ship, which is found drifting off course and completely empty of people — but with enough gore left behind to let the discoverers know that something awful happened. But was it all a hoax, as the Imagine network is often accused of? Or did something beyond human understanding attack the ship and brutally murder all hands?

This book is not for the faint of heart, obviously. It gets bloody pretty quickly. As for me, I thought it was terrific! Just enough gore to make the threat real, and a palpable sense of dread — we know from the start that everyone will die, but the question is how. It’s smart and fast and a terrific read.

And once I finished and went to check it off on Goodreads, I stumbled across the news that a full-length novel is on the way! Into the Drowning Deep follows up on the events of Rolling in the Deep, and will be published in November 2017. Can it be November now please? I don’t think I can wait.

 

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The details:

Title: Rolling in the Deep
Author: Mira Grant
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication date: April 6, 2015
Length: 123 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Unequal Affection: A Pride and Prejudice Retelling

When Elizabeth Bennet first knew Mr. Darcy, she despised him and was sure he felt the same. Angered by his pride and reserve, influenced by the lies of the charming Mr. Wickham, she never troubled herself to believe he was anything other than the worst of men–until, one day, he unexpectedly proposed.Mr. Darcy’s passionate avowal of love causes Elizabeth to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about him. What she knows is that he is rich, handsome, clever, and very much in love with her. She, on the other hand, is poor, and can expect a future of increasing poverty if she does not marry. The incentives for her to accept him are strong, but she is honest enough to tell him that she does not return his affections. He says he can accept that–but will either of them ever be truly happy in a relationship of unequal affection?

Diverging from Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice at the proposal in the Hunsford parsonage, this story explores the kind of man Darcy is, even before his “proper humbling,” and how such a man, so full of pride, so much in love, might have behaved had Elizabeth chosen to accept his original proposal.

While I’m a fan of Pride and Prejudice (and all of Jane Austen’s works), I’ve never read a P&P spin-off or retelling or any of the other hundreds of variations on the story. Somehow, I stumbled across Unequal Affection, and thought the premise was interesting enough to make me want to give it a try. And I’m glad I did.

In a nutshell, what would have happened if Elizabeth Bennet had not refused Mr. Darcy’s initial proposal?

Yes, all the circumstances leading to this moment remain the same as in the original. Elizabeth is stuck on her initial impressions of Darcy, dislikes him, and believes he dislikes her. She’s flabbergasted by his proposal, and insulted by his presentation of it, especially by his statements about how inferior she and her family are to him.

But what if? It’s not unreasonable to think that a young woman in Elizabeth’s situation might actually pause and consider. Here’s a very wealthy, very prominent man, educated and handsome, who says he’s in love with her. He’s offering her a life beyond anything she could imagine. And what’s more, he’s prepared to care for her mother and sisters and provide them with a secure future, rather than the poverty that seems to be lurking just over the horizon.

Now, we know that Elizabeth is an unusual woman for her time. She’s outspoken in her likes and dislikes, and has sworn that she’ll marry for love. But, here is a man who loves her and is offering her a secure life. Is it so farfetched to think she’d at least consider his offer?

In Unequal Affection, she does just that. She asks for time to consider, rather than rejecting him on the spot. She’s stunned to learn of his regard for her, and realizes that she may need to rethink her former opinions of him. From there, the story follows the seven weeks from Darcy’s proposal to the agreed-upon wedding, during which both have time to get to know one another properly and to acknowledge their faulty assumptions and mistreatment of one another.

It’s interesting to see how some familiar scenes play out. Lady Catherine’s visit to Longbourn still takes place, with much the same tone, but with the circumstances rather different. Lydia’s elopement is prevented before it ever happens, because with Darcy as the future brother-in-law, her well-being is now his concern as well. Certain secrets come out much later, so that Wickham’s undermining of Darcy is allowed to continue much longer — but even so, this gives Elizabeth time to start to realize that Wickham’s charm might be a cover for a lack of character.

Overall, Unequal Affection is quite charming and well-written. This clever retelling lets us see familiar events unfold differently, and yet the dialogue and writing style feel very true to the spirit of Jane Austen’s masterpiece. The developing understanding and affection between Elizabeth and Darcy work in light of what we already know about them, and this different path to marriage feels quite natural and plausible.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I mean, if the original is perfect, why tinker with it? Author Lara Ormiston proves that there can still be something new to say about a classic, and presents an engaging, compelling tale about favorite characters in a brand new way.

And now, a question: For those of you who have read Austen spin-offs, are there any in particular that you consider outstanding and worth checking out? I’ve read three of the Austen Project books, and have Eligible on tap for future reading. How about any others? Recommendations welcome here!

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The details:

Title: Unequal Affection
Author: Lara S. Ormiston
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: January 7, 2014
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Fiction
Source: Purchased

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