Book Review: Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

Title: Florence Adler Swims Forever
Author: Rachel Beanland
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: July 7, 2020
Print length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Over the course of one summer that begins with a shocking tragedy, three generations of the Adler family grapple with heartbreak, romance, and the weight of family secrets in this stunning debut novel that’s perfect for fans of Manhattan Beach and The Dollhouse.

Atlantic City, 1934. Every summer, Esther and Joseph Adler rent their house out to vacationers escaping to “America’s Playground” and move into the small apartment above their bakery. Despite the cramped quarters, this is the apartment where they raised their two daughters, Fannie and Florence, and it always feels like home.

Now Florence has returned from college, determined to spend the summer training to swim the English Channel, and Fannie, pregnant again after recently losing a baby, is on bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy. After Joseph insists they take in a mysterious young woman whom he recently helped emigrate from Nazi Germany, the apartment is bursting at the seams.

Esther only wants to keep her daughters close and safe but some matters are beyond her control: there’s Fannie’s risky pregnancy—not to mention her always-scheming husband, Isaac—and the fact that the handsome heir of a hotel notorious for its anti-Semitic policies, seems to be in love with Florence.

When tragedy strikes, Esther makes the shocking decision to hide the truth—at least until Fannie’s baby is born—and pulls the family into an elaborate web of secret-keeping and lies, bringing long-buried tensions to the surface that reveal how quickly the act of protecting those we love can turn into betrayal.

Based on a true story and told in the vein of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions and Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl, Beanland’s family saga is a breathtaking portrait of just how far we will go to in order to protect our loved ones and an uplifting portrayal of how the human spirit can endure—and even thrive—after tragedy.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to divulge something that happens in the very first chapter, is it?

When I picked up Florence Adler Swims Forever, my expectation was that the main story line would focus on Florence and her training to swim the English Channel. Wouldn’t you think so, based on the title, the cover, and the synopsis? Well, if so, you’d be as misled as I was.

While the opening chapter is about a day at the beach, as told by 7-year-old Gussie, who adores her aunt Florence, by the end of the chapter, Florence has drowned. She’s pulled lifeless from the ocean where she went for just her typical long swims, and despite heroic efforts by the beach lifeguards, Florence is beyond saving.

Florence’s sister Fannie is hospitalized on bedrest with a high-risk pregnancy, and doctors warn that any stress or upset might cause Fannie to lose the baby. Their mother Esther decides on a plan: They will keep Florence’s death quiet, keep all announcements out of the papers, have a private family burial — and will not tell Fannie that her only sister has died.

Fannie and Florence had quarreled right before the books opens, and Fannie is left to believe that Florence is still angry at her, not communicating or visiting with her sister before leaving for France to start her big swim. The family brings the nurses and doctors of the maternity ward into the circle of secrecy, and by moving her to a private room and limiting her access to news of the outside world, they’re able to keep Fannie in the dark for the remaining months of her pregnancy.

Meanwhile, the Adler family must struggle through their private grief, running a successful bakery business, dealing with an untrustworthy son-in-law, and hosting Anna, a European refugee with a connection to Esther’s husband Joseph, who’s desperate to find a way to get her parents out of Germany before it’s too late.

This book has so much going for it. The Altantic City of 1934 setting is a wonder, showcasing life in that particular time and place with attention to detail and evocative descriptions. The beach environment, the ritzy hotels, the large Jewish community all feel vibrant and alive, as do the people themselves, with their relationships, their struggles for success, the aftermath of the Depression and the rising tensions about the increasingly desperate plight of the Jews in Europe.

Through small moments, such as characters discussing the price of bread or going to a restaurant for a business meetings, we get an idea of the economics of the time, as well as the chasms between haves and have-nots. We also get a good picture of Atlantic City development, and the lingering anti-Semitism that pervades even a location with such a large Jewish population.

There are also some truly eye-popping moments. For example, did you know that up through the end of the 1930s, premature babies in incubators were displayed as sideshow attractions at World’s Fairs and along the boardwalk? It’s true! I couldn’t believe it when the scene was described in this book, but yup — I had to stop and Google it, and discovered that this was how incubator technology was established before being adopted as standard medical procedure, and that thousands of premature babies were saved through these exhibits. Crazy, right? (Read more here, if interested.)

The subplot about Anna’s parents is sad and scary and eye-opening as well. We all know what happened to German Jews as Hitler rose to power, and it’s heart-breaking to get this view of the practically impossible steps that friends and relatives had to go through in order to try to secure visas for their loved ones. Without money or political connection, there was basically no chance. We really feel Anna’s anguish and frustration as she keeps attempting to rescue her parents, only to find the bar moved higher every time she approaches the stated goal.

While the Adler family’s story is compelling and I loved the historical setting, there are just a few elements that left me wanting more. There a romance that develops over the summer showcased in this story, and I just couldn’t feel it. I never truly felt the connection between the characters, so it was hard to buy into their love story and its outcome.

Likewise, we’re told that the hotel mentioned in the synopsis is well known for anti-Semitic policies, but we don’t actually see that demonstrated. The owner, who’s the father of one of the POV characters, is supposed to be nasty and ruthless, but again, I didn’t truly get that from his portrayal.

Florence Adler Swims Forever takes place over the summer months following Florence’s death. The ending left me wanting more. I’ll be vague here (no more spoilers!), but I felt pretty cheated by not getting to see a particular scene I had assumed would be included. I’d also hoped to get a definite answer about Anna’s parents and whether they’d be rescued, but because the story ends where it does, that remains an unknown.

I will say that the author’s notes at the end are illuminating, as they help to ground the events of the story, which may come across as far-fetched in places, in her own family’s history.

All in all, I found Florence Adler Swims Forever to be a compelling, absorbing read, despite feeling like I needed a little more from the characters and the story as a whole to move this into 5-star territory. Still, I definitely recommend this book, and can see it being a great book group choice as well — there’s so much to think about and discuss.

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.

Book Review: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss

Title: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #3)
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Print length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mary Jekyll and the Athena Club race to save Alice—and foil a plot to unseat the Queen, in the electrifying conclusion to the trilogy that began with the Nebula Award finalist and Locus Award winner The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

Life’s always an adventure for the Athena Club…especially when one of their own has been kidnapped! After their thrilling European escapades rescuing Lucinda van Helsing, Mary Jekyll and her friends return home to discover that their friend and kitchen maid Alice has vanished— and so has their friend and employer Sherlock Holmes!

As they race to find Alice and bring her home safely, they discover that Alice and Sherlock’s kidnapping are only one small part of a plot that threatens Queen Victoria, and the very future of the British Empire. Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine save their friends—and save the Empire? Find out in the final installment of the fantastic and memorable Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club series.

Now THIS is how you end a trilogy! Author Theodora Goss delivers another rolicking escapade with the brave women of Athena Club, adding even more “monstrous” women to the mix.

For those new to these books, the main characters are all the daughters of famous men — mad scientists and members of the Alchemical Society, who used their own daughters as subjects of their dastardly experiments. Their goal? Biological transmutation. The outcome? Unusual women with strange, hidden talents and gifts, such as Beatrice Rappaccini, who thrives on rain and sunshine and gives off poison with her breath, and Catherine Moreau, transformed from a wild, free puma into a young woman with decidedly sharp teeth and claws.

This found family also includes the two daughters of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, each one representing a different facet of his personae, Justine Frankenstein, Professor Van Helsing’s daughter Lucinda, and a young housemaid named Alice who turns out to have unusual powers of mesmerism.

In this 3rd book, the woman of the Athena Club have just returned from their adventures in Vienna and Budapest (described in book 2, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman) — but there’s no time to rest! Alice and Sherlock Holmes are missing, and there seems to be a terrible plot underway involving evil mesmerists, an Egyptian mummy, and a bunch of powerful, treasonous men who want to overthrow the Queen and purify the British Empire.

Luckily, our band of heroines are on the case, and they go chasing off to Cornwall to rescue their friends, save the Queen, and defeat the bad guys once and for all! It’s all high-spirited fun, with the quips and bickering that the characters seem to love so much.

I thought this was a terrific wrap-up for the trilogy, with heightened adventures and plenty of surprises and adrenaline-rushes. There are perhaps too many characters to keep track of, as the circle of acquaintances grows and grows with each book, but it’s all good fun.

If I had to choose, I’d still say that the first book in the trilogy, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, is really and truly the best, because of the emphasis on the main characters’ origin stories and their creation of a family of their own. But that doesn’t take away from how satisfying the other two books are, or how well all three fit together to create one glorious whole.

If you enjoy sparkling, witty characters in a Victorian setting, with touches of the fantastic and supernatural, then you just must check out the Athena Club books!

Book Review: The Blue Salt Road by Joanne M. Harris

Title: The Blue Salt Road
Author: Joanne M. Harris
Illustrated by: Bonnie Helen Hawkins
Publisher: Gollancz
Publication date: November 15, 2018
Length: 215 pages
Genre: Fantasy/fairy tale
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

An earthly nourris sits and sings
And aye she sings, “Ba lilly wean,
Little ken I my bairn’s father,
Far less the land that he staps in.
(Child Ballad, no. 113)

So begins a stunning tale of love, loss and revenge, against a powerful backdrop of adventure on the high seas, and drama on the land. The Blue Salt Road balances passion and loss, love and violence and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless, wild young man.

Passion drew him to a new world, and trickery has kept him there – without his memories, separated from his own people. But as he finds his way in this dangerous new way of life, so he learns that his notions of home, and your people, might not be as fixed as he believed.

Beautifully illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins, this is a stunning and original modern fairytale.

If you love fairy tales and mystical stories, don’t miss this slim, gorgeous book!

The Blue Salt Road is inspired by one of the Child Ballads, which (according to Wikipedia) are “305 traditional ballads from England and Scotland, and their American variants, anthologized by Francis James Child during the second half of the 19th century. Their lyrics and Child’s studies of them were published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The tunes of most of the ballads were collected and published by Bertrand Harris Bronson in and around the 1960s”.

From The Blue Salt Road

This book, based on Child Ballad #113, is the story of a selkie. The selkies swim the northern seas, but one young selkie is drawn to the land of the Folk, the humans of the nearby island. Meanwhile, Flora, a young woman of the island, yearns for a husband who is a prince, and when she sheds tears into the sea, the selkie comes to her as a human, having hidden his seal skin for safekeeping.

But Flora knows the secrets of the women of her island, and she steals his skin so he’ll forget his life in the sea and stay with her always. And oh, it’s just so sad and awful to see him waking up in this new life of his with no memories, but knowing that he’s a man out of place who’ll never belong.

The book is beautifully written, capturing the loveliness and strangeness of the selkie story as well as the passions and family secrets that Flora, her mother, and her grandmother all keep hidden.

The Blue Salt Road is also beautifully illustrated, with black and white drawings throughout that convey a sense of wonder, magic, and the natural world.

From The Blue Salt Road

This is a quick read, but one to be treasured. I loved The Blue Salt Road, and will cherish my little hardcover edition for years to come!

Book Review: Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald

Title: Time After Time
Author: Lisa Grunwald
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: June 22, 2019
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A magical love story, inspired by the legend of a woman who vanished from Grand Central Terminal, sweeps readers from the 1920s to World War II and beyond.

On a clear December morning in 1937, at the famous gold clock in Grand Central Terminal, Joe Reynolds, a hardworking railroad man from Queens, meets a vibrant young woman who seems mysteriously out of place. Nora Lansing is a Manhattan socialite and an aspiring artist whose flapper clothing, pearl earrings, and talk of the Roaring Twenties don’t seem to match the bleak mood of Depression-era New York. Captivated by Nora from her first electric touch, Joe despairs when he tries to walk her home and she disappears. Finding her again—and again—will become the focus of his love and his life.

As thousands of visitors pass under the famous celestial blue ceiling each day, Joe and Nora create a life of infinite love in a finite space, taking full advantage of the “Terminal City” within a city. But when the construction of another landmark threatens their future, Nora and Joe are forced to test the limits of their freedom–and their love.

This beautiful love story is set at New York’s Grand Central Terminal, and the setting imbues the story with a truly majestic, timeless feel.

Joe Reynolds is a Grand Central leverman, working the intricate switches that move trains from track to track — the train equivalent of an air traffic controller, essentially. As the story opens, it’s 1937, the Great Depression is still having an impact, and Joe is grateful for a steady job.

Then he meets Nora, a beautiful young woman whose clothing is about ten years out of date. As Nora looks around Grand Central and tries to get her bearings, she and Joe strike up a conversation. Sparks fly, but they have different places to be, and they part. A year later, Joe sees Nora again, and their connection snaps right back into place. She’s wearing the same clothes and seems unchanged in every way. The two spend time together, but when Joe tries to walk her home, she disappears.

Thus begins a romance across time, in which Nora reappears over the years. She and Joe fall deeply in love, and start to unravel the mystery of why Nora continues to return, why she can’t seem to leave Grand Central, and how they can possibly be together when Nora’s reality is so different than Joe’s.

Their love story is set against the backdrop of World War II, as New York and the world change and the young men of the generation head off to war. As a leverman, Joe is considered essential to the war effort and is not allowed to enlist, but all around them, they see soldiers departing — some to return wounded, some never to return. Joe faces increasing challenges balancing his obligations to his brother’s family in Queens and his need to spend every possible moment with Nora.

I started this book thinking I’d be reading a time-travel story, and it’s not that — but I don’t want to say more about what the truth is behind Nora’s appearances and disappearances and her strange tether to Grand Central.

The setting is just so perfect. There’s something magnificent about Grand Central, and having it figure so prominently into the storyline of Time After Time is really special.

Joe and Nora are fully developed characters who feel like real people. We get to know their hopes and dreams, their passions and secrets, and understand the obstacles to their love story even while rooting for them to find a way to make it all work.

The ending is bittersweet, and while my inner romantic might have wished for a different outcome, I can’t say that any other possible ending would make quite as much sense.

Time After Time was my book group’s selection for July, and I’m so happy to have read it. This is a beautiful book, and just should not be missed!

Book Review: What You Wish For by Katherine Center

Title: What You Wish For
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From Katherine Center, the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away comes a stunning new novel full of heart and hope.

Samantha Casey loves everything about her job as an elementary school librarian on the sunny, historic island of Galveston, Texas—the goofy kids, the stately Victorian building, the butterfly garden. But when the school suddenly loses its beloved principal, it turns out his replacement will be none other than Duncan Carpenter—a former, unrequited crush of Sam’s from many years before.

When Duncan shows up as her new boss, though, he’s nothing like the sweet teacher she once swooned over. He’s become stiff, and humorless, and obsessed with school safety. Now, with Duncan determined to destroy everything Sam loves about her school in the name of security—and turn it into nothing short of a prison—Sam has to stand up for everyone she cares about before the school that’s become her home is gone for good.

Samantha Casey loves her life on Galveston island. The librarian at a progressive, sunny, creative elementary school, she enjoys her students and her community, and absolutely loves Max and Babette, the school’s founders who have also become a surrogate family to her.

But when Max dies suddenly at his 60th birthday party, he leaves behind a community in chaos. The school’s board of directors, headed by Max and Babette’s horrible son-in-law, announces that he’s bringing in a new principal — and it’s a name from Sam’s past, Duncan Carpenter.

Years earlier, Sam taught at the same school as Duncan, where he was the teacher at the heart of all the fun. Duncan could be counted on to juggle on the playground, wear crazy shirts, institute wacky traditions, and in general act as the chief joy creator at the school. For Sam, the problem was that she was head over heels for Duncan, but as far as she could tell, he was barely aware of her existence. Her unrequited crush on Duncan was what finally prompted her to move away and start over, and life has been good since then.

It’s startling for Sam when Duncan shows up at the start of the school year and is nothing like she remembers. Instead of Hawaiian shirts and crazy ties, he wears a grey three-piece suit, has a respectable hair cut, and seems to care only about the school’s security measures. He deems the colorful murals in the hallways and cafeteria visually distracting, cancels all field trips, and seems intent on turning the school into a grey-walled prison.

Sam and Duncan butt heads from the beginning, but eventually they start to warm up to each other. After Sam helps Duncan home after a medical appointment, the relationship thaws even further, and finally Babette comes up with a challenge, in which Duncan has to do one joyful thing, as assigned by Babette, every day if he wants to keep his job. As he carries out his tasks, his partner ends up being Sam more often than not, and the two grow close despite their personal baggage and misunderstandings.

There’s a lot of good in What You Wish For, so let’s start there. Sam is just a lovely person, and her devotion to helping kids learn and develop a lifelong long of reading is wonderful. She chooses everyday to overcome the darkness of her past and embraces celebration, color, and joy. It’s a wonderful, life-affirming attitude, shared by Babette and Sam’s best friend Alice, and indeed the whole school seems to thrive in this vibrant approach to childhood and being open to experience.

I need to give a special shout-out to Alice, who is amazing. She’s the school math teacher, and wears a different math-themed t-shirt every day, and is just all around fabulous.

Sam’s personal background and the painful experiences she’s carried with her her whole life are well-described and very sympathetic. I won’t give away the details, but suffice it to say that while Sam embodies joyful living, she’s also very much hampered by a sense of fear and shame that keep her from allowing anyone to get too close to her, particularly in a romantic sense.

I did have some issues with this book, so I’ll share those as well. Duncan is so clearly a changed man when he shows up in Galveston, and it’s pretty simple to figure out why. (No spoilers from me, sorry!) When the truth is revealed to Sam, the details are still impactful, but it’s not like it’s a surprise in any way.

The school board’s chair, Kent Buckley, is a man described as someone you always refer to by both first and last name… and really, why? Even his in-laws? It’s just weird. Anyway, he’s awful (as he’s supposed to be), and I couldn’t quite buy that such a wonderful school would allow a jerk like that to pull all the strings and make the big decisions.

I also didn’t really feel Sam and Duncan’s romance. They go from antagonists to friends to more pretty quickly, and while it turns out that he also had feelings for her back in their earlier days teaching together, I’m not sure that I could see them overcoming their differences quite so easily. In any case, they just really don’t have much chemisty, so I wasn’t terribly invested in their relationship.

What You Wish For is a quick read, and while it deals with grief and other serious matters, there’s a sweetness too in the sense of community and the absolutely lovely and supportive way that the school at large forms its own extended family.

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!

Book Review: The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune

Title: The Extraordinaries
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 405 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Some people are extraordinary. Some are just extra. TJ Klune’s YA debut, The Extraordinaries, is a queer coming-of-age story about a fanboy with ADHD and the heroes he loves.

Nick Bell? Not extraordinary. But being the most popular fanfiction writer in the Extraordinaries fandom is a superpower, right?

After a chance encounter with Shadow Star, Nova City’s mightiest hero (and Nick’s biggest crush), Nick sets out to make himself extraordinary. And he’ll do it with or without the reluctant help of Seth Gray, Nick’s best friend (and maybe the love of his life).

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl meets Marissa Meyer’s Renegades in TJ Klune’s YA debut. 

Based on having read two of his books, I can now pretty confidently state that TJ Klune writes books that makes me want to hug them. I loved The House in the Cerulean Sea, which came out earlier this year, and now The Extraordinaries is here, with adorableness galore.

Our hero, Nick Bell, has no superpowers to speak of — unless you count his amazing imagination, his neuro-atypical brain that never slows down, and his ability to screw up no matter his good intentions.

Nick is starting junior year of high school with a promise to his dad to do better. No more getting into trouble. No more disrupting class or showing up late. And he really, really means to live up to that promise, but things have a way of not working out the way he plans.

Nick and his father live in Nova City, where his dad is a hard-working cop on the night shift. They live in the After — the years that have passed since Nick’s mother was killed during a bank robbery. Now it’s just the two of them, and while they love each other very much, it’s just not always easy.

Nova City is also the home of two Extraordinaries — superheroes who swoop in to fight crime and save the day. Shadow Star is the good guy, the masked man whose every move causes people to swoon in awe (and Nick to swoon in lust). Shadow Star’s archnemesis is Pyro Storm, the villain who can create and control fire, blocked from evil deeds by Shadow Star’s ability to manipulate shadows to carry out his will. They engage in epic battles over and around Nova City, but lately, these battles have escalated in their seriousness and the amount of damage left behind. The police chief is determined to put a stop to the havoc caused by these Extraordinaries.

Besides having a huge crush on Shadow Star, Nick writes incredibly popular fanfiction about him, and lives for the idea of meeting him eventually. Meanwhile, he goes to school and spends time with his best friends, who love Nick unconditionally, even when his brain and his tongue get him into trouble again and again. He’s a lot. But he’s theirs, and he’s a good guy (so lovable!), and they have his back no matter what.

Where do I even begin to describe how much I loved this book? It’s delightful and funny, but also surprisingly tender and lovely.

The relationship between Nick and his dad isn’t always smooth, but it is always grounded in love and devotion, and it’s really special to read about. While Aaron, the father, often causes Nick to squirm with his frank talk about sex and other matters, he’s coming from a place of support, and he’s determined to be the parent Nick needs, knowing that the two of them have to stick together through good times and bad.

Nick’s friend group is amazing — each quirky and unique in their own way, and so much fun to read about. Also, all queer and proud, in a no big deal, this is who I am sort of way. Each one of them deserves so many hugs! (Except Gibby might twist your arm if you try to hug her, so watch out. She’s tough.)

The writing is funny and charming, and Nicky especially has great lines. He’s a total smart-ass, even when he doesn’t necessarily intend to be.

The Great Romance of Nick and Owen came to an end as quickly as it started. (“You’re a great guy, Nicky, but I’m a wild animal who can’t be caged.” “Oh my god, you are not!”)

Nick really didn’t understand straight people. They didn’t seem to have any sense of self-preservation.

He wasn’t very adept when it came to comforting people he’d made out with. Or, at least, that appeared to be the case. He’d never made out with anyone else. He wondered if he needed to find someone else to make out with and then have them talk about their damaged relationship with their family to make sure.

Nick wondered if it were possible to disappear into the floor. He tapped his foot against it. Solid as always.

Nick groaned. “This sucks. Not only am I the comedic relief/love interest, I’m also the clueless comedic relief/love interest who is a pawn in a game I didn’t even realize was being played. God, my life is so cliche.

I feel like I could go on and on about how awesome this book is, or spend another 10,000 words or so just picking random paragraphs from the book to prove to you how fantastic and whimsical and hilarious and touching the writing is.

But let’s leave it at this: Nick is a damaged, imperfect guy living in a superhero world, and he’s extraordinary in his own ordinary way. I love him bunches and bunches, and I’m thrilled to know that The Extraordinaries is apparently the first book in a trilogy. I will absolutely read more about these characters and this world, and wish I didn’t have to wait for 2021 for the next installment.

Meanwhile, I’m clearly going to need to start working my way through TJ Klune’s backlist, pronto.

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.

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

Title: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #2)
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: July 10, 2018
Print length: 736 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the rest of the daughters of literature’s mad scientists embark on a madcap adventure across Europe to rescue another monstrous girl and stop the Alchemical Society’s nefarious plans once and for all.

Mary Jekyll’s life has been peaceful since she helped Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the Whitechapel Murders. Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Mary’s sister Diana Hyde have settled into the Jekyll household in London, and although they sometimes quarrel, the members of the Athena Club get along as well as any five young women with very different personalities. At least they can always rely on Mrs. Poole.

But when Mary receives a telegram that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, the Athena Club must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue yet another young woman who has been subjected to horrific experimentation. Where is Lucinda, and what has Professor Van Helsing been doing to his daughter? Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, and Justine reach her in time?

Racing against the clock to save Lucinda from certain doom, the Athena Club embarks on a madcap journey across Europe. From Paris to Vienna to Budapest, Mary and her friends must make new allies, face old enemies, and finally confront the fearsome, secretive Alchemical Society. It’s time for these monstrous gentlewomen to overcome the past and create their own destinies. 

Oh, what fun! One of my most enjoyable reads this past year was The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, book one in the Athena Club trilogy. In it, we met the daughters of famous men — men who conducted monstrous experiments in the name of science, and left behind daughters bearing the scars of their work.

In book #2, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, this found family of heroic women is at it again. They’ve banded together to form a home and a family, finding happiness and belonging that they’ve never had elsewhere. A plea for help from Mary Jekyll’s former governess, Mina Murray, sets the plot in motion. A young woman named Lucinda Van Helsing is missing, and her father, Dr. Van Helsing, is suspected of being in league with the nefarious Society of Alchemists.

This kicks off the Athena Club’s next adventure, as they head to Vienna and then Budapest to rescue Lucinda and reveal the terrible conspiracies at the heart of the Society of Alchemists.

Along the way, there’s travel aboard the Orient Express, a meeting with Irene Adler (of Sherlock Holmes fame), circus performances, a battle with vampires, and a break-in/break-out from an asylum.

Our heroes show the pluck and bravery that make them so special, whether it’s the careful planning of Mary, or Beatrice’s special brand of poison, or Catherine’s claws, or Justine’s strength and moral fiber, they work well together while pursuing the cause of justice and freedom for the victims and survivors of the mad scientists.

I love how author Theodora Goss turns these famous stories on their heads. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may have been published as a novel, but the Athena Club understands that it’s a true story, with Justine Frankenstein as living proof. Count Dracula makes a memorable appearance, but he’s not at all the person you’d expect. Sherlock Holmes is one of Mary’s mentors, but he only appears in the beginning parts of the story — it’s Irene Adler whose wits and abilities get a chance to shine.

My only quibble with European Travels is the length. At 700+ pages, it’s a bit of a daunting reading experience, and since the book itself is divided into two parts, perhaps it would have been better as two separate books. I think I might have enjoyed it more if I’d taken a break in between parts I & II — unfortunately, a little reading fatigue set in, so by the end, I was slightly less engaged, and I think that’s due to the size of the book — because the plot itself is exciting and creative throughout.

That’s really just a minor complaint. This book is definitely worth the time and effort!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how funny the characters can be. Young Diana Hyde is a bratty, brave teen with no manners, and she can be counted on to disrupt any serious moment by acting out in some outrageous fashion or another. Plus, the writing is just so much fun. The story we’re reading is meant to be Catherine Moreau’s novelization of the Athena Club’s adventures — and at regular intervals, her narrative is interrupted by the other characters adding their own opinions and criticisms of Catherine’s version of events. It’s clever and silly and just so delightful.

As a whole, I loved this book, and I love the series so far. With dynamic, strong, quirky characters and a plot full of intrigue and action, it’s a truly compelling read.

Can’t wait to dive into the third and final book, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl!