Book Review: The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry

Title: The Ghost Tree
Author: Christina Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 8, 2020
Print length: 432 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When people go missing in the sleepy town of Smith’s Hollow, the only clue to their fate comes when a teenager starts having terrifying visions, in a chilling horror novel from national bestselling author Christina Henry.

When the bodies of two girls are found torn apart in the town of Smiths Hollow, Lauren is surprised, but she also expects that the police won’t find the killer. After all, the year before her father’s body was found with his heart missing, and since then everyone has moved on. Even her best friend, Miranda, has become more interested in boys than in spending time at the old ghost tree, the way they used to when they were kids.

So when Lauren has a vision of a monster dragging the remains of the girls through the woods, she knows she can’t just do nothing. Not like the rest of her town. But as she draws closer to answers, she realizes that the foundation of her seemingly normal town might be rotten at the center. And that if nobody else stands for the missing, she will.

Now THAT’s how you write horror.

The Ghost Tree is chilling and disturbing, fascinating and unforgettable. I could not put this book down.

Set in a small idyllic Midwestern town, The Ghost Tree reveals the darkness that lies underneath the town’s peaceful, prosperous surface.

14-year-old Lauren is our main character. It’s the summer of 1985, and Lauren is looking forward to starting high school, even though she and her best friend Miranda have been growing apart. Lauren wants to keep playing in the woods and riding bikes, but Miranda is more interested in reading Cosmo and flirting with the older boys who drive cool cars.

Lauren is also dealing with her father’s death during the previous year, and her ongoing battles with her critical mother. Fortunately, her 4-year-old brother David is the bright spot in her life.

As the story starts, the awful, racist woman down the street discovers the dismembered bodies of two girls in her back yard. The girls are clearly outsiders, perhaps runaways passing through. But after the initial shock, these gruesome deaths don’t seem to make much of an impact on the town or its small police force, and it’s only through great effort that newcomer Officer Lopez can remember that there’s something odd that he should look into.

Told through multiple points of view, we get to see how the various townspeople have strange perceptions and faulty memories of the events that happen in Smith’s Hollow, and nothing seems to alter the pleasant lives of the town’s residents.

When Lauren’s grandmother shares a disturbing tale with her, Lauren is shocked and angry that her Nana would say such terrible things and expect her to believe them… but little by little, she comes to realize that there’s a dark truth lurking in the town’s memories, and that she and David might be the keys to preventing further bloodshed.

The Ghost Tree is so creepy and SO GOOD. The author does such a great job of letting us into Lauren’s mind, showing the uncertainties that a girl her age feels about all the changes in her life, but also showing her taking a stand and starting to own her opinions and take a stand.

The more we get to know about the town history and the secrets that everyone seems to have forgotten, the creepier and more disturbing the story becomes. And yes, there’s gore and bloodshed, but for me anyway, the scariest parts have to do with the mind control that the town seems to be under, and how inescapable its dark secrets seem to be.

I’ve read other books by Christina Henry, and already knew how talented she is. The Ghost Tree proves that she’s just as amazing at horror as she is at more fantasy-heavy stories.

I think I’m going to be thinking about this story for days. This is a story that sticks with you. Check it out!

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

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Title: The Silent Patient
Author: Alex Michaelides
Publisher: Celadon Books
Publication date: August 18, 2020
Print length: 325 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.

Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.

Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him… 

I’ll be blunt — this book annoyed the hell out of me. It’s super hyped, has tons of buzz, and I have friends who’ve insisted that I just had to read it. When my book club picked it as our August book, I knew my time had come.

In brief, this is a psychological thriller about Alicia, a woman who was convicted of murdering her husband and has been confined to a mental institution ever since. From the time she was discovered near her husband’s bloody body, she hasn’t spoken a word. Alicia, a talented artist, made only one communication since Gabriel’s death — a self-portrait, with the mysterious word “Alcestis” written at the bottom.

Theo Faber is a psychotherapist who became fascinated by Alicia’s story and the ensuing notoriety. Years later, he has the opportunity to work at the hospital where she’s a patient, and there he dives into her case, determined to understand why she hasn’t spoken in six years.

From the start, I was annoyed by Theo, and because he’s our point of view character, I felt impatient with the book as a whole. Theo overcame a horrible childhood to achieve professional success, and yet from the moment he transfers to the Grove, he seems to be flouting every rule of professionalism in his obsession with uncovering Alicia’s secrets.

It’s clear that there’s more to the story of the murder than what people accept as the truth. As Theo digs, several potentially shady people emerge as either witnesses or possibly perpetrators of some terrible acts. Aaaaaand… I won’t say too much more about the plot.

The resolution to the mystery took me by surprise, but I felt that the author only managed to achieve this through some sleight-of-hand involving the plot timelines that left me feeling manipulated, rather than pleasantly shocked by the cleverness of it all.

Theo’s actions often make no sense in the big picture, and I’m not sure that I buy the crime scene set-up and explanation as presented either. Yes, it’s twisty and full of unexpected revelations, but I felt too often that I was being “handled”.

I know I’m in the minority on this one. My book group seems to have loved The Silent Patient, and so did my husband and a few other friends. It’s a very quick read, and I was never bored — I think I tore through this book in about a day and a half, and reached a point where I couldn’t put it down.

So yes, it’s an absorbing read and I needed to keep going once I started. But something about it doesn’t sit well with me, and that’s why I gave it three stars.

Book Review: A Killing Frost (October Daye, #14) by Seanan McGuire

Title: A Killing Frost (October Daye, #14)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: September 1, 2020
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When October is informed that Simon Torquill—legally her father, due to Faerie’s archaic marriage traditions—must be invited to her wedding or risk the ceremony throwing the Kingdom in the Mists into political turmoil, she finds herself setting out on a quest she was not yet prepared to undertake for the sake of her future…. and the man who represents her family’s past.

14 books in, what is there left to say about my super-duper favorite urban fantasy series? I love these books, and A Killing Frost is no exception!

For those unfamiliar with the series, October Daye is a changeling, born of a human man and a powerful Fae woman. Over the course of the series, October (Toby) has come into her own as a knight and a Hero of the Realm, gaining strength in her magical abilities and gifts and setting out on quests to right wrongs. As she so readily admits, hardly a day goes by when she doesn’t end up covered in blood.

Toby is an amazing character, and the series as a whole is a richly detailed world, set in and around human San Francisco, with complex rules, hierarchies, relationships, and power dynamics. The characters are so much of what makes these books so good — Toby has a found family by this point in the series, including her sort-of sister May, her fiance Tybalt, her squire Quentin, and an odd assortment of friends and associates who love Toby and keep her always on her toes.

In A Killing Frost, Toby and Tybalt (King of Cats) are getting closer to setting a wedding date, when Toby is informed that if she doesn’t invite her stepfather Simon to the wedding, he or anyone connected to him can claim offense. And in Faerie, that can lead to dire consequences, including forced servitude or other truly unpleasant outcomes.

Simon, however, is lost. In book #11, he traded his own way home in order to rescue his long-lost daughter. After having reformed his nastier ways, he’s back to being a bad guy, having forgotten all the good in his life. Toby’s only option is to search for Simon, bring him back, and find a way to break the spell so that he can truly be found again.

I won’t give too much away. Naturally, Toby ends up covered with blood — mostly, but not only, her own. There’s danger to her and to her companions, and the damage is truly gruesome at times.

I was scared for Toby, especially toward the end, when I couldn’t see a way that her actions wouldn’t end in disaster. Naturally, I ended up surprised in all sorts of ways, especially by a huge new development that will have major ripple effects from here on out.

I feel confident saying that if you’ve loved the October Daye series so far, you’ll love A Killng Frost too. If you haven’t started the series yet… well, go ahead!

Obviously, I adore October Daye, and I love basically everything written by Seanan McGuire.

A Killing Frost is a total treat. And now it’s back to the sad state of waiting a year for the next book in the series!

Book Review: The Switch by Beth O’Leary

Title: The Switch
Author: Beth O’Leary
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: August 18, 2020
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Eileen is sick of being 79.
Leena’s tired of life in her twenties.
Maybe it’s time they swapped places…

When overachiever Leena Cotton is ordered to take a two-month sabbatical after blowing a big presentation at work, she escapes to her grandmother Eileen’s house for some overdue rest. Eileen is newly single and about to turn eighty. She’d like a second chance at love, but her tiny Yorkshire village doesn’t offer many eligible gentlemen.

Once Leena learns of Eileen’s romantic predicament, she proposes a solution: a two-month swap. Eileen can live in London and look for love. Meanwhile Leena will look after everything in rural Yorkshire. But with gossiping neighbours and difficult family dynamics to navigate up north, and trendy London flatmates and online dating to contend with in the city, stepping into one another’s shoes proves more difficult than either of them expected.

Leena learns that a long-distance relationship isn’t as romantic as she hoped it would be, and then there is the annoyingly perfect – and distractingly handsome – school teacher, who keeps showing up to outdo her efforts to impress the local villagers. Back in London, Eileen is a huge hit with her new neighbours, but is her perfect match nearer home than she first thought?

Switching lives is a fiction trope that’s always fun and entertaining, and that’s true for the new novel by Beth O’Leary.

In The Switch, a grandmother and granddaughter decide to switch lives for two months, each being stuck in a frustrating rut. For Eileen, she’s 79 years old, her lackluster husband has just left her for another woman, and she already knows all the single men her age in her little village. She’s ready to get back out and start dating, but the pickings are slim.

Meanwhile, Leena is afraid that she’s torpedoed her career after suffering a major panic attack in the middle of a client pitch. Her boss (kindly, I thought) insists that Leena take a 2-month paid holiday to rest and recenter herself.

Both Leena and Eileen are dealing with loss and grief, in addition to their career/dating woes. Leena’s younger sister Carla died a year earlier after a battle with cancer. Leena has been quietly falling apart ever since, and Eileen has thrown herself into looking after her daughter Marion, who is fragile and shaky. On top of all this, Leena isn’t speaking to Marion, since she blames her for allowing Carla to stop treatment rather than pursuing an experimental option in America.

Once Leena is forced to take time off, she comes up with the idea of switching places with her grandmother. While there are no eligible men for Eileen where she lives, there are plenty in London, and Leena realizes that the peace of the village might provide her with a fresh start.

Naturally, they’re both fish out of water. Eileen moves in with Leena’s twenty-something flatmates and immediately begins making waves, insisting on getting to know the neighbors, rather than observing the time-honored city dweller tradition of ignoring everyone around you. Eileen does not take no for an answer, and soon has the entire building socializing and coming together for a good cause. Not only that, but her online dating profile leads her to a few good prospects, including a suave, attractive actor who’s clearly just looking for a no-strings lover — something Eileen is all too eager to give a try.

For Leena, small-town life is not as quiet as she’d anticipated. She’s expected to fill Eileen’s role on town committees, to socialize with Eileen’s friends, and to pitch in whenever needed. The town gossip immediate includes Leena and her misadventures, but she’s determined to break through some of the walls that the town’s grumpier residents put up.

Of course, each woman ends up finding love — and I can’t really say it’s where you’d least expect it, because I could see the love stories coming from a mile away. Leena starts off with a serious boyfriend, but it’s easy for the reader to see the couple’s issues, even if Leena doesn’t, and naturally the right guy is right under her nose, once she opens her eyes.

The Switch is a warm book, definitely lightened up by Eileen’s quirkiness and feistiness. I enjoyed Leena’s interactions in the village too. The emotional beats related to Carla’s death and the aftermath of her loss are often powerful, although the plot thread showing Leena and her mother finding their way back together could have benefited from more showing and less telling.

Overall, this is a sweet, lovable book. It’s perky and charming, and even though it’s mostly predictable, I still found it a hug-worthy, engaging read — just the right blend of lightness and real-life emotion to make it a good summer escape.

Audiobook Review: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until…

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

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

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

… and also:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t miss these wonderful books!

Me, after finishing Bookish & the Beast

Book Review: Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer

Title: Midnight Sun
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: August 4, 2020
Print length: 662 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When Edward Cullen and Bella Swan met in Twilight, an iconic love story was born. But until now, fans have heard only Bella’s side of the story. At last, readers can experience Edward’s version in the long-awaited companion novel, Midnight Sun.

This unforgettable tale as told through Edward’s eyes takes on a new and decidedly dark twist. Meeting Bella is both the most unnerving and intriguing event he has experienced in all his years as a vampire. As we learn more fascinating details about Edward’s past and the complexity of his inner thoughts, we understand why this is the defining struggle of his life. How can he justify following his heart if it means leading Bella into danger? 

Midnight Sun — the Twilight retelling we either needed or didn’t need, depending on who you ask.

I’m not going to hate on this book. I mean, hey, I compulsively read the Twilight series (multiple times) way back when, attended a midnight release party for Breaking Dawn, saw all the movies… I may even have had a T-shirt and calendar, but I’ll never admit it.

And yes, I’m a grown-ass woman. Anyhoo…

While my tastes and opinions related to the Twilight series have changed substantially over the years, I can’t deny that no matter how ridiculous the plotting and the writing, there’s something weirdly compelling and readable about these books. Despite my better instincts, they’ve always managed to just suck me in completely.

So, Midnight Sun. This is the long promised and often-leaked book that Stephenie Meyer wrote, retelling the events of Twilight from Edward’s tortured and brooding perspective. Does it work? Well, yes, but you have to decided for yourself whether you actually want to need to hear it all.

First, be aware of the length. From an interview on Amazon, the author explains:

The reason Midnight Sun is a hundred pages longer than Twilight is because the font is much, much smaller. The word count gives you a better picture: Twilight is around 119,000 words; Midnight Sun is about 240,000. It’s literally twice as long. It was obvious from the beginning that Edward’s version would be quite a bit longer. First of all, Edward never sleeps. Secondly, he’s quite the overthinker. Third, he’s lived a lot longer than Bella and thus has a bunch of flashbacks. The length wasn’t something I decided to do 14 years later; the story always demanded this.

You read that correctly: If you’re looking just at word count, which is a better measure for comparison, Midnight Sun is TWICE as long as Twilight, even though it’s telling the same exact story. Living inside Edward’s head must be exhausting!

So let’s get on with my reactions to this book.

Yes, the length was annoying. I felt like I was reading this book non-stop, and it still took me all week to finish. And while I was entertained at first, I got a little weary after a while.

Everything that’s ridiculous and/or annoying about the original is still ridiculous/annoying here. Vampire baseball is still stupid. The Cullens always seeming to pick up Bella and carry her instead of trusting her to walk on her own two feet is all sorts of awkward, and really funny to visualize. Going to hide in Phoenix because the bad guy would assume Bella isn’t stupid enough to hide in Phoenix is… stupid.

The idea that the Cullens could actually attend human high school and blend in somehow is utterly nonsensical. Of course, I do blame the movie version a bit for this, because before seeing the movie, it maybe wasn’t quite as startling in my head how white and nonhuman they all look. But even just reading Midnight Sun, it’s absolutely clear that don’t fit in.

Never mind that fact that if I’d been alive for decades, not to mention a century, the last thing I’d want to do would be to sit through high school over and over again. How utterly awful. Especially given that 4 of the 5 Cullen “children” attending high school are living in partnered adult relationships. Are they teens or adults? It’s weird and confusing every time Edward thinks of himself as being 17.

It’s also funny to realize how much my memory of the Twilight story is influenced by scenes from the movie. I was 100% sure that the big confrontation between Bella and Edward, when she admits that she knows he’s a vampire, takes place in the forest. Right? Right?

Well, sorry, that’s wrong. They’re in Edward’s car. Not quite as dramatic a setting.

But let’s switch over to the positive. It IS actually interesting to see events from Edward’s perspective, to get more of a detailed look at why he reacts to Bella the way he does. Funnily enough, the most interesting parts of Midnight Sun for me are the scenes without Bella, when we see what else was going on when we were following Bella in Twilight.

We get a lot more of the Cullens, and they’re always the best part of the story. We learn a lot about the family history, Edward’s relationships with his different siblings, and how they behave amongst themselves when it’s just them, with no fragile little humans in their midst.

The best character, as always, is Alice. There’s just so much more of her here, and she’s a treat. Through Edward and Alice’s interactions, we get a much better view of how her visions of the future and Edward’s mind-reading work together, and honestly? It’s kind of cool.

Also, through Alice’s visions, we find out more about how Edward sees the future. Alice continually shows him possible outcomes as he falls deeper and deeper in love (or obsession) with Bella, and most aren’t pretty at all. No wonder he’s so torn up inside all the frickin’ time. On the other hand, it’s adorable how Alice tries to steer Edward in certain directions, because she’s seen already that she’s going to love Bella, even before she knows her, and doesn’t want to ruin the chance of being her friend. Awwwww.

Emmett is also pretty awesome as Edward’s closest brother and friend, always having his back and all-around pretty chill. Jasper is a bit enigmatic in this version, and Rosalie isn’t particularly likable, even though Edward repeatedly explains why she feels the way she does about Bella.

I really liked a dramatic car chase scene toward the end where the family basically acts as Edward’s GPS, with Alice monitoring the future for road conditions and speed traps, and the other family members acting as rear and side mirrors, watching the road so Edward can view it through their eyes. Kind of ridiculous, but also pretty fun.

I mean, sure, the more problematic aspects of Twilight are still as problematic in Midnight Sun. Edward is such an obsessive stalker — but I guess because he acknowledges it to himself, it’s supposed to be okay? Sorry, but there’s no way to make his behavior (like lurking in Bella’s bedroom while she sleeps) not creepy, even if he justifies it through his compulsion to keep her safe every second of the day.

And the writing? Well, I suppose tastes may vary, but here are a couple of snippets that prompted me to have to close the book for a minute or two and refocus.

It felt like simmering coals, as though a dull version of my thirsting burn had spread throughout my entire body.

I’m not entirely sure what that means, to be honest.

With her wet hair looping in long seaweed tangles around her shoulders, and her face glowing in the moonlight, she looked more than good. The English language needed a word that meant something halfway between a goddess and a naiad.

Oh, Edward. You’re just too much.

And I guess “too much” is about how I feel overall about this book. I liked it, gotta be honest. It was fun in spots. But Edward is SO broody and introspective, and he just never stops. And even at the end, he’s still planning to leave Bella, which really isn’t the impression I had from the end of Twilight. So that’s a good twist, but I’m not convinced that the new and different outlooks really justify the length of this doorstop of a book.

Please don’t ask me if I’d read more books set in the Twilight world, if Stephenie Meyer decides to keep going.

I think we all know the answer to that question.

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!