#BookReview Wild and Distant Seas by Tara Karr Roberts

#BookReview Wild and Distant Seas by Tara Karr RobertsWild and Distant Seas by Tara Karr Roberts
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, literary fiction, magical realism
Pages: 304
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on January 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A gorgeous debut, laced through with magic, following four generations of women as they seek to chart their own futures. Evangeline Hussey’s husband is dead―lost at sea―and she has only managed to hold on to his Nantucket inn by employing a curious gift to glimpse and re-form the recent memories of those around her. One night, an idealistic sailor appears on her doorstep asking her to call him Ishmael, and her careful illusion begins to fracture. He soon sails away with Ahab to hunt an infamous white whale, and Evangeline is left to forge a life from the pieces that remain.
Her choices ripple through generations, across continents, and into the depths of the sea, in a narrative that follows Evangeline and her descendants from mid-nineteenth century Nantucket to Boston, Brazil, Florence, and Idaho. Moving, beautifully written, and elegantly conceived, Wild and Distant Seas takes Moby-Dick as its starting point, but Tara Karr Roberts brings four remarkable women to life in a spellbinding epic all her own.

My Review:

He said “Call me Ishmael” – and she did. But that is not where this distaff perspective on Moby-Dick begins.

It begins with Evangeline Hussey reinventing herself for the second time. The first time was when she ran away from a past we never see and found herself on Nantucket Island as the whaling industry was nearing the end of its heyday. She marries an innkeeper and intends to settle down for the rest of her life making chowder.

But Evangeline has a gift. She has just a bit of magic, a spark that allows her to do two things she’s going to rely on and fight against in the years to come. She can see through the eyes of people she knows, and she can make people believe and even DO what she wants. Through her gift, she sees that her husband’s small boat has capsized and he has drowned at sea, but she enforces the belief among the townspeople that he is just away on a business trip and will be back sooner or later.

It’s a lie she continually reinforces because she knows that his family – who have lived in Nantucket for generations – mightily disapprove of her and her marriage, and that they will take the inn away from her if they can. It’s the only home she knows and she can’t let that happen, so she lies and MAKES people believe it – for so many years that the lie reinforces itself.

Until Ishmael and Queequeg arrive at her Try Pots Inn, just before they sign up for Captain Ahad’s ill-omened and ultimately ill-fated voyage on the cursed Pequod. The story that Ishmael eventually tells in Moby-Dick.

But before the Pequod set sail, Ishmael and Evangeline had a brief dalliance that resulted in a child. A daughter born with no knowledge of her father but an even greater portion of her mother’s gifts.

Wild and Distant Seas is the story of Evangeline’s legacy, both her gifts and the endless pursuit of the missing Ishmael that she bequeathed to her daughter, her granddaughter, and even her great-granddaughter as they journey endlessly and fruitlessly, until at last one of them finally finds her way home.

Escape Rating B: Wild and Distant Seas is a story that is constantly in dialog with its predecessor, Moby-Dick. At points it hews close, and at others it is at more than a bit of a remove, but the great white whale is always swimming in the background.

And this is the point where I confess that I never read the damn thing. Yes, I know it’s considered to be one of the ‘Great American Novels’ and a literary classic, etc., etc., etc., but I was never forced to read it in high school and had no inclination afterward. It’s somewhere between a complete sausage fest and a boys’ own adventure (even if in the same way that Lord of the Flies is a boys’ own adventure) and the American literary canon is just full of those.

So part of my interest in Wild and Distant Seas was that it gives a distaff perspective on a story that otherwise doesn’t have a female perspective in it AT ALL. Considering how many men never came home from the whaling industry, a story about what happened after that was itself an interesting possibility for historical fiction, even if this book also has a bit of a literary fiction vibe to it.

What makes the story work is that it is absolutely NOT Ishmael’s story, as the original was. Instead, it’s the story of his absence and the lengths that absence drives Evangeline and her descendants to in pursuit of the truth of their origins. He’s a gaping hole in each of their histories that they are all trying to fill.

As each of the women in Evangeline’s line tell their stories, the other thread that links them is their use, misuse and abuse of the gift that they’ve inherited from her. Each of them is capable of bending others to their will, none of them are able to resist the impulse to use that power, and all of them ultimately realize that their gift has cost more than they’ve ever gained from it, which brings them, at last, back to their point of origin.

But the way each of their stories is told is through their first person perspective, with the torch of story passing from one woman to another when they each first use their gift, making each of their stories about the price they pay for that use.

Which, oddly enough, brings the story back to Moby-Dick and the price of Ahab’s obsession, in more ways than one.

In the end, as the story shifted protagonists and perspectives, I found some of their journeys more compelling than others, and I empathized more with Evangeline’s adult perspective than I did the learning period that her descendants inevitably went through. So ultimately I have mixed feelings but this turned out to be a fascinating way to explore a classic from a sideways point of view.

Review: The Star and the Strange Moon by Constance Sayers

Review: The Star and the Strange Moon by Constance SayersThe Star and the Strange Moon by Constance Sayers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 480
Published by Redhook on November 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

From the author of A Witch in Time comes a haunting tale of ambition, obsession, and the eternal mystery and magic of film.
1968: Actress Gemma Turner once dreamed of stardom. Unfortunately, she’s on the cusp of slipping into obscurity. When she’s offered the lead in a radical new horror film, Gemma believes her luck has finally changed. But L’Etrange Lune’s set is not what she expected. The director is eccentric, and the script doesn’t make sense.
Gemma is determined to make this work. It’s her last chance to achieve her dream—but that dream is about to derail her life. One night, between the shadows of an alleyway, Gemma disappears on set and is never seen again. Yet, Gemma is still alive. She’s been transported into the film and the script—and the monsters within it—are coming to life. She must play her role perfectly if she hopes to survive.
2015: Gemma Turner’s disappearance is one of film history’s greatest mysteries—one that’s haunted film student Christopher Kent ever since he saw his first screening of L’Etrange Lune. The screenings only happen once a decade and each time there is new, impossible footage of Gemma long after she vanished. Desperate to discover the truth, Christopher risks losing himself. He’ll have to outrun the cursed legacy of the film—or become trapped by it forever.

My Review:

The Star and the Strange Moon is a story about hunger, greed, obsession, the power of movies to make magic and, surprisingly, the power of magic to make movies.

This timeslip story has two beginnings, as timeslip stories often do. At first, neither the reader nor the characters have any clue what one will have to do with the other – which is what fuels the obsession and powers the whole journey, both magical and mundane.

In 1986, a woman sees a photograph on a wall and pretty much loses her damn mind. Not that she hasn’t been heading that direction for quite some time, after nearly two decades of brief fortune, lost fame, failed hopes, and entirely too much sex and drugs and, as it turns out, not nearly enough rock and roll.

Her son, all of ten years old, has been the adult in their nomadic existence for seemingly all of his life, taking care of his mother as she drives them from one brief, often catastrophic singing gig to another, making sure she doesn’t kill herself with booze or drugs and talking her down from whatever figurative ledge she’s climbed up to this time.

But something about that photograph on the wall rips away his mother’s last grasp on sanity or reality or normalcy or all of the above in a way that both changes and makes Christopher Kent’s young life – even if, at age ten – he has no idea what who the woman in that photograph was or what any of it means.

The perspective then switches to the woman in the photograph, Gemma Turner, back in 1968, when she was a formerly up and coming actress and the current ‘old lady’ for a rock singer on the cusp of either greatness or being thrown out of his own band. Gemma wants out and away, so she takes the only acting job offered, to star in a horror movie for a French New Wave director who may be a genius director but has no clue about the conventions of the horror genre he plans to both break and break into.

One night, in the middle of filming L’Etrange Lune in a tiny French village, Gemma Turner disappears in the middle of a shoot – literally in the middle of a shot while the camera is recording it all. She wakes up in what appears to be a real-life version of the set of the movie, complete with its ‘strange moon’, in what seems to be 1878, in the person of the character she was portraying.

A character who is soon to be drained to death by a vampire. Unless, somehow, she can change the script.

Meanwhile, back in the so-called real world, her disappearance turns into a mystery that swallows the life of everyone the movie or the woman ever touched. Including, eventually and inevitably, the life of one Christopher Kent, who has no idea who Gemma Turner was or what she might possibly have ever done to his mother.

It will become Christopher’s obsession – and his life’s journey – to find the answer to ALL the mysteries that have grown up around Gemma Turner’s disappearance. It’s a discovery that will break him, make him, and enthrall him to the very end.

And the reader right along with him.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up because I adored the author’s earlier book, The Ladies of the Secret Circus, with its blend of history, mystery and magic, and The Star and the Strange Moon looked like it was in the same vein.

Which turned out to be true a bit more literally than I imagined, adding to the mystery of the story and my compulsion to finish it because there were bits that started to sound just a bit more familiar than I expected.

They are not the same story, although they do have similarities in their blending of forgotten history, secret realities, hidden magic and family obsessions. Nor do you need to read one to enjoy the other.

But both stories have the same origin. Or at least the same originator, the demon prince Althacazur and his endless and frequently appalling attempts to keep his eternity from being boring. Althacazur turns out to be the ‘man’ behind the curtain, rather like the Wizard of Oz, only Althacazur is a real magical being with all too real and horrific powers.

I want to say he’s not important – and he’s not important to what makes this story compulsively readable and so much fun. So even though the events are all his fault, he’s not all that important in the grand scheme of things, as contradictory as that seems.

What makes this story work is its combination of Christopher’s obsession to learn what the mysteriously missing Gemma Turner has to do with the sad progress of his mother’s life, set against Gemma’s story of taking control of her own destiny in a way that would not have been possible in the time and place to which she was born.

Christopher’s story is a story about hunting down clues, investigating theories, and giving over his own life in the present to solve a mystery in the past. Gemma’s story is about learning to make lemons out of lemonade and accepting that even if she can’t go home again, she can make a home where she is.

That Christopher’s solution to the mystery takes him down a road that runs more than a bit parallel to Outlander isn’t exactly a surprise by the time he gets there. But it does make for a fitting and delightful end to a lovely twisty turny story.

Which now has me more than a bit curious about the author’s first book, A Witch in Time, and whether Althacazur has been entertaining himself with humans even more than we’ve seen in The Ladies of the Secret Circus and The Star and the Strange Moon. I’ll have to find out while I wait for the author’s next book to magically – or demonically – appear!

Review: The Echo of Old Books by Barbara Davis

Review: The Echo of Old Books by Barbara DavisThe Echo of Old Books by Barbara Davis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, historical fiction, historical romance, magical realism, mystery
Pages: 443
Published by Lake Union Publishing on March 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Rare-book dealer Ashlyn Greer’s affinity for books extends beyond the intoxicating scent of old paper, ink, and leather. She can feel the echoes of the books’ previous owners—an emotional fingerprint only she can read. When Ashlyn discovers a pair of beautifully bound volumes that appear to have never been published, her gift quickly becomes an obsession. Not only is each inscribed with a startling incrimination, but the authors, Hemi and Belle, tell conflicting sides of a tragic romance.
With no trace of how these mysterious books came into the world, Ashlyn is caught up in a decades-old literary mystery, beckoned by two hearts in ruins, whoever they were, wherever they are. Determined to learn the truth behind the doomed lovers’ tale, she reads on, following a trail of broken promises and seemingly unforgivable betrayals. The more Ashlyn learns about Hemi and Belle, the nearer she comes to bringing closure to their love story—and to the unfinished chapters of her own life.

My Review:

Instead of Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Echo of Old Books is a tale of Four Tragedies and an HEA – at least – and on both counts. The story folds together the bitter and the sweet into a saga that begins in mystery, middles in anger and ends in hope while it puts the readers, both of the story and within the story, through a wringer of emotions, keeping them turning the pages of not just the book in hand, but of the two mysterious books within.

It all begins with Hemi and Belle and the two seemingly anonymous, most likely privately published books that hold their separate perspectives on their clearly doomed, inevitably tragic WW2-era romance. But those little books are only the beginning of the web that has been woven.

A web that catches rare-book dealer Ashlyn Greer within its sticky strands. At first, she is snared by the emotions that she can feel pouring off the pages. And then by the mystery of how these two books came to be.

She knows, with her gift of psychometry, that the emotions held within the pages are real – but can’t be certain whether the story told within is the true story of the seemingly star-crossed lovers or merely a fiction intended to conceal a deeper emotional truth.

As she reads, and as we read with her, she also becomes caught up in the puzzle of it all. Were Hemi and Belle real? If so, who were they? And how far will she need to travel in order to learn that truth?

Her search takes her to an intrepid librarian who ferrets out much of the historical data with a twinkle in her eye and a spring in her step. But the real treasure trove of information comes from Ethan Manning, who brought the books – along with many other considerably more mundane works – from his late father’s library to the used bookstore where Ashlyn first encountered Remembering Belle and Belle’s response in Forever, and Other Stories.

Together they read the story of his great-aunt Marian (nicknamed Belle in the books) and the love of her life. Whoever he was and however he broke her heart – just as she broke his. Along the way, they learn more than either of them wanted to know about a past that STILL isn’t quite dead.

And discover that the tragedies locked in their own pasts do not mean that they can’t find a brighter future, if they can just manage to paradoxically, let it go.

Escape Rating A: I’m pretty sure I initially grabbed this for the cover. Because books. Seemingly endless stacks of books. I couldn’t resist the story even if I can now manage to walk out of a bookstore without carrying stacks of books out with me, if only because text is hard these days and ebooks are much easier to read and to carry.

Howsomever, I moved this book to a bit earlier in the week for two reasons. One, I was hoping for an unequivocal happy ending, which wasn’t possible in some of this week’s books and seemed disappointingly out of reach in yesterday’s.

But even if this did not turn out to have a happy ending I could tell that it was at least going to have a cathartic resolution of some kind. Even if that resolution was bittersweet or downright sad. I needed something definitive, and I most definitely got it in this absorbing, compulsive page-turner.

I got all of that and more in The Echo of Old Books.

This is kind of a timeslip story, and it’s also more than a bit of a treasure hunt story. And appropriately, it’s the timeslip, the story within the books themselves, that grabs both Ashlyn and the reader first. So the story of Belle and Hemi dominates the early parts of the narrative in a way that is both clever and absorbing.

We also start out Belle and Hemi’s story knowing it’s going to be tragic, so it’s not exactly a spoiler that their 1941 idyll gets, well, spoiled. What we, and Ashlyn, are desperate to learn is how. And the way that the story spools out, at first being a whole lot of Belle and Hemi with only hints of Ashlyn, carefully shifts over the course of the story to less and less of the past – even as it gets more searing and races towards its seemingly inevitable denouement – and more of Ashlyn and now Ethan’s presents.

And their own searing, scarring pasts. The more we learn about both couples, the more we hope for HEAs all around – no matter how impossible that might seem. We become invested in both stories every bit as much as Ashlyn does Belle’s.

The Echo of Old Books was absolutely the right book at the right time for this reader, with its combination of historical mystery, tragic romance and historical ambiance both in Belle and Hemi’s 1941 and Ashlyn and Ethan’s “present day” of 1984.

I’m definitely going to be snapping up this author’s next book as soon as I see it. In the meantime, I’ll be picking up a copy of her next most recent book, The Keeper of Happy Endings, for the next time I need a book with an absorbing puzzle, a bit of an ugly cry in the middle, and satisfying, cathartic resolution with hopes of an HEA to keep me turning pages until the heartstopping end.

Review: The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill

Review: The Crane Husband by Kelly BarnhillThe Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: fantasy, horror, magical realism, retellings
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on February 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Award-winning author Kelly Barnhill brings her singular talents to The Crane Husband, a raw, powerful story of love, sacrifice, and family.
“Mothers fly away like migrating birds. This is why farmers have daughters.
A fifteen-year-old teenager is the backbone of her small Midwestern family, budgeting the household finances and raising her younger brother while her mom, a talented artist, weaves beautiful tapestries. For six years, it’s been just the three of them—her mom has brought home guests at times, but none have ever stayed.
Yet when her mom brings home a six-foot tall crane with a menacing air, the girl is powerless to prevent her mom letting the intruder into her heart, and her children’s lives. Utterly enchanted and numb to his sharp edges, her mom abandons the world around her to weave the masterpiece the crane demands.
In this stunning contemporary retelling of “The Crane Wife” by the Newbery Medal-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, one fiercely pragmatic teen forced to grow up faster than was fair will do whatever it takes to protect her family—and change the story.

My Review:

There is a group of tales in Japanese folklore about a crane who returns a favor to a man. The best known of those tales is The Crane Wife. This story isn’t exactly that one for any number of reasons, quite possibly the least of which is that in this case it’s the husband who is the crane. The question of whether this crane husband is or is not returning anything remotely like a favor to the woman who makes herself his wife is open to one hell of a lot of questions.

Questions that her teenage daughter is left behind to answer – after her mother flies away.

The story in The Crane Husband perches almost gracefully at the sharp, pointy end of the pyramid between magical realism, fantasy and horror. Alternatively, it’s just plain horror about a teenager coping with too many adult issues by processing them through mythmaking.

Or both.

On the surface, it’s the story told by a nameless teenage girl as she watches her mother become enraptured by a crane who turns into a man in the dark of night. Her mother, an artist who has always seemed to be barely in touch with the real world, gives her every waking attention and her every thought and care to her crane husband. She turns so deeply inward as well as orients so totally on the shapeshifting crane that she stops doing any of the tasks necessary to keep their tiny household barely afloat.

Her daughter does her best, just as she has been doing since her father died, to manage the sales of her mother’s stockpiled art – of which there is little – as well as managing the food and the finances in general just to keep the lights on and to keep both herself and her little brother fed and clothed and sent to school.

Even as she watches her mother self-destruct. Until the girl finally comes to the pragmatic and necessary conclusion that her mother can’t be helped and that she herself is probably too damaged to save but that her adorable, winsome, six-year-old brother still has a chance.

If she acts before it is too late for them all. Unless it already is.

Escape Rating B+: The story on the surface may or may not be the real story, and that’s the part that keeps the reader guessing – or at least kept this reader guessing – even after the last page was turned.

It could be myth coming to life, meaning that the surface story is the true story. That her mother gave herself over to the crane in the hopes of finding a magical escape from the farm and the children that she should have taken long ago. And can’t resist now that she has found another way.

Very much on my other hand, this is also a story about a teenage girl keeping her family together in the face of her only remaining parent’s criminal neglect. While she is stuck watching her mother’s abuse at the hands of a charismatic and dangerous man who will certainly turn to her once he tears and beats her mother into an early grave.

That the girl turns to the language of myth to tell the story to herself as a coping mechanism would be as reasonable a solution as anything can be in the situation she’s enduring. Especially as the version we’re reading is the version she’s telling herself twenty years after her mother left. Or died.

Or turned into a crane and flew away.

Whether her story is an exercise in rationalization, a tale of outright horror or something in the middle haunts the reader as the tale draws to its conclusion. Along with the now adult girl’s still plaintive search for the brother she failed to save after all.

Review: The London Seance Society by Sarah Penner

Review: The London Seance Society by Sarah PennerThe London Séance Society by Sarah Penner
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, magical realism
Pages: 352
Published by Park Row on March 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

From the author of the sensational bestseller The Lost Apothecary comes a spellbinding tale about two daring women who hunt for truth and justice in the perilous art of conjuring the dead.
1873. At an abandoned château on the outskirts of Paris, a dark séance is about to take place, led by acclaimed spiritualist Vaudeline D’Allaire. Known worldwide for her talent in conjuring the spirits of murder victims to ascertain the identities of the people who killed them, she is highly sought after by widows and investigators alike.
Lenna Wickes has come to Paris to find answers about her sister’s death, but to do so, she must embrace the unknown and overcome her own logic-driven bias against the occult. When Vaudeline is beckoned to England to solve a high-profile murder, Lenna accompanies her as an understudy. But as the women team up with the powerful men of London’s exclusive Séance Society to solve the mystery, they begin to suspect that they are not merely out to solve a crime, but perhaps entangled in one themselves…

My Review:

Whether one believes that death is merely the gateway to the next great adventure, or that one is ascends to heaven or descends to hell, or that it is an end to all things – or holds some other belief altogether – we don’t actually KNOW in the empirical, scientific, provable and replicable sense. All that is certain is that death is inevitable – even more so than taxes in spite of the cliché.

The desire to know may be universal. When this story takes place in the 1870s the belief that it was possible to communicate with the dead, to reach behind that veil and either send or receive a message from those who had left us behind, was at its height. And also, as this book tells, its all too human, fallible and corruptible depths.

In other words, spiritualism was a very big – and very profitable deal in the 1870s. Victoria and the Victorian Era she gave her name to practically fetishized death. In the Re-United States there were few if any households who had not lost a friend or a loved one in the recent war. Plenty of people were looking for comfort or solace or simply closure.

No matter how prevalent beliefs in the spirit world may have been in the 1870s, later investigations proved that most of what was purported to be proof was actually proof of fraud and the gullibility of grieving people to believe what they needed to believe to get through their grief – or not, as the case might be.

But what if some of those beliefs were not misplaced? What if some mediums really could reach beyond the veil to bring true messages from the dead?

Lenna Wickes begins the story only believing in things she can see and hear and touch. But in her desperation to discover the truth about her sister’s murder, she turns to noted spiritualist Vaudeline D’Allaire to learn the tricks of her trade in the hopes of learning that truth – or at least of expiating her own guilt that their last conversation was yet another in an endless series of arguments.

What she finds instead is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and a fish that has rotted from the head down and threatens to engulf her and the woman she loves. Unless it blows up in her face.

Escape Rating A: I picked up The London Séance Society because I enjoyed the author’s debut novel, The Lost Apothecary, and wanted to see if her second book lived up to the first. Which it not only did, but was just that little bit better.

Her previous novel combined “a bit of a time slip story with historical fiction, a soupcon of magical realism and just a touch of mystery.” The London Séance Society skipped the timeslip, but told an even more fascinating tale of historical fiction with a much larger portion of magical realism and a heaping helping of mystery.

The magical realism is the part of the story that is both lampshaded and played straight at the same time – which keeps both the reader and the protagonist guessing from beginning to end.

Lenna Wickes represents the 21st century reader who does not believe in anything she can’t see or touch. Before her sister’s death, she collected fossils. But her sister Evie, who seemed to be a firm believer in spiritualism, claimed that those fossils were a kind of proof that it was possible to reach beyond the veil. That those preserved insects in amber, or the impressions of long-dead leaves and creatures in rock was just another way of reaching beyond death.

The sisters – as sisters do – strongly disagreed and were in disagreement when Evie was murdered.

Lenna dives into the world of spiritualism in an attempt to either communicate with her sister or figure out why she died, or both. She doesn’t believe, but she does feel that there might be something there. It’s also entirely possible that what she feels is considerably more related to her teacher than what she is being taught.

Whether Lenna believes or not, whether Vaudeline D’Allaire is a true medium or a fraud, it’s clear from the beginning that there is something rotten at The London Séance Society, a rich and powerful gentlemen’s club that prides itself on providing séances and other proofs of spiritualism.

Evie Wickes and the Society’s President were murdered on the same night – but not in the same place. It makes no sense to either Lenna or Vaudeline that the deaths could possibly be related. Until coincidences start piling up, and it becomes clear that someone high up in the Society was involved in something dirty that needed to be covered up. By any means necessary.

What made the story so compelling was the way that at first it seems like the identity of the rotter is obvious, to the point where one starts to believe one has it all figured out long before Lenna reaches that point. But there’s a niggle that it can’t possibly be that simple, and that’s what keeps one – or at least kept me – turning pages well into the night.

Because the more Lenna digs into the Society, the more dirt comes up, and the more the obvious conclusion looks to be hiding another, more sinister conclusion that is less obvious and even more unthinkable than the first terrible possibility. To the point where just when you think you can see the final twist coming – the story has yet one more turn to surprise you with.

The Lost Apothecary was very, very good. The London Séance Society is even better. I can’t wait to see what this author comes up with next!

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Review: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa

Review: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke NatsukawaThe Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa, Louise Heal Kawai
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, coming of age, fantasy, magical realism
Pages: 198
Published by HarperVia on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A celebration of books, cats, and the people who love them, infused with the heartwarming spirit of The Guest Cat and The Travelling Cat Chronicles.
Bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookstore he inherited from his beloved bookworm grandfather. Then, a talking cat named Tiger appears with an unusual request. The feline asks for—or rather, demands—the teenager’s help in saving books with him. The world is full of lonely books left unread and unloved, and Tiger and Rintaro must liberate them from their neglectful owners. 
Their mission sends this odd couple on an amazing journey, where they enter different mazes to set books free. Through their travels, Tiger and Rintaro meet a man who leaves his books to perish on a bookshelf, an unwitting book torturer who cuts the pages of books into snippets to help people speed read, and a publishing drone who only wants to create bestsellers. Their adventures culminate in one final, unforgettable challenge—the last maze that awaits leads Rintaro down a realm only the bravest dare enter...

My Review:

When we first meet Rintaro Natsuki, he has come to a fork in his road, at the point where he’s going to have to take it whether he wants to or not. He’s just been orphaned for the second time. When his parents died, he was still a child, and packed off to his grandfather without any choice or protest on his part.

At his grandfather’s death, Rintaro is in high school, even if he skips class a lot. He’s old enough to have a voice in his future – if he can come to terms with the reality of his loss. And if he can manage to reach out of his own social isolation to take it.

His legacy from his grandfather is a beautiful, marvelous and just barely profitable second-hand bookstore. A place that Rintaro has no desire to leave, but he seems to have no option to stay. At least not until the talking cat Tiger the Tabby swaggers out of the back of the bookstore and demands that Rintaro come with him on a journey to save books.

Rintaro loves books and reading. He also has nothing better to do and no motivation to do it. So he follows the cat through the suddenly endless book stacks and emerges into a labyrinth of wonder and danger. He’ll need not just courage and a bit of cunning, but every single drop of his love of reading to save the endangered books – and himself along the way.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this one up for the cat and the books, in that order. Which reminds me that the cat pictured on the US cover does not do Tiger the Tabby justice. The UK cover (pictured at left) does a much better job of giving Tiger his due.

But the story, of course, isn’t really about the cat. It is, however, at least in part about the way that cats – or any companion animals – can save us even from ourselves if we just let them. And the way that books and reading can give us time and space and tools to save ourselves if we let them into our minds just as the cats do when we let them into our hearts.

It’s also a bit of magical realism that leads into a very modern type of fairy tale. Tiger leads Rintaro into a series of labyrinths where books and reading are under assault in the guise of the love of books combined with bowing and scraping to market pressures and other distractions of modern life to save books by means that will, in the end, destroy them.

I think the story does conflate the love of the container – the physical book – with the love of what it contains and the experience of reading. I’m a bit concerned about that as I’m mostly an ebook reader because the genres I read are not widely represented in large print. If I were confined to the physical artifact I’d miss out on the thing I really want out of reading – the immersion in the story that the physical AND the electronic article contain and present for my enjoyment.

I digress just a bit.

What makes The Cat Who Saved Books such a lovely little read, however, is the totality of Rintaro’s journey. Not just the thoughtfully scary labyrinths where books go to die in the name of loving them, but Rintaro’s first steps on that path to adulthood. Because the story is about Rintaro’s chance to choose his life. To stay a socially withdrawn hikikomori, always dependent on someone else to deal with the world he has retreated from, or to take up the reins of the bookstore and his own life and learn to stand on his own. And that’s the part of the story that grabs the heart in its sharp, feline claws.

Because this is a book about books and reading, I can’t resist leaving this review without including a couple of readalikes. Any reader of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld will recognize that the way the back of the bookstore opens into endless shelves means that the store connects to ‘L’ space, the liminal place where all great libraries connect. The Discworld is not at all like The Cat Who Saved Books but that love of reading certainly exists in both places. The Girl Who Reads on the Métro by Christine Féret-Fleury is another lovely story about someone looking for a purpose who finds it in books and reading and loving them and the people she associates with them. And last but not least, more in tone than in specific, “All the World’s Treasures” by Kimberly Pauley, included in Never Too Old to Save the World, a story about a young woman inheriting a shop from her grandmother and discovering that there are connections to more places and infinitely more treasures than she ever imagined.

Review: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

Review: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex JenningsThe Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings
Narrator: Gralen Bryant Banks
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy
Pages: 456
Length: 17 hours and 15 minutes
Published by Redhook on June 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Music is magic in this novel set in a fantastical version of New Orleans where a battle for the city's soul brews between two young mages, a vengeful wraith, and one powerful song.
Nola is a city full of wonders. A place of sky trolleys and dead cabs, where haints dance the night away and Wise Women help keep the order. To those from Away, Nola might seem strange. To Perilous Graves, it’s simply home.
In a world of everyday miracles, Perry might not have a talent for magic, but he does know Nola’s rhythm as intimately as his own heartbeat. So when the city’s Great Magician starts appearing in odd places and essential songs are forgotten, Perry realizes trouble is afoot.
Nine songs of power have escaped from the piano that maintains the city’s beat, and without them, Nola will fail. Unwilling to watch his home be destroyed, Perry will sacrifice everything to save it. But a storm is brewing, and the Haint of All Haints is awake. Nola’s time might be coming to an end.

My Review:

While it seems likely that every city whose biggest industry is attracting tourists has two sides, the carefully curated tourist destination and the place where real people live, there is something about New Orleans that has made it a liminal place in more ways than that usual, particularly in fantasy and magical realism.

After all, New Orleans, with its historical transformations from French to Spanish to American, and its equally subversive retentions of everything it wants to hold dear from each iteration, whether on the literal surface, the figurative underground, or its signature combination of the two in its haunting but necessary above ground cities of the dead is just ripe – if not a bit too much so – for stories where the past and present collide, where the dead visit the living and where one version of the city lies on top of, underneath, or side by side any or all of the others.

In other words, the concept that New Orleans has either managed to split itself or has been split into two cities, the “real” New Orleans we know and the “realer than real” Nola is not so farfetched. At least not when it comes to this particular city.

What makes The Ballad of Perilous Graves both fascinating and fun is the way that it teases the reader with its two perspective that combine into one epic coming-of-age and coming-into-power quest, led by two characters who may or may not exactly be separate and may or may not be seeing the same – or even similar – cities.

But who must find their way somehow into the same quest to save the same place, the city that they both love – no matter who or what they have to sacrifice along the way.

Escape Rating A-: I am a sucker for stories about New Orleans so I was all set to love The Ballad of Perilous Graves. Which in the end I did, although it took awhile to get me there. This is one of those books where the audiobook, as read by Gralen Bryant Banks, carried me over to the point where the story got its hooks into me and didn’t let go.

At first, there’s just a lot of setup to get the reader into this version/vision of the city. Part of the reason it took me a bit to get there was that the initial point-of-view character is rising sixth grader Perilous (Perry) Graves. The Graves family, Perry, his little sister Brendy and his parents, Deacon and Yvette, live across the street from Peaches Lavelle, who seems to be 12 or so and seems to be the strongest person in the world – or at least in Nola. Peaches and her VERY magical adventures at first made me wonder if Perry was dreaming this whole thing, whether he was making it up, or whether he was seeing what he wanted to see instead of what actually was. Because his Nola didn’t quite match up to reality and Peaches was kind of the icing on that particular cake.

It was only when the perspective switched to the adult Casey Ravel that I figured out that whatever was happening was “real” for the story’s own version of reality. Also, Casey’s reality matched up to real reality considerably more than Perry’s did. Which should have clued me in that their realities were not exactly the same reality – at least not at first – but it took me an embarrassingly long time to get there.

The quest is really Perry’s quest, and it begins in Nola. Someone is killing the songs that are the foundation of the city’s identity, and havoc is being wrecked on both sides of that divide. So the overarching story is Perry’s hero’s journey, his coming of age as he takes on the mantle of his family’s inherited magic to save his friends and family, and his city.

It is, of course, a journey that leads him through some very dark places, to versions of Nola that are even more magical than his own and to places that exist on no map that has ever been printed. Because New Orleans is that liminal place where all versions of the city link, from the magical to the mundane, from the living to the dead, and everywhere in between.

It’s also a quest to find his grandfather, who was kidnapped at the beginning of the story by a haunted man – or ghost, or song – on a mission to retrieve something that Daddy Deke doesn’t even remember that he has.

There is a LOT going on in this story. So much. I’m sure there are parts I didn’t quite get, or parts that I thought I did because this isn’t my first trip to a magical version of New Orleans BUT that I got completely wrong but got enough to keep me in the story. And that’s both fine and fantastic. Not every book has to be for me (and shouldn’t be) for me to enjoy the hell out of it.

This is a magical, mystery tour of the city. It’s a hero’s journey both for Perry and for Casey, and both young men – because Casey is still young and Perry may be very young but is a man by the end of the book – it’s a coming into power story. For Perry it’s a coming of age story as well. For Casey it also feels like an acceptance story, but we don’t get nearly as much of Casey as we do of Perry, as much as Casey serves to ground the story in a bit of the real in its early stages.

But it’s also such a wild ride to so many wild and diverse visions of New Orleans that, as unique as the author’s voice is – and it most definitely is – the ingredients in this gumbo reminded me of other urban fantasies and especially other New Orleans stories. So if you’re looking for something that recalls bits of The Ballad of Perilous Graves, here’s my list of books it made me go looking for: The Map of Moments by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp, The Sentinels of New Orleans by Suzanne Johnson, Chasing the Devil’s Tail by David Fulmer, with a bit of The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, Edinburgh Nights by T.L. Huchu, Last Exit by Max Gladstone and No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull for embodied cities, extra dead bodies and talking thereto, ways to get into alternate worlds and hiding monsters in plain sight.

The Ballad of Perilous Graves is the author’s debut novel, which I had to look up because OMG it’s wonderful and crazy and I’m expecting more marvelously wild and great things. And hopefully more New Orleans.

Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb

Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha LambWhen the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb
Narrator: Donald Corren
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 400
Length: 9 hours
Published by Levine Querido on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

For fans of “Good Omens”—a queer immigrant fairytale about individual purpose, the fluid nature of identity, and the power of love to change and endure.
Uriel the angel and Little Ash (short for Ashmedai) are the only two supernatural creatures in their shtetl (which is so tiny, it doesn't have a name other than Shtetl). The angel and the demon have been studying together for centuries, but pogroms and the search for a new life have drawn all the young people from their village to America. When one of those young emigrants goes missing, Uriel and Little Ash set off to find her.
Along the way the angel and demon encounter humans in need of their help, including Rose Cohen, whose best friend (and the love of her life) has abandoned her to marry a man, and Malke Shulman, whose father died mysteriously on his way to America. But there are obstacles ahead of them as difficult as what they’ve left behind. Medical exams (and demons) at Ellis Island. Corrupt officials, cruel mob bosses, murderers, poverty. The streets are far from paved with gold.
P R A I S E
“Liars, lovers, grifters, a good angel and a wicked one—all held together with the bright red thread of unexpected romance, enduring friendship and America’s history. You don’t have to be Jewish to love Sacha Lamb—you only have to read.”New York Times Bestseller, Amy Bloom
★ “Steeped in Ashkenazi lore, custom, and faith, this beautifully written story deftly tackles questions of identity, good and evil, obligation, and the many forms love can take. Queerness and gender fluidity thread through both the human and supernatural characters, clearly depicted without feeling anachronistic. Gorgeous, fascinating, and fun.”Kirkus (starred)
★ “Richly imagined and plotted, this inspired book has the timeless feeling of Jewish folklore, which is further enhanced by the presence of two magical protagonists, and not one but two dybbuks! In the end, of course, it’s the author who has performed the mitzvah by giving their readers this terrific debut novel.”—Booklist (starred)
“I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH!!!! I read it in two days and then I spent the next two weeks thinking about it. Literally forgot to take my lunch break at work because I was busy thinking about it. This book is SO fun and funny and beautiful. Inherently, inextricably deeply queer-and-Jewish in a way that makes my brain buzz. I am obsessed.”—Piera Varela, Porter Square Books
“I love this book more than I can say (but I’ll try!) I was delighted by the wry narrative voice of this book from the first paragraph. The author perfectly captures the voice of a Jewish folk tale within an impeccably researched early 20th century setting that includes Yiddish, striking factory workers, and revolutionary coffee houses. It gave me so many feelings about identity, love, and their obligations to the world, themselves, and each other. This story will forever have a place in my heart and in my canon of favorite books. I can’t wait to have it on my shelves!”— Marianne Wald, East City Bookshop
“A beautiful story of an angel and demon set on helping an emigrant from their shtetl, and the fierce girl that joins them on the way... A must read for all ages—one filled to the brim with heart.”—Mo Huffman, Changing Hands Bookstore

My Review:

This is utterly lovely, but I’m not sure any description could do it justice. It’s just such a surprising mélange of fantasy, historical fiction and magical realism set in a time and place that manages to be both far away and very close, all at the same time.

It’s also steeped in the experiences of Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe to the new, exciting, strange and sometimes dangerous “golden land” of America. And in this particular case, all the ways they got fleeced and all the ways they fought back and endured along the way.

What makes the story so much fun and works so very well is that the story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash the demon and his study partner – an angel who begins the story with no name at all. Little Ash is a very small demon with very little magic, while his friend the angel hears the voice of heaven and lets it guide him into good deeds. Which, most of the time, consists of keeping his friend the demon busy studying the Torah and the Talmud.

But Little Ash is getting bored in their tiny shtetl, so small it doesn’t even have a name. The demon wants to follow all the young people from their shtetl who have left for America, because they were all the interesting people he enjoyed following while they made a bit of mischief. Which Little Ash likes very much.

Little Ash searches for a way of convincing the angel to go to America with him. When they learn that Simon the baker’s daughter Essie arrived in America but hasn’t written since, they have a mission. A mitzvah, or good deed, that the angel can undertake, and a whole lot of mischief that Little Ash can make along the way.

Neither of them is remotely prepared for what they find, not along the way, and certainly not after they arrive in America.

Escape Rating A+: In the foreword, the publisher claims that they’ve been referring to this book as the “queer lovechild of Philip Roth and Sholem Aleichem” – which is a lot to live up to. I think it read as Good Omens and Fiddler on the Roof (the original story for which was written by Sholem Aleichem) had a book baby midwifed by The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten (which I wish I popped up every time there was a Yiddish or Hebrew phrase that I don’t remember – but don’t worry, there’s a glossary at the end) resulting in When the Angels Left the Old Country. Up to and including the ineffable relationship that is finally acknowledged at the end.

The story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash and the angel, who initially does not have a name and never takes on a gender no matter what its identity papers say. And the story is significantly the angel’s journey from being an entity that exists mostly as a vessel to serve the purposes of heaven to a person in its own right. Without a name, it doesn’t have an identity of its own to hang its memories on, to help it retain any purpose of its own. It’s easily overwhelmed by competing thoughts and missions.

Little Ash likes that his friend is a bit forgetful and easily manipulated. He’s able to get away with rather a lot. But Little Ash is a small demon with little magic and small sins. He likes causing trouble but even that is a bit childlike. As childlike as the angel’s innocence.

One of the things they lose on the trip to America is their naivete. The angel, now calling himself Uriel, still tries to see the good in everyone – but now it can see the evil as well even if it doesn’t want to. Little Ash, who always looked for people’s sins, can see more of the good and feel more duty towards fostering that good than he ever imagined.

When they arrive in America they become deeply involved with the Jewish immigrant community on Hester Street, taking on the cheats who keep people nearly enslaved to the garment shops, getting caught in the middle of a strike – and doing their best to exorcise not just one but two dybbuks – malicious spirits who haunt evildoers hunting for revenge.

With the help of their friend Rose, a young immigrant they met in steerage on the way to America, with more than a little bit of mischief and a whole lot of seeing the best while preparing for the worst, they manage to rescue Essie and make a new life for themselves in America.

Still studying Torah and Talmud, and always together.

Personally, I found this book to be utterly enchanting. An enchantment that was multiplied by listening to the audiobook as narrated by Donald Corren. My grandparents were part of the same immigrant generation as the characters in When the Angels Left the Old Country. My mom’s parents came from the Pale of Settlement just as everyone in this story did. (My dad’s parents came from a bit further south and west.) Everyone in my grandparents’ generation spoke Yiddish as well as English – and generally used Yiddish as a way of hiding what they were talking about from child-me. The rhythms of their speech, whether in Yiddish or in English, sounded just the way that the narrator reads this book. It was a bit like sitting in the room when they spoke with my great-aunts and uncles, hearing the sounds of all their voices and the way that the ‘mother tongue’ of Yiddish influenced not just their accents but the way they phrased things, even in English.

In other words, I loved this book for the story it told, and I loved the narration for the nostalgia it invoked. For this listener, the entire experience was made of win. I hope you’ll feel the same.

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye PenelopeThe Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope, L. Penelope
Narrator: Shayna Small
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy
Pages: 384
Length: 11 hours and 30 minutes
Published by Orbit on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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A woman able to communicate with spirits must assemble a ragtag crew to pull off a daring heist to save her community in this timely and dazzling historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance.
Washington D. C., 1925
Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.
Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

My Review:

This fantastic, marvelous historical fantasy, set in Black Washington DC during the Jazz Age, brings its time, its place and its people to glorious life. It also tells a tale of big thrills, big fears and deep, deep chills. Because under its glitter and walking in its footsteps is a cautionary tale that hovers just at the point where being careful what you wish for drops straight through the trapdoor of some favors come with too high a price.

Clara Johnson was born with the ability to speak to the dead. It’s not a one-way street, because they can speak to her, too. And not just the dead, anyone or anything that exists ‘Over There’ can get her attention – or she can get theirs.

An attention she took advantage of, once upon a time, in order to save her life.

She made a bargain with a being calling herself ‘The Empress’. In return for a literal ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, Clara made a deal. A deal, like all deals with the enigmas that exist Over There, that left Clara with both a charm and a trick.

The charm she refuses to use or even talk about – after that one and only time it got her out from under a murder charge. The trick, however, is a binding on her soul. Whenever someone asks her for help making contact with the spirits, she has to help. She’s not allowed to take payment for that help, and she’s not permitted to make too strong a case against taking that help to the person who has made the request.

Because the help they ask for will result in that person receiving their own charm, and their own trick. And Clara has learned, to her cost, that in the end neither are worth it. A lesson she should have kept much more firmly in mind as she gets herself deeper into a case that catches her up in a battle that may cost her entire community their souls, their futures, and their destinies.

Escape Rating A+: I know I’m not quite doing this one justice because I loved it so hard. I just want to squee and that’s not terribly informative. But still…SQUEE!

Now that I’ve got that out of my system – a bit – I’ll try to convey some actual information.

The Monsters We Defy combines history, mystery and magical realism into a heist committed by a fascinating assortment of characters on a mission to save themselves, each other, and all their people. And just possibly the world as well.

The historical setting is ripe for this kind of story. On the one hand, there’s the glitter of the Jazz Age. And on the other, the divided reality of the District’s black community, where the ‘Luminous Four Hundred’ holds itself high above the working class and the alley residents, while pretending that the white power brokers who control the rest of the city don’t see everyone who isn’t white as less than the dirt beneath their feet.

It’s not a surprise that someone would take advantage of that situation for their own ends. What makes this book different is that the someone in this case is an enterprising spirit from ‘Over There’ rather than a human from right here.

And into this setting the author puts together one of the most demon-plagued crews to ever even attempt to pull off a heist. All of them, except for Clara’s roommate Zelda, are in debt to one enigma or another in a burden that they wish they could shake. Vaudevillian Aristotle can play any role he wants to or needs to, but is doomed to be invisible when he’s just himself. Musician Israel can hypnotize an individual or a crowd with his music – but no one ever cares about the man who plays it. His cousin Jesse can take anyone’s memories – make them forget an hour or a day – but the woman he loves can never remember him for more than a day.

They all thought they were getting a gift – only to discover that it’s a curse they can’t get rid of. Unless they steal a powerful ring from the most famous and best-protected woman on Black Broadway.

Unless the spirits are playing them all for fools. Again.

It all hinges on Clara, who is tired and world-weary and desperate and determined. She doesn’t believe that she’ll ever have any hope of better, but she’s determined to try for literally everyone else. And the story and her crew ride or die with her – no matter how much or how often she wishes she could do it all alone.

Because the story is told from Clara’s perspective even though it’s not told from inside her head, it was critical that the narrator for the audiobook embody Clara in all of her irascible reluctance to take up this burden she knows is hers. The narrator of the audiobook, Shayna Small, did a fantastic job of both bringing Clara to life AND making sure that the other voices were distinct and in tune with the characters they represented.

And she made me feel the story so hard I yelled at Clara to look before she leaped and think before she acted more than a few times, because I cared and I wanted to warn her SO MUCH. (Luckily I was in the car and no one could hear me.)

I found The Monsters We Defy to be a terrific book about a high-stakes heist committed by a desperate crew that led to a surprising – and delightful – redemptive ending. And the audio was superb.

If you’ve read either Dead, Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia or Bindle Punk Bruja by Desideria Mesa, you’ll love The Monsters We Defy because it’s a bit of both of those books with a super(natural) chunk of T.L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead‘s “I speak to dead people,” thrown in for extra bodies and high-stakes scary spice!

Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van PeltRemarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction, magical realism, relationship fiction
Pages: 360
Published by Ecco on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A novel tracing a widow's unlikely connection with a giant Pacific octopus.
After Tova Sullivan's husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she's been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.
Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn't dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors--until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.
Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova's son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it's too late.

My Review:

Remarkably Bright Creatures is a story about higher numbered chances than merely second and the long tentacle of coincidence that helps them happen.

Initially, they don’t seem to have much in common. A man whose prime isn’t very prime, who seems to have thrown away all his chances. An aging woman who has lost both her husband and her son, living lonely but determinedly in the house her parents built. And a giant Pacific octopus eking out his final days in the tiny Sowell Bay Aquarium on Puget Sound.

But Marcellus the octopus, whose placard outside his tank lists him as a “remarkably bright creature”, is as clever as he is bright. He’s also an intelligent observer of human behavior and a bit of an escape artist. There isn’t much else to do, all alone in his tank.

So he occasionally squeezes himself out to graze on the sea cucumbers – or even hazard a trip to the staff break room when the smell of leftover Chinese takeaway is too tempting to resist.

Which is how Tova Sullivan finds him, outside of his tank, caught in a tangle of wires and electrical cords and about to suffer what Marcellus calls “The Consequences” of being out of a tank for more than 20 minutes. Which he can calculate.

Marcellus is, after all, a remarkably bright creature.

Tova rescues him from the tangle. Not only that, but she doesn’t report Marcellus nighttime excursions to the aquarium’s director. It’s their little secret and the beginning of their unlikely friendship.

A friendship that ultimately results in both of them achieving the dreams they never admitted that they held. Not even to themselves.

Giant Pacific Octopus at the National Aquarium in Washington DC

Escape Rating A-: This book turned out to be WAY more charming than I expected. It was recommended by someone in my reading group so I was expecting a decent to good read, but this turned out to be just lovely.

This is kind of a quiet story, where things happen slowly and truths emerge over time. To the point where it borders on literary fiction a bit. But instead of being dark and gloomy where nothing happens and everyone argues a lot – which is how I tend to see litfic – the situations all start out a bit gloomy but everyone gets better. Even Marcellus.

At first you kind of wonder how Cameron’s story is going to link up to Tova’s and Marcellus’. And that coming together takes a while and goes off on a couple of tangents as it meanders along. But once it does, it all fits together beautifully.

What holds the story together – besides Marcellus’ tentacles – is Tova. Her son disappeared without a trace when he was just 18. Her husband has passed away. She’s alone – and yet she’s not. She has friends, she has a job, she makes sure she has purpose. And yet she also has concerns about what will happen to her when she can’t live on her own anymore.

Being Tova, she doesn’t wallow. Instead, she takes steps to determine her own future for her own self. In her situation I’d want to be her when I grew up. She’s a character to both admire and empathize with. To the point where we want her to get a better ending than it looks like she’s headed for when the story begins.

Cameron is not initially all that likable. He’s not bad, and he’s taken some seriously rough knocks, but he’s not good at taking responsibility for himself. And at 30 it’s past time he did. He arrives in Sowell Bay searching for his sperm donor in the hopes of a big financial score. He’s doomed to be disappointed – and it’s the making of him.

Marcellus – who is much more present as a character than one might think – is an absolute gem. At the same time, his intellectual presence in the story, his perspective on the events that he helps to bring about, is both fascinating and a bit equivocal. Anyone who wants to believe that all of the thoughts and actions ascribed to Marcellus are in the minds of Tova and Cameron – in the same way that we all believe we know what our pets are thinking when we most likely don’t – the story still works – and works well.

But it’s so much better if you let yourself believe that Marcellus is helping Tova and Cameron all along – and that they are helping him as well.

I enjoyed Remarkably Bright Creatures a whole lot more than I ever expected to. And in that way that when you are conscious of something you suddenly start seeing it everywhere – like getting a new car and being aware of all the cars of the same make and model sharing the road with you – I liked this so much that I started seeing books with octopi characters everywhere. In addition to Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus from a few years ago there’s The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler coming out in October, and Sea Change by Gina Chung next year.

I’m going to hunt me down some more octopi to read about while I look forward to seeing what this author comes up with next!