Review: A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang + Giveaway

Review: A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang + GiveawayA Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, historical fiction, historical mystery
Pages: 350
Published by Lake Union Publishing on August 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Just beyond the Gilded Age, in the mist-covered streets of New York, the deadly Spanish influenza ripples through the city. But with so many victims in her close circle, young socialite Allene questions if the flu is really to blame. All appear to have been poisoned—and every death was accompanied by a mysterious note.
Desperate for answers and dreading her own engagement to a wealthy gentleman, Allene returns to her passion for scientific discovery and recruits her long-lost friends, Jasper and Birdie, for help. The investigation brings her closer to Jasper, an apprentice medical examiner at Bellevue Hospital who still holds her heart, and offers the delicate Birdie a last-ditch chance to find a safe haven before her fragile health fails.
As more of their friends and family die, alliances shift, lives become entangled, and the three begin to suspect everyone—even each other. As they race to find the culprit, Allene, Birdie, and Jasper must once again trust each other, before one of them becomes the next victim.

My Review:

At first, it seems like this story is about the party. An engagement party, in New York during the Gilded Age, among the upper crust. A young socialite dies, and everyone wants to sweep her death under the expensive carpet and chalk it all up to an accident. Even if, or perhaps especially because, it isn’t.

But once the focus moves outward, from the singular death to its effects on three young people attending that party, the action shifts into high gear. Suddenly, it’s not about the party, or at least not just the party, any longer.

As we watch our young protagonists (they are all 18) grow and change in the wake of this event, and in the process of their investigation into it, it seems to be about everything but the party. We become involved with them, their worlds, which were once the same but are now divergent, and the mystery expands.

Until it contracts, and we’re back, surprisingly, to that party, only nothing was quite as it seemed.

A Beautiful Poison is a murder mystery, and, it is also a coming of age story. And it’s a story about friendship. And love. Definitely about love.

All three of the protagonists are 18. And although all of them either are about to or already have embarked upon their adult lives, their relative youth and inexperience definitely factor into the story.

At first, is seems like Allene’s story. And also at first, Allene’s story seems like that of a typical poor-little-rich-girl, a bird in a gilded cage that yearns to fly free, even though her sheltered upbringing means that she has no clue what that freedom might cost.

Her friends are all too aware of the cost. Both Jasper and Birdie used to be members of Allene’s charmed inner circle, until tragedy shoved them out and away. And Allene, firmly under her parents’ thumbs, as rich girls were a century ago, let it happen.

Jasper’s parents committed suicide – after his father lost all their money. In the intervening four years, Jasper has lived with his alcoholic, agoraphobic uncle, supported them both, and put himself through college as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital, borrowing textbooks over the weekend in the hopes of someday going to medical school.

Birdie has fallen even lower, as women had many fewer financial opportunities. She and her mother were upper-caste servants in Allene’s household, serving as lady’s maids and dressers to Allene and her own mother. Until Birdie’s mother was suddenly and inexplicably turned out of the house without a reference, forced to take Birdie with her. Hazel is now a prostitute, while Birdie keeps the little family afloat, a family that includes her 4-year-old sister, by being one of the dial-painters in the clock factory.

Birdie knows that her time is running out, and swiftly. She knows she’s dying, although she doesn’t know why. Birdie sees Allene’s invitation to the engagement party as her last chance to get back into Allene’s inner circle, in the hopes of saving her little sister from their mother’s fate. Allene just sees it as an adventure, and a chance to spend time with her besties before she is immured in marriage to a wealthy man who will undoubtedly grow up to be just like her father. Her cage door will lock forever, and this is her last chance to fly free.

As Allene, Jasper and Birdie investigate the original shocking death, more bodies pile up. People around them are dying, and in each instance, they find a note left behind, with only two words on it, “You’re welcome”. But who is welcome for what?

Time is running out, but so are the potential victims. Especially when the influenza epidemic sweeps through New York and nearly takes them all with it – before their amateur investigation is complete.

Escape Rating B+: This story is a circle. It starts with the party, and it ends with the party. But at the end, everyone’s perspective on those events has changed. And their world is a much different place than it was at the beginning.

Once the story moves outward, away from its initial focus on Allene to encompass all three protagonists, it moves at the same cracking pace as the progress of Birdie’s cancer, which is rapid indeed.

Birdie is one of the “radium girls” who painted clock faces with bits of radium that glowed in the dark. As did they before they died. There are books about real-life cases just like Birdie’s, including this year’s The Radium Girls. Those cases led to the first workplace regulatory legislation. It would have been much tidier in some ways for the author to have included the solution to Birdie’s death as part of the story, but radium wasn’t isolated as the cause until well after her death. Instead, her predicament becomes one of the many red-herrings in the mystery.

Upon finishing the story, it felt like the coming of age aspect was more important than it seemed at first, just as all the characters turned out to be much deeper than they seemed, especially Allene, who was rather shallow and self-absorbed at her engagement party. Allene and Jasper grow up during the course of the story, and they discover who they are and what they are to each other.

One of the things that they discover, surprising for both them and the reader, is that as much as this story is about love, it is not a love story. Allene and Jasper do not end up with each other, at least not as anything more than friends. Whether that is because their roads have diverged too far, or whether it’s because they are better as “family” than lovers is up to the reader to decide. But it felt right.

But the story is still about love, and what we will do for love. No matter what the cost, there are times and circumstances where no price is too high.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of A Beautiful Poison to one lucky US/Canadian commenter.

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Review: Stardust by Neil Gaiman + Giveaway

Review: Stardust by Neil Gaiman + GiveawayStardust by Neil Gaiman
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, graphic novel, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, fairy tales, fantasy
Pages: 288
Published by William Morrow on September 27th 2016 (first published 1999)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Go and catch a falling star . . .
Tristran Thorn promises to bring back a fallen star for his beloved, the hauntingly beautiful Victoria Forester—and crosses the wall that divides his English country town from another, more dangerous world of lords and witches, all of them in search of the star. Rich with adventure and magic, Stardust is one of master storyteller Neil Gaiman's most beloved tales.
“Eminently readable—a charming piece of work.”   —Washington Post Book World
“Beautiful, memorable . . . A book full of marvels.”   —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

My Review:

Stardust the movie posterNever judge a book by its movie. I saw the movie Stardust a few years ago, but my recollection of it is NOTHING like the book. Which was lovely. But does not contain cross-dressing pirate captains. Not that a book about or containing cross-dressing pirate captains might not be good, or interesting, or funny, or all of the above. But there are none in Stardust. The book.

Stardust has the feel of a fairy tale, albeit one written for adults or near-adults. Or possibly pretending-to-be-adults. The world of Faerie, beyond the town of Wall, has all the elements of a fairy tale. There are evil witches who cast terrible spells. There’s a mysterious kingdom high in the mountains, where the throne is passed, not from father to eldest son, but from survivor to survivor, in a winner-takes-all competition for the throne. There are people ensorcelled to be animals, and animals spelled to be people.

And of course there is prophecy, destiny and fate. And absolutely nothing is as it seems.

Once upon a time, a young man of Wall spends the night in Faerie with a beautiful girl. He goes home to his ordinary life, and marries his ordinary wife, and the night he spent with the bird-girl slips further into dreams.

Until nine months later, when a baby is shoved through the opening from Faerie into Wall, and Dunstan Thorn learns that actions have consequences, although not necessarily for him. Because this is not his story.

It’s that baby’s story. Tristran Thorn grows up, and as a very young man, makes a very foolish promise to a rather stuck-up young woman. But while she means nothing of what she says to him, he means every single word that he says to her.

And off Tristran goes, to Faerie, to seek out a fallen star. He has no idea that Faerie is the land of his birth. And he equally has no idea that the fallen star he seeks is not a lump of metal, but a young woman who was knocked out of the sky by a magically thrown rock.

And of course he has no idea at all that this adventure will be the making of him. The boy who leaves Wall plans to bring the star back to show the young woman he believes that he loves.

The man he becomes, well, that man discovers something else entirely.

Escape Rating A: Stardust is, as I said in the beginning, absolutely lovely. If you have fond memories of reading fairy tales, Stardust will bring back all those feelings, while still telling a story written, if not exactly for grown ups, at least for people masquerading as such.

Stardust is also both a quest story and a coming-of-age story, in the finest fairy tale tradition. As everyone in Faerie knows, there are only two reasons for a young man to embark on the kind of quest that Tristran undertakes – either he is seeking his fortune, or he is doing it for love. And of course, they are right. While he is doing it for love, what he finds turns out to be his fortune. And also love. It wouldn’t have a happy ending otherwise.

Which it most certainly does. But it’s absolutely nothing like the movie.

NEVER JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS MOVIE! The book is ALWAYS better.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

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William Morrow is giving away (5) sets of American Gods, Anansi Boys, Neverwhere and Stardust! (Which are all absolutely awesome books!)
Terms & Conditions:
• By entering the giveaway, you are confirming you are at least 18 years old.
• Five winners will be chosen via Rafflecopter to receive one set of all 4 books
• This giveaway ends midnight December 2.
• Winner will be contacted via email on December 3.
• Winner has 48 hours to reply.
Good luck everyone!
ENTER TO WIN!
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Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, fantasy, horror, magical realism
Pages: 178
Published by William Morrow Books on June 18th 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

My Review:

If the man who is never named, who may be someone not dissimilar to the author, returns to that ocean at the end of that lane so that Lettie can see if her sacrifice was worth it, readers are left with the certainty that it was.

If only that so we can read this strange and marvelous story that has bits of fantasy, parts of horror, and a few things that go bump in the night. Along with the sense both that we never quite grow up, and that the bits and pieces we remember of our childhoods do not necessarily resemble what actually happened.

And probably shouldn’t.

From one perspective, this story is relatively simple. A man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, and in his grief he finds himself wandering back to the places he knew as a child.

Much of his childhood has been torn down, and this is not surprising, it happens to all of us as we reach middle-age. But one place is still standing, because it is a place that has always been standing, and possibly always will be, even after the rest of us have turned to dust.

It is the place where the narrator experienced something both wonderful and terrible, an experience that was awful both in the sense that it was a horrible thing to have happen , and in its original sense, that it was full of awe. But it was an experience that his seven-year-old self wasn’t ready to experience, and one that his ordinary self is unable to remember.

Except when he returns, as he sometimes does, to remember what really happened and to give an accounting of his life to the one person who made it all possible.

And it’s magic.

Escape Rating A: Fair warning, this is going to be one of those reviews where I mostly talk about how the book made me feel. I’m not sure there is any other way to approach it.

Although most of the events being recounted happened to the protagonist when he was seven, this is an adult book. It is the man looking back on those events, and recognizing that there are things he knows now that he didn’t know then. And sometimes vice-versa.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story that will either charm you and draw you in, or it won’t. It is also not quite what you might be expecting. There is a sense that it is fantasy, a possibility that it is horror, and even a chance that everything the author thinks he remembers is mostly a story that he tells himself rather than events that he actually remembers.

There are readers, who will be turned off by the child’s perspective, and there are readers who will be turned off by the fantasy elements that are inserted into the real world. Obviously, I wasn’t one of them. I found the sense that he was telling the story to himself added to the magic. It felt like a memory of the things you think you see out of the corner of your eyes – or when when you turn suddenly and what you thought was there seemingly isn’t.

This is also one of those stories that when you finish, you look back at what you read and are forced to view it in an entirely different way because of what you have learned. One of the ways in which the author turns this trope on its head is that while the reader ends with enough knowledge to re-evaluate the whole story, the protagonist forgets all that he has learned. Again.

What he experienced, what he learned, is too magical, too real, to exist in the mundane world. But it is such an important part of what made him who he is that it is necessary, every once in awhile, that he come to Lettie’s Ocean to remember it all over again.

And as the reader, I am very grateful for that.

If you believe that the world is much, much stranger than it seems, and that there are forces both wondrous and terrible still lurking in its hidden corners, this book is an incredible, and intense, treat.

Ocean
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