The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White

It’s October, and as I do every year, I’m focusing on reading horror, ghost stories, and general scariness through the month as part of #screamathon on Litsy. So far I’ve read some good stuff, and this is one of them. Warning: possible mild spoilers ahead!

This gem is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but it starts with what most readers of the original understand—who the real monster is—and takes it up a few giant notches.

Elizabeth becomes our main character, and gets so much more personality and development. No longer just the doomed fiancé of Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth is a smart, relentless young woman doing what she feels she must in order to secure a future for herself after being abused and used as a young child. She’s complex and at times infuriating, but she’s ultimately a heroine with her heart in the right place (no Frankenstein pun intended). She’s a protector and an advocate for other girls, and the additional of Mary the independent female bookseller, whose life becomes intertwined with Elizabeth’s, adds more girl power to the story.

This book is full of gothic creepiness and horror, but perhaps some of the scariest parts have to deal with just being a woman in the 18th century. That’s some terrifying stuff.

Victor is not just an obsessively brilliant man who takes his scientific experiments too far, he’s a psychopath with a god complex. Through Elizabeth’s memories, we see how disturbed he has been since childhood. Elizabeth, in a desperate attempt to make a place for herself in a world that offers no help for girls and women alone and without means, becomes an unwitting accomplice in his grown-up atrocities. Even Elizabeth, the closest person to Victor, has no idea how depraved he truly is.

The ‘monster’ Adam is even more blameless for the horrors taking place in the story than he was in Frankenstein. He’s got his own sort of backstory, as he’s made of up some unexpected ummm… parts. Since the story is told from Elizabeth’s POV, we are also spared the incessant whining of the poor creation. This was a plus for me. 😂

I admit that, as a reader, I was following along with the story running parallel to the original, and I was blown away (in a good way) when White took her novel in a very different direction. The first two-thirds of the book were ok, but the last third, where the author really begins to deviate from the source material, elevated it to something truly excellent.

Also, I LOVED the authors note—White clearly has the utmost respect for Shelley’s genius and the trailblazing she did for women and for science fiction in general. White took the absence of women in the original book and found her own story there. With much success, in my humble opinion.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Note: I listened to this book on audio, and highly recommend it. The narration by Katherine McEwan was excellent.

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury… oh, my heart.

I was never a young boy in the 1920s (ha), but I did grow up in a small town in the Midwest, and wow, did this book resonate with me. Reading this incredible book made me nostalgic much like when I read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series.

The book has no real plot; rather, it’s a collection of stories from the summer of 1928 in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, all involving 12-year-old Douglas, his family, and his neighbors. While this format took me a hot minute to get into, it was extremely effective in making the book really about many things all at once: childhood, family, happiness, death, aging, true love, even witchcraft and a serial killer… it’s all over the place and it’s just magic. The writing is beautiful, and Bradbury somehow manages to say so much without a lot of words.

“Important thing is not the me that’s lying here, but the me that’s sitting on the edge of the bed looking back at me, and the me that’s downstairs cooking supper, or out in the garage under the car, or in the library reading. All the new parts, they count. I’m not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family.”

I especially enjoyed the chapters full of simple small-town life anecdotes. The neighbors all know each other, the mailman reads the postcards, tries on mail-order shoes, and peruses books before he delivers them, the ladies attend meetings at the Honeysuckle Lodge, the kids all play together outside until sundown, people get together at the ice cream shop, the arcade, and the movie theater. I spent my childhood in a tiny Midwest town of about 200 people, and even though I was living it 60 years after Douglas, it rang so true for me.

I listened to the book on audio (Blackstone Audio from 2011, read by Paul Michael Garcia), often out for audiowalks. I found myself laughing out loud as I walked along listening to Elmira Brown becoming convinced that her rival for president of the ladies’ club, Clara Goodwater, is a witch. Absolutely hilarious. Alternately, I was walking and crying as great grandma’s long life was summed up, as Doug’s best friend spends his last day in town before moving, and listening to the unusual relationship between Bill and Helen. I even spent one walk really, truly scared as Lavinia Nebb was stalked by a bonafide serial killer as she walked home alone after the movies.

For me, the hallmark of a really good novel is its ability to make me feel things deeply, and this book checked all of the boxes. This book doesn’t address any of the major social, political, and world issues of the time period. It doesn’t try to do any more than show the very small world of a young boy who is just starting to realize he’s alive at the same time he’s realizing all things die; a boy who doesn’t want the summer to end as his own childhood is ending. It made me smile, laugh, and cry; it made me think about my childhood, miss my grandparents, and want to hug my mom and dad. I adored this beautiful, quiet book, and I plan to gift copies to several people that I love.

“And, after all, isn’t that what life is all about, the ability to go around back and come up inside other people’s heads to look out at the damned fool miracle and say: oh, so that’s how you see it!? Well, now, I must remember that.”

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

ARC review: The Weight of a Soul by Elizabeth Tammi

Gorgeous cover, right? The description on NetGalley also grabbed my attention – young sisters in a Viking clan, grief and mourning, Norse gods and maybe even Ragnarök? Yes, please! I was thrilled to be approved for a free ARC of this book. Unfortunately, the book fell flat for me.

The blurb sounds very promising: when Lena’s sister, Fressa, is found dead, the whole Viking clan mourns, but Lena can’t move on. She needs to know how and why her sister died, and feels like the wrong sister was taken. Lena will do anything to bring her sister back, including striking a dark deal with Hela, the goddess of death. As she moves closer to bringing her sister back, she discovers family secrets and does the unthinkable, all while darkness, cold, and possibly the end of the world descend on their world.

I really think this concept could have been developed into a good story, but unfortunately this book suffers from lack of structure and not-so-great writing. While it is clear that a lot of research went into creating the Nordic/viking culture in the story, I don’t feel like the characters themselves are well developed. It’s hard to really feel anything for Lena or any of the other characters when they are so one-dimensional and incomplete. It’s hard to invest in the strong bond between Lena and Fressa when we have no backstory or reason to believe their closeness, and the same is true of the love story – it doesn’t feel special or intense at all. The story is told in third person, which in this case didn’t help me to connect to the characters. The plot itself is wandering and clunky, with a big event at the beginning, followed by a lot of randomness, and some more action right at the end. I felt lost throughout and ultimately unsatisfied at the end. The writing itself is ok but in need of some editing – that’s likely just because my copy is an ARC and not the final product.

Since I did enjoy the concept, setting, and addition of Norse mythology, and the story managed to keep me reading until the end, I’m giving this book two stars instead of one. If YA/historical fiction/fantasy is your thing, don’t let my review sway you – Goodreads has many glowing ratings of this book, so maybe it’s just me?

Thanks to the published and NetGalley for the free ARC in exchange for an honest review.

⭐️⭐️

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza just broke my heart.

I’m on a roll lately… one really excellent book after another. This one is absolutely heartbreaking, but so very good.

The novel opens with the wedding of Hadia, the eldest of three children of a devout Muslim Indian-American family. Attending the wedding is Amar, the youngest sibling, who has been estranged from his family for three years. From here, the storyline jumps back to the to the arranged marriage of parents Rafiq and Layla, and then back and forth through the family’s lives leading up to the wedding.

The writing is phenomenal. The narrative jumps around to crucial moments in the family’s history, moving forward and backward in time, but this is done so masterfully that it all fits together seamlessly. There is so very much emotion packed into these beautiful words. I found myself going back over passages just to hear them again. All of the characters are fleshed out completely, and I really felt all of the highs and lows, betrayals and joys, right along with them.

The book deals extensively with members of the family’s relationship to their Muslim faith, and to each other. We experience 9/11, and later the hateful political rhetoric beginning in 2016, from their prospective. There is conflict and disagreement, but it is clear that this family loves one another deeply. Equal parts sad, infuriating, and uplifting.

The final part of the novel switches to the POV of one character, several years after the wedding. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that I was initially surprised at the character choice for this, but ultimately felt it was the perfect way to end the story. There is some repetition as we revisit points in the story through this character’s eyes, but this added so much more to the story.

This book made me think and feel on almost every page. It’s an immigrant story, a story of Muslim faith, and a family saga, and manages to be perfect in every way. I am certain that it will stay with me for a long time.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Another #1001books review! Possession by A.S. Byatt

Two books in one week checked off my 1001 books tbr, and I loved this one just as much as The Namesake. I finished the book early this morning, and originally thought it was a 4 1/2 star book, but I’ve been thinking about it since and can’t think of a single thing I didn’t love about it… so I’ve upped my rating.

A pair of young academics in the 1980s are researching the intersecting lives of two Victorian poets: Roland Michell is studying Randolph Henry Ash when he finds some partial letters from Ash to an unknown woman. Some sleuthing leads him to consult Dr. Maud Bailey, an expert on Christabel LaMotte, and the two embark on a rather thrilling literary quest to discover the previously unknown link between the Ash and LaMotte.

This book is absolutely wonderful. The writing is stunningly good—it’s so wordy, but in the best way, and Byatt has squeezed every little bit of beauty possible in to every page. I adored the layered storylines. I generally enjoy stories set in the 1800s, and the smoldering love story of Ash and LaMotte is the perfect mix of melancholy and romance. The more modern-day story is a fast-paced mystery with scholarly intrigue and a slowly-developing romance. As much as I love Ash and LaMotte and Roland and Maud, there is a full cast of interesting, well-developed characters. Leonora and Beatrice were fantastic in the modern story line, and Ellen and Blanche add layers to the Victorian story.

I’m not normally drawn to poetry, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved the poems and prose that are laced throughout the book. If only we could really read all of Ash’s poetry on Norse mythology and Christabel LaMotte’s Melusina. Their letters to each other were beautiful as well.

Truly deserving of the awards and praise it has garnered, I think this novel will end up being a treasured classic. I will definitely be buying a ‘forever’ copy for my shelves. I’m certain this will be a rare reread for me someday.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

#1001Books review: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Sometimes, I finish a book from the 1001 Books list and wonder why, exactly, it’s on the list at all: The Breast by Roth comes (quite unpleasantly) to mind. This is most definitely not one of those times…

The Namesake is a quiet, unassuming, deeply affecting story of an Indian family’s immigrant experience. The story begins with the birth of Gogol Ganguli to his parents, who settled in Massachusetts immediately following their arranged marriage in Calcutta. With flashes into the earlier lives of his father, Ashoke, and his mother, Ashima, we watch as Gogol grows up American in a Bengali family, somewhat ashamed of his heritage and the unusual (from American or Indian perspective) name that he was given. While undoubtably the story of an immigrant experience, The Namesake is full of universally human experiences; growing up and growing old, discovering your own identity, complicated relationships with parents involving embarrassment and the pull of loyalty, falling in love, losing loved ones… there is much for anyone to to relate to and think about.

The writing is beautiful. Lahiri has a way of taking ordinary moments and elevating them with simple turns of phrase to really draw emotion and bring her characters to life. The descriptions of some of Gogol’s experiences with his father had me in tears, while other passages had me smiling and laughing.

“They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.”

This is ‘just’ the story of a family… nothing out of the ordinary or historic happens to them, there is no action, adventure, or drama, and no storybook love affairs, but the human experience is captured perfectly in a fantastic work of literature that made me think and feel. The chance to discover absolutely gorgeous books like The Namesake is why I am such a voracious reader.

The audiobook was very well done, with excellent narration by Sarita Choudhury. I had lots of driving time over the weekend on a family road trip, and I very much enjoyed losing myself in Gogol’s story.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I finally read The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah.

As is so often the case, I’ve finished a much-hyped book long after the hype. As is even more often the case, I’ve finished a BOTM book more than a year after it came out. Whoopsie. I’m certainly not one to read new releases (other than ARCs and galleys) when they are still new, but I’ve come to terms with that.

This book was moved down my tbr list many times as I saw several reviews from Litsy friends that were less than stellar. I have read two other novels by this author (liked Night Road and absolutely loved The Nightingale). I am pleased to report I really enjoyed The Great Alone—more than I expected to.

Set mostly in the 1970s in the gorgeous, brutal Alaskan wilderness, this is the story of 13-year-old Leni, whose parents impulsively move the family to off-the-grid Alaska. Leni’s dad is a Vietnam vet who returned from his time as a POW volatile and angry. Ernt and Cora love each other recklessly, but Ernt is violent, controlling and abusive toward his wife and Leni is trapped in their mess of a relationship at the edge of the world as the dark, dangerous Alaskan winter sets in.

Hannah’s writing is beautiful, and she does a great job capturing the time and place in this story. The descriptions of the Alaskan landscapes and conditions are rich and vibrant, and the cast of characters are well-drawn and captivating. I especially love how she’s written the female characters in this story. The plot itself was nonstop entertaining, and I did not want to put this book down. Full of ups and downs, it had my emotions running the gamut.

I can see that this book is not for everyone. There are triggers galore: domestic abuse, violence, gore, hunting, predators and prey… it’s definitely not all sunshine and roses, but I laughed and smiled as much as I sobbed and raged. There are parts that seem a bit far-fetched, but all in all, a satisfying, enjoyable read.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

ARC review: It Would be Night in Caracas by Karina Sainz Borgo

This was an intense read. It made me realize how little I know about the political situation in Venezuela, and led me to some searching to better educate myself, which I always appreciate. If a book can make me want to know more about a real-life situation, I think the author has done something great.

In the midst of the chaos and upheaval in Caracas, Adelaide loses her mother, the only real family she has ever had, and returns to their apartment and the struggle to survive on her own. She is faced with some very difficult, life-alerting decisions, and the reader gets to feel her indecision and hopelessness along with her.

The writing here is very good and the translation worked well for me. The story is stark, lonely, and at times gruesome. The blurb mentions twists and turns, but it didn’t find these twists in my reading. The present day story flows along evenly, if at times it is somewhat slow, but the flashbacks were distracting and seemed to come at awkward times. I think this is ultimately what keeps the book from being a pick for me. Still, I would be interested in reading more from this author in the future.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read this book prior to release in exchange for an honest review.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Another gushing review: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

I suppose that at some point, I will have to post about a book that I didn’t enjoy, but I’ve been really fortunate to read a lot of good stuff lately. Although there are a couple of things that kept this book from being a 5-star perfect read for me, this is most definitely a review that will be filled with effusive praise and probably some mild spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

The premise: two researchers travel in time from sometime in our future all the way back to 1815. Their mission is to meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself… more specifically, to steal Jane’s personal letters and the full manuscript of The Watsons. Rachel (our narrator) is an American doctor who has traveled the world in her own time helping with humanitarian relief after disasters, and her colleague Liam is a scholar with a background in acting. In Austen’s time, they pose as a doctor and his spinster sister, just arrived in England after selling their plantation in Jamaica, and are able to insinuate themselves into the social circle of the Austens to get close to Jane herself.

I loved Rachel as a character and seeing the story through her eyes. She’s smart, witty, and independent. Her struggles in adapting her modern (actually, futuristic) thinking to life as a 19th century woman seem very real and affecting, and her developing friendship with Jane Austen and changing relationship with Liam make for fantastic reading. Rachel experiences a lot of personal growth herself over her year in Austen’s time, and I found her surprisingly easy to relate to. And not just for lines like this:

‘Is it possible that I never met the right man because he died centuries before I was born?’

Although, if I’m honest, that line could probably define me. 😆

One of my favorite components of this novel was Rachel and Liam contending with their need to complete their mission without disrupting or changing history (and their own future), while also getting to know Jane Austen as a person and wishing to find a way to prevent her early death. The Austens, mainly Henry and especially Jane, are well-drawn and complete characters themselves. I’m an unashamed Janeite, and I went from being starstruck at her appearance in the novel to enjoying her character as much as Rachel’s.

The writing is solid, although there were some word/phrase choices that stuck out a little (reference to Liam’s penis as a ‘johnson’ being the first that comes to mind – ugh)*. The ending felt a bit rushed, and some of Rachel’s defining characteristics seems to escape her all of the sudden, but I still liked the way the story closed. But, as long as we are fictionalizing dear Jane and giving her a longer, more prolific life, would it have been too much to ask to get to hear her thoughts on the Brontës? I guess I should probably write my own book, huh?

In all seriousness, I very much look forward to more books by this author. Flynn has clearly researched life in the Regency period in England, as well as the Austens themselves, which gives the novel a realistic, historically accurate feeling. The time travel elements are not explained in too much detail, but that’s just fine with me. I came for the historical fiction aspect and for Jane, not for the science-fiction piece, and I was not disappointed. I loved the references to Austen’s novels, and like most Austen fans, I would love to be able to read more of her genius writing. That’s the true fantasy element here.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

*Apologies for my first ever use of ‘penis’ in the blog. And now the second ever. But I feel this needed to be said.

Review: Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison

This is an incredibly good audiobook. I say that both a person that isn’t drawn to westerns, and as a woman who is often disappointed with how male writers write female characters.

Pointing that out as this is a western, written by a white man, about an absolutely brilliant, strong, unforgettable female mixed-race character.

This book is beautifully written, heartbreaking, and does not shy away from race, gender, class or sexuality themes. Jess as a character is so well-written, believable and deep. I really wish her story could go on and on. After I finished, I looked up Larimer, and I may have a bit of an author crush now. This guy can write, and what a brilliant goal in writing this book. https://vimeo.com/331129553

The audiobook is very well done. Narrator Sophie Amoss captures the language and voice of these characters in such a way that she really brings them to life. I can’t recommend it enough for audio fans who are interested in this book.

This was also my #genrebusting book for one of my Litsy reading challenges (#booked2019), and it certainly fit the bill. It is gritty and violent and set in the old west, but such a fresh take on the old westerns. I loved everything about it!

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️