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:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

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.

The Monday Check-In ~ 1/28/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read during the last week?

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro: My (audiobook) review is here.

The Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman: My review is here.

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal: My review is here. (Loved it!)

Outlander, baby!

Season 4, where did you go???? I can’t believe it’s over!

Here’s my reaction post for the season finale, Episode 413, “Man of Worth” (aired 1/27/2019).

Pop culture goodness:

My husband and I had a night out! We went to the theater to see Come From Away, and loved it. It’s based on a true story (which is also told in an amazing book I reviewed last year, The Day the World Came To Town). If you have a chance to see the show, do it!

Meanwhile, my son and I have just about wrapped up our Game of Thrones binge! We’re down to the last couple of episodes from season 7. Now the waiting begins!

Fresh Catch:

Once again, no new books purchased this week… unless you count Kindle books, in which case — I may have over done things a bit. Plus, I got this book from the library — and despite not have small children in the house, we all loved it:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse: Our local library picked this book as a citywide read for January/February. I’ve only just started, but I’m really liking it so far.

Now playing via audiobook:

The Last Days of August by Jon Ronson: I’ve become a fan of Jon Ronson’s audiobooks, both because of his always interesting subject matter and his skillful narration. This investigation into a porn star’s death is fascinating so far.

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing reads with my book group:

  • A Plague of Zombies by Diana Gabaldon: Continuing our journey through all of the Lord John books and stories.
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: Our new group classic read starts today! We’re discussing two chapters per week. I’m giving it a shot via audiobook — so far (chapter one), I’m loving the narration!

So many books, so little time…

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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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Book Review: Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel


Pride and Prejudice meets Frankenstein as Mary Bennet falls for the enigmatic Victor Frankenstein and befriends his monstrous Creature in this clever fusion of two popular classics.

Threatened with destruction unless he fashions a wife for his Creature, Victor Frankenstein travels to England where he meets Mary and Kitty Bennet, the remaining unmarried sisters of the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice. As Mary and Victor become increasingly attracted to each other, the Creature looks on impatiently, waiting for his bride. But where will Victor find a female body from which to create the monster’s mate?

Meanwhile, the awkward Mary hopes that Victor will save her from approaching spinsterhood while wondering what dark secret he is keeping from her.

Pride and Prometheus fuses the gothic horror of Mary Shelley with the Regency romance of Jane Austen in an exciting novel that combines two age-old stories in a fresh and startling way.

My thoughts:

The classic/monster mash-up may seem played out by now, but I promise you that Pride and Prometheus is something quite different, and definitely worth reading.

This isn’t a case of an author putting otherworldly creatures — zombies, werewolves, vampires — into an existing story. Sure, those are fun, but once the charm of the gimmick wears off, so does the entertainment value.

Instead, Pride and Prometheus is a continuation of two stories, Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein. The author takes two narratives, and imagines what might have happened to these familiar characters if their paths crossed.

We begin more than a decade after the events of Pride and Prejudice. Mary Bennet, at age 32, has mellowed and grown since we last saw her. She’s learned more about herself and others. From the scorn and dismissal she experienced as a teen, she’s learned to be more thoughtful, to understand how her lectures and self-righteousness come across to others, and as a result, she’s become a young woman who’s more self-contained. She knows her own mind, but imposes less on others. Meanwhile, Kitty too remains unmarried, and the sisters live at home with their aging parents, growing closer to one another but neither particularly happy about their approaching spinsterhood.

Meanwhile, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature picks up soon after the events in Frankenstein. The Creature has sworn vengeance on Victor, threatening to destroy everyone he holds dear, unless he makes a mate for him so he’ll no longer be so alone in the world. In Pride and Prometheus, we follow Victor as he travels to England to try to escape his suffering — and we also follow the Creature, who pursues Victor relentlessly.

Mary has developed an interest in science, and when she meets Victor in a social setting, they seem to hit it off. He responds to her interest in his work, and she’s enamored of his intellect, his scientific curiosity and daring, and his treatment of her as if she were both intelligent and interesting. But with the Creature stalking Victor, things soon take a dark turn, and Mary becomes embroiled in the drama of Victor’s attempts to keep his promise to the Creature, while at the same time developing sympathy for the Creature and becoming convinced that he too is a soul worthy caring for.

The author’s writing approach in Pride and Prometheus is just so clever and well-done. In alternating chapters, we see the story from Mary, Victor, and the Creature’s points-of-view. As the narrator changes, so too does the writing style. The Mary chapters, told in 3rd person, have an Austen-esque tone, and the Victor/Creature chapters, told in first-person, have the gothic feel of Mary Shelley.

Familiarity with both original works — Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein — is helpful if you truly want to enjoy Pride and Prometheus, although maybe not completely essential. The story would still be entertaining, I suppose, without having read the original works, but I’m not sure the reader would get as much out of it. For me, it’s been many, many years since I read Frankenstein, and I realized soon after starting this book that I needed a refresher. Of course, there are tons of synopses available online, which helped, but reading Pride and Prometheus piqued my interest in going back and reading Frankenstein again.

Pride and Prometheus stands on its own as a creative, moving, and engaging story, and it’s also an absolute treat for anyone with a fondness for the original works that inspired it. With terrific writing that manages to capture the flavors of the originals while also telling a story that’s new, startling, and compelling, Pride and Prometheus is a great read that I hope will find an appreciative audience. I know I really enjoyed reading it… and I can’t wait to find other people who’ve read it too, so we can talk about it!

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The details:

Title: Pride and Prometheus
Author: John Kessel
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: February 13, 2018
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Speculative/science fiction/classics
Source: Library

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Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday: The Brontë Plot

There’s nothing like a Wednesday for thinking about the books we want to read! My Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday post is linking up with two fabulous book memes, Wishlist Wednesday (hosted by Pen to Paper) and Waiting on Wednesday (hosted by Breaking the Spine).

My most wished-for book this week is:

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The Brontë Plot by Katherine Reay
(to be released November 3, 2015)

Synopsis via Goodreads:

Lucy Alling makes a living selling rare books, often taking suspicious measures to reach her goals. When her unorthodox methods are discovered, Lucy’s secret ruins her relationship with her boss and her boyfriend James—leaving Lucy in a heap of hurt, and trouble. Something has to change; she has to change.

In a sudden turn of events, James’s wealthy grandmother Helen hires Lucy as a consultant for a London literary and antiques excursion. Lucy reluctantly agrees and soon discovers Helen holds secrets of her own. In fact, Helen understands Lucy’s predicament better than anyone else.

As the two travel across England, Lucy benefits from Helen’s wisdom, as Helen confronts the ghosts of her own past. Everything comes to a head at Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters, where Lucy is reminded of the sisters’ beloved heroines, who, with tenacity and resolution, endured—even in the midst of change.

Now Lucy must go back into her past in order to move forward. And while it may hold mistakes and regrets, she will prevail—if only she can step into the life that’s been waiting for her all along.

I’ve read Katherine Reay’s two previous novels, Dear Mr. Knightley (review) and Lizzy and Jane (review), and really like the way she incorporates themes from classic novels into contemporary stories. I’m really looking forward to The Brontë Plot!

What are you wishing for this Wednesday?

Looking for some bookish fun on Thursdays? Come join me for my regular weekly feature, Thursday Quotables! You can find out more here — come share the book love!

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Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I host a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!