I've been in a massive reading slump. I've had a hard time reading anything in print, mostly due to stress I believe, but luckily audiobooks escaped the negative feedback loop. If it weren't for audiobooks, I might have gone crazy this summer.
But first, print:
Meredith Duran FOOL ME TWICE
Delicious. I started reading this late one night, thinking--why did I think this?--that I'd read a little before I went to sleep. Instead, I stayed up all night swallowing it in a single gulp. Historical romance featuring a mean, arrogant, depressive duke and a fierce, down-on-her-luck heroine.
Emily Gee THE LAURENTINE SPY
Very self-contained fantasy (it's set in a sort of Renaissance-esque world but the very opposite of 'epic': small cast of characters, one main plot, lots of danger but no saving the world) that focuses on two spies putting their lives at risk to obtain information in hostile territory. They operate covertly, using false identities, and have no hope of backup if things go sour...which they do.
The two main characters are a man and a woman. When they meet in the dark to report to their spymaster, as themselves, they are in love with one another. When they meet in disguise, they don't know one another--and dislike one another.
If this were a romance, the story would proceed differently. As a romance reader, some of the events in the book just broke my heart...but I really enjoyed THE LAURENTINE SPY. It does end happily (and it's a good ending, too, not a cheat--which is saying something, considering all the impediments between these two), but the characters were in real peril from the first page to the last, and I read with my heart in my throat.
Cecilia Grant A WOMAN ENTANGLED
You know, it took me a while to figure it out, but every book in the Blackshear series pokes little holes in the idea of an HEA. Or, more specifically, in the idea that an HEA means having it all--which makes sense, since broadcasting the idea that the only way to be happy in this world is to have it all would be awfully depressing. Each book in the series, from A LADY AWAKENED to A GENTLEMAN UNDONE and now A WOMAN ENTANGLED, has forced its protagonists to make harder compromises in order to reach the brass ring of THE END.
Which does not mean that the protagonists of A WOMAN ENTANGLED, Nick and Kate, are shunned and outcast the way that Will and Lydia of A GENTLEMAN UNDONE were. The difference is that while Will and Lydia had to give up the social status that neither of them wanted particularly, both Nick and Kate are very ambitious.
These are two people who really, really want it all. They want satisfying work and widespread admiration, they want money and comfort, they want social standing and security. Nick and Kate are full of outsize desires that would be difficult to realize under the best of circumstances; but the circumstances are not up to snuff. At the beginning of the book, Nick and Kate have individually decided that if something must be sacrificed, better to give up the comforts of home and hearth: family and romance.
By the end of the book, both Nick and Kate have altered their priorities. They're able to marry one another because they change; they'll be happier for it; but their choices have hard consequences.
Also, gracious but the writing is exquisite--"She'd chosen her airiest muslin today, an unpatterned ivory whose tissue-light outermost layer followed her through the curtsy with tiny delays and hesitations, like a double handful of swansdown making its way to earth."--but this is the phrase that's rattled around my mind ever since I read it--"Let that truth ripple out in silence until it washed up against the William Kent walls."--it might need context to understand, but it's so vivid and slyly aggressive.
Kim Harrison THE WITCH WITH NO NAME
A favorite series comes to an end. I'm sad to see the end of the Rachel Morgan books but it's really satisfying to read a long series that follows its arc to the end and stick the landing. The promise of the premise from way back in book one, DEAD WITCH WALKING, is kept--the many promises, in fact. The world that Harrison opened the book with has been entirely transformed, and her heroine was the agent of change. In the meanwhile, she's grown in competence and maturity; she's made friends, and left them to follow their own paths; and she's settled down with just the right guy. I cried happy tears at the end.
Elizabeth Vail THE DUKE OF SNOW AND APPLES
I picked this one up because I've been a fan of Vail's blog, Gossamer Obsessions, for...I don't know how long, but some number of years. The blog is funny and insightful and enthusiastic--which are exactly the first three words that I'd use to describe her debut, and upstairs/downstairs romance set in a magical Regency England, where high birth comes from having fae ancestry.
I never had a strong sense that the protagonists, Frederick and Charlotte, really related to one another as mistress and servant--though each one individually inhabits his/her role well. Frederick is proud of his good work and irritated by the people he cleans up for. Charlotte is oblivious and absorbed by her own problems. They each lean on self-control too heavily--and their lives are the poorer for it.
It's a novella, and I found it sweet rather than angsty or dark. The worldbuilding is light but vivid and interesting. And there's humor & a cast of eccentric secondary characters to keep things fun.
IN THE GARDEN OF THE BEASTS by Erik Larsen
I've spent many unglamorous hours cooking and cleaning over the past week, and this is the book that kept me company through it. I listened to the whole thing from beginning to end in about two days & it is really great. About the American ambassador to Berlin in the mid-1930s, after Hitler's rise to power but before the beginning of the war. I almost wrote 'before it was clear what his plans were' but one thing the book makes clear is that many people in Berlin at the time read the signs very clearly, though their warnings went unheeded.
The book focuses both on the ambassador himself, William Dodd, a university professor who had angled for a post to a boring, out of the way country where he'd have plenty of time to finish the book he was working on and didn't fit very well into the established diplomatic culture, but equally on his daughter Martha.
Martha is remarkable for two reasons: one is that she was a determined apologist who found ways to excuse all kinds of atrocities, including those that she personally witnessed. She'd dismiss violent assaults as 'isolated incidents' and insist that if the Berlin she knew was peaceful, the whole country must be. Watching her slowly--really, really slowly--come to the realization that the Nazis are evil is pretty interesting, especially since she still managed to figure it out ahead of the majority of the American public.
The other reason why Martha is interesting is because she was, er, sexually liberated. And it would be awesome to cheer her on here, because she was aggressive and unashamed and juggling a handful of men as skillfully as any Cirque de Soleil performer, except she had terrible taste in men. She had a long affair with the then-head of the Gestapo, Rudolph Diels; with a KGB agent who had orders to turn her into a double-agent; with Ernst Hanfstaengl, one of Hitler's aides; with an officer of the Luftwaffe...with people that, in general, one would want to avoid touching with a ten-foot pole. And she was drafted into their plots and plans.
The book is interesting because of the inherent drama--there was a lot going on in Berlin during those years--as well as for the boggling effect of hindsight, which makes the whole thing seem completely insane in retrospect.
THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE by Ann Patchett
I absolutely loved this audiobook. I loved Patchett's voice--I mean, literally, the sound her vocal chords make, because she narrates the audiobook. I loved every one of the essays. If I had to put my finger on what worked for me, exactly, it might be the way she examines her own life with both harsh exactitude and forgiving equanimity, the way she mixes clear-eyed pragmatism with a dash of romance.
The book is a series of essays that, taken together, form a kind of memoir and she mixes essays about her first failed marriage with essays about the life of a working author. There's some great craft stuff, and the whole thing is beautifully told.
WRITE. PUBLISH. REPEAT. by Sean Platt and Johnny Truant
A self-publishing guidebook. It's fairly comprehensive, which meant that whole huge sections were useless to me--mostly because they covered familiar ground. On the other hand, they've got a clear-eyed & money-minded view of the work, and there were some useful takeaways.
SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM by Joan Didion
Honestly not sure what I think of this book. Audible's version is narrated by Diane Keaton & she has a really light, sort of airy way of reading the essays. Something about Keaton's performance, or Didion's words, made me feel like I could never quite grasp the content. When she was writing about nostalgia or peeling away the simulacrum of a life from the reality behind it, that felt just right. But sometimes I felt like I was being held at a distance, and it was frustrating.
The only other book of Didion's that I've read is THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, and I had a similar initial reaction to it. A failure to connect. But I've thought of it often since then, and appreciated it more with time.
Still, I suspect I'm not a natural fan of Didion. I can appreciate her work, but it doesn't resonate with me easily.