Austenesque · stuff I read

Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner – an Austenprose blog tour!

Natalie Jenner, the internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society, returns with a compelling and heartwarming story of post-war London, a century-old bookstore, and three women determined to find their way in a fast-changing world in Bloomsbury Girls.

Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare bookstore that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men and guided by the general manager’s unbreakable fifty-one rules. But in 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans:

Vivien Lowry: Single since her aristocratic fiancé was killed in action during World War II, the brilliant and stylish Vivien has a long list of grievances–most of them well justified and the biggest of which is Alec McDonough, the Head of Fiction.

Grace Perkins: Married with two sons, she’s been working to support the family following her husband’s breakdown in the aftermath of the war. Torn between duty to her family and dreams of her own.

Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she’s working at Bloomsbury Books while she plans to remake her own future.

As they interact with various literary figures of the time–Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and others–these three women with their complex web of relationships, goals and dreams are all working to plot out a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow.

BOOK TRAILER

 AUDIOBOOK

Narrated by esteemed stage and screen actress Juliet Stevenson, enjoy the full unabridged edition of Bloomsbury Girls. “Stevenson delivers the satisfying triumph at the end with perfect polish.” —AudioFile Magazine

AUDIOBOOK EXCERPT

 2020 brought an interesting (albeit fictional) tale about the founding of The Jane Austen Society, aptly titled The Jane Austen Society. Two years later we get Bloomsbury Girls, a little bit of a sequel for one character: Evie Stone, the brilliant housemaid from Chawton house who so carefully catalogued the Great House Library before its auction, is now a young woman and one of the first women to earn a degree from Cambridge. However, in post-war Britain the boys’ club still reigns in academia and Evie is denied an academic position despite her qualifications. She decides to reach out to an acquaintance via a contact from Sotheby’s and begins work cataloging the rare books of Bloomsbury Books in London.

But all is not well in this bookshop. The two female employees of the shop – Vivien and Grace – are relegated to the cash register and secretarial duties, respectively. Never mind that they each have ideas to help bring new customers to the shop or for new stock that might be in demand. It’s the men who take care of those things in yet another boys’ club. And those men are so set in their ways they might as well be carved of granite. When Mr. Dutton suffers a seizure during Evie’s interview and takes a subsequent medical leave, the shakeup in the employee roster sets events in motion that will transform Bloomsbury Books forever.

I quite liked this sort-of sequel to The Jane Austen Society – don’t worry, you can totally read it as a standalone, there’s enough in the text about what happened before to get you through. The real meat of the story is the network that develops between Evie, Vivien, and Grace and spreads outward to encompass a number of real-life characters – Ellen Doubleday, Daphne du Maurier, Peggy Guggenheim, Sonia Brownell (Orwell) – and how they leverage their connections to make change. Because they really do want to burn down the patriarchy. Whether a husband who refuses to get help at home (Grace), being denied an academic position (Evie), or being relegated to the cash register by the very man you slept with who then slut-shamed you (Vivien – yeah, wow, Alec is a real ass at times), they each have their own ways of pushing back against the institution trying to cage them in but it really is only together that they can make The Patriarchy step aside. And they really do make the men step aside, it is great. (I’m going to give some content warnings for things you can expect in post-war Britain: references to PTSD, deaths of characters’ loved ones and grief, domestic violence, mental health.)

Also, if mid-century literature is your jam, this book is a delight with all the books and authors name-checked throughout. Add in one very interesting Lady Browning aka Daphne du Maurier, who is a kick at a literary luncheon, and Samuel Beckett dispensing writing advice and it’s quite fun.

There are a number of romantic pairings in this book. Lord Baskin, the owner of the shop, has a rather sweet pining, very slow developing, affection with Grace – it’s very #complicated because of cross-class issues and the rather large problem of Grace’s actual husband, but you get the sense at the end that maybe it will work out for these two mid-forties adults. Vivien and Alec are the enemies-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers-to-blood feud enemies-to-friends (?) pairing where all their barriers to being civil are basically that they’re too similar in personality and that Alec is a prudish dick (he figures this out in the end). Evie strikes up a friendship which turns to a quiet romance with Dr. Ashwin Ramaswamy, a botanist from Madras unable to find a place at the universities in the UK (if you have guessed that the reason is racism, you are correct) and who now heads up the science department at Bloomsbury Books. Evie and Ash are both excellent characters, but this was the romance that didn’t quite connect for me. I kept thinking these two liked each other only because they liked research, and that they were friendly, but didn’t get a sense that they were into each other as people. Maybe I missed something.

Although I read a paper galley, if you are are into audiobooks, this one is read by the wonderful Juliet Stevenson – check out the audiobook sample above!

Bloomsbury Girls is out now! And for more thoughts on the book, read the review at Austenprose.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book from the publisher because I am participating in the blog tour organized by Laurel Ann at Austenprose. Thanks Laurel Ann!!

PURCHASE LINKS

PRINT & DIGITAL BOOK: AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOK DEPOSITORY | BOOKSHOP | GOODREADS | BOOKBUB

AUDIOBOOK: AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOK DEPOSITORY | BOOKSHOP | GOODREADS

AUTHOR BIO

Natalie Jenner is the author of the instant international bestseller The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls. A Goodreads Choice Award runner-up for historical fiction and finalist for best debut novel, The Jane Austen Society was a USA Today and #1 national bestseller and has been sold for translation in twenty countries. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie has been a corporate lawyer, career coach and, most recently, an independent bookstore owner in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. Visit her website to learn more.

WEBSITE | TWITTER | FACEBOOK | INSTAGRAM | GOODREADS

A LETTER FROM THE AUTHOR

Dear readers, I am immensely grateful for the outpouring of affection that so many of you have expressed for my debut novel The Jane Austen Society and its eight main characters. When I wrote its epilogue (in one go and without ever changing a word), I wanted to give each of Adam, Mimi, Dr. Gray, Adeline, Yardley, Frances, Evie and Andrew the happy Austenesque ending they each deserved. But I could not let go of servant girl Evie Stone, the youngest and only character inspired by real life (my mother, who had to leave school at age fourteen, and my daughter, who does eighteenth-century research for a university professor and his team). Bloomsbury Girlscontinues Evie’s adventures into a 1950s London bookshop where there is a battle of the sexes raging between the male managers and the female staff, who decide to pull together their smarts, connections, and limited resources to take over the shop and make it their own. There are dozens of new characters in Bloomsbury Girls from several different countries, and audiobook narration was going to require a female voice of the highest training and caliber. When I learned that British stage and screen actress Juliet Stevenson, CBE, had agreed to narrate, I knew that my story could not be in better hands, and I so hope you enjoy reading or listening to it. Warmest regards, Natalie

mini-review · Reading Graphically · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron by Julia Quinn, illustrated by Violet Charles

Summary from Goodreads: From #1 New York Times bestselling author Julia Quinn comes this irresistible treat, a charming and jaunty graphic novel, based on story snippets peppered throughout a number of her books. Originally mentioned in It’s in His Kiss—one of the Bridgerton novels which inspired the smash Netflix series, Bridgerton—Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron is finally told here in its entirety for the first time.

A madcap romantic adventure, Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron has appeared in several Julia Quinn novels and enthralled some of her most beloved characters. Now, this delicious tale of love and peril is available for everyone to enjoy in this wonderfully unconventional graphic novel.

Born into a happy family that is tragically ravaged by smallpox, Miss Priscilla Butterworth uses her wits to survive a series of outlandish trials. Cruelly separated from her beloved mother and grandmother, the young girl is sent to live with a callous aunt who forces her to work for her keep. Eventually, the clever and tenderhearted Miss Butterworth makes her escape… a daring journey into the unknown that unexpectedly leads her to the “mad” baron and a lifetime of love. Delightfully illustrated by Violet Charles, told in Julia Quinn’s playful voice, Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron is a high-spirited nineteenth-century romp that will entertain and enchant modern readers.

I think Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron is going to be a very different graphic novel from what people are generally going to expect. I think those of us who’ve read enough Julia Quinn books to know what Miss Butterworth is (smallpox! mad pigeons! wild boars! vile relatives! coincidences! dastardly cousins!) will expect what is basically the Monty Python version of a Gothic novel/Northanger Abbey/Murder She Wrote mashup and we’ll get it. It is goofily delightful. However, I think the average reader who just picks this up on a whim because they’ve heard or watched the Bridgerton show but not read a lot of Quinn’s backlist is going to be very much “WTF?” (Heads up for a lot of in-panel character deaths)

I loved the art style, all youthful pastels. So sad that Violet is gone.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book from my store.

stuff I read

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, tranlsated by Geoffrey Trousselot (Before the Coffee Gets Cold #1)

Summary from Goodreads: If you could go back, who would you want to meet?

In a small back alley of Tokyo, there is a café that has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. Local legend says that this shop offers something else besides coffee—the chance to travel back in time. Over the course of one summer, four customers visit the café in the hopes of making that journey. But time travel isn’t so simple, and there are rules that must be followed. Most important, the trip can last only as long as it takes for the coffee to get cold.

Heartwarming, wistful, mysterious and delightfully quirky, Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s internationally bestselling novel explores the age-old question: What would you change if you could travel back in time?

I was rec’d Before the Coffee Gets Cold a few times, so I decided to pick it up not really knowing what to expect.

Except…time travel. (I’m still not sure how I managed to read three books in about 4 weeks that all had time travel in some way, considering that it’s not my favorite plot-device.)

But I took it on faith that people whose taste I respect would not do me wrong, and jumped into this short novel that is almost more like a play, with several “acts” each revolving around a different person’s life and reasons for needing to time travel.

I really liked the rules of this particular time-travelling cafe chair. One of which is that nothing you do while in the past can change the future. Another is that you have to drink all the coffee in the cup before you before it gets cold. If you don’t – you become a ghost. (And there IS a ghost who occupies that cafe chair 95% of the time…until she goes to use the bathroom. If you don’t wait politely for her to get up, and try to force her to leave, she will curse you. So, cautionary tale.)

I thought this would mostly be a pretty sweet book, and it’s lovely with some pretty asides about cicadas and Tanabata festivals, but it’s also a sad book. One character is a nurse whose husband’s Alzheimer’s disease is progressing rapidly. One is a woman who avoided seeing her sister, and then the sister was killed in a car accident. Another is a woman who may not live to see her unborn child grow up. There’s a lot of grief here, in various ways, so a content warning there.

I’ve already picked up book 2. And it looks like book 3 will publish in the US in the fall. (And this looks like it’s actually a #BookTok book, too.) Although there isn’t a cafe cat, so the cover design is a fake-out.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book from my store.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Summary from Goodreads: One summer. Two rivals. A plot twist they didn’t see coming…

Nora Stephens’ life is books—she’s read them all—and she is not that type of heroine. Not the plucky one, not the laidback dream girl, and especially not the sweetheart. In fact, the only people Nora is a heroine for are her clients, for whom she lands enormous deals as a cutthroat literary agent, and her beloved little sister Libby.

Which is why she agrees to go to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina for the month of August when Libby begs her for a sisters’ trip away—with visions of a small town transformation for Nora, who she’s convinced needs to become the heroine in her own story. But instead of picnics in meadows, or run-ins with a handsome country doctor or bulging-forearmed bartender, Nora keeps bumping into Charlie Lastra, a bookish brooding editor from back in the city. It would be a meet-cute if not for the fact that they’ve met many times and it’s never been cute. If Nora knows she’s not an ideal heroine, Charlie knows he’s nobody’s hero, but as they are thrown together again and again—in a series of coincidences no editor worth their salt would allow—what they discover might just unravel the carefully crafted stories they’ve written about themselves. 

Do you wish that Nora Ephron was writing current RomComs? Can you quote You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally?

Then you need to read Book Lovers. (And also, if you loved Beach Read and People We Meet on Vacation. You need to read this one, too. Obviously.)

The book opens as powerhouse literary agent Nora Stephens (*heart eyes*) is meeting literary fiction editor Charlie Lastra for a business lunch. Charlie would like to acquire a book from one of Nora’s authors – midlist, not blockbuster sales, so they’re shopping for a new publisher – but he has…notes. For one thing, it’s setting in Sunshine Falls, North Carolina, is unrealistic. The author, Dusty Fielding, has probably never been to Sunshine Falls. Besides, Charlie only picks winners and he doesn’t think this is a winner. Nora is already having a bad day – her current boyfriend just broke up with her by phone because he met a girl on a trip to Texas and now he’s dumping his Heartless Ice Bitch City Girlfriend – so she’s preparing to go Full Shark on Dusty’s behalf. She and Charlie verbally skirmish over lunch, exchange some email banter, and then…that’s it.

Two years later, and that book, Once in a Lifetime by Dusty Fielding, is a runaway bestseller. (HA!) It’s going to be made into a movie. (Double-HA! Take that, Charlie Lastra!) Her younger sister Libby has surprised her with a sister vacation so they can have some relaxation time before Libby’s third baby arrives. The destination? Sunshine Falls. (Libby is a huge fan of the book.) It’s not a great time – Dusty’s next book is due and she’s having some writer’s block issues – but as a literary agent Nora can work remotely. The other problem is that Nora is a City Girl. Very City. Loves it all. Is definitely Not a Small Town Girl. She’s the woman who gets dumped for the Small Town Girl Who is a Very Sweet Baker/Librarian/Gardener. But she loves her sister. So she goes. (Libby has a whole “Small Town Romance Novel Experience” bucket list planned.)

However, Sunshine Falls isn’t quite as picturesque as promised. Also, there’s a guy in line at the coffee shop (name: Mug+Shot, love it) who looks disturbingly like Charlie Lastra. In fact, when Nora does some covert emailing from behind a shelf, she realizes it IS actually Charlie Lastra. Why in the hell is New York City Editor Charlie Lastra in Sunshine Falls, North Carolina?? (Then there’s some hilarious email banter about Bigfoot Romances, lol.) Turns out, Sunshine Falls is his hometown. (More Banter. More Sexy Banter.) And then…Charlie comes on-board as Dusty’s editor.

Of Dusty’s new book. Which turns out to be titled Frigid. With a main character named Nadine Winters who appears to be a thinly-veiled version of Nora. It’s not a…flattering…version. So now Nora and Charlie have to work together – and try not to banter (oh they banter) – and not make out (OH, DO THEY MAKE OUT) to make Dusty’s next book a blockbuster. They definitely do not date colleagues. Ever. Besides, they’re both making different life decisions. Maybe. Or maybe, they are 110% Perfect For Each Other.

Y’ALL, Book Lovers is so fucking good, I’m mad about it. Absolutely enraged. It has no business being this good. But it is. It’s like a Nora Ephron Movie in book form, beamed straight into my brain. I want this made as a movie immediately. The banter. Sexy banter. The RomCom tropes and in-jokes. The RomCom Easter Eggs There’s a Small Town Bookstore in Need of Saving. I was crying in a cold bath by the end, think a “Kathleen Turner at her typewriter in beginning of Romancing the Stone” tears+snot situation.

The sister relationship between Nora and Libby is so good. Part of Nora’s over-arching goal in life is to ensure that Libby doesn’t go without. It’s a little bit of holdover from when their mom died unexpectedly, when Nora had to step up and be “mom” for a couple of years and has never been able to completely let Libby be her own woman, wife, and mother. Nora and Libby learn to re-negotiate their sister relationship over the course of this book and that is almost as satisfying as the A-plot romance between Nora and Charlie.

But what I really liked most, was that Nora does not drastically change her life in this book. This is not Heartless Bitch Goes to a Small Town, Grows a Heart, and Finds Love. This is Super-Competent Awesome Adult Woman Learns to Let Her Past Go, Be a Little Vulnerable But Continue Being Super-Competent and Awesome, and Good Things Happen for Her. And Charlie…Charlie is damn near perfect. He’s wickedly sarcastic, reads Bigfoot pr0n (even if it starts on a dare, he reads the whole damn thing), and is trying so hard to balance what he wants to do, with what he thinks his family needs, and with what he thinks Nora needs. (If Tom Hiddleston gets cast in this would-be movie in my brain, I might plotz.)

This is my new favorite Emily Henry book.

Book Lovers is out today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss. We’re calling an audible: the Teen Book Group at my store is going to read this in May, so I’m definitely buying and re-reading a copy, too.

audiobooks · mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Devil’s Daughter by Lisa Kleypas, read by Mary Jane Wells (The Ravenels #5/The Ravenels Meet the Wallflowers #2)

Summary from Goodreads: Although beautiful young widow Phoebe, Lady Clare, has never met West Ravenel, she knows one thing for certain: he’s a mean, rotten bully. Back in boarding school, he made her late husband’s life a misery, and she’ll never forgive him for it. But when Phoebe attends a family wedding, she encounters a dashing and impossibly charming stranger who sends a fire-and-ice jolt of attraction through her. And then he introduces himself…as none other than West Ravenel.

West is a man with a tarnished past. No apologies, no excuses. However, from the moment he meets Phoebe, West is consumed by irresistible desire…not to mention the bitter awareness that a woman like her is far out of his reach. What West doesn’t bargain on is that Phoebe is no straitlaced aristocratic lady. She’s the daughter of a strong-willed wallflower who long ago eloped with Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent—the most devilishly wicked rake in England.

Before long, Phoebe sets out to seduce the man who has awakened her fiery nature and shown her unimaginable pleasure. Will their overwhelming passion be enough to overcome the obstacles of the past? Only the devil’s daughter knows…

After reading Hello, Stranger I jumped back for a re-read of Cold-Hearted Rake, because I was having trouble squaring how we got Devon and West. And this was very helpful when reading Devil’s Daughter because now West Ravenel gets his own Happily Ever After with Phoebe, daughter of Sebastian, Duke of Kingston, formerly Devil in Winter, and the widow of Lord Clare.

The competence pr0n exuded by West Ravenel in this book is bananas (even if he is the only person who can’t see it because toxic childhood). I’m not usually a fan of bully romances, but this one really makes it clear fairly early in the book that he knows he did bad and is trying to make amends for how he behaved as a child/teenager. Although, I’m not quite sure this works well for the reader unless you’ve read Cold-Hearted Rake and have seen on-page Soused!West to compare with on-page Competent!West. I also really liked how this was a historical romance with a widow who did not have a traumatic first marriage experience and was happy in it, despite the care and emotional work she did caring for a husband with a terminal illness, and has already considered what she might want in a future marriage. (And there are so many call backs to small moments in Devil in Winter, the shaving scene especially.)

I did today, however, have to sit in the car for about 15 minutes once I’d got to work with the audiobook speed kicked up to 2x because there was only 30 minutes left in the entire book and we’d had our black moment and good Lord how was Lisa Kleypas going to fix this situation? (She fixed it with “Deus Ex Sebastian, Duke of Kingston,” that’s how, oh my god.)

Dear FTC: I borrowed the audiobook from my library via the Libby app.

Austenesque · stuff I read

The Murder of Mr. Wickham by Claudia Gray

Summary from Goodreads: From New York Times bestselling author Claudia Gray—a summer house party turns into a thrilling whodunit when Mr. Wickham, one of literature’s most notorious villains, meets a sudden and suspicious end in this brilliantly imagined mystery featuring Jane Austen’s leading literary characters.

The happily married Mr. Knightley and Emma are throwing a house party, bringing together distant relatives and new acquaintances—characters beloved by Jane Austen fans. Definitely not invited is Mr. Wickham, whose latest financial scheme has netted him an even broader array of enemies. As tempers flare and secrets are revealed, it’s clear that everyone would be happier if Mr. Wickham got his comeuppance. Yet they’re all shocked when Wickham turns up murdered—except, of course, for the killer hidden in their midst.

Nearly everyone at the house party is a suspect, so it falls to the party’s two youngest guests to solve the mystery: Juliet Tilney, the smart and resourceful daughter of Catherine and Henry, eager for adventure beyond Northanger Abbey; and Jonathan Darcy, the Darcys’ eldest son, whose adherence to propriety makes his father seem almost relaxed. In a tantalizing fusion of Austen and Christie, the unlikely pair must put aside their own poor first impressions and uncover the guilty party—before an innocent person is sentenced to hang.

The Knightleys are having a house party at Donwell Abbey. They’ve invited some relatives and old friends: the Darcys, the Brandons, the Bertrams, and the Tilneys (who were unable to come but did send their eldest daughter Juliet for her first foray into adult society). Emma has unexpectedly added the Wentworths to the party – they had been renting the Highbury property which is now undergoing emergency repairs. Everyone has their own little secrets and worries. The Darcys are just coming out of morning for their niece and that has put a strain on their marriage. The Wentworths have had to “retrench” and it weighs heavily on Frederick. Fanny Bertram is keeping a secret from her husband. The Brandons are newly married and neither is sure of the other’s feelings, yet. The party starts out well but a sudden storm brings a most unwelcome guest.

Mr. Wickham.

And despite the intervening years (it’s been about 20 years since the end of Pride and Prejudice), he has not improved. In fact, he’s grown far more smarmy and despicable. After setting the entire house party on edge, George Wickham retires to what can only be a servant’s room (note: I love Emma and her housekeeper) only to be later discovered in the Armory lying in a pool of blood by a very unfortunate Juliet Tilney. And he is very, very dead.

Who could have done it? The storm was so fierce that it is highly unlikely that an intruder surprised him. Making the murderer one of the house party. And every, single person there had reason for wanting Mr. Wickham’s loathsome person gone. When local magistrate Frank Churchill comes to investigate, his first inclination is to look for a lower-class person as culprit (because the upper-class gentry would never do something as low-class as a murder…). Juliet Tilney and Jonathan Darcy are both quite certain he is wrong and begin their own discreet (or, about as discreet as two teenagers can be in the Regency) investigation to make certain an innocent person is not about to be hanged for Mr. Wickham’s death. In the process, more than one person is going to have to come clean before the true murderer is revealed.

In short, The Murder of Mr. Wickham is quite a clever way to tell a locked room-esque mystery in an Austen sequel that brings together almost all the major couples from her six novels. Gray does shift some timing of the original stories to get the Austen couples at different ages and points in their marriages. There’s one shift that really doesn’t work for me, personally, but it does work within the story (Marianne and Colonel Brandon).

And yes, the book fulfills the promise of the premise. Wickham does indeed get whacked early in the book (unlike Death Comes to Pemberley, where Lydia makes everyone think Wickham is dead for about five pages but then it turns out to be Denny instead…). Although, out of the entire range of Fuckbois of Austen, Wickham is only number two on that list. In my opinion, Willoughby is probably most deserving of getting clonked on the head. (Maybe Gray can work on that for a second book?)

Gray does give some notes and content warnings about the historical use of g*psy in the book, as Austen used it at the time she was writing, but there was a surprise moment of homophobia. It involved a side character who doesn’t appear on page in the book. Although the homophobia does come from a character who would historically initially hold that view (it is Church dogma-accurate for the time period) and then subsequently work to dismantle that viewpoint, it would have been nice to have in the note as well. I will also note that Jonathan Darcy is coded as neurodivergent. I know there is a lot of discussion of whether Mr. Darcy can be interpreted as autistic or neurodivergent but Gray does make it much more explicit in Jonathan, since we are given his internal monologue. I think the representation is good, although I am not neurodivergent myself, so don’t take mine as a definitive judgment. Jonathan and Juliet do make a very nice pairing as friends, amateur sleuths, and maybe a budding courtship.

The Murder of Mr. Wickham is out on Tuesday May 3!

And if you have time, check out the review on Austenprose and follow the #murderwickham hastag for the blog tour!

Dear FTC: I was sent a finished copy of this book as part of the blog tour with Austenprose, but I kind of couldn’t wait and read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss in just about one gulp.

BNBC · stuff I read

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Summary from Goodreads: The award-winning, best-selling author of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel returns with a novel of art, time, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon three hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space.

Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal–an experience that shocks him to his core.

Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She’s traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive’s bestselling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him.

When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: The exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe.

A virtuoso performance that is as human and tender as it is intellectually playful, Sea of Tranquility is a novel of time travel and metaphysics that precisely captures the reality of our current moment.

I really liked Sea of Tranquility – but not quite as much as Station Eleven. I remember that one as feeling very rich in world building, but Sea of Tranquility feels like it’s a little too stretched in time. The Olive sections, though, were superb, clearly drawing little snippets from perhaps the author’s own experiences as a writer, who is also a mom with a small child on book tour. The structure of the book was also an interesting one. I thought it was nested in sections like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, based on the sections as listed in the Table of Contents. And it is…but it’s also a little different, so that was fun, too.

Sea of Tranquility also has time travel as a plot device and….ugggghhhh. I still don’t like it as a thing. It’s too unwieldy. But I did appreciate what Mandel was trying to do with it, because it did at least connect up the time loop (maybe not quite as well as it was done in This Is How You Lose the Time War, which was superb, but I think she did a great job). I also managed to pick up a couple of crossovers with her previous books – apparently, all Emily St. John Mandel books take place in the same universe, so little bits of prior books seep into the new one. But I don’t think they’re integral to the plot, so if you’ve never read any of Mandel’s books, you don’t lose anything in the reading. The cross-over bits are very much more like Easter Eggs.

Sentence level though – just fantastic. She could write a grocery list and it would be an intriguing read.

Dear FTC: I had to buy my copy at the store (it does have VERY pretty blue-sprayed edges) since we didn’t get physical galleys and anyway I needed the extras for Book Club since I lead it.

stuff I read

An Atlas of Extinct Countries by Gideon Defoe

Summary from Goodreads: Prisoners of Geography meets Bill Bryson: a funny, fascinating, beautifully illustrated – and timely – history of countries that, for myriad and often ludicrous reasons, no longer exist.

Countries die. Sometimes it’s murder, sometimes it’s by accident, and sometimes it’s because they were so ludicrous they didnt deserve to exist in the first place. Occasionally they explode violently. A few slip away almost unnoticed. Often the cause of death is either ‘got too greedy’ or ‘Napoleon turned up’. Now and then they just hold a referendum and vote themselves out of existence.

This is an atlas of 48 nations that fell off the map. The polite way of writing an obituary is: dwell on the good bits, gloss over the embarrassing stuff. This book refuses to do so, because these dead nations are so full of schemers, racists, and con men that it’s impossible to skip the embarrassing stuff.

Because of this – and because treating nation-states with too much reverence is the entire problem with pretty much everything – these accounts are not concerned with adding to the earnest flag saluting in the world, however nice some of the flags might be.

I previously read a very in-depth work of history (Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe) about kingdoms of Europe that were created and disappeared over the centuries. I liked it a lot (took a while to read, whew, but also if you want some background on why Russia has this weird obsession with gobbling up all the surrounding countries whether they like it or not, it’s got some good information).

I had missed An Atlas of Extinct Countries when it came out last year, so I picked up a paperback (read: pre-ordered it then for some reason it took a whole extra month to show up?). This a delightful – well, delightful probably isn’t the right word for countries that appear and disappear and many things go wrong and people get hurt because racism and colonialism but it is actually quite fun because many of the shitty people get their comeuppance – book of history about the various countries that blinked into and out of existence. Defoe is very firmly on the side of the locals who find themselves at the mercy of white colonialists who pop up in a “unclaimed: territory, plant a flag (they always have a flag ready to go), declare themselves king, and proceed to have a rough go of it. Some of these people are so incompetent it’s hilarious – look, the first section is called “Chancers & Crackpots.” Some, though, are very sobering (there’s a chapter on the Republic of Crimea that is eerily prescient re: current events). The chapters on each country are 2-4 pages in length that cover the basics of the history, a fact sheet about languages, population, currency, etc., and a drawing of the map and a flag that can either be read in short bites or very quickly in long reading sessions (it me, I read it in two days).

Dear FTC: I bought my copy from my store.