BOOK REVIEW: Beheld, by TaraShea Nesbit

BOOK REVIEW: Beheld, by TaraShea NesbitTitle: Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Published: March 17th 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 288
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
Goodreads

From the bestselling author of The Wives of Los Alamos comes the riveting story of a stranger’s arrival in the fledgling colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts―and a crime that shakes the divided community to its core.
Ten years after the Mayflower pilgrims arrived on rocky, unfamiliar soil, Plymouth is not the land its residents had imagined. Seemingly established on a dream of religious freedom, in reality the town is led by fervent puritans who prohibit the residents from living, trading, and worshipping as they choose. By the time an unfamiliar ship, bearing new colonists, appears on the horizon one summer morning, Anglican outsiders have had enough.

With gripping, immersive details and exquisite prose, TaraShea Nesbit reframes the story of the pilgrims in the previously unheard voices of two women of very different status and means. She evokes a vivid, ominous Plymouth, populated by famous and unknown characters alike, each with conflicting desires and questionable behavior.

Suspenseful and beautifully wrought, Beheld is about a murder and a trial, and the motivations―personal and political―that cause people to act in unsavory ways. It is also an intimate portrait of love, motherhood, and friendship that asks: Whose stories get told over time, who gets believed―and subsequently, who gets punished?

Nesbit’s Beheld offers a glimpse into the lives of the Plymouth settlement ten years after their arrival told through the eyes of some of the women who lived there. I don’t really recall reading much historical fiction about the early Plymouth settlement, but I loved the imagery and the tension Nesbit explores in this novel. It’s a short novel, but it’s filled with the right amount of empathy for each of the women’s situations. The Plymouth settlement is fraught with disagreements, underlying and unresolved emotions, and flat out hatred that’s often glossed over in popular history’s retelling of a perfect new world for religious freedoms. At least for me, anyway. It wasn’t until I was an adult and in college that I began to really learn about the realities of Plymouth settlement.

Nesbit’s strength in this is making you care for and understand each of the women’s perspectives, even when they clash with someone else’s views. I understand why each of the women made the choices that they did and didn’t, and each of the characters felt so real to me. For me, sometimes characters in historical fiction almost feel like standees or caricatures, but characterization and character development is where Nesbit excels.

Beheld is a short historical crime novel that packs a punch and will leave you thinking about it and the early American settlements long after you’ve finished reading.

Thank you to Bloomsbury and Netgalley for an advance reader copy! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Glass Magician, by Caroline Stevermer

BOOK REVIEW: The Glass Magician, by Caroline StevermerTitle: The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer
Published by Tor Books
Published: April 7th 2020
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 288
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
Goodreads

A gilded menagerie rules a Gilded Age: Bears and Bulls are not only real, but dominate humanity in The Glass Magician, an amazing historical fantasy by Caroline Stevermer

What if you could turn into the animal of your heart anytime you want?
With such power, you’d enter the cream of New York society, guaranteed a rich life among the Vanderbilts and Astors, movers and shakers who all have the magical talent and own the nation on the cusp of a new century.

You could. If you were a Trader.

Pity you’re not.

Thalia is a Solitaire, one of the masses who don’t have the animalistic magic. But that is not to say that she doesn’t have talent of another kind—she is a rising stage magician who uses her very human skills to dazzle audiences with amazing feats of prestidigitation. Until one night when a trick goes horribly awry…and Thalia makes a discovery that changes her entire world. And sets her on a path that could bring her riches.

Or kill her.

The Glass Magician is set in an alternative Gilded Age New York City in which magic exists beyond the stage performance. Thalia is a stage magician who realizes after watching a trick go horribly wrong for her and again on stage for someone else that there is more to her world than she knew before. It is a world of shape shifters tied by bloodline, and she is one of them after thinking she was a Solitaire (a human who doesn’t shape shift) for her entire life.

I ended up feeling rather so-so about the last third of the book because it felt both melodramatic and rushed at the same time. The magic trick at the end to reveal the true killer and motive didn’t seem to flow as well with the story as I would have liked, but I think that’s also to do with the world building. However, it did leave me hopeful that there would be more books set in this universe because the foundation has been laid for a lot more exploration and examination.

I enjoy “quiet” novels, stories that are a bit slower and softer than the usual fantasy fare of high-octane action. I loved the setting of an alternate New York City in the Gilded Age, and I imagined magic and magic tricks revealed and performed in gas-lit rooms and lush dresses of mint and lilac and rose contrasting with the darker elements of this society and the magic therein. Most of these thoughts were more of my own projections of my enthusiasm of the era, but I enjoyed this book for what it was. I think I was left wanting because I knew there could be more – from world building to character development to character interactions. So much of it felt like a superficial magic trick. Pretty to read and to look at, but I felt like I could see right through the tricks.

Thank you to Tor Books and Netgalley for the advance reader copy; all opinions are my own.

LITTLE LIST OF REVIEWS #10: Recent Netgalley Reads

Today’s Little List of Reviews features three reads from Netgalley that I’ve had on my Kindle for a long time and have needed to review for a while. Thank you to Netgalley

LITTLE LIST OF REVIEWS #10: Recent Netgalley ReadsTitle: The Girl in White Gloves by Kerri Maher
Published by Berkley
Published: February 25th 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 384
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
Goodreads

A life in snapshots…
Grace knows what people see. She’s the Cinderella story. An icon of glamor and elegance frozen in dazzling Technicolor. The picture of perfection. The girl in white gloves.
A woman in living color…
But behind the lens, beyond the panoramic views of glistening Mediterranean azure, she knows the truth. The sacrifices it takes for an unappreciated girl from Philadelphia to defy her family and become the reigning queen of the screen. The heartbreaking reasons she trades Hollywood for a crown. The loneliness of being a princess in a fairy tale kingdom that is all too real. Hardest of all for her adoring fans and loyal subjects to comprehend, is the harsh reality that to be the most envied woman in the world does not mean she is the happiest. Starved for affection and purpose, facing a labyrinth of romantic and social expectations with more twists and turns than Monaco’s infamous winding roads, Grace must find her own way to fulfillment. But what she risks--her art, her family, her marriage—she may never get back.

The first half of this was so good, nuanced and detailed with a lot of sparking humor. I love fiction about Hollywood and the behind the scenes glimpses it gives, but this book fell apart halfway through for me. The characterization of Grace Kelly did a complete turnaround and felt unrecognizable from the character introduced to us in the beginning. Tonally, the book felt like a completely separate title halfway through, and it left me a little disappointed.

LITTLE LIST OF REVIEWS #10: Recent Netgalley ReadsTitle: Peter Watts Is An Angry Sentient Tumor: Revenge Fantasies and Essays by Peter Watts
Published by Tachyon Publications
Published: November 12 2019
Genres: Non-Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
Goodreads

“A brilliant bastard.” —Cory Doctorow“Comfort, of course, is the last thing that Watts wants to give.” —New York Review of Science Fiction
Which of the following is true?
-Peter Watts is banned from the U.S.-Watts almost died from flesh-eating bacteria.-A schizophrenic man living in Watts's backyard almost set his house on fire. -Watts was raised by Baptists who really sucked at giving presents.-Peter Watts said to read this book. Or else.
“Watts, undoubtedly, is a genius.” ―Medium
In more than fifty unpredictable essays and revenge fantasies, Peter Watts — Hugo Award-winning author, former marine biologist, and angry sentient tumor — is the savage dystopian optimist whom you can’t look away from. Even when you probably should.

I didn’t really know anything about Peter Watts before reading this collection of his writing/blog posts, and the resulting collection in an acerbic, entertaining look into a myriad of subjects. It was a lot to take in all at once, so I picked at this over the course of several months. I loved his perspective on a lot of things, so if you like essays about literally anything, definitely take a look at this.

LITTLE LIST OF REVIEWS #10: Recent Netgalley ReadsTitle: Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Published: January 28th 2020
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 256
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
Goodreads

A blisteringly original and wickedly funny collection of stories about the strange worlds that women inhabit and the parts that they must play.
A sense of otherworldly menace is at work in the fiction of Nicole Flattery, but the threats are all too familiar. SHOW THEM A GOOD TIME tells the stories of women slotted away into restrictive roles: the celebrity's girlfriend, the widower's second wife, the lecherous professor's student, the corporate employee. And yet, the genius of Flattery's characters is to blithely demolish the boundaries of these limited and limiting social types with immense complexity and caustic intelligence. Nicole Flattery's women are too ferociously mordant, too painfully funny to remain in their places.
In this fiercely original and blazingly brilliant debut, Flattery likewise deconstructs the conventions of genre to serve up strange realities: In Not the End Yet, Flattery probes the hilarious and wrenching ambivalence of Internet dating as the apocalypse nears; in Sweet Talk, the mysterious disappearance of a number of local women sets the scene for a young girl to confront the dangerous uncertainties of her own sexuality; in this collection's center piece, Abortion, A Love Story, two college students in a dystopian campus reconfigure the perilous stories of their bodies in a fraught academic culture to offer a subversive, alarming, and wickedly funny play that takes over their own offstage lives. And yet, however surreal or richly imagined the setting, Flattery always shows us these strange worlds from startlingly unexpected angles, through an unforgettable cast of brutally honest, darkly hilarious women and girls.
Like the stories of Mary Gaitskill, Miranda July, Lorrie Moore, Joy Williams, and Ottessa Moshfegh, SHOW THEM A GOOD TIME is the work of a profoundly resonant and revelatory literary voice – at once spiky, humane, achingly hilarious-- that is sure to echo through the literary culture for decades to come.

I like reading collections of short stories to break up longer books or when my attention span is fried, so I was happy to read a collection of a new-to-me author. This collection played with the subversion of gender roles and explored the contrasts of women in society. My favorite story of the collection is ‘Show Them a Good Time,’ but the rest began feeling samey and repetitive after a while. This is probably best read one story at a time rather than a few here and there.

BOOK REVIEW: Sin Eaters, by Megan Campisi

BOOK REVIEW: Sin Eaters, by Megan CampisiTitle: Sin Eater by Megan Campisi
Published by Atria Books
Published: April 7th 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 304
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

The Handmaid’s Tale meets Alice in Wonderland in this gripping and imaginative historical novel about a shunned orphan girl in 16th century England who is ensnared in a deadly royal plot and must turn her subjugation into her power.

The Sin Eater walks among us, unseen, unheard Sins of our flesh become sins of Hers Following Her to the grave, unseen, unheard The Sin Eater Walks Among Us.

For the crime of stealing bread, fourteen-year-old May receives a life sentence: she must become a Sin Eater—a shunned woman, brutally marked, whose fate is to hear the final confessions of the dying, eat ritual foods symbolizing their sins as a funeral rite, and thereby shoulder their transgressions to grant their souls access to heaven.

Orphaned and friendless, apprenticed to an older Sin Eater who cannot speak to her, May must make her way in a dangerous and cruel world she barely understands. When a deer heart appears on the coffin of a royal governess who did not confess to the dreadful sin it represents, the older Sin Eater refuses to eat it. She is taken to prison, tortured, and killed. To avenge her death, May must find out who placed the deer heart on the coffin and why.

“A keenly researched feminist arc of unexpected abundance, reckoning, intellect, and ferocious survival” (Maria Dahvana Headley, author of The Mere Wife) Sin Eater is “a dark, rich story replete with humor, unforgettable characters, and arcane mysteries. It casts a spell on your heart and mind until the final page” (Jennie Melamed, author of Gather the Daughters).

The Unseen is now seen. The Unheard is now heard. The sins of your flesh become the sins of mine to be borne to my grave in silence. Speak.

Megan Campisi’s Sin Eater defies genre. It is historical fiction, but not completely; it’s fantasy/fabulist¹, but not completely. This indefinite quality adds to its appeal. Sin-eaters did exist, but sin-eaters still remain more in folkloric history in which not much is widely known about them and their practices. Campisi brings an alternate speculative look at Elizabethan England that is rich and detailed, and I wanted more from the world she created. The comp titles listed with this are wide and varied, and for the most part I don’t know if they particularly fit, aside from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the sense that this is a character study of a young woman in a society that prefers she stay in her place and not question anything. If anything, my comp would be The Handmaid’s Tale meets Parasite in an alternate Tudor England as this is very much about class, violent deception, and the fear that rules institutionalized religion.

May Owens, the fourteen year old girl sentenced to become a Sin Eater after stealing food, is the perfect set of eyes through which to experience this world, because like her, we are unfamiliar with a lot of the customs outside of our immediate recognition. May’s isolation and loneliness are present on the page, along with her discomfort and estrangement at her own acceptance of her life’s chosen path. When she delves into the mystery surrounding her mentor’s death, May discovers that the court for which she is performing the sin eating is rife with manipulative and deceptive people, and nobody can be trusted but herself, and even then she’s not entirely sure she can trust herself.

This is an excellent intrigue of a novel, grim and gruesome with a lot of heart, and it’s a contender to be one of my favorite reads of the year.

Thank you to Atria Books for a review copy! All opinions are my own.

¹ I’ve begun using “fabulist” for something that isn’t quite “real” and not quite “fantasy” in terms of genre, as “magical realism” is a style specific to Latin American literature.

BOOK REVIEW: Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd

BOOK REVIEW: Things in Jars, by Jess KiddTitle: Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
Published by Atria Books
Published: February 4, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 373
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

In the dark underbelly of Victorian London, a formidable female sleuth is pulled into the macabre world of fanatical anatomists and crooked surgeons while investigating the kidnapping of an extraordinary child in this gothic mystery—perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation.

Bridie Devine—female detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors trading curiosities in this age of discovery.

Winding her way through the labyrinthine, sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing a past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where spectacle is king and nothing is quite what it seems.

Blending darkness and light, history and folklore, Things in Jars is a spellbinding Gothic mystery that collapses the boundary between fact and fairy tale to stunning effect and explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.

Here is time held in suspension. Yesterday pickled. Eternity in a jar.

I love a good disturbing, yet still whimsical, historical fiction mystery. Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars is set in the Victorian era, but right away, you notice that something is different. With elements of fairy tales and the obscure, I felt that this world was both familiar and unfamiliar, and I wanted to know more about it. The novel focuses on Bridie Devine, a detective, who is commissioned to find the whereabouts of a strange young girl named Christobel who is not an ordinary child. With the assistance of her extraordinarily tall lady’s maid Cora and a ghost of a prizefighter Ruby, Bridie goes on a trek through the seedy, dirty parts of London to discover the history and whereabouts of Christobel and to discover more about herself.

The narrative shifts back and forth from Bridie’s current time and Bridie’s past interweaving to give us a glimpse of the person she was and how she became the person she is in her present day. Sometimes these narrative shifts can be jarring, but these were seamless, illuminating the current day’s dilemmas and mysteries with the past’s introspection and revelation. The world building was exquisitely described. There were times I felt like I was right there as invisible eyes watching everything unfold. The characters were so fascinating and multifaceted that I wanted to learn more about them in more books, especially Cora. She was such a fantastic character to me at seven feet tall and truly herself. And I was left completely heartbroken at the end with Ruby and his final words to Bridie. I’m not giving anything away, because it’s such a perfect ending for this story, closing off bits and pieces, and opening up the door to more, making me hope for future installments in this world, however they might come along.

If you’re in the mood for a good, dark, entertaining historical mystery, do look into this one. It was one of my favorite reads in January!

Thank you to Atria Books for a gifted ARC! All opinions are my own.