In this month’s Between the Bookends, Sophie, Rebecca, Elizabeth, & Missy explore romance, horror, magic, and espionage across six wildly different but equally interesting books. As always, we hope you find something to enjoy reading yourself.
A Darker Shade of Magic By V.E. Schwab
Rebecca wants to start off by saying that A Darker Shade of Magic is a really good book. It could be great, but she’ll get to why not in a moment. First, her fantasy book club picked this read because the premise was very intriguing: Set in the early 19th century, Trell is a man who can travel between four different Londons: Red, White, Black, and Grey. They share the same city name but are very, very different worlds. He is one of the last of his kind that transverse these parallel universes as a sort of magical courier to the rulers of each. But Kell has a mind of his own and a dangerous hobby that throws all the worlds in peril. As treachery rises, Kell must rely on a thief named Delilah of Grey London to help. But she has a mind of her own as well.
The storytelling is top notch with tight world building. Rebecca planned to take the week to casually read it and wound up putting other things aside to race through in two days. She found it hard to put down. Kell is a sympathetic main character that will grow in power and maturity. Delilah sparks off the page with a good arc ahead of her. The bad guys all have a motivation for their deeds, which makes them complex as well as scary. The book has a satisfying end, but with much potential for further stories.
The reason it is not a ‘great’ book is the gender ratio. 9:23 female to male speaking characters, about 28%. Schwab is a female author which makes this number worse. Of the measly number of females that have a line, only two are main characters. Both of them are noted to wear pants to feel ‘powerful’, and one is a counterpart to her twin brother. In fiction, and especially fantasy, there is no excuse to keep women from being more present and powerful AS women.
That said, it IS a compelling read and Rebecca does recommend it.
We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix
We’ve all heard folk tales about musicians selling their souls to demons at a crossroads in exchange for fame and fortune. But what if the most famous musician in the world really had done just that, and what if, rather than selling his own soul, he sold those of his bandmates instead? That’s the premise behind We Sold Our Souls which Sophie read earlier this month.
Written by Grady Hendrix (and could there be a more perfect author’s name for such a book?) – this novel is a love poem to metal, right down to its chapter titles which are the names of classic albums. In its pages, Kris Pulaski, the former guitarist of Durt Wurk who now works the graveyard shift at a run-down Best Western, embarks upon a voyage across America to finally stop the former bandmate who ruined her life. It’s a homage to the power of metal and its fantasy universes filled with metaphor and dragons to change our lives by showing us the door to a less mundane existence. In We Sold Our Souls, music really can change the world.
The story is told between snippets of radio interviews and magazine reviews which add an extra sense of realism for all of us who grew up buying music magazines every week to learn the latest from our favorite bands, and it intricately laces today’s internet conspiracy theories with 80s fantasy metal concepts to create something utterly unique. Sophie would have liked a slightly cleaner ending that tied off a few of the loose strings, but the one that’s given works well.
You don’t have to be a fan of classic metal to like this book (Sophie admits she’s far from a metalhead herself) but fans will find even more layers to love. If you ever wanted to be in a band, or even just grew up loving one, you’ll enjoy this book.
Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink
Alice disappeared. Her wife Keisha spent months searching for her, eventually holding a funeral and trying to move on, but then Alice started showing up in news reports. Whenever people gathered at the scene of a tragedy, Alice would be there in the crowd. So Keisha learned to drive a truck and took to the roads, crisscrossing America to find out the truth.
This is the premise of Alice Isn’t Dead, the latest novel from Joseph Fink – one half of the Welcome to Night Vale team – which also began life as a podcast. Sophie had listened to season one (of three) before reading the novel which gave her an interesting perspective, having an idea of what was coming for the first part before moving into entirely new territory later. The novel doesn’t follow the original podcast storyline exactly but roughly tracks it so listeners will spot some familiar scenes and characters, but find others missing.
Sophie found that she didn’t enjoy the early chapters as much as she’d hoped. Being accustomed to the slow pace of the podcast, the story here felt rushed. Parts that took twenty minutes to listen to flew by in a matter of paragraphs which detracted from the sinister, creeping tone that the podcast mastered so well. However, she feels that anyone who hasn’t listened to the show before won’t find this to be a problem.
Alice Isn’t Dead is an allegory for modern society and the Thistle Men are one of the most viscerally horrifying monsters Sophie has ever come across in fiction. The revelation of how they came to exist left her feeling physically nauseous for some time after. She found herself wishing for a different (happier?) ending, but realized that, perhaps, the ending is part of the message. The fight between “good” and “evil” will never truly be over, it simply moves on. Sophie also loved that Keisha battles with anxiety disorder throughout the book but manages to face her fears and keep going anyway.
If you love American Gods and Neverwhere, and have often wondered about the world that exists in the fringes of your vision and between the cracks – you’ll love Alice Isn’t Dead.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming, Read by David Tennant
Sophie’s final book this month was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming, the tenth of the original James Bond novels. Sophie listened to an audiobook production via Audible with her husband during several long car journeys.
This was Sophie’s first time reading a Bond novel and she found herself taken with both the similarities and differences between this and the films. The characters, settings, and action sequences were all instantly recognizable as pure Bond but she found the book version of the main character somewhat more introspective than his on-screen counterpart with less focus on gadgets and fast cars. In some ways, this Bond felt more grounded and realistic than she had anticipated.
Of course, these books were written during a different era and this is never more apparent than in Bond’s dealings with women. The attitudes are almost comically dated and had both Sophie and her husband rolling their eyes at some of the more egregious examples of casual sexism. Related to this is a slightly bizarre subplot where Bond meets a suicidal woman who turns out to be the daughter of a Corsican Mafioso. After spending the night together, her father kidnaps Bond, believing that the only way to save his daughter’s life is for Bond to marry her. Wouldn’t it be prudent to at least try therapy before arranged marriages to passing Brits?
The audiobook edition Sophie listened to was read by David Tennant, whose voice acting was perfect for the role. Sophie particularly enjoyed his take on Marc-Ange Draco and the spectacularly named Sable Basilisk. The audiobook ends with a short interview with David about his time recording the book.
Sophie would recommend this audiobook for anyone interested in trying out a Bond novel but warns that if you’re looking for a story with a happy ending, you may wish to go elsewhere.
Heirs of Chicagoland: Wild Hunger by Chloe Neill
Elisa Sullivan is very well aware that “vampires are made, not born,” especially since she is the only vampire that rule doesn’t apply to. Elizabeth read Wild Hunger, the first story of the Heirs of Chicagoland series which features the next generation of characters from Chloe Neill’s Chigagoland Vampires series. While not necessary to enjoy Wild Hunger, readers who prefer to read stories in order might want to start with Some Girl’s Bite, Merit’s story.
In Wild Hunger, Elisa Sullivan – the daughter of the main characters in the Chigagoland Vampires series – is trying to find her place as a person and not just the daughter of two famous vampires. Elisa’s biggest concern is an unusual power lurking inside of her, a side effect of the magic that created her. It’s a secret she’s only ever told werewolf prince, Connor Keene, about. Connor Keene, another second-generation character, is trying to secure his own future as the leader of his pack. Lulu Bell, the final second-generation character, also struggles to resist the legacy of magic in her family knowing very well how much harm a magic addiction can cause.
After several years, Elisa returns home for a diplomatic summit of supernaturals as part of a service debt for the overseas college she recently graduated from. When a dead body turns up in the middle of one of the diplomatic events, the peace Elisa’s parents spend their series trying to create is threatened. Because she was born and not made, Elisa is not technically bound to any vampire house and has the best ability to investigate the situation. Lulu’s involvement is tricky, as a human she can only do so much if she wants to avoid magic, but the accused werewolf is her former boyfriend. Connor, who has shed a lot of his obnoxious teenage punk to grow into someone both noble and gorgeous since Elisa’s been away, is eager to prove this pack mate innocent. He is also the only person who may be able to give Elisa the best advice on the wild power she’s fighting to keep in check.
Urban fantasy fans not familiar with Chloe Neill should definitely add her to their reading pile. Her books are a fun read, and the way her romantic couples become teams that are stronger together is a great development to watch unfold.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Missy managed to finally retrieve a copy of one of the buzzier contemporary romance titles of 2018, The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang. She’s happy to report that it held up to the tidal wave of good reactions, at least for her taste. She definitely enjoyed the gender-swapped Pretty Woman plot, where economist Stella Lane decides to seek a professional to help her sort through her less-than-enthusiastic reaction to sex. Enter Michael, an escort with fabulous taste in clothes, a dragon tattoo that winds over half his (very nicely muscled) body, and more than a little burn-out in his life.
Missy loved that the female protagonist was the one with the very successful STEM career, while the male half of the relationship was the one taking care of his family and wanting to launch a creative career. She also felt like the portrayal of Stella’s autism and her coping skills was very genuine (the author also shares the diagnosis.) With a couple of exceptions, because every romance needs someone to contrast negatively with the protagonists, the supporting characters were fun and engaging, and she’s looking forward to a few of them getting their own stories in the sequels.
The biggest and happiest surprise was how carefully the characters navigated their relationship and how slowly it developed. Also, be forewarned: this is not a YA, fade-to-black romance! There is a lot of sex, but every scene moves the relationship along and provides insight into the characters, which is how it’s supposed to be, but so often isn’t.
Summing up: fun, sexy romance where people take care of each other and the happy ending is well-earned.
GeekMom received some of the included titles for review purposes.