Speakeasy by Alisa Smith

Speakeasy by Alisa Smith

speakeasyLena Stillman is a codebreaker during World War II. But she hasn’t always been a hero.

During the depression, she robbed banks with Bill Bagley and the Clockwork Gang.

What is she going to do now that the past seems to have caught up with her?

Speakeasy had some interesting elements, but the story suffered from a back and forth narrative and flat characters.

“I spread my papers out in front of me, and at first they all looked the same: a random mix of roman letters divided always into five characters with a space between each set, so no word lengths were revealed. I was searching for any repetitions.” loc 15, ebook.

The story is told from Lena’s perspective and diary entries of one of the members of her old gang.

“Bill Bagley was being punished because he had failed at something for which he possessed genius.” loc 80, ebook.

The back-and-forth storytelling was jarring. I liked the stories separately, but together, it didn’t really work.

They interrupted the flow of each other. I think it might have fit together more smoothly in a Part I/Part II presentation rather than interspersed.

I think Bill Bagley, one of the central characters, didn’t have the depth required to pull off this story.

He’s supposed to be this charismatic, brilliant criminal who inspires the men to risk their lives again and again, and also captures Lena’s heart.

Bagley has some failings, but, initially, there must have been something to him to draw the gang together.

Instead, from the start, he comes off as a volatile jerk.

We meet Bagley as he’s denying the parentage of a child who looks just like him: “This un ain’t mine and don’t tell me again that it is,” he said, thrusting the baby back to a lady with burning red cheeks.” loc 80, ebook.

He doesn’t improve from there.

“I returned from a visit with Bill, received a threatening note from him, and now this. He must have a copy of it and wanted to hold it over my head.” loc 741, ebook.

I guess I just never understood what Lena saw in him.

Also, for a genius code breaker, she doesn’t seem to be able to puzzle out the people around her very well.

“My morals were just not like other people’s, because unlike the somnolent majority I saw society’s problems. In my youth I had been misguided, and picked the wrong way of lashing out against an unfair system. But I had left the gang behind, and found a greater ease in my soul.” loc 1781, ebook.

There’s a twist that occurs during Lena’s code breaking era that I saw coming from miles away. And I’m not particularly good at calling plot twists.

My favorite part of this book were the gang-era years. My heart was in my throat during most of those chapters.

Unfortunately, it couldn’t carry the rest of this novel.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a free digital copy of this book.

Thanks for reading!


Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe by Madeline Miller

circeCirce is an epic fantasy that reads like a historical fiction novel, based on the Greek mythology of the witch of Aiaia, the daugher of a Titan- Circe.

I minored in the classics at university and one of my favorite classes was mythology. I love taking apart stories that mirror humanity’s foibles and try to explain the origin of some of life’s harder truths.

In the war between the Titans and the Olympians, a creation story that could be interpreted to mean the ascension of modern culture over more ancient superstitions, the Olympians triumph. But the Titans are not wiped off the face of the earth.

“Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two.” loc 272, ebook.

Some of the Titans’ powerful and mysterious children play central roles in the great mythological stories. Circe is one of those.

“They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and cousins. Least of the lesser goddesses, our powers were so modest they could scarcely ensure our eternities. We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves.” loc 102, ebook.

She began her life in the halls of Helios, a Titanic deity who was a god of the sun, much like Apollo.

“At my father’s feet, the whole world was made of gold. The light came from everywhere at once, his yellow skin, his lambent eyes, the bronze flashing of his hair. His flesh was as hot as a brazier, and I pressed as close as he would let me, like a lizard to noonday rocks.” loc 158, ebook.

Compared to her great father and gorgeous, manipulative mother, Circe was nothing- one of the many faceless children of the greater gods, whose future was destined to be a wife and then mother to more godlings.

Circe’s future is not as simple as all that.

She, and her brothers and sister, have a unique power that no other gods possess. They have the ability to harness the plants and power of the earth, to create potions and salves with miraculous effects. They call it: pharmakeia.

Modern readers can recognize the roots of the word “pharmacy” in the name.

“Pharmakeia, such arts are called, for they deal in pharmaka, those herbs with the power to work changes upon the world, both those sprung from the blood of gods, as well as those which grow common upon the earth.” loc 909.

It is a power no one understands and, because of its mysteriousness, it makes even the gods afraid.

There is more to Circe’s story than pharmakeia. She also interacts with Hermes, Daedalus and Odysseus. She creates a god and a monster. She shakes the foundation of the oceans.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy mythology or historical fiction. It will transport you to a world where gods and goddesses walk the earth and humanity can do nothing but tremble in their shadows.

Thank you to NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company for an advance, digital copy of this book.

Thanks for reading!

Check out Sarah Knight’s latest self help: You Do You

Check out Sarah Knight’s latest self help: You Do You

youdoyouBook review of You Do You: How to Be Who You Are and Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want by Sarah Knight

The self-styled “anti-guru” Sarah Knight adds another volume to her quirky, profanity-laden self-help series with You Do You.

The focus, as you can guess from the title, is the art of allowing your authentic self to shine through without feeling guilt or being so far out of the social norms that you border on “psychopath.”

You Do You is about accepting your strengths and your flaws, whether those flaws are self-identified, or just things that you’re perfectly happy about but that other people seem to have a problem with. Or, should I say, that you WOULD be happy about, if you felt a little more confident in yourself…” loc 146, ebook.

And, like the previous books, Knight doesn’t stint on the bad words. She admits she kept the title clean so a certain publication *cough* New York Times *cough* would print the all the words of the title in their sought after Best Seller list.

Which Knight has made before… but had her titles censored for their content.

“The advice in this book boils down to one simple mantra: Stand up for who you are and what you want. How do you do that? Stop letting other people tell you what to do, how to do it, or why it can’t be done.” loc 188, ebook.

I enjoyed You Do You, but I felt it wasn’t as strong as Knight’s other titles because she spends so much time rehashing material she has already covered elsewhere.

That being said, I like Knight’s style, her famous diagrams and her illuminating stories. This is an author who has been there, done that and cussed about it.

My favorite diagram in You Do You is Knight’s “ouroboros” or symbolic, conjoined serpent of wisdom picture. The text with the cute doodle says: “Is it right or wrong? You won’t know unless you have the confidence to take a risk and find out. If you regret your decision, then accept the consequences, swallow the lesson, and start over. With confidence.” loc 1995, ebook.

Verges on mystic Eastern wisdom, doesn’t it?

She encourages all readers everywhere to let the strange sides of yourself out- within certain boundaries. Don’t hurt anybody. Don’t take advantage of people. Be reasonable within your freakishness.

“Now, with those ground rules established, I do declare that we, as a society, should celebrate weirdness in all its forms- and that the right to be weird should be inalienable- just like the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” loc 2130, ebook.

“You do you” and let everybody else do them. It’s that simple. It’s that hard.

Sarah Knight may be a bit of an acquired taste. Please don’t read unless you have a high tolerance for bad words and, dare I say, mild snark.

But, if you are someone in need of encouragement to let your freak flag fly, look no further.

Thank you to NetGalley and Little Brown and Company for a free digital copy of this book. And thank you for reading!

Read my reviews of Sarah Knight’s other titles:

The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight

Get Your Sh*t Together by Sarah Knight


What would it take for women to run the world?

What would it take for women to run the world?

thepowerA book review of The Power by Naomi Alderman.

In The Power, young women have developed the ability to control electricity. It shifts the balance of power between the sexes and the world begins to come apart at the seams.

It is told from the point of view of a few women and a man. They each have different stories and experiences that Naomi Alderman blends together to create a powerful statement about how we live.

This is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read, but also, most brilliant. It made me think about all of the internal biases I have when it comes to gender, cultural expectations and roles.

Who was it who said: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This book is an examination of power and how it has shaped the world, not always for the better.

The monumental societal shift starts out small enough. A man named Tunde captures a moment between a young woman and a man who was hitting on her at the grocery store: “Tunde is recording when she turns around. … There she is, bringing her hand to his arm when he smiles and thinks she is performing mock-fury for his amusement. If you pause the video for a moment at this point, you can see the charge jump.” loc 261, ebook.

Those who have been abused are more likely to become abusers. And there are many, many abused women in the world.

“A strange new kind of fighting which leaves boys- mostly boys, sometimes girls- breathless and twitching, with scars like unfurling leaves winding up their arms or legs or across the soft flesh of their middles. Their first thought after disease is a new weapon, something these kids are bringing into school, but as the first week trickles into the second they know that’s not it.” loc 316, ebook.

Entire governments crumble to powerful women. Women who have been locked up their entire lives roam the streets, free. Soon enough, they’re locking up and abusing the men, because they can.

Religions change. Sexual predilections change. New politicians are elected. New soldiers are trained.

“Allie thinks, God is telling the world that there is to be a new order. That the old way is overturned. The old centuries are done.”loc 681, ebook.

The new scourge of third world countries are powerful, uncontrolled women.

“He wounds three of the women in the leg or arm and the others are on him like a tide. There is a sound like eggs frying. When Tunde gets close enough to show what has been done, he is perfectly still, the twisted-vine marks across his face and neck so thick that his features are barely discernible.” loc 884, ebook.

I think book clubs may find plenty to talk about in this book- if they can make it through. There are some very disturbing scenes.

“Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.” loc 4780, ebook.

In a time when so many women may feel powerless or voiceless, The Power may speak directly to them. It is, as I’ve said, a disturbing book, but also a conversation starter.

To quote Victor Hugo: Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. And, in my mind, it was the perfect time for this book to be written.

Thank you to NetGalley for a free digital copy of this book and thanks for reading.

Stalking God: From Laughing Yoga to Burning Man, My Unorthodox Search for Something to Believe In by Anjali Kumar

Stalking God: From Laughing Yoga to Burning Man, My Unorthodox Search for Something to Believe In by Anjali Kumar

stalkinggodAnjali Kumar is a lawyer who is used to having all the answers. After she had a daughter, Anjali realized she knew very little about the big questions: why are we here? What is it all about? Is there a God?

“In 2010, when my daughter Zia was born, I decided that I needed to find God.” loc 24, ebook.

Anjali went on a quest to find out the answers, not only for the sake of her daughter, but also herself. She touches all the bases – from meditation to faith healing to Burning Man to yoni worship – Anjali leaves no stone unturned in her search to find what is real.

“Along the way, I learned to chant, to meditate, and to marvel. I wrestled with my own identity, from my ethnic and cultural roots in India, to my femininity, to my role as a woman, daughter, mother, and wife. … I fancied myself an explorer, no different really than Magellan or Columbus. I was looking for a new world.” locs 148-163.

It’s a fascinating memoir.

Before each experience, Anjali puts in her research in an effort to find the science behind the beliefs. It’s not always as concrete as she would like it to be, but Anjali tries to engage her brain and her heart in her quest.

This is before she goes to her first “para-tan sounding”: “According to string theory, the entire universe is basically humming – all of it and all of us. Add that to the fact that the chanting of mantras has a long, compelling spiritual history, that cancer researchers are using sound- high-intensity focused ultrasound- to successfully destroy prostate cancer cells … and this whole Paramji thing starts to look like it might be grounded in a bit of hard science…” loc 500

Anjali tries to keep an open mind, even when things sound very strange: “One thing I had to be cognizant of… was how difficult it is as an outsider to come to terms with what are easy to perceive as the odd behaviors and strange beliefs of ‘other people.’ … as outsiders we have no idea what those behaviors and traditions stand for or mean.” loc 904.

She finds layers of meaning, even when particular experiences weren’t all that she hoped they would be. Anjali also experiences a few surprises along the way.

“I was looking for a theory of everything spiritual for Anjali and Zia. And yet, so far, just like those physicists had failed to find a theory of everything in the entire universe, I had failed to find a theory of everything for my own spirituality.” loc 1343.

And she never gives up because: “A spiritual home is something that we all have to find for ourselves.” loc 2853.

Recommended for seekers everywhere. Anjali’s discoveries may not be earth-shattering, but they’re real and worth the read.

Thank you to NetGalley and Seal Press for a free advance reader copy of this book. Reminder: the short quotations in this review may change or be omitted in the final printed version.

Thanks for reading!

The English Wife by Lauren Willig

The English Wife by Lauren Willig

english wifeThe year is 1899. The Van Duyvils are an extraordinarily wealthy and established family in New York. One night, at a holiday party, there is a murder… or is it a suicide?

The newspapers whip the public into a fury with their sensational headlines. They ask, ‘Who are the Van Duyvils and who is the new English wife?’

And there, our story begins.

Lauren Willig has created a lovely mystery/historical fiction with snappy dialogue and enough layers to keep readers guessing to the very end.

I loved Janie Van Duyvil, one of the main characters in this tale “There were times when she wished she had been born a male, that she might make her own way, that she might marry as she pleased and live as she would.” loc 45, ebook.

As she desperately tries to piece together the clues to find the murderer, Janie also comes into her own and begins to stand up to her tyrannical mother.

“It is her marriage,” Georgie pointed out drily. “Surely, she has some say.” “If you can think that, you haven’t met my mother.” loc 1179, ebook

I also enjoyed the role of the press in this story. James Burke is a reporter for ‘The News of the World.’ He wants to get the scoop on the murders. But, part of his job, is to sell papers. “The man had the gall to widen his eyes in innocence. “We prefer to call it investigative reporting, Miss Van Duyvil.” “I call it scandal-mongering, pure and simple.” loc 252, ebook.

My favorite scene is when Janie goes to ‘The News of the World’ building and readers get a glimpse into the crazy newsroom. “There was an undeniable energy to the room, the clacking typewriters, the shouting voices, that put energy into her step and color in her cheek.” What fun.

Willig seems to have a handle on what makes reporters tick. She even captures the gallow’s humor that they use to maintain their sanity. “Will it appear in an illustrated supplement in The World?” “Not unless there’s a body hidden there.” Mr. Bruke grimaced. “Sorry. In the newsroom, we… well, the worse it is, the more of a joke we make it. It’s a way to get through the day without being sick.” loc 2765, ebook.

Recommended for readers who want to lose themselves in a mystery with some romance along the way, The English Wifemay just fit the bill.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance digital copy of this book. Reminder: the brief quotations in this review may vary from the final printed form.

Thanks for reading!

The Only Girl in the World: A Memoir by Maude Julien

The Only Girl in the World: A Memoir by Maude Julien

onlygirlThe Only Girl in the World is an extraordinary memoir about madness, control and the survival of horrific childhood abuse.

Maude Julien’s father Louis chose his future wife and mother of his child, Jeannine, when she was only six and he was 34. He became Jeannine’s guardian by promising her family that he would provide her with a quality education.

Then: “Twenty-two years after he took possession of Jeannine, Louis Didier decided the time had come for her to bring his daughter into the world… Louis Didier liquidated his assets, bought a house near Cassel, between Lille and Dunkirk, and withdrew to live there… to devote himself entirely to carrying out the project he had devised back in 1936: to make his child a superhuman being. That child was me.” loc 73, ebook.

Unfortunately, to “make his child a superhuman” involved leaving her alone in a dark, rat-infested basement, sleeping in a room without heat, eating stale bread, practicing music for 12 or more hours a day and being entirely separated from any other children her age.

That’s where Maude got the title of this memoir: The Only Girl in the World

I have not read a childhood account this disturbing since A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer.

Maude’s father was unhinged. “My father is convinced that the mind can achieve anything. Absolutely anything: it can overcome every danger and conquer every obstacle. But to do this requires long, rigorous training away from the impurities of this dirty world.” loc 247, ebook.

He asks Maude to do things he cannot do like perform somersaults or swim in freezing water. He shows no affection to either his child or his wife.

Louis makes the females of the house wait on him as if he is an invalid. He makes his child hold a chamber pot each morning while he empties his bladder.

He’s a controlling monster.

Louis has strange beliefs about water and soap removing the body’s immunities so he insists that Maude only bathes once a week or less. And, when she is finally given the opportunity to bathe, she must use his dirty bathwater to “take strength from him.”

And she can’t count on protection from her mother, who was groomed by Louis to do anything he asks of her. Jeannine actually blames Maude for Louis taking them to live in the middle of nowhere. It is very sad.

Maude’s only friends are her pets, whom her father abuses as much as he hurts Maude. “Can an animal teach a person about happiness? In the depth of my despair, I am fortunate to have this incredible source of joy.” loc 685, ebook.

Even worse, Maude is abused by the few adults Louis allows in their lives. (Trigger warnings for those who were sexually or physically abused as children.)

Though incredibly disturbing, The Only Girl in the World is ultimately a story of survival against all odds. The human spirit is incredibly resilient as Maude’s tale illustrates.

Perhaps she is more superhuman than even she realizes. Highly recommended.

Thank you to NetGalley for a free digital copy of this book.

Thank you for reading!