Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson

2

MetSynopsis: From a writer who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than twenty-five years, an enchanting novel that shows us the Met that the public doesn’t see.

Hidden behind the Picassos and Vermeers, the Temple of Dendur and the American Wing, exists another world: the hallways and offices, conservation studios, storerooms, and cafeteria that are home to the museum’s devoted and peculiar staff of 2,200 people—along with a few ghosts.

A surreal love letter to this private side of the Met, Metropolitan Stories unfolds in a series of amusing and poignant vignettes in which we discover larger-than-life characters, the downside of survival, and the powerful voices of the art itself. The result is a novel bursting with magic, humor, and energetic detail, but also a beautiful book about introspection, an ode to lives lived for art, ultimately building a powerful collage of human experience and the world of the imagination.

These stories are magnificently odd, very much like some of the things in the Met. Part whimsy, part time-travel, part fantasy, part history – I could go on, but there really isn’t a good way to classify this delicious book. Every story is a gem, beginning with the evaluation of the Muses. I think we all should bring a Muse to every meeting. Do not speak to The Muse. The Muse will not speak.

This will be devoured by fans of the Met, or of art museums in general. Guaranteed you will lose yourself in the lovely prose and the fantastical stories.

Publication Date: October 8, 2019
Published By: Other Press
Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy

Bewitched & Betrothed by Juliet Blackwell

1

betwitchedSynopsis: A supernatural force on the loose in San Francisco and a family reunion keeps witch and vintage storeowner Lily Ivory on her toes as she prepares to walk down the aisle…

When Lily stumbles on the uniform of a former prisoner from Alcatraz and SFPD inspector Carlos Romero’s cousin is kidnapped, Lily suspects something dangerous has been unleashed on the ghost-ridden island of Alcatraz. She’ll have to sleuth out the culprit—when she’s not busy entertaining her visiting relatives and resolving romantic conflicts as her wedding date approaches. Could recent omens be pointing to the magical threat in her adopted city? If so, she’ll have to line up her allies to change the fate of the Bay Area. Because no matter what, Lily’s determined to celebrate her marriage with her friends by her side—even if it means battling a demonic foe before she can make it to the altar.

When a series hits double digit numbers, I often lose interest. That is not the case with Blackwell’s Lily Ivory series, and this latest is one of her best. This is really a series about the characters rather than the story, and the characters Blackwell has developed are people you want to know in real life. From Lily’s mischievous grandmother and her saucy coven, to Lily’s mentor Aidan and his mysterious past, to Patience Blix and her belled ankles, to San Francisco cop Carlos, to Lily’s closest friends Bronwyn, Maya, and Conrad, to her fiance Sailor, and finally to her familiar Oscar – every character has an important role to play.

One of the things I have enjoyed most about this series is how Blackwell grows and develops the characters. Each book has brought the characters farther along their path; for example, Conrad has gone from the stoned “gutter punk” to a guy trying to get sober and reconnect with his family. Lily herself has grown from a suspicious, solitary witch to someone who values friendship and love, which is a theme that appears again and again in this book and which she ultimately embraces in the thrilling climax where she does, indeed, save San Francisco.

While Blackwell often writes with tongue firmly in cheek, she consistently produces enjoyable, light mysteries that will give you a couple enjoyable hours of reading time. Well done, Juliet Blackwell! Looking forward to more Lily Ivory!

Publication Date: June 25, 2019
Published By: Berkley Publishing Group
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

Silent Lee & the Adventure of the Side Door Key by Alex Hiam


silent leeA student of the Girls’ Academy of Latin and Alchemy, Silent Lee travels between modern day Boston and the brimming-with-alchemy Boston of 100 years ago as she goes about her school day. How does she do that, you ask? Why, through a magical secret door on the side of her house where she lives with her Great Aunt Generous. Front of the house = modern day Boston; side of the house = old Boston.

Sie goes about her business undisturbed until the day she’s told Aunt Gen has died and she’s going to move in with some cousins. Picked up by her mysterious mother, who may or may not be a spy, Sie is perplexed by her mother’s interest in the side door key and makes the decision to keep it hidden. As Sie settles in at the cousins’ house, mysterious things start to happen which lead her to believe that Aunt Gen may not be dead after all. What follows is a fast-paced adventure as Sie rushes to find her Aunt Gen and return to her studies.

Alex Hiam has begun a fascinating, fun, and original new series for middle grade readers featuring a smart and sassy 15 year old protagonist who is sure to appeal. The time travel and school of magic concepts aren’t new, but Hiam breathes fresh life into them here with the Girls’ Academy. Sie’s relationship with her mother adds needed tension to the story, and her relationship with Aunt Gen is one we all wish for. I look forward to sharing more adventures with Silent Lee and the Girls’ Academy students.

The Book Charmer by Karen Hawkins


book charmerI have a fondness for books about books, so the description of The Book Charmer drew me in. Every once in awhile a book comes along that is a just a gentle affirmation on the goodness of neighbors, and this is one of them. The concept of a town librarian hearing books talk and giving the right book to the right person at the right time is the stuff of magic for people who love books. Pair that with a small town full of down to earth people who love each other despite their differences, and a set of main characters so appealing that it’s impossible not to like this book.

Comparisons will inevitably be drawn to Sarah Addison Allen’s Waverley novels and I’d be lying if I said the similarities didn’t occur to me. Like Allen’s stories, Karen Hawkins has imbued her characters and the town of Dove Pond with a certain kind of magic, which creates a modern day fairy tale for people who are searching for the right place to be in life, despite often rough beginnings. In Book Charmer, Hawkins offers a wrenching but hopeful looks into the foster system, but also into the decline of a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Mama G’s illness is handled with sensitivity and honesty, while Grace’s experiences as a foster child inform her adult life in ways she never expected.

Dove Pond is one of those places that you dream of, and you are left wanting to know these people in real life. That is the mark of a good story, and Hawkins fully succeeds here. Recommended.

Publication Date: July 30, 2019
Published By: Gallery/Pocket Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger


67ED6962-E081-4A26-ABFC-089CF8128753Sometimes you need a book that soothes spirit – a book that starts slowly and meanders along at a gentle pace, telling a gentle story that leaves you feeling like you’ve been floating down a lazy river in the not-too-hot sunshine. Virgil Wander is that kind of book.

Leif Enger is known for his use of allegory and symbolism, and remains true to form in Virgil. The overarching theme that appears again and again throughout the story is flight and all the things that go along with it – here specifically weightlessness, freedom, and risk-taking.

The story begins with our titular character, Virgil Wander, recovering from an awful accident that had him driving his car off an embankment into Lake Superior. While his car doesn’t make it, Virgil escapes with some bodily damage and a traumatic brain injury. Language is one of the things that Virgil has lost – not the ability to speak, but the use of adjectives – the ability to describe. It leaves Virgil feeling like a stranger in his home, his job, and his life in general.

Into this confusion comes Rune Eliasson, an old man from the Arctic Circle searching for a son he didn’t know was conceived on a long ago trip to Greenstone, Minnesota. He discovers the son mysteriously disappeared a decade before, but stays to find out more about him. Virgil and Rune bond over flying kites and eventually become unlikely roommates.

What commences is the story of how Virgil Wander recovers his adjectives and discovers a new life right on top of the old one. Along the way, Virgil and the multitude of characters living in Greenstone struggle with the vagaries (and predictabilities) of small town life. The story is a common one across the Great Lakes region where towns that boomed with good fortune and wealth for years are now faced with closed factories, declining population, and aging infrastructure.

The big question is why do people stay in these small towns with no future. Enger’s answer, I think, lies in the symbolism here. One of the characters, Shad Pea, is allegedly killed by a monster sturgeon, which his surviving son vows to kill. The fish itself becomes a character here, driving one of the many sub-plots until a blood-pumping scene at the end of the book. The fish is often used as a symbol of rebirth or resurrection, a theme entwined with the lives of the characters and the town. Relationships are born and reborn throughout, further emphasizing the importance of friends, family, and acquaintances in daily life. People in Greenstone care about each other and, more importantly, take care of each other.

The more obvious theme here, though, is flight. For Virgil, his old life has flown away, but he’s finding a new one bit by bit. Rune’s amazing handmade kites are used as the vehicle to bring people together and to provide the sense of power and weightlessness that exists when something leaves the earth to swoop through the air. While you can see the kite and feel it through the string, a wayward breeze or a strong wind can take that kite and fold it up, crash it, or make it soar if only you have the courage and perseverance to keep it in the air. One of my favorite scenes has Rune and Virgil flying a kite in the dark. Virgil never knows which kite he was flying. All he knows is what he can feel through the string and he says it is “a curious privilege…to fly without so much as a glimpse of perception of the wing.” That is a turning point for Virgil when he realizes that his new life will require risk-taking.

Virgil’s budding relationship with Nadine is part of his transformation, and Enger handles it with the gentle matter-of-factness of finding a partner late in life. It just happens. And that is ultimately what Virgil Wander discovers. Life happens, whether you’re ready for it or not. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes you get a raw deal. How you respond to both the good and the bad is what makes your life important.

Virgil Wander is not the most exciting book you will ever read and, indeed, many reviews call it out for being boring. If you’re not a small town kind of person, I expect you would find this odd and a little dull. Anyone who has spent some time living in a small town will recognize the unusual (and usual) characters that show up everywhere, and will enjoy drawing comparisons to real-life examples of the Village Hall staff, the tired sheriff, the local marijuana grower, and the colorful characters who are found everywhere. If you have a couple hours of uninterrupted time where you want to fall into a cozy, friendly reading trance, pick this up and snuggle down. You’ll emerge refreshed.

January Micro-Reviews

1

devouringThe Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman – This creepy, eerie, and imaginative story grabbed me by the back of the neck and held on from first to last page. The plot is a refreshing take on the “monster in the woods” trope and features some sassy, kick-ass characters. The premise of four founding families (shades of Hogwarts, anyone?) isn’t new, but the relationship of the families to the monster and to the town they protect is pretty darn original. The author does a good job of making teens sound like teens, although the adults are portrayed as bullies or dopes. The plot flowed easily and kept my attention. It looks like this will be the beginning of a series, which makes me happy. It would also make a helluva TV series in the vein of Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Recommended.

Publication Date: April 2, 2019
Published By: Disney-Hyperion
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

prosperThe Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding by Alexandra Bracken – How did I miss this book when it first came out? It has everything I love about middle grade fantasy – hip and likable characters, clever humor, a multi-faceted villain, a surprise twist at the end, and a superb story. Here, the likable characters are Prosper and Nell and the villain (one of them!) is Alastor, a fiend who has waited hundreds of years for revenge on the family that bound him. The competing themes of revenge & betrayal and friendship & love can lead to some interesting discussions about relationships. The nods to some of my favorite classic stories (The Crucible and Doctor Faustus) only made this more enjoyable. Bracken successfully delivers what appears to be a prologue to some serious world-building, as she prepares to publish the sequel to this in February. The twist at the end was one of the best I can remember and set up the sequel beautifully.

lastThe Last by Hanna Jameson – This title has been sitting in my To Be Read queue for months and I finally opened it last night out of guilt. Holy smokes! I read it in one sitting, resulting in a foggy day spent at work today! I am not, as a rule, a fan of dystopian fiction which is probably why it took me so long to open this one. However, when dystopian fiction is blended with a tautly plotted, inventive mystery it becomes a book I cannot put down. The author has done everything right here – good dialog, evocative description, memorable characters, and an unusual plot. I’ll be recommending this a lot in the coming months.
Publication Date: April 9, 2019
Published By: Atria Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

arloArlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon by John August – I am late to the Arlo Finch party, having missed the first in the series. However, this second-in-the-series stands pretty sturdily on its own. August explains enough about the Long Woods and the Rangers so a reader new to the series can follow along, although the characters are cool enough that I will definitely go back and read the first in the series. Here, Arlo and his fellow Rangers Wu and Indra, along with other Rangers, find themselves facing some really weird experiences as they head into their two weeks of camp. There are the usual suspects – the trio of friends who overcome great evil, the obligatory bully, the hip adults, and the scary monsters – all stirred up into a stew of steady action and hair-raising adventures. Kids who enjoy imaginative adventures will thoroughly enjoy Arlo Finch, in all his books. Recommended for middle grade readers.

Publication Date: February 5, 2019
Published By: Macmillan/Roaring Brook Press
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden


winter of the witchAround the beginning of December, I finally managed to get my hands on an advanced reading copy of Arden’s Winter of the Witch and had hoped to spend the weekend reading this end to the gorgeous Winternight Trilogy. Alas, that didn’t happen….because I finished it in a day.

I’ve written before that Arden’s writing is lyrical, lush, and full of magic and mystery; it will keep you reading well into the night, not only because she skillfully blends fairytale and history, but because she has created complex and fascinating original characters. Truthfully, I haven’t loved a series as much since I first read Harry Potter.

I will honestly say that the Potter series, which I have adored for more than 20 years, has been replaced by Arden’s Winternight Trilogy as my favorite in the fantasy genre. The story takes the fairy tales of my childhood and makes them flesh in a way that left me breathless. With this final entry, Arden has brought the stories begun in The Bear and the Nightingale full circle and created a tale for the ages.

When we left Vasya, Sasha, Olga & Dmitri, Moscow was burning due to Vasya releasing the firebird, a mythical creature contained within a golden horse that had been bridled and controlled by Kaschei the Deathless. Vasya, burned and exhausted, finds brief refuge within the terem of sister Olga, Princess of Serpukhov but is almost immediately confronted with a mob demanding her blood. Led by Brother Konstantin, the mob drags Vasya to the river and attempts to burn her as a witch. She escapes and makes her way into the realm of Midnight, where she recovers and learns more about her family and herself.

In Midnight, Vasya is considered an alternative to The Bear and The Winter King, two gods who control the chaos in the world. The chyerti of Midnight are tired of the feuding between the two and hope Vasya will break the cycle of chaos and cold controlled by these two brothers. Vasya begins to recognize her own power and understands that she can affect the outcome of war in the real world and chaos in the other realm.

There are so many themes to unpack here – the position and power of women (Vasya is different and therefore dangerous); the strength of family; the weakness of men and women when faced with unimaginable temptation; and the power afforded beauty and charisma and the danger when it goes awry. While this trilogy grew out of Russian fairy & folk tales, it is at its heart a story about family and loyalty.

What makes this a stand-out is Arden’s writing. In less imaginative and skillful hands, the story could be just another niche fantasy series; here it becomes history and romance and war as well as magic. I’ve read Arden’s other work (give Small Spaces a try next Halloween!) and found it just as beautifully written. She is a young author to watch. I don’t buy a lot of print books these days, but I have purchased a set of these books and will keep and re-read them for years to come.

Someone please make this a Netflix series!

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield


E115714F-DA04-4765-B6FD-6B4265B78092There are few authors who can take a common archetype like water and use it to deliver a fresh, wholly original tale that ensnares the reader from start to finish. Diane Setterfield does that in Once Upon a River. She uses the River to create the spine upon which she builds multiple stories that eventually meet to join the main narrative, just as tributaries meet the river.

Setterfield’s debut, The Thirteenth Tale, was as brilliant a novel as I’ve ever read and has become one that I re-read occasionally and recommend constantly. Her sophomore effort, Bellman & Black, didn’t appeal to me in the same way, but this one…oh, this one…is a story that I will remember for a long time. The characters are engaging and cleverly written, and the stories are joyful and heartbreaking…at the same time. I especially admire how sensitively Setterfield writes about differences. Jonathan, son of the innkeepers and born with Down Syndrome, is portrayed as a valuable and much-loved member of the family and contributor to the community. Armstrong, the bastard son of an Earl and a Black servant, is portrayed as a powerful, just, and loving man in the English countryside of long ago. And finally there is my favorite character Rita, the village “wise woman” who is really just a woman with common sense who loves to read and learn and who is trusted and loved by the villagers.

These are just three of the characters who people the pages of Once Upon a River, but there are more who will undoubtedly appeal to other readers. Part of Setterfield’s appeal for me is her attention to detail and character-building. Every single character could step out of this book and be a real person.

The multiple stories built throughout this book could stand alone, but here, Setterfield ties them all to the story of a small, mute girl rescued from the river. Who is she and where did she come from? That’s the question that drives all the action forward and leaves you guessing to the very end.

Looked at in a larger context, Once Upon a River is a story about stories and the importance (and danger) of telling tales. Setterfield masterfully shows how stories spread and grow into new things, just as small streams eventually become big rivers. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: December 4, 2018
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

Circe by Madeline Miller

1

CE60DF93-14E4-472B-9DBA-F9CA6948A502My introduction to Greek history and mythology happened in 4th grade, and I was immediately hooked on the stories of gods and heroes. I clearly remember borrowing D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths from the library over and over, reading about Ariadne, Theseus, Hercules, Jason, and Athena. Then I discovered The Odyssey a few years later and was entranced by Polyphemus the Cyclops, the Sirens, Calypso, and Circe, Witch of Aiaia.

While I can’t say Circe was a favorite character in my adolescent myth reading, she has been mentioned in some books I’ve read over the years as the “source of power” in lines of women who practice the healing arts, so I was intrigued when I heard about this book.

Miller presents Circe as a complicated character here, a lesser god by birth – daughter of the Titan Helios and the nymph Perse – but the object of ridicule and subject to what can only be described as low self-esteem. She lives in hope of being noticed and praised by her father and craves basic kindness and love, but at the same time refuses to be cowed by the cruelty shown by her brothers and sister.

In her quest for love, she concocts a potion using flowers born from the blood of gods to turn a human into his true, godly self. Unfortunately, once he becomes a god, he does not choose Circe for his mate. Consumed with jealousy, she brews more of the potion and succeeds in turning the object of his affection into the monstrous Scylla.

As punishment for this act, Circe is banished to the island of Aiaia for all eternity. Her use of a potion to create a monster is feared by the gods, who foresee that “witchcraft” can harm them. On the island, Circe makes a home for herself among the wild animals, teaching herself about herbs and witchcraft. Centuries pass, and Circe learns more and more about mortals and gods, until she meets Odysseus who transfixes her with his stories and adventures. Circe’s relationship with Odysseus comes full circle when his wife and son, Penelope and Telemachus, arrive on Aiaia, forcing Circe to examine her own life and consider her future.

The most striking thing about this story is the humanness of Circe and how the self-centered ways of the gods are misguided, dangerous, and hurtful. She is let down again and again by her father, her uncles and grandmothers, her brother, her sister, Odysseus, and, finally, by her son but she still is willing to offer second (and third and fourth) chances for people to be good to her.

Admittedly, her willingness to let people take advantage of her or treat her badly can wear on the reader, but her final confrontation with her father makes it all worthwhile. Circe’s weakness, in the eyes of the gods, is that she loves too much and she wants to be loved in return. By the end of the book, she has stopped apologizing for that and embraced that as a strength.

Miller’s writing is engaging and lyrical. She is true to the Greek myths and epics, and sprinkles heroes and gods like salt throughout the story. It’s refreshing to examine the Greek myths from a woman’s point of view, and Miller is not always kind to our male heroes. Theseus and Jason fare particularly badly at her hands.

This would make a really interesting “buddy read” with The Odyssey. It would certainly spark some lively discussion about the roles and situations of women in history. I can’t decide if it’s empowering or infuriating to read about a female “god” who is treated badly because she’s not beautiful or clever. At its core, Circe is about a woman finding her own power and taking control of her own life, which is what makes this such a satisfying read.

Highly recommended.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

1

silverThere are dozens of books out there that re-work traditional fairy and folk tales, but few take the kernel of the story and pop it into something completely different. Novik has done that here and produced what will surely be the hit of the summer with fans of fantasy and fairytales.

She has taken the bones from multiple folk and fairy tales and built them into a wholly original and compelling story that is told from several perspectives. Typically in a story with so many protagonists, a couple of them suffer from poor characterization and neglect. No so here. Every character has a role to play, whether it’s our “Queens” Mirayem and Irina, or little Stepon or old Magreta, they all provide the threads that Novik weaves into a luscious, fascinating tapestry of a story.

The base story of Rumpelstiltskin where a maiden must turn straw (in this case, silver) to gold is the foundation of the tale, but Novik weaves in elements of European folktales all over the place: the mountain of glass, the never-ending battle between fire and ice/summer and winter, even the “moneylender” from Shakespeare has a role. Oddly enough, the archetype that kept coming to mind towards the end was of the holiday cartoon characters Heat Miser and Cold Miser, but Novik’s characters are definitely *not* cartoony! The last few chapters could have been that cartoon reworked as an action/adventure movie.

It is the women in this story, though, that you will remember. Mirayem. Irina. Wanda. Magreta. You will cheer them on and take comfort in their strength and cleverness, and you will remember them long after you have finished the book.

While the story is remarkable, this is a loooonnngggg book.  Around 80% through, I admit I started skimming through to the end. Some of the build up to Mirayem’s turning the massive amounts of silver to gold could be trimmed, as could some parts of the early and later chapters. The real action happens in the last quarter, which is where I started to get impatient with the pace of the story. However, story always wins, so this is sure to be on all the “Best of” lists for 2018. Very well done and recommended.