Book Review: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: July 19, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic and Velvet Was the Night comes a lavish historical drama reimagining of The Island of Doctor Moreau set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Mexico.

Carlota Moreau: a young woman, growing up in a distant and luxuriant estate, safe from the conflict and strife of the Yucatán peninsula. The only daughter of either a genius, or a madman.

Montgomery Laughton: a melancholic overseer with a tragic past and a propensity for alcohol. An outcast who assists Dr. Moreau with his scientific experiments, which are financed by the Lizaldes, owners of magnificent haciendas and plentiful coffers.

The hybrids: the fruits of the Doctor’s labor, destined to blindly obey their creator and remain in the shadows. A motley group of part human, part animal monstrosities.

All of them living in a perfectly balanced and static world, which is jolted by the abrupt arrival of Eduardo Lizalde, the charming and careless son of Doctor Moreau’s patron, who will unwittingly begin a dangerous chain reaction.

For Moreau keeps secrets, Carlota has questions, and in the sweltering heat of the jungle, passions may ignite.

THE DAUGHTER OF DOCTOR MOREAU is both a dazzling historical novel and a daring science fiction journey.

Doctor Moreau is certainly having a moment!

Originally introduced in the sci-fi classic The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells, published in 1896, this character has remained in the public imagination ever since, as shown by movie adaptations across the years as well as more recent novels that put various spins on the original story. (See my links/notes at the end of this post for more).

In the original, Doctor Moreau works on a remote island, where he uses the practice of vivisection to surgically transform animals into humans. Here in The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, the story is set in the Yucatan, against a backdrop of a Mayan uprising against the colonial landowners.

The main characters are Carlota, the doctor’s daughter, and Montgomery, the new majordomo of the estate, a broken man who drinks to forget, but develops a strong loyalty to both Dr. Moreau and his unusual, beautiful daughter.

Through their shifting perspectives, we follow Carlota over the years as she grows from a young teen to a young woman, obedient to her father and dedicated to caring for the hybrids, whom she sees as family rather than as creations.

Despite the estate’s isolated location, the outside world intrudes, precipitating events that endanger the hybrids and Carlota herself. Secrets are revealed, and Carlota and Montgomery are forced into a battle for survival.

While there are interesting twists to this interpretation of the Doctor Moreau story, I did not find myself particularly absorbed or invested in the story. The narrative feels very episodic and exposition-heavy, and while I enjoyed the descriptions of the natural world of the Yucatan, the characters and the plot did not pull me in to any great extent.

The hybrids remain mostly in the background — unfortunately, since they’re the most interesting part of the story — and Carlota’s secrets, when finally shared, didn’t surprise me at all.

After a very slow start, the book takes a turn for the better and picks up the pace by the mid-point, but overall, for reasons I can’t quite define, I always felt at arms-length from the characters and the story. I wasn’t bored exactly, but I also felt that I could have put the book down and walked away at any point without experiencing much curiosity about the rest of the story. Despite the potential of the overarching story, this book felt a little too flat for me, which was disappointing.

As for Doctor Moreau having a moment — I’ve read two other books in the past couple of years that use The Island of Doctor Moreau as a jumping-off point:

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss is the first book in a very creative YA trilogy, which stars the daughters of famous (fictional) scientists as the central characters — including a very different version of a daughter of Doctor Moreau.

And for something truly different, bizarre, and totally amazing, there’s The Album of Doctor Moreau by Daryl Gregory, which centers on a pop music boy band made up of animal/human hybrids. It’s so weird… and I loved it.

Audiobook Review: The Comeback by Lily Chu

Title: The Comeback
Author: Lily Chu
Narrator: Phillipa Soo
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: July 14, 2022
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 12 hours 14 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Audible download
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Who is Ariadne Hui?

• Laser-focused lawyer diligently climbing the corporate ladder
• The “perfect” daughter living out her father’s dream
• Shocking love interest of South Korea’s hottest star

Ariadne Hui thrives on routine. So what if everything in her life is planned down to the minute: That’s the way she likes it. If she’s going to make partner in Toronto’s most prestigious law firm, she needs to stay focused at all times.

But when she comes home after yet another soul-sucking day to find an unfamiliar, gorgeous man camped out in her living room, focus is the last thing on her mind. Especially when her roommate explains this is Choi Jihoon, her cousin freshly arrived from Seoul to mend a broken heart. He just needs a few weeks to rest and heal; Ari will barely even know he’s there. (Yeah, right.)

Jihoon is kindness and chaos personified, and it isn’t long before she’s falling, hard. But when one wrong step leads to a world-shaking truth, Ari finds herself thrust onto the world stage: not as the competent, steely lawyer she’s fought so hard to become, but as the mystery woman on the arm of a man the entire world claims to know. Now with her heart, her future, and her sense of self on the line, Ari will have to cut through all the pretty lies to find the truth of her relationship…and discover the Ariadne Hui she’s finally ready to be.

I enjoyed last year’s The Stand-In, Lily Chu’s debut, released an Audible Original (and later, as a paperback) — so when I saw that a new Audible novel was being released this year by the same author, and once again with the amazing Phillipa Soo as narrator, naturally I had to grab it! \

The new book, The Comeback, brings some of The Stand-In‘s elements to a fresh story. Once again, we have an ordinary Canadian woman who ends up in the ultimate wish-fulfillment scenario of finding love with one of the world’s biggest stars — in this case, a K-pop idol.

Ariadne is a work-obsessed lawyer whose sole focus is making partner with her conservative, almost-all-white law firm. (She’s dismayed to overhear a coworker describe her as the firm’s “diversity hire”). Ariadne is Canadian born and of Chinese descent, but she constantly finds herself having to explain where she’s from and that no, she doesn’t speak Chinese and was actually born in Toronto. Her father, also a lawyer, is overly invested in Ari’s career and sends her link to business articles on how to impress the boss and how to get ahead.

Ari tells herself that she’s fine and happy. So what if she never actually takes any of the amazing vacations she fantasizes about? Making partner is all that matters!

Or so she thinks… until her orderly life is disrupted when she comes home to find a strange man in her apartment. After a comical misunderstanding (kitchen knives are involvled), she learns that this is Jihoon, her roommate Hannah’s cousin from Korea, who just needs a place to get away and be quiet for a while after a bad break-up. He seems nice enough, and Hannah is her best friend, so Ari agrees, so long as she can keep working around the clock.

But Jihoon is hard not to notice, from the expensive skincare products spread out all over her bathroom counters to the ramen in her kitchen, and their brief daily encounters turn into texting GIFs, sharing food, and eventually, exploring Toronto together. And the more time Ari spends with him, the more they seem to connect. Okay, yes, he’s super hot, but he’s also kind, intelligent, supportive, and interested in Ari in a way no one else has ever been.

Their time together is cut short, first by the early return of Hannah, and then by the arrival of two of Jihoon’s friends, come to bring him home. They’re not just any friends, though — they’re two of the five members of the enormously huge K-pop group Star Loon (Star Lune? Starloon? Can’t tell from listening to an audiobook!). And guess what? It turns out Jihoon is actually their lead singer, stage name Min, whose video Ari had just watched a few days earlier.

Ari is devastated by Jihoon’s lies (lies of omission still count, especially when the truth he hid is “oh, by the way, I’m an idol with millions of obsessed fans”). Although on the verge of falling in love (who is she kidding? she’s already fallen!), Ari is terrified by Jihoon’s fame and lack of privacy, and breaks off their growing relationship as he departs for Korea.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there, and we get to see what happens when Ari travels to Seoul for a work trip, reunites with Jihoon, attends a VIP Starlune concert, and eventually, gets spotted in an intimate moment with Jihoon. Can their love survive her “outing”, especially when “Starries” brand her a “sasaeng” (stalker/obsessed fan)?

This may all sound rather silly, but it’s actually got quite a bit of emotion and thoughtfulness, and is a very engaging, absorbing listen. Ariadne is a wonderful main character, talented and smart, obviously, but with plenty of blind spots. Her single focus on work keeps her from examining just why she wants so badly to please her father, why she’s never reconciled with her free-spirited older sister, and why she wants a career in law in the first place. Once she opens herself up to love and all the messy emotions that go with it, she starts to see how many limits she’s imposed on her own life through her strict devotion to meeting other people’s expectations, and it actually starts to free her enough to consider what she really wants out of life and how she wants to live.

Jihoon is, perhaps, too good to be true. Because yes, he’s a pop idol with his face on everything from cereal boxes to bottled water, and a video of him taking a nap for five minutes has millions of views, but he’s really just a nice, sensitive guy who wants to experience true connection with someone real. He loves his bandmates and his fans and appreciates all of the advantages he’s gotten from becoming an idol, and yet he also yearns to write the music that matters to him, and to spend time with a woman who loves him for himself, not for his manufactured image.

The Comeback is sweet and entertaining, and even thought-provoking. We can dream of a gorgeous celebrity falling for us, but would we really want the constant surveillance and online criticism (which is putting it mildly) that goes with it? Ari’s dilemma and heartache feel real, because yes, she’s fallen for this man, but she’s nowhere near sure she can handle the demands of his public life — not to mention the public shaming that seems headed her way once the company that controls Starlune gets involved in managing the messaging.

As with The Stand-In, the audiobook narration is a treat. Phillipa Soo is terrific voicing Ariadne, and captures the other characters really well too. I have the same complaint here that I did with the previous book, however — this is a first-person story, and in scenes with dialogue, it can be very difficult to tell whether Ari is saying something out loud or whether certain lines are asides that she’s thinking to herself. I’ve heard narrators who’ve managed to change up the delivery/intonation enough to make it clear, but here, it can be confusing, and there’s not always enough context to tell the difference.

Other than that, though, the audiobook is delightful. This is not a heavy story by any means, but it definitely kept my attention — enough that I found myself driving the longer way to my destinations just to get a few more minutes of listening time into my day!

PS – I am not a K-pop fan… but after listening to The Comeback, I think I may need to expand my horizons!

PPS – If you’re as ignorant of K-pop culture as I am (was), check out some basics:

Kpop Idol – Life and Career of Korean Music Artists
2022’s Top K-Pop Artists
50 Most Liked Kpop Videos of 2022

Enjoy!



Book Review: Upgrade by Blake Crouch

Title: Upgrade
Author: Blake Crouch
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: July 12, 2022
Print length: 352 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The mind-blowing new thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of Dark Matter and Recursion

“You are the next step in human evolution.”

At first, Logan Ramsay isn’t sure if anything’s different. He just feels a little . . . sharper. Better able to concentrate. Better at multitasking. Reading a bit faster, memorizing better, needing less sleep.

But before long, he can’t deny it: Something’s happening to his brain. To his body. He’s starting to see the world, and those around him—even those he loves most—in whole new ways.

The truth is, Logan’s genome has been hacked. And there’s a reason he’s been targeted for this upgrade. A reason that goes back decades to the darkest part of his past, and a horrific family legacy.

Worse still, what’s happening to him is just the first step in a much larger plan, one that will inflict the same changes on humanity at large—at a terrifying cost.

Because of his new abilities, Logan’s the one person in the world capable of stopping what’s been set in motion. But to have a chance at winning this war, he’ll have to become something other than himself. Maybe even something other than human.

And even as he’s fighting, he can’t help wondering: what if humanity’s only hope for a future really does lie in engineering our own evolution?

Intimate in scale yet epic in scope, Upgrade is an intricately plotted, lightning-fast tale that charts one man’s thrilling transformation, even as it asks us to ponder the limits of our humanity—and our boundless potential. 

Upgrade is a fast-paced science fiction tale set in a not-too-distant future, in which genetic engineering is tightly controlled after the global disaster known as the Great Starvation. Logan Ramsay, once an aspiring genetic engineer, is now an agent with the GPA (Gene Protection Agency), whose mission is to stop illegal gene tinkering and prevent the next genetic disaster.

Logan is also the son of the brilliant scientist whose genetic enhancements inadvertently caused the Great Starvation. His family heritage haunts him, and while the raids and arrests he participates in make him physically ill at times, he sees he work as a penance for his mother’s legacy.

But after a raid gone bad, during which Logan was injured, he begins to feel… not himself. At first, he’s not sure, but eventually, the intense body aches, combined with the undeniable increase in his mental capacity, lead him to suspect that someone or something has tinkered with his genomes.

Things only get more terrifying, as he’s whisked away to a GPA black site for study and interrogation. At first, he’s suspected of self-editing, but even once this is shown not to be the case, the questions are enormous: What exactly was done to Logan? By whom? And the biggest question of all — why?

The action becomes intensely suspenseful, as Logan must evade capture, discover the mystery of his enhanced genetic make-up, and figure out how to stay alive when someone close to him ends up on the opposite side of his mission.

Blake Crouch excels at creating terrifyingly plausible worlds and memorable characters (as in Recursion and Dark Matter), and Upgrade is yet another scarily tangible story. The world in Upgrade is within a century of complete disaster. Humanity faces extinction, not at some far off point in the future that scares those paying attention but can otherwise be ignored, but within a few generations’ lifespans. And yet, people still don’t seem to be mobilized to do anything about the looming catastrophe. As the characters note:

One child dies in a well, the world watches and weeps. But as the number of victims increases, our compassion tends to diminish. At the highest number of casualties — wars, tsunamis, acts of terror — the dead become faceless statistics.

Simply put, humankind can’t internalize and comprehend the scale of loss that looms, and therefore, can’t be made to care enough to do something about it.

While Upgrade is clearly set farther in the future than our own reality, the scenario depicted seems frighteningly possible. Climate change and out-of-control genetic manipulations are driving forces behind Upgrade‘s awful world situation, but neither are unimaginable.

I found myself on the edge of my seat while reading this book, invested in Logan as a person (and oh, how he suffers!) as well as in the action-adventure elements and the futuristic fate of the world. While the science terminology sometimes went completely over my head, I could understand it enough to be both scared and fascinated.

Upgrade is a terrific race against time as well as a cautionary tale, and an altogether exciting and unputdownable read. Don’t miss it!

Book Review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (Classics Club Spin #30)

Title: Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: 1945
Length: 181 pages
Genre: Fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Cannery Row is a book without much of a plot. Rather, it is an attempt to capture the feeling and people of a place, the cannery district of Monterey, California, which is populated by a mix of those down on their luck and those who choose for other reasons not to live “up the hill” in the more respectable area of town. The flow of the main plot is frequently interrupted by short vignettes that introduce us to various denizens of the Row, most of whom are not directly connected with the central story. These vignettes are often characterized by direct or indirect reference to extreme violence: suicides, corpses, and the cruelty of the natural world.

The “story” of Cannery Row follows the adventures of Mack and the boys, a group of unemployed yet resourceful men who inhabit a converted fish-meal shack on the edge of a vacant lot down on the Row.

Cannery Row is my summer 2022 Classics Club Spin book, and I’ll admit that I felt a bit ambivalent when my spin landed on this book. I’ve had a copy of Cannery Row on my shelf for a few years now and have been wanting to read more Steinbeck, but meanwhile, my book group read Tortilla Flat last year, and that seemed like enough for the time being!

Still, once I got started, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Steinbeck’s descriptions and unique way with words.

In Cannery Row, as the synopsis above states, there really isn’t much of a plot. Instead, it’s a series of vignettes and moments that capture the spirit of a time and place. As the author explains in the very first passage of the books:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.

I read that first line, and I was hooked!

It continues:

Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories, and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

If there is a main character in Cannery Row, I suppose it might be Mack:

Mack was the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.

A less generous writer might describe Mack and his group as bums, but Steinbeck instead presents them as well-intentioned pranksters whose endeavors usually go sideways, but who never mean anyone any harm. They drink and go on adventures, and are admirers of Doc, who runs Western Biological, the laboratory and business where he collects, studies, and sells the specimens he finds along the shores and in the tidepools of Monterey Bay and beyond.

Others in the neighborhood include the Bear Flag Restaurant, which is actually a popular brothel run by the kind madam Dora, and Lee Chong’s store, where pretty much anything can be found at any time of year. Then there’s the couple who turned an abandoned cannery boiler in a vacant lot into a makeshift house, and then became landlords by renting out the random pipes on the lot as sleeping shelters for the various men needing a roof over their heads.

The characters interact through business deals and random conversations and unbalanced bargains. An ongoing thread in the book is Mack’s desire to throw a party for Doc to show him how much he and the boys appreciate him. Let’s just say that it does not go as planned — before the night is out, much of Doc’s home and lab is destroyed, and there are frogs everywhere! The gang’s search for frogs is another very funny saga, and even results in a brand-new Cannery Row economy based on the value of frog futures.

Of course, some pieces of Steinbeck’s writing don’t age well. He uses racial terms that would be unacceptable today (“Wops and Chinamen and Polaks”), although to be fair, I think he’s attempting to describe the variety of the people of Monterey — he isn’t being derogatory (although I was uncomfortable with how he writes Lee Chong’s dialogue; perhaps not considered out-of-bounds in the 1940s, but certainly not okay today).

I do love Steinbeck’s writing. He can be beautifully descriptive, and also terribly funny just by virtue of the words he uses:

He can kill anything for need but he could not even hurt a feeling for pleasure.

Describing a changing moment in a tidepool:

A wave breaks over the barrier, and churns the glassy water for a moment and mixes bubbles into the pool, and then it clears and is tranquil and lovely and murderous again.

Small moments made me laugh:

“Henri loves boats but he’s afraid of the ocean.”

“What’s he want a boat for then?” Hazel demanded.

“He likes boats,” said Doc. “But suppose he finishes his boat. Once it’s finished people will say, ‘Why don’t you put it in the water?’ Then if he puts it in the water, he’ll have to go out in it, and he hates the water. So you see, he never finishes the boat — so he doesn’t ever have to launch it.”

And then there’s the time when Mack and the boys manage to restore an old truck just enough to get it running, but with small problems, like the fact that it can only make it up a hill if they go in reverse.

I am truly glad that I read Cannery Row, and I so appreciate the Classics Club Spin challenge that got me to finally take the book off the shelf and give it a try.

I would like to read more by John Steinbeck in the future. So far, besides Cannery Row, I’ve read East of Eden and Of Mice and Men (both very, very long ago) and Tortilla Flat, and I know I should read The Grapes of Wrath at some point too.

Do you have any favorite Steinbeck books? Please let me know if you have recommendations!

Today’s Cannery Row in Monterey

Who knew? There was a movie of Cannery Row released in the 1980s!

Book Review: Heat Wave (The Extraordinaries, #3) by TJ Klune

Title: Heat Wave (The Extraordinaries, #3)
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 19, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Heat Wave is the explosive finale to the thrilling Extraordinaries trilogy by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author TJ Klune!

Nick, Seth, Gibby, and Jazz are back in action bringing justice, protection, and disaster energy to the people of Nova City.

An unexpected hero returns to Nova City and crash lands into Nick’s home, upturning his life, his family, and his understanding of what it means to be a hero in the explosive finale of the thrilling and hilarious Extraordinaries trilogy by New York Times bestselling author TJ Klune.

This series! This book! These characters! At this point, I love the characters so much that I just want to tuck them all away somewhere safe and shower them with love and ice cream. THEY ARE SO ADORABLE AND AMAZING.

Heat Wave, the 3rd and final book in the Extraordinaries trilogy, opens as a hot summer rolls through Nova City. The main characters are on summer break, hanging out, fighting crime… you know, like kids do! But it doesn’t take very long before something starts to seem just a little bit off. I won’t say what, but at first it was just a nagging little “huh?’ voice in my head, which soon escalate to full-on shouts of WTF?

Never fear, it all makes sense eventually. Our gang – the incredibly lovely and awesome and over the top Nicky, his true love Seth, and their best friends (who are also deeply in love) Gibby and Jazz — continue their Extraordinary activities as, respectively, superheroes Guardian and PyroStorm, with Gibby and Jazz as their tech support and secret lair gurus, aka Lighthouse. Also involved are the various parental units of our four teens, and the parents are equal measures supportive, loving, and totally embarrassing. (Oh, the Dad jokes! These people are just so much).

I really don’t want to say too much about the plot. There’s action, adventure, danger, and telekinetic and fire-power heroics! There are also bad guys who are very, very bad and very, very powerful. Plus, a mayoral election that’s truly a battle for the heart and soul of Nova City, and a police reckoning that’s very much a reflection of today’s real-world society.

I need to stop and mention that Nick and his dad Aaron have THE BEST father-son dynamic I’ve ever witnessed. Aaron is excruciatingly in Nick’s face in the most cringe-y ways, and it’s so clearly coming from a place of unconditional support and love that you want to stand up and shout “YES!” whenever they have a scene together. This book does also include the most cringe-worthy Nick and Aaron scene of the entire series. Suffice it to say that Aaron loves his gay son and wants him to be fully informed, prepared, and safe when it comes to moving things forward with Seth. I kind of wanted to die of embarrassment reading this scene, and at the same, I couldn’t help thinking how absolutely affirming it might be for gay teens who need that kind of open information and communication in their own lives.

Likewise, Seth and Nicky’s physical relationship moves forward, and the author does not shy away from the details… but it’s not at all gratuitous. Again, all I could think was that there are probably teen readers who really need to see a healthy, loving, consensual relationship depicted in such a positive way, and I hope this book finds its way to those who need it.

But anyway… even putting aside how amazing all of the above is, this is just a GOOD STORY. The action zips along, there are some astonishing surprises and big reveals, and a major blam-pow-kabam superhero battle to finish it all off. (Also, there’s the introduction of a new character named Burrito Jerry, and he’s pretty amazing, so there’s that too.)

The book’s epilogue ties up the story and gives us a flash forward into the characters’ lives several years down the road, and while it’s a little disconcerting to see them all as adults, it’s also wonderful. And yes, the conclusion is quite definitely a conclusion… but I’d pay oodles to get to spend more time with Nicky, Seth, Gibby and Jazz! I’m sure they’re all going to go on to lead fabulous, fascinating lives, and I just wish we could see it!

As always, the writing in Heat Wave is smart and funny, and I’ll wrap up this big gushy love letter to The Extraordinaries trilogy by sharing some favorite bits and pieces:

“We’re queer. We walk fast because of our survival instinct.”

He snorted. “Okay, that was funny in a really sad way. I feel bad for the heteros. They wanted us to run from them, and so we did, and now we evolved to be much quicker than they are. They really don’t get anything aside from having all the rights they could ever ask for.”

If he’d known how much worse it was about to get, Nick would’ve probably fled the house, moved to Canada, and spent the rest of his days living in a cabin while making maple syrup, or whatever it was Canadians did aside from being pleasant and supportive, most likely because they enjoyed the benefits of universal healthcare.

Owen had been Nick’s first… well. Almost first everything. First kiss. First sort-of boyfriend. First breakup. First (and so far only) former flame who’d turned into a villain and had tried to kill them.

You never forgot your first.

“I’m supposed to be in a romantic comedy, not a horror movie!” Nick cried as the blade wiggled from side to side as if it was stuck…

But before Nick could be dragged away he leaned forward, knowing he’d never get the chance again to have this many people listening to him. “Queer rights!” he shouted. “Down with the patriarchy! Defund the police! Support fanfic writers!”

“We’re going to hug you, but then we’re going to yell at you. It’s going to be very loud, but you will sit there and take it.”

I’m tearing up just thinking about these characters and their lives and how amazing they are. I can’t believe the story is over!

The 3rd book, and the trilogy as a whole, get five glittery stars!

Audiobook Review: The No-Show by Beth O’Leary

Title: The No-Show
Author: Beth O’Leary
Narrators:  Evanna Lynch , Heather Long , Kathryn Drysdale , Luke Thompson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: April 12, 2022
Print length: 352 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 47 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Siobhan is a quick-tempered life coach with way too much on her plate. Miranda is a tree surgeon used to being treated as just one of the guys on the job. Jane is a soft-spoken volunteer for the local charity shop with zero sense of self-worth.

These three women are strangers who have only one thing in common: They’ve all been stood up on the same day, the very worst day to be stood up–Valentine’s Day. And, unbeknownst to them, they’ve all been stood up by the same man.

Once they’ve each forgiven him for standing them up, they let him back into their lives and are in serious danger of falling in love with a man who seems to have not just one or two but three women on the go….

Is there more to him than meets the eye? And will they each untangle the truth before they all get their hearts broken?

Three women who seemingly have nothing in common find that they’re involved with the same man in this smart new rom-com by Beth O’Leary, bestselling author of The Flatshare.

It’s going to be hard to talk about The No-Show without giving away too much — but let me offer this caution up front: This book is delicious, and really and truly, you should avoid reading reviews that go into details. Trust me — not knowing is what’s in store is key to appreciating how great this story is.

As the book opens, we meet three women who have all been stood up by Joseph Carter: Siobhan waited for him for a breakfast date; Miranda sat at a restaurant way longer than she should have waiting for him to show up for lunch; and Jane ended up abandoned at an engagement party he’d promised to be her “friend date” for.

And all I could think through these initial chapters was: What a jerk! Who is this guy who (a) is dating three woman simultaneously and (b) is so rude and inconsiderate that he no-shows on all three of them?

There’s more to the story, of course. As the plot moves forward, told through chapters that alternate between Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane, we learn more about Joseph’s involvement with each woman — how they met, how their relationships developed, what their big challenges are. At the same time, we get to know each of these three women, and get to see how fabulous they are.

All quite different, Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane have distinct personalities and very different lives. Jane is perhaps the hardest to get a handle on — she’s scared and shy and completely lacking in self-esteem when we meet her, and it’s hard for us (and Joseph) to get past her protective shell to see the person she is inside.

Connections between the different characters’ worlds become apparent as the story unfolds. And just when I thought I had it all figured out (feeling rather self-satisfied, to be honest), it turns out that I didn’t. Beth O’Leary pulled the rug out from under me in an amazing way — and I love when fiction surprises me like that, giving me something that I didn’t see coming, but that completely fits and makes sense.

So… I absolutely refuse to give anything away about the plot, but let me just say that Joseph is not the jerk I initially suspected him of being, and that everything will eventually make sense!

I love the writing, the character development, and the fresh take on strong women who feel deeply and have interesting lives. The characters are all terrific, and for the audiobook, different narrators take the different characters’ chapters. The voices and delivery really suit each of the characters, and the whole story flows quickly and really works.

I was completely engaged, and as often happens with good audiobooks, I found myself dying for my next car ride or walk so I’d have an excuse to listen more! The audiobook even brought me to tears (but fortunately, I was alone in my car at the time, so managed to avoid public embarrassment over the waterworks).

Based on its cover, The No-Show seems like it should be a light, silly story, but really, it’s so much more than that. This book has light, romantic moments, but also deeply felt emotions, sorrow, and struggles, and really well told character arcs as well.

Definitely one of my favorite books of summer 2022!

Book Review: Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey

Title: Just Like Home
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: July 19, 2022
Print length: 352 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Come home.” Vera’s mother called and Vera obeyed. In spite of their long estrangement, in spite of the memories — she’s come back to the home of a serial killer. Back to face the love she had for her father and the bodies he buried there.

Coming home is hard enough for Vera, and to make things worse, she and her mother aren’t alone. A parasitic artist has moved into the guest house out back, and is slowly stripping Vera’s childhood for spare parts. He insists that he isn’t the one leaving notes around the house in her father’s handwriting… but who else could it possibly be?

There are secrets yet undiscovered in the foundations of the notorious Crowder House. Vera must face them, and find out for herself just how deep the rot goes.

Sarah Gailey’s books are always a little bit out-there, full of surprises and strange situations and characters who take some time to truly “get.” Just Like Home, though, is the first book I’ve ready by them that I’d describe as flat-out creepy… and occasionally pretty gross. Still a great read though!

In Just Like Home, Vera returns to her family home after many years away, summoned by her dying mother Daphne to clean out the house in preparation for her death.

It was the house her father built, and she needed to treat it right.

Daphne is in terrible condition, unable to eat and living on lemonade alone, bedridden, oozing and menacing and strange. Vera and Daphne haven’t seen each other in over a decade, and there’s years-worth of animosity to unpack and tiptoe around.

“I think you have to know someone in order to truly love them, and you have to love someone in order to really hate them. There’s the thin hate we have for strangers. […] And then there’s the thick, true, smothering hate we have for those we know best. And that, Vera-baby, that’s what I had for you. That’s what bubbled up in me and stuck.

The house itself is disturbing, full of dark spaces that connect one to another. And why is the basement door, right next to Vera’s old bedroom door, always locked?

As the book reveals, Vera’s beloved father is the renowned serial killer Francis Crowder, who died in prison several years after his arrest and incarceration. The basement was his murder lair, where he’d chain up his victims and drain them of the “grease” that had built up inside them, turning them corrupt and evil from the inside out. Crowder House is an infamous location, popular with murder tourists and a string of artists who pay Daphne for access, trying to feed their artistic muses on the misery left behind in the house.

But when Vera returns, many of her memories center around Francis. He may have been a serial killer, but to Vera, he was her sole source of love, connection, and nurturing during her childhood. One of the more shocking aspects of Just Like Home is the carefully built portrayal of a daughter who loves everything about her father, even his most terrible deeds.

“I watched you eat up his love like a crab eating a seafloor corpse, one pinch at a time.”

The wording choices throughout the book emphasize the creepy, scary nature of Crowder House as well as how much Vera is not okay.

Vera could feel the question of who would speak next filling up the room like mustard gas in a trench.

At the beginning, she seems like a survivor, someone who’s lived through a horrific childhood but is more or less “normal”. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Vera is not at all well-adjusted, that her worldview is absolutely dependent on the lessons she learned from her parents, and that her driving motivations and needs are not about moving forward or leaving the past behind her.

There was so much, she was sure, that he’d meant to teach her. Surely he’d seen something of himself in her, something that deserved to be loved and nurtured.

The horror elements become more explicit toward the end of the book, including a supernatural element that I was initially taken aback by, but ultimately found pretty darned cool, actually. The ending is twisted, and I’m not sure I totally get exactly what happened… but it was fascinating and disturbing to read, and I just couldn’t look away.

Just Like Home tells a story of twisted love and the power of home. It’s odd and scary and horrible in so many ways, yet utterly compelling too. If you enjoy chilling reads, check this one out.

Book Review: The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate

Title: The Book of Lost Friends
Author: Lisa Wingate
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication date: April 7, 2020
Print length: 388 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A new novel inspired by historical events: a story of three young women on a journey in search of family amidst the destruction of the post-Civil War South, and of a modern-day teacher who rediscovers their story and its connection to her own students’ lives.

Lisa Wingate brings to life stories from actual “Lost Friends” advertisements that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, as freed slaves desperately searched for loved ones who had been sold off.

Louisiana, 1875 In the tumultuous aftermath of Reconstruction, three young women set off as unwilling companions on a perilous quest: Lavinia, the pampered heir to a now-destitute plantation; Juneau Jane, her illegitimate free-born Creole half-sister; and Hannie, Lavinia’s former slave. Each carries private wounds and powerful secrets as they head for Texas, following dangerous roads rife with ruthless vigilantes and soldiers still fighting a war lost a decade before. For Lavinia and Juneau Jane, the journey is one of inheritance and financial desperation, but for Hannie, torn from her mother and eight siblings before slavery’s end, the pilgrimage westward reignites an agonizing question: Could her long-lost family still be out there? Beyond the swamps lie the seemingly limitless frontiers of Texas and, improbably, hope.

Louisiana, 1987 For first-year teacher Benedetta Silva, a subsidized job at a poor rural school seems like the ticket to canceling her hefty student debt–until she lands in a tiny, out-of-step Mississippi River town. Augustine, Louisiana, seems suspicious of new ideas and new people, and Benny can scarcely comprehend the lives of her poverty-stricken students. But amid the gnarled oaks and run-down plantation homes lies the century-old history of three young women, a long-ago journey, and a hidden book that could change everything.

After reading and enjoying this author’s previous novel (Before We Were Yours), I was excited to get an ARC of The Book of Lost Friends… and yet I left it unread until now, somehow never quite feeling in the mood to get started. So, I was glad when my book group chose The Book of Lost Friends as our July 2022 Book of the Month — finally, a commitment to get me motivated!

Unfortunately, while I finished the book, I can’t say that I loved it. In fact, I’ve been wavering between rating this one 2.5 or 3 stars.

The narrative alternates between a historical timeline set in 1875 and a more modern timeline set in 1987. Both stories are situated in Augustine, Louisiana, and in both timelines, the Gossett family is at the center of the community.

In 1875, the Gossett plantation has been transformed post-war into sharecropper properties, still dominated by the plantation’s former mistress, who seems determined to undermine and cheat the formerly enslaved people now working to secure their own land. Her husband has disappeared to Texas in search of his wayward son, and the future of the land and its people is very much up in the air. The main character, Hannie, ends up accompanying the former master’s two daughters (one white and legitimate, the other biracial and illegitimate) on a dangerous journey to find their father and find the missing documents needed to secure their inheritance. Hannie’s own goal is more personal: To find the missing members of her family, all of whom were sold off while enslaved and stolen by an unscrupulous relative of the plantation owners.

In 1987, the main character is Benny (Benedetta) Silva, a young teacher who accepts a rural posting in exchange for student loan forgiveness. Benny is ill-prepared to teach in a school where there are inadequate resources, apathetic staff, and students who lack the most rudimentary skills or interest needed to pursue an education. Benny is determined to find a way to connect with her students, and begins a research project that puts her at odds with powerful town leaders.

I don’t want to go too far down the road of discussing the dual plots, so I’ll stick to some key concerns and takeaways.

In both timelines, the plot is often confusing and muddled. We alternate chapters between the two timelines, and yet as we pick up a storyline after a chapter away from it, there’s often a gap in the action from where we left off. Intervening events do get explained, but the initial impression is always that something has been missed or that the pieces don’t quite connect.

The family chronologies and connections are not well explained, and neither is the make-up of the town itself or its history. There’s a lot of detail thrown around in the book, but often through exposition rather than incorporation into the plot. The details often felt muddy to me, leading to my feelings of disengagement.

Benny’s role, in my opinion, is problematic. Her character really smacks of white saviorism. She arrives in town as an outsider, and immediate becomes the catalyst for changing the lives of the poor children and disempowered community members of Augustine. Why did it take Benny’s arrival to make this happen? Why was it Benny and the (white) descendants of the Gossett slaveowners who enable the discovery of the town’s history and the revelations that ensue?

I did appreciate learning about the Lost Friends advertisements, which were a real historical phenomenon used by formerly enslaved people to try to track down and reunite with family members. The inclusion of real Lost Friends ads is touching and powerful.

However, overall, the plot didn’t build in a way that connected the dots, and the action sequences and outcomes felt disjointed. I did not feel emotionally involved with the characters, and while certain moments elicit sympathy or sorrow or horror, these responses related more to the general circumstances described rather than being connected to actual care or concern for the specific characters.

I was also turned off by a weirdness to the ending, in which a big revelation about a character’s backstory is shared literally on the last two pages of the book. Why?? It felt awkward and unnecessary — perhaps it was intended to provide an “aha!” moment about the character, but really, it just felt tacked-on and beside the point.

Overall, this was not a great reading experience, and if not for my book group commitment, I probably would not have finished. The “Lost Friends” element is interesting from a historical perspective, but the fictional storylines built up around this element just never made me feel connected or invested.

Final note: I will add that many of my book group friends enjoyed this book more than I did, and one person who is herself an educator commented that she found Benny’s work with the students and the challenges she faced very relatable and well done. In other words… while I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, your mileage may vary!

Audiobook Review: An Island Wedding (Mure, #5) by Jenny Colgan

Title: An Island Wedding
Series: Mure
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator:  Eilidh Beaton
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: June 21, 2022
Print length: 400 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 26 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan brings us a delightful summer novel that will sweep you away to the remote Scottish island of Mure, where two very different weddings are about to take place…

On the little Scottish island of Mure–halfway between Scotland and Norway–Flora MacKenzie and her fiancé Joel are planning the smallest of “sweetheart weddings,” a high summer celebration surrounded only by those very dearest to them.

Not everyone on the island is happy about being excluded, though. The temperature rises even further when beautiful Olivia MacDonald–who left Mure ten years ago for bigger and brighter things–returns with a wedding planner in tow. Her fiancé has oodles of family money, and Olivia is determined to throw the biggest, most extravagant, most Instagrammable wedding possible. And she wants to do it at Flora’s hotel, the same weekend as Flora’s carefully planned micro-wedding.

As the summer solstice approaches, can Flora handle everyone else’s Happy Every Afters–and still get her own?

The 5th installment in Jenny Colgan’s wonderful Mure series brings us back to this beautiful, remote Scottish island. It’s like a reunion with old friends, as we see what our beloved characters are up to now, and for at least some, get to witness the happy event they’ve been building toward over the four previous books.

(For the story so far, see my wrap-up post, here.)

In An Island Wedding, Flora Mackenzie is finally set to marry the man of her dreams. But there’s a problem — Flora, born and bred on Mure, wants to celebrate with everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE. The entire island expects to be at their wedding, from Mrs. Kennedy’s dance school students to the old fishermen who drink away their evenings down at the Harbor’s Rest. But Joel, a product of a lonely childhood in the foster care system, wants only those who truly love them to be with them on their big day — just immediate family, an intimate occasion, and donate all the money that would have gone to a big wedding to the local couple who take troubled youth on outdoor adventures.

What’s Flora to do? She loves Joel, and wants to do what makes him happy… but she can’t help but feeling just a wee bit sad and guilty every time an island neighbor comes up to tell her how much they’re looking forward to her wedding.

Meanwhile, Olivia MacDonald, the beautiful island native who’s now an international Instagram star, has decided to hold her own lavish wedding back home on Mure, in a most likely misguided move to impress her fabulously wealthy, fabulously snooty future in-laws with her connection to an authentic Scottish community. Olivia arrives with an upscale wedding planner in tow, and proceeds to transform The Rock (the hotel Flora manages) and the entire island into the fantasy wedding setting of her dreams.

Most of the book is devoted to the wedding plans, as well as to the ongoing tension between Flora and Joel over their divergent visions for how they’ll get married. I was never truly worried about Flora and Joel — they love each other, and they’ve been through enough so far that I was sure it would all work out — but it was sad to see them at what appeared at times to be an impasse.

The most moving and gripping parts of An Island Wedding have to do with the love story between Lorna, the island’s schoolmistress, and Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor who’s found a new home for himself and his two sons on Mure. Saif’s wife’s fate has been a question mark since the start of the series, and when new information is uncovered, it forces Saif to make an impossible choice. I won’t say too much, but it’s heartbreaking. The terrible sadness of the situation is written so beautifully, and my heart just ached for Lorna, Saif, and for the boys too.

The stakes for the Flora and Olivia storylines never feel terribly high or risky — after all, it’s really mostly to do with wedding plans! Still, it’s fun to follow along and laugh at all the mishaps, miscommunications, and over-the-top wedding arrangements, and the ending left me with a few little tears of happiness. After spending so much time with Flora and Joel over the course of this series, I was ready for them to get all the joy they deserve!

My initial understanding had been that this would be the final Mure book… but actually, I don’t see that stated anywhere, and given that there’s a MAJOR story thread left hanging, I’m hopeful for more! So please, if you happen to meet Jenny Colgan someday, tell her we want MORE MURE. I’m not ready to say good-bye to these wonderful characters and the beautiful island just yet!

Book Review: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Title: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Publisher: Knopf
Publication date: July 5, 2022
Print length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In this exhilarating novel by the best-selling author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry two friends–often in love, but never lovers–come together as creative partners in the world of video game design, where success brings them fame, joy, tragedy, duplicity, and, ultimately, a kind of immortality.

On a bitter-cold day, in the December of his junior year at Harvard, Sam Masur exits a subway car and sees, amid the hordes of people waiting on the platform, Sadie Green. He calls her name. For a moment, she pretends she hasn’t heard him, but then, she turns, and a game begins: a legendary collaboration that will launch them to stardom. These friends, intimates since childhood, borrow money, beg favors, and, before even graduating college, they have created their first blockbuster, Ichigo. Overnight, the world is theirs. Not even twenty-five years old, Sam and Sadie are brilliant, successful, and rich, but these qualities won’t protect them from their own creative ambitions or the betrayals of their hearts.

Spanning thirty years, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Venice Beach, California, and lands in between and far beyond, Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a dazzling and intricately imagined novel that examines the multifarious nature of identity, disability, failure, the redemptive possibilities in play, and above all, our need to connect: to be loved and to love. Yes, it is a love story, but it is not one you have read before.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is the kind of immersive, powerful read that only comes along once in a great while. I found it moving and profound, and even several days after finishing the book, I’m still caught up in thoughts about its themes and images.

Pretty surprising for a book ostensibly about the world of video games, right?

Sam and Sadie first meet as young teens; Sadie stumbles across Sam in a pediatric hospital where he’s a patient and her sister is undergoing cancer treatment. Sadie doesn’t know anything about Sam other than that he’s dealing with a serious injury to his foot — but she doesn’t need to know much more. He’s playing Mario Kart, and she joins in… and instantly, they find a shared language and joy, as well as an escape from their real lives, by gaming together.

From there, they spend 609 hours together (if you read the book, you’ll find out why this matters), but a secret drives them apart, until they meet once again as college students on a cold day in Boston. Their love of gaming hasn’t changed, and they immediately rekindle their mind-meld connection and begin collaborating on a game. Along with Sam’s roommate Marx, a protective loving boy who decides it’s his mission to look after Sam, they embark on a path that will lead them to huge success and fame.

The book follows Sam and Sadie’s rise to gaming stardom while tracing the impact on their friendship. Their connection goes beyond business partnership or being friends — it’s deep and powerful, and yes, it’s love, but it’s not a romantic connection. They are so deeply entwined that any perceived betrayal or slight is felt all the way to the bone. Sam and Sadie are inextricably connected, but they go through periods of intense conflict and estrangement as well.

Over the course of the years covered by Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, we learn about their backstories, their families, their traumas, and of course, their brilliance. There’s so much to absorb here about culture, wellness and disability, reality and virtual worlds, intelligence and academia, and more. Sadie, Sam, and Marx are unforgettable characters, beautifully described and developed. We know these people and what makes them tick; we understand their joys and their pain, and when bad things happen, it hurts deeply.

The writing is beautiful, often funny, often pensive, filled with oddball characters in a world that many of us (anyone not involved in gaming and coding) may find alien. We’re given entrance into this world through these characters’ experiences, and it’s fascinating.

Maybe it was the willingness to play that hinted at a tender, eternally newborn part in all humans. Maybe it was the willingness to play that kept one from despair.

One element I loved is how the characters’ worldview is coded to the world of games, so that how they view real life is often described in gaming language (and vice versa). For example, a character involved with someone who’s married reflects:

A wife had been mentioned, as had a son. They didn’t have names, and so they weren’t characters to her, but that didn’t mean they didn’t exist.

The virtual vs real world comparisons continue throughout the book, and I found these fascinating:

How do you preserve the impossible to preserve? Or, in other words, how do you stop time and death? […] What, after all, is a video game’s subtextual preoccupation if not the erasure of mortality?

“I’m going to play until the end of this life.”

“That’s a good philosophy.”

He was tired of having to move so carefully, of having to be so careful. He wanted to be able to skip, for God’s sake. He wanted to be Ichigo. He wanted to surf, and ski, and parasail, and fly, and scale mountains and buildings. He wanted to die a million deaths like Ichigo, and no matter what damage was inflicted on his body during the day, he’d wake up tomorrow, new and whole. He wanted Ichigo’s life, a lifetime of endless, immaculate tomorrows, free of mistakes and evidence of having lived.

… [H]e could remember thinking that the best thing about games is that they could be fairer than life.

“I thought you were worried I was going to die,” Sam said.

“No. You’ll never die. And if you ever died, I’d just start the game again,” Sadie said.

As it turned out, in the late fall of 2001, Mapleworld [an online virtual world/game] was exactly what people craved. A virtual world that was better governed, kinder, and more understandable than their own

You are a gaming person, which is to say you are the kind of person who believes that “game over” is a construction. The game is only over if you stop playing. There is always one more life.

“What is a game?” Marx said. “It’s tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. It’s the possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption. The idea that if you keep playing, you could win. No loss is permanent, because nothing is permanent, ever.”

On a more granular level, I was delighted by how many words in this book were new to me! Sometimes, it can be annoying to have to check definitions, but somehow here, I found it eye-opening and challenging, especially in the context of this particular book’s setting and characters. The unfamiliar words tended to be gaming/coding terms that the characters use to express themselves in daily life — it made me feel like I’d entered into their world and been handed yet another insight into how their minds work. (For examples of new-to-me words and their definitions, see below**).

To make a game is to imagine the person playing it.

I wouldn’t have thought I’d love a book that’s ostensibly about video games, or that I’d consider it one of the best books of the year. In fact, I had to give myself a little push to pick up Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow and get started. Thankfully, I’ve read and loved Gabrielle Zevin’s books before this one and trusted that she’d write something I’d want to read!

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is moving and gorgeous, truly a unique reading experience. The author’s creativity and sensitivity shines through on every page. I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time to come.

**A quick, incomplete guide to words I found fascinating in T&T&T:

  • ligneous: made, consisting of, or resembling wood; woody
  • collogue: talk confidentially or conspiratorially
  • mesomorphic: having a compact and muscular body build
  • kenophobia: an intense fear of empty spaces or voids
  • viridescent: greenish or becoming green
  • ludic: showing spontaneous and undirected playfulness
  • deictic: of, relating to, or denoting a word or expression whose meaning is dependent on the context in which it is used, e.g. here, you, me, that one there, next Tuesday
  • jejune: naïve, simplistic, and superficial
  • anfractuous: sinuous or circuitous
  • echt: authentic and typical