Travel reading wrap-up (fall 2021): A batch of mini-reviews — high school drama, Aztec vampires, and classics retold

I’ve just returned from a one-week trip (which was all sorts of awesome), and realize that I’ve fallen way behind on my reviews. Here’s a quick wrap-up of what I read while I was away (and the week before, when I was already in pre-trip mode). As always, a mix of genres, topics, and new vs old.


Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado: A YA story starring a plus-sized Latina high schooler who dreams of a first kiss, even while feeling like she’ll never measure up. The story emphasizes the importance of true friendship and trust, as well as body positivity. Charlie experiences a first relationship, has her relationship with her best friend tested, gains confidence as a writer, and learns to stand up for herself and not let others’ negativity undermine her belief in herself. While there are some plot points that I found frustrating (such as a mother whose toxicity about Charlie’s weight is never truly resolved, and unnecessary break-ups with both her boyfriend and her best friend), I loved the lead character enough to make this a really enjoyable read overall.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: This is my 3rd book by this author, but it definitely won’t be my last. Certain Dark Things is a gritty, noir-ish story of vampires, gangs, and drug runners in Mexico City. The main character is a teen boy who devotes himself to helping a lone Aztec vampire escape the city and the various other clans of vampires who want to see her and her people wiped out. It’s a fascinating spin on the world of vampires, and while I would have liked to have seen a bit more on the origins and natures of the different vampire species, I still really enjoyed this book. It’s dark, fast-paced, and surprising.

Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers: I guess I should have read the full synopsis, instead of deciding after just the first sentence that this book sounded like fun. The main character wakes up alone in a Las Vegas hotel room with a vague, hung-over memory of having married an adorable woman the night before. All she has to go on is a note left by the woman with a radio station listed. Grace decides to track down the mystery woman… but for the most part, despite the potential rom-com set-up, this is a story about a woman trying to find her place in the world, figure out who she’s meant to be, and understand her relationships with family and friends. Maybe because I went into it with incorrect (or incomplete) expectations, I was mostly frustrated and annoyed by the depth’s of the main character’s introspection and occasional selfishness.

Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

When You Were Mine by Rebecca Serle: This YA retelling of Romeo and Juliet offers a fresh perspective — that of Rosaline, the girl Romeo loved before meeting Juliet. Here, the teens are seniors at an upscale California high school. Rose has been looking forward to reuniting with Rob, her best friend and boy next door since they were small children, especially since their near-kiss right before he left for his summer job. But within a few days of school starting, Rob dumps Rose for the new girl in town — the mysterious Juliet, who also happens to be Rose’s cousin. I really liked the way the author turned the classic story into a contemporary YA drama, and found her portrayal of Rose very thoughtful as well as being a creative twist on a tale that’s been told and retold so many times. When You Were Mine follows some, but not all, of the original’s storyline, and the little differences keep this book fresh and engaging. Sure, I have a few quibbles and would have liked to see a few plot points handled differently, but overall, this is quite a good read.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Bennet Women by Eden Appiah-Kubi: Another classic retold! This twist on Pride and Prejudice centers on the “Bennet Women” — the young undergraduate women living in Bennet House at Longbourn College. EJ (the Elizabeth stand-in) is a senior studying engineering and the RA of Bennet House, who holds the values and standards of Bennet House dear to her heart. Her best friends are a trans woman, Jamie, who’s our Jane stand-in, and Tessa, who has a smaller role and seems to be taking the place of Charlotte Lucas. While hitting the major plot beats of P&P, it’s a fresh take full of woman power and feminism, with a nicely diverse cast and some clever approaches to the expected storylines. I really appreciated how EJ’s education and aspirations were given prominence. Here, marriage isn’t a goal or even talked about much — it’s about finding love and respect while also finding themselves, pursuing their dreams, and not giving in to the many ways the world outside of Bennet House might want to limit their opportunities or pull them down.

Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

That’s my reading round-up! And now, back to all the ARCs and other books calling my name…

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Audiobook Review: Beth & Amy by Virginia Kantra

Title: Beth & Amy
Author: Virginia Kantra
Narrators: Janet Metzger, Brittany Pressley, Catherine Taber
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 11, 2021
Print length: 348 pages
Audio length: 11 hours 8 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Four sisters face new beginnings in this heartfelt modern take on Little Women by New York Times bestselling author Virginia Kantra.

Amy March is more like her older sister Jo than she’d like to admit. An up-and-coming designer in New York’s competitive fashion industry, ambitious Amy is determined to get out of her sisters’ shadow and keep her distance from their North Carolina hometown. But when Jo’s wedding forces her home, she must face what she really wants…and confront the One Big Mistake that could upend her life and forever change her relationship with Jo.

Gentle, unassuming Beth grew up as the good girl of the family. A talented singer-songwriter, she’s overcome her painful anxiety to tour with country superstar Colt Henderson. But life on the road has taken its toll on her health and their relationship. Maybe a break to attend her sister’s wedding will get her out of her funk. But Beth realizes that what she’s looking for and what she needs are two very different things….

With the March women reunited, this time with growing careers and families, they must once again learn to lean on one another as they juggle the changes coming their way.

The March Sisters audiobooks are a treat — let me tell you why! I enjoyed the first book, Meg & Jo, and I’m happy to be able to report that Beth & Amy is a worthy follow-up.

Note: While I rarely include content warnings in my reviews, I do think I need to mention that this book deals extensively with an eating disorder, so keep that in mind if that’s a triggering subject for you.

Obviously, from the title, the focus of this second book is on the two younger sisters from the world of Little Women, whose stories never get as much attention as Meg and Jo’s. Here, Beth and Amy take center stage, and it’s really fun to see author Virginia Kantra’s take on these sisters’ inner lives.

In these books, the girls are grown-ups, all in their mid-20s to early 30s. And let me just take a moment to dispel any fears, at the risk of being spoilery: Beth lives. So if you might avoid this book in order to avoid the heartbreak of Beth’s death… you’re good.

(And excuse my digression, but this seems like a good time to share one of my favorite Friends moments:)

As Beth & Amy opens, both characters seem to have achieved career success. Amy is living in New York, running her own business designing and selling fashion handbags. Orders are starting to pour in, now that a certain Duchess has been seen with one of Amy’s bags. But she’ll need to expand if she wants to really make her mark, and that’s going to take a cash infusion.

Beth is on tour with country superstar Colt Henderson, having written two songs for him that led to Grammy nominations. But she’s paralyzed by stage fright, and after a particularly awful experience, Colt sends her home to her family to recuperate. It doesn’t help that she’s in a relationship with Colt, and he seems more focused on his tour and his next Grammy than on Beth’s well-being.

The family is reunited for Jo’s wedding back in North Carolina, and it’s here that the sisters begin to reevaluate their hopes, their dreams, and what it looks like to be happy.

As in Meg & Jo, Beth & Amy is narrated in alternating chapters by different narrators, each representing one of the two sisters. This time around, their mother Abby also gets a voice, with a few key chapters of her own woven into the sisters’ story. The audiobook makes this story especially fun, and the narrators bring each character to life in a way that feels fresh and engaging.

I did really enjoy Beth & Amy. I’ve always loved Little Women, and before coming across these books, I would have had a hard time imagining that a modern-day retelling could work. The author does a terrific job of bringing the sisters’ lives and relationships into the 21st century, balancing contemporary issues with the more classic elements of the family dynamics.

I feel invested enough in Virginia Kantra’s vision of the March family at this point that I just wish there could be more! Maybe continue with retelling Little Men and Jo’s Boys next?

Final note: I think these two books are engaging enough to work perfectly fine even if you haven’t read Little Women — though of course, if you do love Little Women, these retellings will be even more fun.

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Audiobook Review: Meg & Jo by Virginia Kantra

Title: Meg & Jo
Author: Virginia Kantra
Narrators: Shannon McManus, Karissa Vacker
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: December 3, 2019
Print length: 400 pages
Audio length: 13 hours 46 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The timeless classic Little Women inspired this heartwarming modern tale of four sisters from New York Times bestselling author Virginia Kantra.

The March sisters—reliable Meg, independent Jo, stylish Amy, and shy Beth—have grown up to pursue their separate dreams. When Jo followed her ambitions to New York City, she never thought her career in journalism would come crashing down, leaving her struggling to stay afloat in a gig economy as a prep cook and secret food blogger.

Meg appears to have the life she always planned—the handsome husband, the adorable toddlers, the house in a charming subdivision. But sometimes getting everything you’ve ever wanted isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

When their mother’s illness forces the sisters home to North Carolina for the holidays, they’ll rediscover what really matters.

One thing’s for sure—they’ll need the strength of family and the power of sisterhood to remake their lives and reimagine their dreams.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.

And a Little Women retelling wouldn’t be nearly as convincing if it didn’t start with that memorable opening line!

Dangle a Little Women retelling in front of me, and naturally I’m going to read it. And while Meg & Jo has been on my TBR for a while now, I finally got the motivation to dive in thanks to my book group, since this is our February pick.

In Meg & Jo, the March sisters are all grown up and living their own lives. Meg has settled into married life with her husband John and their adorable two-year-old twins, staying put in the family home town in North Carolina. Jo moved to New York years back to pursue a journalism career, but after being laid off from her newspaper job, she’s working as a prep cook at a fancy restaurant while secretly writing a food blog. Beth is in school studying music, and Amy has an internship in the fashion world.

Meg & Jo is narrated in alternating chapters by (obviously) Meg and Jo, and it’s their stories that are the focus of this book. (Beth and Amy are still there, mostly in the background and in their occasional appearances as they visit home, but they’re not POV characters in this book.)

As the book progresses, we learn that neither Meg nor Jo is truly leading their best lives. Meg is a stay-at-home mom, and her husband gave up his teaching and coaching job to work at a car dealership so he could better support their growing family once they found out Meg was pregnant. Neither one is entirely happy. Sure, they love each other and their children, but Meg pressures herself to do it all as payback for John working so hard, not realizing how she’s shutting him out and denying him the opportunity to be a true partner. Meanwhile, John is working at a job that means nothing to him, and can’t bring himself to talk to Meg about it. The communication problems between Meg and John are the central challenge they face.

As for Jo, her blog is doing well, but she’s frustrated. She likes working in the restaurant, but it’s not exactly advancing her writing career. As the story progresses, she falls into a romantic relationship with Eric, the renowned chef and owner of the restaurant, but secrets and a lack of clear intention seem to doom the romance before it can really bloom.

Complicating Meg and Jo’s separate lives further is family drama back home. The March parents live on the farm passed down through Abby’s (Marmee’s) side of the family. Abby runs the farm and the home herself, while her husband Ashton seems to devote all his time to his calling, serving as chaplain and counselor to military vets. When Abby becomes injured, her farm duties fall to Meg — and once Meg takes over, she starts to realize the precariousness of the farm’s future.

As the sisters return home for their mother’s recuperation and for the holidays, they come together to support and love one another. Secrets are revealed, there are plenty of surprises, and ultimately, there are promises of future happiness for Meg and Jo.

So… did I enjoy Meg & Jo? Yes, for sure! It took some getting used to, but seeing the March family transplanted into modern-day lives was quite fun and for the most part, really engaging. I did want to give Meg a good shake from time to time — it was so obvious to me that her attempts to take the household burdens off of John were actually alienating him. The book does a good job of showing how she was modeling her approach to doing it all on what she saw in her own parents’ marriage and internalized as the way things should work, and I was actually proud of Meg when she finally started to understand that accepting John as a true partner was the key to their future happiness.

Jo could be pretty clueless about certain things, and OF COURSE keeping her blog a secret was going to come back to bite her. I had a hard time believing some of the fallout, good and bad, once her secret came out. I did like her relationship with Eric, although I would have liked to see it given a little more time to grow before the big blow-up.

Beth and Amy seem to be basically true to their Little Women depictions, although (150-year-old spoiler alert!) Beth is alive and well in Meg & Jo! I held my breath for about half the book, waiting for her to develop a horrible illness, but thankfully, the book didn’t go there. Beth is gentle and sweet, very shy, and is committed to her musical career. Amy is spoiled, flighty, and impulsive, just as you’d expect.

One of my favorite parts of the book is Amy calling Jo out on trying to put them all into boxes, reminding Jo that in real life, people aren’t just one thing. I loved that their argument started over Pride and Prejudice – Jo sees Meg as Jane, and herself as Lizzie — but what roles does that leave for Beth and Amy? Amy rightfully resents that Jo can’t see her as anything but the pampered, entitled child she once knew. I loved the coming to terms that starts to occur between the sisters.

Another big difference between Little Women and Meg & Jo is how the March parents are depicted, especially the father. In Little Women, Mr. March is largely absent, off in the war and doing God’s work. They miss him terribly, but know he’s following an important path and never seem to resent him. In Meg & Jo, Mr. March comes off as kind of a jerk, at least when it comes to being a husband and father. Yes, he has a calling to tend to the men and women who are suffering after giving so much to their country — but he absolutely neglects his family in order to do so, leaving his wife and children to manage on their own and taking no responsibility for their financial or physical well-being.

Meg & Jo is a little longer than it needs to be, and some interludes at the restaurant and on the farm could have been tightened up a bit. I’m glad I listened to the audiobook rather than reading a print copy, since that helped me feel less like the story was dragging (and I could listen at a faster speed when it was!) The audiobook has different narrators for Meg and Jo, but honestly, their voices are very similar, so if I picked up in the middle of a chapter, it wasn’t obvious from the narrator whose chapter I was on.

As a Little Women fan, I was happy to experience Meg & Jo and see the author’s vision of a modern-day March family. While the story is a little light-weight at times, I enjoyed the characters and their challenges, and it was amusing to see how their 19th century lives could be translated to the 21st century. A follow-up, Beth & Amy, is due out this spring, and I will definitely be reading it!

Shelf Control #255: Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook
Author: Christina Henry
Published: 2017
Length: 292 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

From the national bestselling author of Alice comes a familiar story with a dark hook—a tale about Peter Pan and the friend who became his nemesis, a nemesis who may not be the blackhearted villain Peter says he is…

There is one version of my story that everyone knows. And then there is the truth. This is how it happened. How I went from being Peter Pan’s first—and favorite—lost boy to his greatest enemy.

Peter brought me to his island because there were no rules and no grownups to make us mind. He brought boys from the Other Place to join in the fun, but Peter’s idea of fun is sharper than a pirate’s sword. Because it’s never been all fun and games on the island. Our neighbors are pirates and monsters. Our toys are knife and stick and rock—the kinds of playthings that bite.

Peter promised we would all be young and happy forever. Peter lies.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy via Book Depository about a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve read three books by Christina Henry so far. My first was The Girl in Red (a re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood), which I loved. Then I read The Mermaid, and I loved that too. I immediately ordered a few earlier books, including Alice and Lost Boy.

Unfortunately, I lost a bit of steam after reading Alice, which I didn’t enjoy. The story was too messy and violent for my taste, but I think one obstacle to my enjoyment is that I’ve just never gotten into Alice in Wonderland stories (and there are lots of retellings out there). And if you don’t enjoy the original story story, how can you enjoy a remix?

This is why I’ve been a bit hesitant about reading Lost Boy. I’m just not a bit fan of Peter Pan, and I’ve picked up and then put down a couple of retellings over the years too. Still, I know I’ve really liked the author’s writing and approach to storytelling in other books — and I do like the idea of telling the Peter Pan story through Captain Hook’s perspective.

What do you think? Have you read this book? Would you want to?

And how do you feel about Peter Pan stories in general?

Please share your thoughts!


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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Title: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
Series: The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club 
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: June 20, 2017
Length: 402 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.

But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.

When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.

 

When we meet Mary Jekyll, she’s in a sorry state. Her mother has just died after many years of madness, and Mary is left in her family home, already stripped of valuables over the years as she sold whatever she could in order to make ends meet. Now, Mary has no choice but to dismiss the household staff, count her few remaining coins, and try to find a way to eke out a few more. When Mary learns that her mother was sending regular payments to “Hyde”, care of a religious society, she’s both suspicious of blackmail and motivated to find out more.

Seeking the help of the famous Sherlock Holmes, Mary sets out to discover the truth about these payments, and ends up stumbling into the mystery of the Whitechapel murders as well. Could there be a connection? 

As the story progresses, Mary learns that her deceased father was a member of a secret society dedicated to scientific pursuit outside the bounds of the established scientific community. Specifically, these mad scientists seem to be dedicated to transmutation — pursuing a faster path to evolution by creating new forms of life. Mary’s investigations lead her to the daughters/creations of these men. Soon, this group of women are bound together by circumstance as well as affection, as they pursue the truth about their fathers’ Society of Alchemists and end up fighting for their lives.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is utterly charming and engaging. It’s a clever concept, bringing together a group of young women who are at best side notes in the original classic fiction from which they and their fathers originate and placing them at center stage. As the author makes clear, these women cannot and and will not be thought of as scientific oddities; they are unique individuals, new and different and outside the norms of society, yet with rich inner lives and a strong will to set the course of their own lives.

The writing here is smart and quirky. The book is presented as the narrative of the women’s adventure as written by Catherine — but throughout the book, the others interject their comments and critiques, pointing out places where Catherine is being too flowery or dramatic, or where she’s getting the details wrong. Meanwhile, as Mary meets each new character, they get the chance to tell their own stories, and each one is powerful and fascinating. 

There’s plenty of action, and quite a bit of humor. The Victorian setting works perfectly as a backdrop for the adventure. I always love stories of found families, and this one is a terrific example. All these women have been maltreated and discarded, but together, they form a new family in order to face the world together. As with any family, there are squabbles and disagreements and bickering, but at bedrock, there’s also love and support and protection — the whole is definitely greater than its parts.

There are two more books in the series, and I do intend to continue… although I may hold off for a little while, after realizing that book #2, European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, is over 700 pages. Still, I definitely want to see what happens next with this eccentric group of daring women! 

Highly recommended! Fans of the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger and the Veronica Speedwell books by Deanna Raybourn will appreciate the setting, the bantering, and the role of the scientifically adventurous women. It’s all great fun — don’t miss it!

 

Vacation reading wrap-up (summer 2019)

I haven’t done a vacation wrap-up post in a while… mainly because I haven’t had a real vacation (i.e., travel plans not involving family health visits) in AGES! As vaactions go, this week’s was a mini — just four days, but hey: I found sunshine!

My husband and I drove down the California coast to San Luis Obispo county, where we spent a few days hanging out in beach towns, enjoying balmy weather, good food, and even venturing into ocean water that was just a shade warmer than ice. But seriously, it was a good time, even if a bit too short.

And now I’m back, waiting for my laundry to finish (yes, I lead an exciting life), so I thought I’d share a taste of the reading I did these past few days. Because hanging out in beach towns means lots of time basking in the sun on comfy chairs, beach mats, and towels — book in hand, sunglasses on face, not enough sunscreen on body. (Ouch).

Here’s a quick wrap-up of what I read on vacation, with my take on the vacation-worthiness of each book. The number of little beach umbrellas reflects my own personal feelings about whether or not this is a good choice for tucking into your beach-tote!

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Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev: A modern day retelling of Pride and Prejudice (obviously), set in the Bay Area and featuring the unlikely pairing of world-class neurosurgeon Trisha Raje and up-and-coming master chef DJ Caine, whose initial meeting is fraught with haughtiness and false impressions. As it turns out, Trisha is the only doctor offering a cure for DJ’s beloved sister’s brain tumor, so despite their mutual dislike, the two are forced together again and again. I liked that the author didn’t follow the P&P plotline 100% — there are plenty of familiar beats, but the story here stands on its own and isn’t shoehorned into unnatural shapes just to make it fit the pattern. I also like that it’s Trisha who’s in the Darcy role here, hiding behind her snobbiness and self-image and repelling the very person she finally realizes she wants to attract. The story moves quickly, has some key emotional moments, LOTS of mouth-watering descriptions of DJ’s culinary creations, and definitely succeeds as a love story with plenty of modern twists. Quite fun — I’m hoping Sonali Dev writes more in this world!

A five-umbrella vacation read for sure! Between the romance and the food, what more could you want?

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We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory. This book (and this author) have been recommended to me repeatedly — so I finally tossed it in my beach bag and gave it a go. What a weird but oddly compelling story! We Are All Completely Fine is about a group therapy session for people who’ve survived encounters with the supernatural, and have the scars to prove it. Each of the group members has their own horrifying story to tell, and all are joined together through their process of sharing and healing, ultimately banding together to fight off a big bad coming after one of their own. It’s a short read, easily digestible in one sitting. I really liked it, and now that I’ve dipped my toe into his work, I’ll definitely be reading more by Daryl Gregory!

Giving this one 4 beach umbrellas — easy to read on the beach, but the subject matter didn’t really meld well with the bright light of day.

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I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin: I went at this story a little bit backwards — this is book #1 of 2, but I read #2 first (reviewed here). Oh well. It still works! In this first book, we meet Ava and Gen, two best friends embarking on their freshman year of college on opposites sides of the country. The story is told through their emails and texts, which really capture their personalities and their quirky friendship. It’s light and sunny, but also contains moments of self-discovery, pain, and challenge, as the two characters discover new aspects of themselves and question whether their friendship still works as they grow into their college selves.

Another 5-umbrella read — once you start, it’s impossible to stop!

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And that’s it! Not too shabby for a four-day vacation!

Now I need to go plan my next get-away… I’m not ready for a return to reality just yet.

Book Review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis’s people but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.

The opening lines of The Silence of the Girls let us know that this is not just a retelling of the glory of Achilles:

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we call him “the butcher.”

The Silence of the Girls is narrated by Briseis, a noble woman of Lyrnessus who is taken into captivity by the Greeks when her city is sacked during the endless Trojan War. The men, including Briseis’s husband, father, and brothers, are slaughtered. Male children are killed; even pregnant women are run through with swords to prevent them giving birth to sons. The women who survive the attack are now prisoners, slaves and war prizes, at the mercy of their fierce captors.

Briseis is claimed by Achilles, the godlike warrior who leads the Greek armies throughout the long war against Troy. Through Briseis’s eyes, we see the grit and gore behind the glamour of the Greek heroes — men like Achilles, Ajax, and Odysseus, about whom legends and poems and ballads have been written. History is written by the victors — but who writes about the women? The women represented here by Briseis are not fighters. They have everything at stake in the war, but absolutely no power. As the book demonstrates over and over again, the women are the true victims here: They are the ones who are raped as part of the division of loot when a city is sacked; they are the ones forced into servitude; they are the ones sacrificed to appease the gods or to mourn a hero’s death or to settle a score.

This book tells the other side of the story, showing life in camp, the daily struggles of the enslaved women, and how powerless they are to change their own fates. The women are at the mercy of their captors, and their lives have no meaningful security other than what’s given to them and what can easily be taken away.

In The Silence of the Girls, Briseis gives voice to all the silent women victimized by war. These women have been erased from the narrative, so that the story that is told is all about brilliant military conquests and the struggles of men:

What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.

Is this meant to be a direct rebuke to the narrative focus of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which focuses on the love between Achilles and Patroclus? Having only recently read The Song of Achilles, I must say that it’s jarring to go from that book to The Silence of the Girls. The Song of Achilles is just such a beautifully written book, and I loved the love between Achilles and Patroclus. It’s hard to let go of the glory of that book and re-read the same events through a much different lens, as we’re forced to do in The Silence of the Girls.

I found The Silence of the Girls a powerful read, compelling but brutal and difficult to stomach. The writing is straight-forward, although I was a bit confused by the inclusion of several chapters told from Achilles’s perspective. In a book that’s supposed to be expressing the voices of the women, I wasn’t sure why it was necessary to include his point of view. The events as narrated by Briseis differ in some key ways from their portrayal in The Song of Achilles, so readers of that book should be aware that an open mind is needed.

War is hell… and as The Silence of the Girls makes clear, the hell of war doesn’t stop at the edge of the battlefield. In giving voice to the silent women. The Silence of the Girls unveils a fresh perspective on classic myths and legends, and makes sure that those who suffered aren’t written out of history. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: The Silence of the Girls
Author: Pat Barker
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Length: 291 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

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Laughing too hard to actually write a review of Texts From Jane Eyre

 

Hilariously imagined text conversations—the passive aggressive, the clever, and the strange—from classic and modern literary figures, from Scarlett O’Hara to Jessica Wakefield.

Mallory Ortberg, the co-creator of the cult-favorite website The Toast, presents this whimsical collection of hysterical text conversations from your favorite literary characters. Everyone knows that if Scarlett O’Hara had an unlimited text-and-data plan, she’d constantly try to tempt Ashley away from Melanie with suggestive messages. If Mr. Rochester could text Jane Eyre, his ardent missives would obviously be in all-caps. And Daisy Buchanan would not only text while driving, she’d text you to pick her up after she totaled her car. Based on the popular web-feature, Texts from Jane Eyre is a witty, irreverent mashup that brings the characters from your favorite books into the twenty-first century.

Ha ha ha.

Man.

This book is just so much fun. Author Mallory Ortberg has reimagined classics of all ages, from Medea and Gilgamesh to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, and has put them together in a book that’s almost too great to read in one sitting (but I did it anyway). 

From Circe defending certain poor choices she’s made:

… to Mrs. Bennet being very Mrs. Bennet-ish:

… this book captures the heart and soul of the stories it includes, and makes then just too damned hilarious.

 

What’s really amazing is that the author clearly knows her stuff, because she absolutely nails the key elements of the stories and the characters, the things that make them unique and recognizable. The texts are clever and so well done — I just couldn’t get enough.

Sure, some of the bits on certain classics went right over my head, since I don’t know the originals, but that didn’t take away any of the enjoyment. This will be one of those books to keep handy and just open up at random once in a while, especially when I need something to brighten up my day.

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The details:

Title: Texts From Jane Eyre
Authors: Mallory Ortberg
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication date: November 4, 2014
Length: 226 pages
Genre: Humor
Source: Purchased

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