The Possible World, by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz

36373429Strange and violent things are happening in a small corner of the world around Providence, Rhode Island in Liese O’Halloran Schwarz’s The Possible World. The strangeness and the violence happen immediately. There’s a multiple murder. There’s a boy who stops answering to his own name and insisting on another. There’s an old woman in a nursing home with a mysterious past. Fortunately, all this strangeness and violent leads up to a perfect moment at the end of the book.

After the chaos of the opening chapters, The Possible World settles into three different narrative threads. The boy Ben, who wants people to call him Leo, is brought in to the emergency room to check for physical injuries after being the sole survivor of a multiple murder before being sent to the psychiatric ward. At the emergency room, he meets Dr. Lucy Cole, who is the consummate doctor with a crumbling marriage. Her husband doesn’t understand what it’s like to be married to a doctor. Meanwhile, Clare is about to celebrate her 100th birthday at a nursing home. In their little town, the oldest person gets a special award and it’s down to Clare and another woman. The problem is that no one can find proof of Clare’s birth…or her life before she arrived at the nursing home.

Leo (Ben) and Clare slowly tell their stories, revealing an unbelievable connection that I couldn’t have predicted from the outset. Leo and Lucy bond, both of them misunderstood by people who are supposed to stand by them. Leo is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder and, because the psychiatrists aren’t making a lot of progress with him, he is about to turfed out to the foster system. His plight and his sadness make Lucy want to care for him beyond her remit as an ER doctor. As I learned more about Clare’s past and her connection to Leo, I saw a theme of ad hoc parenting and care-taking develop. In this book, family are the people you find when the biological family doesn’t work for a variety of reasons.

Some readers may be irritated by the ending, which relies on the perfect alignment of all the plots. I liked it. For me, the ending was a brilliant resolution of Leo and Clare’s story. Surprisingly for a book that starts with a gruesome multiple murder, this book ends on a bright note of hope. I also really liked the characters. Unlike some books with multiple narrators, I liked all of the protagonists. There weren’t any sections that dragged or that bored me. The Possible World was a weirdly charming book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.

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The Last Cruise, by Kate Christensen

36534861Traveling is a strange experience. Travelers are between places. They’re in a pause. Their lives will begin again when they get to where they’re going. At least, it feels that way when you’re a traveler. For the people who work in airports, hotels, and on cruise ships, however, this is their day job. Nothing has paused for them. In The Last Cruise, by Kate Christensen, we get to see people who’ve put their lives on pause for a little while and people who are working as hard as they can. And then we get to see what happens when they’re thrown together when everything goes wrong and all the boundaries between passenger and employee break down.

Christine arrives at the Queen Isabella at the invitation of her friend, who plans to interview the staff for a book about the “new economy” on the ship’s last voyage from Long Beach, California, to Hawaii. She’s prepared to have a good time and not think about the fact that her husband wants children and she doesn’t. On the same day, Mick shows up reluctantly for a gig as a sous chef. It’s okay money, but he doesn’t want to be away from his lover in Paris, even for two weeks. Also on the same day, Miriam and the other three members of the Sabra String Quartet (made up of Israeli veterans of the Six Day War) board the Isabella at the request of the owner’s wife.

By bouncing between these three characters, we see different slices of life on board a cruise ship. Seeing their perspectives made me think hard about how oblivious we passengers can be to what’s going on behind the scenes. Of course, the employees work hard to make things smooth for us travelers, but it’s startling to see how much labor it takes to maintain the illusion. Then things get really interesting. Half the crew walks off the job to protest their low wages. The engine catches fire and the the ship loses power. Oh, and norovirus breaks out. The illusion of a floating resort completely shatters and the three protagonists have to decide what they’re going to do. Do they compromise? Do they work? Do they hold out hope for rescue?

The only thing I can say about the ending is really a warning. It will devastate you. I finished it a couple of hours ago and I still feel stunned. I’m not sure if I liked the ending or not, but I certainly enjoyed the ride—a lot more than the passengers and staff of the Queen Isabella, that’s for sure. Aside from my mixed feelings about the ending, I enjoyed this book a lot. I liked the way it showed me the pause between here and there that comes with traveling, took me behind the scenes on a cruise ship, and gave me some beautiful scenes in which everyone came together in spite of the circumstances.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 10 July 2018.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Sarah Gailey shares what they learned from a sensitivity reader and how it changed their life. (The Book Smugglers)
  • Translators pick their favorite untranslatable words. (mentalfloss)
  • Lorraine Boissoneault explores why we are so fascinated by historical what ifs in this short history of alternate history. (Smithsonian Magazine)
  • Mary Robinette Kowal writes about her realization that authors have a unique responsibility to their readers: writing stories that won’t be internalized in ways reinforce harmful stereotypes or erase diversity. (Tor)
  • Stephanie Vozza writes about what happened when she attempted to kick her reading into overdrive (just my little bookish joke, heh) and try to read 30 books in 30 days. (Fast Company)
  • Emily Temple has a list of 40 great villains from literature. (LitHub)

Cluny Brown, by Margery Sharp

29893549If you were to ask any of Cluny’s family members what’s wrong with her, they would tell you that it’s because she doesn’t know her place. If you were to ask Cluny, she would probably agree. She hungers for experiences and isn’t afraid to do anything that seems like a good idea. In Margery Sharp’s short novel, Cluny Brown, we watch the charmingly innocent Cluny take on a challenge that might help her find her place after at last.

When we first meet Cluny, she’s living in London with her uncle. She’s an orphan, but she’s making the best of it. She’s a delightful naïf who sometimes reminds me of a less destructive Amelia Bedelia. The day that she decides to take a call meant for her uncle and goes off to tackle an emergency plumbing job puts an end to get dreamy days in the big city. Uncle Arn takes his sister-in-law’s advice and sends Cluny into service. Because it’s 1938 and servants are thin on the ground, it’s not hard for her to get a job as a maid at a Devonshire estate called Friars Carmel. The idea is that the strict discipline of service will help Cluny settle down.

At first, it appears to be working. Cluny isn’t afraid of hard work and the fact that the estate is understaffed seems to appeal to Cluny’s scattered brain since she has to do a bunch of different jobs in a day. She even managed to form an attachment to a local chemist. But then, Cluny will be Cluny and, after spending all this time with her, I had to cheer. The world would’ve been a duller place without Cluny’s essential Cluny-ness in it. Meanwhile, the book is filled out with a Polish writer in exile who also doesn’t seem to know his place, a lovelorn future lord of the manner, and other denizens of Friars Carmel and the village.

I’ve read two other Margery Sharp novels, The Nutmeg Tree and Britannia Mews, and this one is my second favorite. It’s not quite as funny or as satisfying as The Nutmeg Tree, but it’s much zippier than Britannia Mews. I had a few problems with Cluny Brown that kept it from being a complete winner for me. I found the pacing to be off in places. Some of the book is slow and there’s a logjam of events right at the end of the book that seemed to come out nowhere. Cluny herself does a lot to rescue the book, though. She’s well worth the price of entry.

The King’s Witch, by Tracy Borman

36619965Frances Gorges is a bright, forthright, intellectually curious woman. Unfortunately, she was born at a time when those characteristics were not seen as feminine virtues. Tracy Borman’s novel, The King’s Witch, opens in 1603 and continues over the next couple of years as Frances gets into several kinds of serious trouble at the Court of James I.

All Frances wants is to be able to learn more about herbal medicine and live at her family’s estate in Wiltshire. She definitely does not want to marry a man picked out by her social climbing uncle or go to court. But because she’s an unmarried woman, she is at her uncle’s beck and call. She only gets to pleasantly languish at the estate before she is summoned to be a lady of the bedchamber for Princess Elizabeth. Frances might have been able to turn this into a pleasant life for herself it it weren’t for that uncle and the paranoid, witch-obsessed King James—and if it weren’t for the fact that she fell in love with an up-and-coming lawyer, Tom Wintour.

800px-King_James_I_of_England_and_VI_of_Scotland_by_John_De_Critz_the_Elder

James I, c. 1606
(Image via Wikicommons)

Frances is highly intelligent, but she’s not really a match for the politically savvy men who are fighting for dominance in James’ court. She’s barely at court for a few months before she’s accused of being a witch. She survives that by the skin of her teeth, only to get caught up on the fringes of the Gunpowder Plot. During her travails in the Tower of London as an accused witch, Frances has only herself to look out for. But after that, she grows fonder of her charge and of the lawyer Tom. It isn’t just her anymore. In the middle of potential treason, how can a powerless woman save everyone she has come to love?

The more I read The King’s Witch, the more I enjoyed it. I was on the edge of my seat as I flipped the pages because I had to know what would happen to Frances and Tom. I already knew from the rhyme (“Remember, remember the fifth of November”) that the Gunpowder Plot would come to ruin. Given how paranoid James was about Catholic plots and the supernatural—and how ruthless Borman is with her characters—the ending of The King’s Witch could have gone either way.

And I’m not saying which way it went. Interested readers will just have to find out themselves.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2018. 

Boycott! Why I’m Not Buying Books from Amazon Anymore

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen more and more articles about the condition Amazon’s workers have to contend with while filling orders—alongside articles about Jeff Bezos’ astronomical wealth. Because I don’t think anyone should be that rich at the expense of their worker’s health and safety, I have decided that I will boycott Amazon from here on out.

I plan to buy my books from Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Half Price Books, or independent booksellers until Bezos changes his business’s practices. Anything else I might have purchased from them I will source from somewhere else.

It might not do much, but I hope that other readers will see this post and think about boycotting Amazon, too.

Deep Roots, by Ruthanna Emrys

36144841Deep Roots, the second novel in Ruthanna Emrys’s Innsmouth Legacy series, builds on the strange world her protagonists discovered and fought in Winter Tide. This entry in the series shows Aphra Marsh’s confluence—her magically bonded family members and friends—taking on new enemies and learning more about the creatures they didn’t know were already living on earth.

At the beginning of Deep Roots, Aphra et al. are in New York looking for distant family members who might have survived the devastating government raids of 1929. New family members could help them rebuild their species. They’ve traced a couple of distant cousins to the city, but it seems that someone else has a claim on cousin Freddy. While Aphra and the confluence try to get the measure of the Outer Ones and their bizarre, disturbing abilities to travel, they also have to contend with old frenemies: the weird stuff office of the FBI. Aphra reluctantly asks for their help because the Outer Ones have a fearsome reputation. But the problem with asking for federal help during the opening years of the Cold War is that the FBI agents will use every opportunity to find an advantage they can use against the Soviets.

While there are some great scenes in Deep Roots, notably the fight scene at the end of the book, most of this book is dialogue. Much of the dialogue is negotiation and plotting, between Aphra and the FBI, between Aphra and her much older relatives, between Aphra and the Outer Ones, between the Outer Ones and the FBI—and between Aphra and the members of the confluence. Too be honest, it was all a bit wearying. I enjoyed learning more about this revamped version of the Lovecraft mythos. The problem with this book is one I’ve seen in later series entries in urban fantasy when the various factions in the book all have immense powers. Instead of fighting or, well, any kind of action, it’s all talk.

Reader who were hooked by Winter Tide may enjoy this continuation. I suspect that it will be necessary reading for the next book in the series. I’m still curious about what will come next in the Innsmouth Legacy, since the ending of Deep Roots seems to clear the board for more adventures for the confluence. I just hope that those future adventures have more magic and action than talk.

I received a free copy of his book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 10 July 2018.