The Deep by Alma Katsu

The Deep by Alma Katsu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Annie has come to understand the erratic ways of the insane — the crying fits, incoherent babblings, violent flinging of hands and feet. There is, after days and weeks and years, a kind of comforting rhythm to them. But no, she is not one of them. Of that she is certain.

Chapter One

In 1916, Annie Hebbley leaves Morninggate Asylum to join her friend Violet as a nurse on HMHS Britannic. She is uncertain of herself, her memories of her life before the asylum hazy. One thing she does know is that four years earlier, she and Violet worked together on another ship, the RMS Titanic. As the Britannic begins its voyage, Annie begins to remember exactly what happened aboard its doomed sister ship. There was something very wrong, something haunting the Titanic from the moment it set sail.

The Deep is a dual narrative, alternating between 1916 and 1912. It primarily follows Annie, but the perspective shifts among a few other characters as events unfold. Those events are mysterious and creepy, with a constant sensation of something lurking just out of sight, something terrible. The reader already knows what is about to happen to the ship, adding to the pressure while the time ticks away to April 14th.

Katsu fits her characters among some of the famous figures aboard the ship: Annie’s friend Violet is real-life survivor of both the Titanic and the Britannic disasters Violet Jessop. Period details melded with supernatural aspects create a gripping, atmospheric read.

I’ve seen this tagged as a horror novel, but it feels more like a historical mystery. A paranormal mystery centered on one of the most famous shipwrecks in the world.

Source: Started reading as an e-ARC from NetGalley, then checked the finished book out of the library.

Challenges: Read Harder 2020 (#7: A historical fiction novel not set in WWII)

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Con Quest! by Sam Maggs

Con Quest! by Sam Maggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cat is determined that this is the year she and her twin brother – Team DoubleTrouble – are going to win the Quest, giving her talented artist brother a shot at a mentorship, and giving her a whole week spending time with her favorite celebrity doing charity work. The Quest is the world’s biggest scavenger hunt. Its list of nearly impossible tasks is posted just before GeekiCon, which most definitely does not endorse the event. All they have to do is complete the most tasks without getting stopped by their parents (who are late to the panel on their own famous comic series), their older sister Fiona (who would rather be just about anywhere else), or Con staff (who take a dim view of this whole scavenger hunt business). Easy, right?

Alex would like the opportunity to be mentored by a professional artist, but the GeekiCon scene is overwhelming. He is much more interested in playing a video game to calm his anxiety about being in such a huge crowd. He’s generally let Cat lead the way, but he’s starting to feel like maybe he should stand up for himself a little more. Cat seems ready to do anything to win this year, but is victory worth the cost?

Fiona is going to watch her twin siblings all day while her parents are busy doing professional stuff at GeekiCon, in hopes that she will prove herself responsible enough for them to allow her to go on a camping trip with other teens. Spending the day cooped up inside a convention center full of obsessive fans is the opposite of her idea of a good time; she’d much rather be outdoors, playing soccer or spending time with Ethan and “the rest of the cool people in tenth grade”. When the twins give her the slip, she joins forces with an unlikely ally to track them down, and she might even have some fun.

Con Quest! is a love-letter to fandom. It is easy to identify the real world media franchises playfully presented as Star Worlds, Paranormal, and Adventure of Zenia. (My personal favorite is Whom, M.D.) Chapter narration rotates from Cat to Alex to Fiona, giving their individual takes on the action around them and each other. They all have their own flaws and strengths, as well as lessons to learn.

This is a fun romp with a big heart. Love and family are central themes, in all the glorious variety of ways human beings form families and show love. Be drawn into the story by the action, but don’t be surprised if you fall a little bit in love along the way.

Source: e-ARC courtesy of NetGalley.

Challenges: None

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The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

The Time Machine

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us. His grey eyes shone and twinkled, and his usually pale face was flushed and animated.

Chapter 1: Introduction

So begins Wells’s classic “scientific romance”, published serially in The New Review in 1895 (and in revised novella editions after that). Over drinks with some gentlemen friends, including the narrator, the unnamed adventurer shares his theories on the nature of time as a fourth dimension in which one can travel. His friends are skeptical, even after seeing a demonstration using a model he has constructed.

For my own part, I was particularly preoccupied with the trick of the model. That I remember discussing with the Medical Man, whom I met on Friday at the Linnaean. He said he had seen a similar thing at Tübingen, and laid considerable stress on the blowing-out of the candle. But how he trick was done he could not explain.

Chapter 3: The Time Traveller Returns

A week later, the narrator is again at the Time Traveller’s home for another dinner party. The Time Traveller appears after his guests have arrived, and the details of his adventure form the main narrative. He has gone hundreds of thousands of years into the future, where he encountered the Eloi and the Morlocks, apparently the two strains of humanity left at that time.

The Eloi are small, delicate, and child-like. They spend their days playing in the sunshine, picking flowers, and eating fruit. They do no work, the genders appear nearly identical, and there is little difference between the children and the adults. They sleep in groups in large structures. They seem to be unafraid, in the way of those who have never encountered anything of which to be afraid.

“Seem to be unafraid,” because the Time Traveller eventually learns that the Eloi are scared of the dark. They stay away from shadows and refuse to venture out at night. After nightfall, the Morlocks – pale, large-eyed, and ape-like – come out their underground tunnels, and they are on the hunt.

Now, indeed, I seemed in a worse case than before. Hitherto, except during my night’s anguish at the loss of the Time Machine, I had felt a sustaining hope of ultimate escape, but that hope was staggered by these new discoveries. Hitherto I had merely thought myself impeded by the childish simplicity of the little people, and by some unknown forces which I had only to understand to overcome; but there was an altogether new element in the sickening quality of the Morlocks — a something inhuman and malign. Instinctively I loathed them.

Chapter 10: When the Night Came

My first encounter with The Time Machine was with a Moby Classics illustrated abridged edition when I was in elementary school. I mostly remember the Morlocks being very, very creepy and scary. Having read the full text, I still think the Morlocks are very, very creepy, but also very sad. As a child, the life of the Eloi was appealing: play all day and eat lots of fruit. Aside from, you know, the terror of what might happen at night, it looked ideal. As an adult reader, I was struck by the horror of the exact circumstances under which the Time Traveller meets Weena. (No details, because I’m still glad it came as a surprise to me.)

The entire vision of the future of humanity presented here is disturbing. There is the vacuous beauty left above ground and the terrifying existence below. No wonder the Time Traveller was delighted to find himself back at his own table. And yet, he clearly still has questions. He clearly still wants to explore. So, maybe, he even still has hope.

The narrator asks us to deny the implications of the narrative he has just recorded. It is a striking way of ending this little puzzle of a book, an appeal that seems to throw into doubt everything that we have just read. What a perverse start to a literary career!

Roger Luckhurst, Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition

For this reading, I borrowed the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Time Machine from the library. The supporting material is excellent. The “Chronology of H. G. Wells” includes significant personal events and world events, as well as noting the publication of various influential works, giving context on multiple levels. The expanded version of the chapter “The Further Vision” is included as an appendix, as are two scientific essays published by Wells in 1891 and 1893.

Roger Luckhurst’s introduction expands on some of the ideas Wells engages with in the novel. Evolutionary theory – both biological and social – was very much in the public consciousness. Would people and society forever march toward perfection, or would both reach a zenith and then inevitably deteriorate? The utopian fiction of Bellamy and Morris get satirical jabs in the Time Traveller’s description of the future. Luckhurst provides pointers to further reading on all of these and more. I appreciated the very helpful and engaging explanatory notes, as well as the fact that the introduction begins with a note that there will be spoilers, so newcomers might want to read it as an afterword, instead.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges: Back to the Classics (6: Genre Classic); Classics Club; Read Harder 2020 (#17: A Sci-fi/fantasy novella); Victorian Reading Challenge (January: Journeys & Travels)

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Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Song for a Whale

Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Grandpa told a story, I saw it as clearly as if it were happening right there in front of me. His signing hands showed me the whale in an ocean that suddenly went quiet, swimming over there, over there, over there, trying to find the sounds again. Maybe that was why she’d been there on our Gulf of Mexico beach instead of in deep ocean waters where she belonged. Sei whales didn’t swim so close to shore. Only her, on that day.

Iris was named for the whale that beached itself on the day she was born, at her grandmother’s request. After second grade, her family moved to Houston, only able to visit her beloved grandparents once a year. Now 12, Iris misses her grandparents more than ever; after her grandfather passed away, her grandmother lost her spark and spends listless days in a senior housing complex. In her free time, Iris repairs radios that she gets from the junkyard, bringing abandoned antiques back to life. The vibrations from the speakers tell her when her work has been successful. Like her maternal grandparents, Iris was born Deaf.

School has been especially difficult since the move. The only Deaf student in her school, Iris relies on an adult interpreter who accompanies her to classes. He does not come to the cafeteria with her for lunch, leaving her alone to deal with well-meaning but uncomprehending fellow students.

She learns about Blue 55 in Science class. A whale who sings at 55 hertz, much higher than the usual range for whales, he sings into the ocean, but no one understands his song, and he cannot understand anyone else. Iris hatches a plan to record a song for Blue 55 to let him know that he’s not alone in the wide world. Now she just has to find a way to get it to him.

This is a lovely and poignant novel about the loneliness that so many of us feel. There are so many ways to communicate, which is shown so beautifully throughout the book. The desire to reach out and connect with another, to know that one is not alone, underscores the entire story. What tween (or person who has been a tween) has not had trouble understanding and making oneself understood by classmates, friends, and family from time to time?

Kelly is a long-time ASL interpreter, and her respect for Deaf culture shines through. For Iris, hearing or not hearing is not the problem. Her Deafness is just part of her, like hair color or eye color. It’s other people who are flustered or confused by it.

An Author’s Note at the end explains some of the mechanics of whale communication and the story of 52-Blue, also called the Loneliest Whale in the World, on whom Blue 55 is based. A second note on Deafness and Sign Language gives more information about Deaf culture, the development of ASL, and why Kelly made particular narrative choices. Finally, there is an illustration of the ASL for “Song for a Whale”.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges: Read Harder 2020 (#21: A book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non))

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Spinning by Tillie Walden

Spinning

Spinning by Tillie Walden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Every rink smells the same.
They look the same, too.”

Tillie Walden begins her graphic memoir with her first visit to an ice rink in some time. Just before she steps on the ice, the narrative jumps back eight years, to an early morning in New Jersey. Walden relates the story of her life as a competitive figure and synchronized skater through her family’s move from New Jersey to Texas, through her transition from public to private school, and through her experiences of friendship, bullying, and first love. As she grows into herself, she eventually quits competitive skating after 12 years.

The artwork is lovely, but the narrative suffers from a lack of focus. The dominant mood is a sort of diffuse sense of disappointment. After the move to Texas in the summer after fifth grade, skating “felt dull and exhausting.” She continues skating until the summer before senior year of high school, though, unable to explain it even to herself. Walden has her first relationship with another girl – after having known since she was five that she was gay – and eventually comes out to her friends and family. She experiences sexual harassment and the ensuing self-doubt that will feel horribly familiar to many readers. Yet, no matter what happens, it all feels muted: the highs aren’t very high, and the lows aren’t very low. Despite literally showing her life on the page, it feels distant. It is all beautiful and cold, sitting a little too perfectly in that ice rink.

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Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges: Read Harder 2020 (#4: A Graphic Memoir); Reading Women 2020 (#23: An LGBTQ+ Author)

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The woman’s name doesn’t matter. Just picture anyone you know and love. She’s in her mid-twenties when her world begins to crumble. She can’t concentrate at work, stops sleeping, grows uneasy in crowds, and then retreats to her apartment, where she sees and hears things that aren’t there — disembodied voices that make her paranoid, frightened, and angry. She paces around her apartment until she feels as if she might burst open. So she leaves her house and wanders around the crowded city streets trying to avoid the burning stares of the passersby.

In 2009, Susannah Cahallan was hospitalized with what appeared to be classic symptoms of schizophrenia: paranoia, delusions, violent impulses. Anti-psychotic medications didn’t help. Test after test found nothing useful. Until one did, and as soon as the medical establishment was able to identify her illness as auto-immune encephalitis rather than psychosis, everything about her treatment changed: “Hope, clarity, and optimism replaced the vague and distant treatment. No one blamed me or questioned if each symptom was real. They didn’t ask about alcohol consumption of stress levels or family relationships. People no longer implied that the trouble was all in my head.”

In 2012, Cahalan published Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, a memoir of her experience. A variety of subsequent encounters led her to continue looking into the history of psychiatry and the fine line between sanity and madness, and how society identifies those on either side of that (shifting) line. That brought her to the story of Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan and his 1973 “pseudopatient” experiment: Eight healthy people got themselves committed to psychiatric facilities and then had to prove their sanity to get released.

The resulting Nature article, “On Being Sane in Insane Places”, cast a glaring spotlight on what appeared to be serious problems in diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. But there seemed to be holes in the story, questions without answers. Rosenhan died in 2012, never having finished the follow-up book he was contracted to write. The volunteers were never publicly identified.

Cahallan digs into the details of what happened and how it affected the development of psychiatric care. She also looks backward, into the various threads of psychological theory and their supporters and detractors over the years. From Nelly Bly’s 1887 undercover investigation at Blackwell Island through the mass closure of mental institutions a century later and into the present day, it’s a fascinating and sometimes appalling tale, told with a story-teller’s flair. 

In the words of medical historian Edward Shorter, “The history of psychiatry is a minefield. Reader: Beware of shrapnel.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges:  N/A
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The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My parents probably wanted a girl who would sit in the pews
wearing pretty florals and a soft smile.
They got combat boots and a mouth silent
until it’s sharp as an island machete

At 15, Xiomara Batista is having trouble figuring out where she fits among the roles everyone seems to want to cast her in. Her mother is a deeply devout Catholic who sacrificed her own dream of becoming a nun to marry and emigrate from the Dominican Republic, and she finds Xio’s questioning of the teachings of the church incomprehensible. Her twin brother, a gentle genius Xio has always protected and defended, is suddenly distancing himself from her. She’s just starting to notice a boy she might actually like, after years of unwanted attention from grown men on the block, and despite her parents’ rules against her dating at all.

Xio is jut on the edge of figuring out who she is and who she wants to be, what kind of life she wants to live, and what she wants to do. She’s asking difficult questions and realizing that, sometimes, the answers just aren’t there.

While that could describe many teens in many different situations, the book grounds itself in the experience of a young woman of color, and a first-generation American, in the early 21st century, caught between cultures and trying to grow into an adult without growing up too fast. Xio deals with casual racism and sexual harassment as everyday occurrences. When someone finally says to her, “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” it’s a revelation.

When has anyone ever told me
I had the right to stop it all
without my knuckles, or my anger
with just some simple words.

The book is written as a novel in poems, reflecting both Xiomara’s development as a poet and Acevedo’s background as a noted slam poet herself. It’s probably really great on audio, and I possibly just don’t get slam poetry, but most of the poems didn’t come across to me as poems so much as prose cut into short phrases and surrounded by white space. Despite my issues with the form, though, this book is a powerful emotional experience and a great addition to contemporary YA literature.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges: Read Harder Task 3: A Book by a Woman and/or Author of Color that Won a Literary Award in 2018 (National Book Award); Reading Women Task 24: A Young Adult Book by a Woman of Color

A Princess in Theory (Reluctant Royals #1) by Alyssa Cole

A Princess in Theory (Reluctant Royals, #1)A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
My rating:
4 of 5 stars

Dear Ms. Smith,

I hope that my letter finds you well. I, Likotsi Adelele, assistant to His Royal Highness, have sought you out high and low over the last few months, at the behest of the most exalted – and most curious – Prince Thabiso. He has tasked me with finding his betrothed, and I believe I have succeeded: it is you.

Naledi Smith lost her parents to a car crash when she was so young she barely remembers them. Without any other family, she lived in a series of foster homes until she aged out of the foster care system. Now in grad school and working multiple jobs to make ends meet, she has zero time for these weird emails that keep showing up, claiming that she is some sort of long-lost African princess, if only she will please send all of her personally identifying information to confirm.

Prince Thabiso grew up wondering whatever happened to the girl to whom he was betrothed when they were just small children. An only child, facing increasing pressure from his parents to settle down with a wife, he is extremely curious when his assistant believes she has tracked the woman down – and she lives in New York City, where Thabiso just happens to be headed on business.

A misunderstanding on first meeting gives Thabiso the chance to get to know Ledi personally before revealing his – and her – true identity. But will there be a way to finally tell her the truth without the betrayal coming between them?

Since this is a romance novel, you already know the answer to that: the happy ending is guaranteed. Oh, but the getting there. Ledi is the sort of character who is so real you would swear you know her. She hasn’t had it easy, and the walls she’s put up around herself are totally understandable. A scientist to the core, she thinks of the distance she puts between herself and others as a

social phospholipid bilayer: flexible, dynamic, and designed to keep the important parts of herself separate from a possibly dangerous outside environment. It had been working for the prokaryotes for eons, and it would suffice for a broke grad school student, which was only slightly higher on the evolutionary scale.

She is smart and funny, and a devoted friend, and she deals with everything that comes her way until her resilience is finally tested to the breaking point. She is a woman of color, working in a STEM field, and she has no family to support her. I loved getting inside her head and seeing the world through her eyes.

The third-person perspective shifts between Ledi and Thabiso, and Thabiso is also an absolute delight. He is honestly baffled by everyday things like taking the subway or cooking a meal from scratch, because he grew up having his every need or want taken care of without his having to even think about it. He so wants to step up and do the right thing… if he can only figure out what it is and how to do it. His assistant, Likotsi, seems to be the closest thing he has to a real friend. His parents are determined to see him married off and settled down to the business of managing the kingdom, navigating the complicated issues that come with the crown.

The kingdom of Thesolo comes across as something of a Vibranium-less Wakanda. It’s a gem of a country in the south of Africa that was never colonized, instead growing into a modern nation that maintains strong ties to its past. In my head, Queen Ramatla is totally Angela Bassett, and no one can convince me otherwise.

I enjoyed this book so, so much. There are elements of Cinderella and other fairy tales, but this is a thoroughly contemporary romance. Ledi and Thabiso have chemistry that leads to some very steamy scenes, yet Ledi is clearly aware of possible health risks (as an epidemiology grad student, one would hope so!) and how to be as safe as possible on that front. The dialogue is entertaining, even when it’s really only one-way, as when Ledi finally sends a two-word response to Likotsi’s “spam” emails. One of my favorites might be when the postdoc in Ledi’s lab approaches her, about to drop some more of his work on her. The entirety of the next paragraph reads: “This motherf***er, she thought.”

(I should note here that the redaction of the curse word is mine; the actual word appears in the book. If salty language and sexytimes on the page are not your thing, this is probably not the book for you!)

The next book in the series features Portia, Ledi’s best friend; the teaser chapter in the back promises good things. Personally, I’m hoping we eventually get a book about Likotsi. A girl can dream.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges: It would qualify for Read Harder 2018 Task 10, but I’ve already completed that one.

Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life by Shelley Tougas

Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My LifeLaura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life
by Shelley Tougas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We moved all the time, but always to real cities with malls and movie theaters and bus lines; never to a place like this, a land so quiet and empty the wind had nothing to blow. Rose was no help. She hadn’t wanted to leave Lexington, either, but she never complained. Mom and Rose were all sunshine, all the time, the Florida of moods.

At age 12, Charlotte is tired of moving from place to place. Most recently, her mother has brought Charlotte, her twin brother Freddy, and their younger sister Rose from Lexington, Kentucky, to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Their mother wants to write a book about a prairie girl, and she’s decided the former hometown of Laura Ingalls (Wilder) is the place to do it. While Rose has always been relentlessly optimistic, like their mother, Charlotte has always had Freddy on her side, but something seems to be pulling him away from her now, too.

This contemporary novel explores the ideas of what home, family, and friendship mean, touching on experiences of racism and poverty, without feeling didactic. Charlotte is smart and prickly, trying to shield herself from being hurt by others by not letting others get close to her. Her first-person narration reveals her weaknesses as well as her strengths; there are moments you can see clearly that her perceptions are about to lead her astray, but you understand her feelings. Because of the limited perspective, some of the secondary characters, especially the adults, read flat and cartoonish, though.

But the book isn’t all inner conflict and introspection. There’s also a bit of a mystery that Charlotte has to solve that is fun for the reader, if not for the character. At various points throughout the book, the Ingalls family and the way they were portrayed in the beloved children’s books and television show are examined in light of historical facts in a way that may pique some readers’ interest to find out more.

There are quite a few references to events in the Little House books (can they really be called spoilers when the book is over 80 years old?), so be aware of that when recommending to young readers. And do recommend this book, because it is an entertaining contemporary read, told with humor and heart.

Source: Checked out from my public library (I had a NetGalley e-ARC, but I didn’t get to it in time!)

Challenges: None

Getting Old is Murder by Rita Lakin

Getting Old Is Murder (Gladdy Gold, #1)Getting Old Is Murder by Rita Lakin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hello. Let me introduce myself. I’m Gladdy Gold. Actually, Gladys. I’m a self-proclaimed P.I. That’s right, a private eye. Operating out of Fort Lauderdale.

When did I get into the P.I. biz? As we speak. My credentials? More than thirty years of reading mysteries. Miss Marple and Miss Silver are my heroines.

At age 75, retired librarian Gladys “Gladdy” Gold lives in Lanai Gardens, a Florida “retirement community” condo development. With her circle of friendly neighbors (including her younger sister), she enjoys a regular routine of walking, sitting by the pool, Publix shopping trips, canasta games, and other everyday activities. Lanai Gardens is a community unto itself, with everyone into one another’s business, so Gladdy fills the reader in on the goings-on in everyone’s life. Life that seems pretty predictable until ladies start dying right before their birthdays, and Gladdy quickly begins to suspect foul play.

This is a quick-moving book, with short chapters and snappy observations. It’s easy to hear Gladdy’s New York twang in her short sentences and wry humor. She is the gossipy great-aunt you didn’t know you had, but she is ready to sweep you up into her world and make you at home. Interspersed with the first-person chapters narrated by Gladdy, there are a few chapters that take a third-person perspective to reveal events that she doesn’t yet know the details of. With the murders presented on the page this way, the reader actually has more clues to the mystery than the book’s amateur sleuth does.

I picked this book up as part of my current obsession with cozy mysteries, and because it would qualify for Read Harder 2018 task 23: A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60. It almost qualified for the one-sitting book task, since I read nearly all of it on a flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta. (And I already fulfilled that task with The Grownup.) It’s a fun read, and I like the quirky characters, and I really enjoyed the way it manages to echo the small-town settings so frequently found in cozies without taking place in a real (fictional) small town. It stands out, too, for the fact that Gladdy isn’t a newcomer to the community, like many cozy mystery protagonists; she’s been living in Lanai Gardens for years. The book is the first in a series, so if you enjoy it, there’s more to come!

Source: Ebook checked out from my public library
Challenges: Counts for Read Harder 2018 (Task #23: A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60)