The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Marie Benedict is a master writer of historical fiction. She is one of my favorites as she writes historical novels that focus on women. (Marie Benedict is actually a pseudonym used by Heather Terrell.) A list of her novels can be found below at the end of this review.

Her latest published novel, written with Victoria Christopher Murray, is The Personal Librarian. This novel tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, JP Morgan’s personal librarian. Belle grew to be an incredibly important and powerful woman in New York City, despite the fact that she was hiding a  secret that had the power to destroy her life and the lives of people in her family.

In her twenties, Belle was hired by J. Pierpont Morgan to curate his massive collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork. He had recently built the Pierpont Morgan Library and needed someone to organize its works. Belle and JP Morgan worked together for years to create a library that would hold up to his legacy. She traveled the world and became known for her impeccable taste, as well as her shrewd and unique ways to negotiate for works that both Morgan and Belle wanted to add to their world-class collection.

Belle had a major secret though. She is actually Belle Marion Greener, the daughter of Richard Greener, who was the first Black graduate of Harvard and was a well-known advocate for equality. Belle instead passes as white, by saying that she has Portuguese heritage. She doesn’t have Portuguese heritage though, as Belle is African American. Her mother’s decision to have her family pass as white tore her marriage apart, wreaking havoc on the small semblance of normalcy that they had created for their family.

The Personal Librarian tells the story of Belle, a woman well known for her intellect and style, but whose secret led her to carefully craft the white identity that let her have the lifestyle she desired. She spent her life walking a tightrope that could have snapped at any moment. Belle’s legacy lives on in this novel created by Benedict and Murray.

This book is also available in the following formats:

Marie Benedict’s other novels are listed below as well as who they are about:

  • The Other Einstein – Mileva Maric, Albert Einstein’s first wife, a woman who was a physicist
  • Carnegie’s Maid – Clara Kelley, lady’s maid in Andrew Carnegie’s household
  • The Only Woman in the Room  – Hedy Lamarr: inventor, screen star, and scientist
  • Lady Clementine – Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife
  • The Mystery of Mrs. Christie  – Agatha Christie’s mysterious eleven day disappearance in 1926
  • Her Hidden Genius – to be published in January 2022, which tells the story of British scientist Rosalind Franklin who discovered the structure of DNA. Her research was used without her permission by Crick & Watson to win the Nobel Prize.

Did You Know It Was a Book First? Ragdoll by Daniel Cole

It’s an age-old story: I was flipping through a streaming service and started watching something new, only to do a search later and realize it’s based on a book! In this case, the show is Ragdoll, from AMC+, based on a book of the same name by Daniel Cole. If you’re like me and love comparing page to screen adaptations to their original source material, here’s the breakdown of this grisly murder mystery, then and now.

ON THE PAGE

We meet Willam-Oliver Layton-Fawkes (nickname Wolf, for obvious reasons) at the trial of the Cremation Killer, where due to irregularities in Wolf’s investigation and chain of evidence, the suspect is acquitted. When the verdict comes down, Wolf drags the accused out of the defendant’s box and almost beats him to death on the courtroom floor. The book then flashes several years into the future, when a demoted Wolf goes with his friend and former partner Emily Baxter to a bizarre crime scene, where one corpse is made of parts from six different people. Thanks to the maneuverings of Wolf’s ex-wife Andrea, the press runs with the case and turns it into a sensational firestorm after a list is uncovered – with six new victims predicted, along with the dates they’ll be killed, the last being Wolf himself. Wolf works to solve the case alongside a troubled Baxter dealing with alcoholism and a buried attraction to Wolf, as well as Andrea, struggling to navigate the pressures of the news team and her own ambition continually driving her to violate privacy and sensationalize a horrifying event. Meanwhile, rookie Edmunds has his own theories about the killer, which he chases despite the damage it’s doing to his marriage to pregnant Tia. Along for the ride are Wolf’s good friend and current partner Finlay and unit boss Simmons, who discovers he doesn’t like being in charge while his people are thrust again and again into danger.

ON THE SCREEN

Our main character’s name is now Nathan Rose, and he does attack the acquitted Cremation Killer on the courtroom floor. In the show, however, more time is devoted to the direct result of that attack: Rose’s time at a mental hospital. His confused memories of that time, and of his friend there, Joel (on his own quest for justice) suddenly rise to the surface when Rose and Baxter (sober, witty, fighting for respect as a woman in the police) come to a crime scene where one corpse is made up of six different people. When the list of upcoming victims comes to light, delivered mysteriously to the police station, Rose quickly realizes that it’s all connected to the Cremation Killer, and that shadowy time in Rose’s past. He launches his own secret investigation to try and avert more murders (and atone for his own role in the ones that have occurred) as the police try to protect the victims on the list. Matters are complicated by frenemy Andrea (Rose’s on again, off again lover) in the media, and the resistance of the listed victims to accept protection. One very important change: intrepid rookie Edmunds has been transformed into a young American transplant named Lake Edmunds, an extremely young and liberal lesbian who struggles to fit in with the old boys’ club which Simmons and Finlay have been reduced to represent – though she remains determined to unravel the mystery, even if she has to do it on her own.

Without giving too much away, the changes made in the show (specifically what’s revealed and when) work really well to ratchet up tension and heighten the drama for the viewer, including a deeper sense of Rose’s emotional life.  In the book there’s a greater emphasis on the puzzle and trying to make it all fit together, using the dates the murders are predicted for to make it a race against time. While Andrea is less prominent in the show, which means less exploration of the pressure inherent in media work, the Ragdoll show still attempts to show the struggles of professional women through its focus on police procedure; Baxter and Edmunds have a number of conversations about the double standards women are held to. On a less serious note, I personally appreciated Rose’s name change; invoking a rose makes him seem complex and sensitive where, for me at least, “William-Oliver Layton-Fawkes, nickname Wolf” is a bit on-the-nose for an aggressive British police detective.

If you’re looking for a new crime thriller, serial killer story, or addictive binge-watch, I definitely recommend Ragdoll for an intricate puzzle that dives into questions of guilt, responsibility, justice, friendship, memory and identity.

January’s Best Sellers Club Nonfiction Picks

Have you joined the Best Sellers Club? If not, you’re missing out! Four times a year, our librarians choose four nonfiction titles for our Best Sellers Club to read: a biography, a cookbook, a social justice, and a true crime title. Below you will find information provided by the publishers on the four titles our selectors have picked for January.

Social Justice pick

Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism by Elsa Sjunneson

A Deafblind writer and professor explores how the misrepresentation of disability in books, movies, and TV harms both the disabled community and everyone else.

As a Deafblind woman with partial vision in one eye and bilateral hearing aids, Elsa Sjunneson lives at the crossroads of blindness and sight, hearing and deafness—much to the confusion of the world around her. While she cannot see well enough to operate without a guide dog or cane, she can see enough to know when someone is reacting to the visible signs of her blindness and can hear when they’re whispering behind her back. And she certainly knows how wrong our one-size-fits-all definitions of disability can be.

As a media studies professor, she’s also seen the full range of blind and deaf portrayals on film, and here she deconstructs their impact, following common tropes through horror, romance, and everything in between. Part memoir, part cultural criticism, part history of the Deafblind experience, Being Seen explores how our cultural concept of disability is more myth than fact, and the damage it does to us all.

Librarian Anna has the following to say about her Social Justice pick:

‘Published in October, this title considers the ways in which ableism is embedded within our culture and how it manifests in our society, especially through books, movies, and TV. As a deafblind woman with partial vision in one eye and bilateral hearing aids, author Elsa Sjunneson asserts the consistent misrepresentation of disability coursing through these prominent modes of media is ultimately harmful to society as a whole, not just the disabled community, and that things need to change. Serving as both a memoir and cultural critique, she reflects on her experience living in a world that is not “built” for her, while also exploring the harm of false representation through her expertise as a media studies professor.

I primarily selected this title for the BSC due to several positive reviews it received from acclaimed journals and reader communities upon publication. I also selected this title due to the aforementioned intersection of memoir and cultural critique, as Sjunneson’s experience living with a disability in an ableist world, paired with her expertise in the ways in which this ableism is perpetuated through tropes in media, lends such a powerful and insightful voice in the fight for social justice for this community. Finally, I had the privilege of watching a couple of short interviews with Sjunneson, and it was truly eye-opening and moving to hear her experience and passion for just representation. While I found it inspiring, she emphasizes in the book that she herself does not wish to be viewed as an inspiration; rather, she hopes readers will be inspired to start doing the hard work of “dismantling the ableist system we live in.” ‘

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True Crime pick

Boys Enter the House: The Victims of John Wayne Gacy and the Lives They Left Behind by David Nelson

As investigators brought out the bagged remains of several dozen young men from a small Chicago ranch home and paraded them in front of a crowd of TV reporters and spectators, attention quickly turned to the owner of the house. John Gacy was an upstanding citizen, active in local politics and charities, famous for his themed parties and appearances as Pogo the Clown.

But in the winter of 1978–79, he became known as one of many so-called “sex murderers” who had begun gaining notoriety in the random brutality of the 1970s. As public interest grew rapidly, victims became footnotes and statistics, lives lost not just to violence, but to history.

Through the testimony of siblings, parents, friends, lovers, and other witnesses close to the case, Boys Enter the House retraces the footsteps of these victims as they make their way to the doorstep of the Gacy house itself.

Librarian Anna has the following to say about this True Crime pick:

‘Published in October, this book explores and documents the lives of the victims of John Wayne Gacy, the notorious “Killer Clown” who is recorded to have heinously taken the lives of at least 33 young men in Cook County, Illinois, throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. Rather than delve into details about the killer himself, however, this title reverses the typical true crime framework and puts the victims first, shining a light on the lives almost lost to history as “footnotes” and “statistics” and who have too often simply been “dismissed as runaways, throwaways, hustlers, [and] homosexuals.” Incorporating testimony from interviews with family, friends, lovers, and other individuals associated with the known victims, Nelson pieces together the lives of several of these young men all the way up until their final moments in Gacy’s clutches.

I primarily selected this title for the BSC due to its highly anticipated demand, as well as due to the positive reviews it received from acclaimed journals and reader communities upon publication. Another major reason I selected this title is because of the acute and unique focus on the victims. While many of the previous selections have revolved around the lives and actions of the killers themselves, this title allows Timothy McCoy, Billy Kindred, and Rob Piest, among many others, to have a voice and live on in memory, rather than be overshadowed as “one of Gacy’s victims.” Finally, I selected this title due to the fact that, at the end of October, Francis Wayne Alexander (another victim of Gacy’s) was identified using DNA samples; I find it absolutely fascinating that the forensic knowledge and tools we have today can be used to solve mysteries such as this and bring families closure, even so many years later.’

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Biography pick

The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of King George III by Andrew Roberts

The last king of America, George III, has been ridiculed as a complete disaster who frittered away the colonies and went mad in his old age. The truth is much more nuanced and fascinating–and will completely change the way readers and historians view his reign and legacy.

Most Americans dismiss George III as a buffoon–a heartless and terrible monarch with few, if any, redeeming qualities. The best-known modern interpretation of him is Jonathan Groff’s preening, spitting, and pompous take in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway masterpiece. But this deeply unflattering characterization is rooted in the prejudiced and brilliantly persuasive opinions of eighteenth-century revolutionaries like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, who needed to make the king appear evil in order to achieve their own political aims. After combing through hundreds of thousands of pages of never-before-published correspondence, award-winning historian Andrew Roberts has uncovered the truth: George III was in fact a wise, humane, and even enlightened monarch who was beset by talented enemies, debilitating mental illness, incompetent ministers, and disastrous luck.

In The Last King of America, Roberts paints a deft and nuanced portrait of the much-maligned monarch and outlines his accomplishments, which have been almost universally forgotten. Two hundred and forty-five years after the end of George III’s American rule, it is time for Americans to look back on their last king with greater understanding: to see him as he was and to come to terms with the last time they were ruled by a monarch.

Librarian Rachel has the following to say about her pick:

‘King George III of England is often portrayed as dim-witted, tyrannical and evil. However, after extensive research, Andrew Roberts has found that the king was wise and humane and battled a mental illness, incompetent ministers, and enemies. This book sheds light on the real King George III and lays the rumors to rest.’

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Cookbook Pick

The Sweet Side of Sourdough: 50 Irresistible Recipes for Pastries, Buns, Cakes, Cookies and More by Caroline Schiff

Sourdough isn’t just for savory baking! The robust tanginess of sourdough adds that little bit of something extra to your favorite cakes, bars, tarts, sweet breads and more that you didn’t know you were looking for, and pastry chef Caroline Schiff couldn’t make it easier to do. Set yourself up for sourdough success with her best tips for building and maintaining a starter and then bake your way to sweet sourdough bliss.

Add a new layer of flavor to pie and tart crusts in mouthwatering recipes like Spiced Pear, Crème Fraiche and Almond Galette, Apple Maple Crumble Pie and Malted Milk Chocolate Ganache Tart. Make breakfast the most delicious meal of the day with pastries like Orange Ricotta Drop Biscuits and Dark Chocolate Chunk Scones that are the things of your wildest sourdough dreams. And every special occasion is made even more special with cakes that perfectly balance the sweet and sour, like Grapefruit Brown Sugar Brulée Cake, Raspberry Coconut Cake with Lime Glaze and Apple Sour Cream Crumb Cake.

Caroline’s reliable recipes take your favorite sweet treats up to the next level AND give you exciting, innovative ways to use your trusty sourdough starter.

Librarian Ann says this about her January pick:

‘Did you try your hand at sourdough bread baking during the COVID shutdown? Did you get tired of maintaining the starter, or just tired of the same flavors? Then The Sweet Side of Sourdough by Caroline Schiff is for you! The tanginess of the sourdough is a great compliment to sweet treats such as cakes, cookies, pies and sweet breads. Recipes cover everything from breakfast pastries to desserts for after dinner. Expand (or begin!) your sourdough knowledge with these fun and innovative recipes!’

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Join the Best Sellers Club to have the new nonfiction picks automatically put on hold for you four times a year.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A classic story of love and friendship, sacrifice and resilience, A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers also just happens to be located in a fantasical world of distant planets, casual space travel and aliens of every variety.

Lovelace is an artificial intelligence (AI) that has been transferred into a humaniod form (a “kit”) by an alien named Pepper. At first confused and disoriented (her previous work had been within the walls of a spaceship) she names herself Sidra. She quickly gains intelligence, but struggles to live in chaotic world without walls.

Jane 23 is an enhanced human bred to work in a factory sorting scrap. Her life is strictly regulated and anything outside of the factory is completely unknown to her. One day an explosion blows a hole in one of the walls and she sees sky for the first time. Consumed by curiosity, she goes back to see it again. Nearly caught by one of the Mothers (robot caretakers) she runs blindly, is chased by wild animals and is almost caught until a small shuttle in the massive scrap pile opens a door and helps her escape. The shuttle is run by Owl, an AI that lives in the ship.

Many years later Jane, with Owl’s help, escapes the planet and arrives in Port Cortisol, a busy international space port where she changes her name to Pepper and blends into the world around her. However she is haunted by the loss of the shuttle and her beloved Owl who had raised her as a true mother would and for whom she is always searching.

I would categorize this as a “cozy sci-fi”. There are no space battles or massive alien invasions wiping out civilizations. Bad things happen – witness the factory planet of enslaved girls – but there is a lot of good too. Many diverse aliens with many diverse forms co-exist, mostly peacefully and respectfully.  These stories quickly connect in interesting and satisfying ways. Friendships are formed, adventures are shared and the line between AI and humanoid blurs. The world building is intricate and well developed but never intrusive. A lovely and heartwarming novel.

Announcing: the Online Reading Challenge 2022!

Welcome to the 2022 Online Reading Challenge!

Get ready for another year (our 7th!) of reading recommendations with our super-casual, low-stress reading club!

Our theme for 2022 is Book Flights! A Book Flight, similar to a wine or beer flight, is a series of books with similar themes. Sometimes the themes are obvious, sometimes they’re a little deeper. I’ve chosen a critically acclaimed titles plus 3-4 complementary books for each month. I’ll briefly describe each book and pick one to read myself. You can choose to read the main book or one of the accompanying titles or even something else completely! At the end of the month I’ll write about what I read and pose some questions about the themes from that month’s books and invite you to comment with your observations.

Of course, as always, you may do as you please – there are no Library Police! So if you wish to skip a month, or read more than one book in that month or read a book from a different month – go for it! No one will drag you off to Library Jail if you choose your own path!

Ok, let’s get started!

The theme for January is belonging, connection and found family and our main title is The Orphan Train by Christina Kline.

Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to ‘aging out’ out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance. Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life–answers that will ultimately free them both. Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

You can find more information about this book and the author as well as sample discussion questions in our Book Club Lib Guide.

Books that round out January’s Book Flight are:

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano.

One summer morning, twelve-year-old Edward Adler, his beloved older brother, his parents, and 183 other passengers board a flight in Newark headed for Los Angeles. Halfway across the country, the plane crashes. Edward is the sole survivor. Edward’s story captures the attention of the nation, but he struggles to find a place in a world without his family. He continues to feel that a part of himself has been left in the sky, forever tied to the plane and all of his fellow passengers.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

For years, rumors of the ‘Marsh Girl’ have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. She’s barefoot and wild; unfit for polite society. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark. But Kya is not what they say. Abandoned at age ten, she has survived on her own in the marsh that she calls home. A born naturalist with just one day of school, she takes life lessons from the land, learning from the false signals of fireflies the real way of this world. But while she could have lived in solitude forever, the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. Drawn to two young men from town, who are each intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new and startling world – until the unthinkable happens.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

A curmudgeon hides a terrible personal loss beneath a cranky and short-tempered exterior while clashing with new neighbors, a boisterous family whose chattiness and habits lead to unexpected friendship.


I’ll be reading this month’s main title, The Orphan Train. I’ve read the other three titles in the book flight in the past; they are all excellent and I highly recommend all of them.

Be sure to check back at the end of the month when we’ll open up a discussion!

 

 

Online Reading Challenge – December Wrap-Up

We’ve reached the end of the year! How did your reading go this month?

December is always a busy month and sometimes it’s hard to fit in reading but a quick, engaging book makes it a lot easier. I found this to be true with my December choice when I read Before She Disappeared by Lisa Gardner, our spotlight author.

Frankie Elkin is not a police officer or a private detective. She doesn’t have any special training and doesn’t carry a gun. What she does have is a need to go to an AA meeting every day and a burning desire to find the missing. Especially those who have been missing and forgotten.

That’s what brings Frankie to a poor Haitian neighborhood in Boston where Angelique Bodeau, a quiet, hardworking high school student disappeared ten months earlier. The case is still open, but the police have no new leads and, with limited resources and a steady stream of new cases, Angelique’s disappearance has become low priority. This is where Frankie’s talent shines – she talks to the family, asks questions of friends and acquaintances, sticks her nose in where it shouldn’t be, and tries to put herself in the shoes of the missing. With this case, Frankie begins to unravel a plot much more complicated than a girl who simply ran away – Angelique was trying to protect those she loved, but is it enough? And will Frankie find her before she becomes another statistic?

This was a gripping novel with lots of twists and turns. At times I found the reasons behind Angelique’s disappearance convoluted and too complicated, but I was invested on finding out what happened. Frankie is tough and independent with multiple demons of her own and Angelique is smart and courageous, characters that are easy to root for. A quick, exciting read.

That wraps up the Online Reading Challenge for 2021. Did you find something good to read this month? How was your reading this year? Did you find anything that became a favorite?

Stay tuned for information on the Online Reading Challenge for 2022 which will begins next month. More details will be on the blog on Monday, January 3rd!

A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske is set in Edwardian England, with all of it’s rigid formality and strict social rules intact but with one difference – magic exists. However, only a few people know this and fewer still possess magical abilities.

Sir Robin Blyth comes from a noble family but due to his parent’s frivolous ways, he and his sister are left with little money and he must work to keep them afloat. An administrative error assigns him the job of civil service liaison to a hidden magical world, something he had no idea even existed before his first day at work.

Edwin Courcey is a member of a very old magical family, although he has only a small amount of magic himself. He is horrified to find Robin in the Magical Liason office and astonished to discover that he doesn’t even know magic exists. Edwin and Robin take an instant dislike to each other and part ways. However, on his way to resign, Robin is accosted by three strangers wearing mysterious masks, asking him “where is it?”. When he can’t answer (he has no idea what they’re talking about), one of the men places a painful curse on his arm and tells him the curse will only get worse until he gives them what they want.

Well, thinks Robin, this isn’t good. He seeks out Edwin (the only magical person he knows) and Edwin, who has made a study of magic, is intrigued by the curse which appears in intricate curls and patterns on Robin’s arm. At first reluctant, Edwin can’t pass on this intriguing puzzle and thus begins a search for answers that includes murder, foresight, a very dangerous hedge, family drama, secret rooms and magical objects of all kinds including a very protective mansion.

The enemies become friends and then much more over the course of their adventures. The magical world that Marske creates is imaginative and intricate and the characters – good guys and bad – are compelling. You will root for Robin and Edwin both as a couple and as individuals as they stumble their way to solutions. There are elements of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Red, White and Royal Blue and even a touch of Lord of the Rings that combine into something unique and delightful.

 

Cul-de-sac by Joy Fielding

Joy Fielding is a new author to me – I have never read anything written by her before, but she is fairly popular with patrons at the library. Her latest title Cul-de-sac is a twisty psychological suspense thriller that focuses on secrets hidden within one community.

At the end of a quiet suburban cul-de-sac live five families. Someone in this cul-de-sac will be shot dead in the middle of a hot July night. Who is responsible? What drove them to murder? What secrets live in each of the five houses?

Maggie and Craig are recent arrivals to Florida. Maggie is a jumpy perfectionist, while her husband Craig could never quite be what she needed. They packed up their two kids and moved from California to Florida hoping for a new start. Maggie wants to leave behind the bad memories that destroyed their perfect California lives, but she finds that even sunny Florida can’t fully dispel the shadows she sees lurking everywhere.

Nick is a respected oncologist. His wife, Dani, is a successful dentist. Even though she is a doctor in her own right, others look down at her and treat her as just Nick’s wife. Dani and Nick have their own deep secrets that they have even managed to hide from their two children for years.

Julia is an elderly widow. Her son and his fourth wife want her to sell her house and move into an assisted care facility. To combat this, Julia’s troubled grandson has recently moved in to help her, much to her son’s chagrin. Her grandson’s bad habits have followed him to Julia’s house though.

Olivia and her husband Sean are going through a rough patch. Sean recently lost his job at a prestigious advertising agency, meaning that Olivia has had to find a job to support the family. Sean resents his wife, has started drinking heavily, and his depression is getting worse. Despite searching for a job, he is unable to find one. He spirals out of control, leading to increasingly violent fantasies.

Aiden and Heidi are newlyweds. They recently moved into their house, which Aiden’s mother purchased for the two. Their marriage is already floundering and is made even worse by Aiden’s mother’s constant intruding. Heidi has repeatedly expressed her displeasure to Aiden, but he is reluctant to stop her since his mother controls all of the money.

Each house has their own secrets, while each also has access to guns. This makes for a deadly combination. Someone will not survive the night.

This book is also available in the following formats:

Did You Know It Was a Book First? The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski

I love comparing books to their TV or movie adaptations – ask me about The Devil Wears Prada sometime. Right now, as the new season of The Witcher launches on Netflix, I’m reflecting on my recent read of The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, the book which first introduced Geralt of Rivia to the world – and eventually rocketed him to fame in video games and now as played by Henry Cavill. Here’s my breakdown of this iconic fantasy franchise, then and now.

ON THE PAGE

I expected a much darker, gritter fantasy than this actually turned out to be. This first book, The Last Wish, acts as a series of short vignettes as highly-trained and lightly superpowered Geralt goes on his adventures fighting monsters for money, and in fact most of these vignettes read as retellings of classic fairy tales. I identified, among others, one like Snow White and one like Beauty and the Beast, both of which seem to echo the source material with wry humor and a good dose of feminist reality check. Along the way, interspersed chapters start to hint at a larger story to come, linked to Geralt’s history with sorceress Yennefer – who’s finally introduced in the book’s final story revealing how Geralt and Yennefer first met. Important themes include what makes a monster, lesser vs. greater evils, and the losses in lifestyle and belonging that happen as society changes. While obviously standing apart from the rest of society, Geralt is very human and sympathetic, and his good friend Dandelion adds even more lightness and humor.

ON THE SCREEN

The show (currently only available on Netflix, and not on DVD or Blu-Ray) takes full advantage of its medium to expand as much as possible – Yennefer gets her own dose of screen time instead of only being seen from Geralt’s perspective, and Geralt’s backstory including his childhood is explored in much more detail. Geralt himself, however, is much less talkative in the show than in the books, which may be because in a visual medium, more nonverbal communication is possible. Another obvious change is one in translation – in the books Geralt’s troubadour friend is identified as Dandelion, but on the show they kept his Polish name, Jaskier, which actually literally translates to ‘buttercup’ in English. And of course, because The Last Wish functions more as an introductory book than a plot-driven one, the stories in the show are also from later books than the one I read, and expand more on various battles and events. In the interest of full disclosure, I drew most of these insights from others’ perspectives, as at the time of writing I haven’t yet seen enough of the show to comment.

Speaking for myself, I think I’ll enjoy both equally as each uses their medium to full advantage; I prefer a chatty, relatable Geralt but I love the idea of showing Yennefer’s perspective and keeping Dandelion’s original name. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more books in this series and catching up with the show. If you’re into fantasy that’s exciting but not too heavy, I recommend reading The Last Wish for a bit of adventure, or at least background context for your next binge-watching session.

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

‘She felt quite light-headed. Low blood sugar, maybe, or perhaps it was the dizzying effect of watching her horizons, narrowed for so long, expanding once again.’

Paula Hawkins’ latest thriller A Slow Fire Burning is a book that messes with your mind, but in a good way. Hawkins has written a book that talks about how far someone is willing to go to find peace (or revenge).

Someone has been killed. A young man was found gruesomely murdered in his London houseboat. When the authorities start investigating, questions begin to mount surrounding three women who knew him and the others living in his periphery.

Laura is a troubled young woman who was the last person seen both with the victim and in his home. Their one-night stand was fraught with violence, something that Laura admits to the police when questioned. Laura was in a devastating car accident when she was young that left her hot-tempered, rash, and dangerous. Others judge her, something that has left Laura living as a loner.

Miriam knows all too well about how easy it is to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the person who lives in the houseboat next to the dead man, Miriam has a unique insight into his life, plus she’s nosy. She also knows that just because she saw Laura leaving the houseboat covered in blood, that doesn’t mean she killed him. Miriam has been taken advantage of one too many times, so she will do whatever it takes to clear Laura of any wrongdoing.

Carla’s nephew was just brutally murdered. Her sister died in an accident eight weeks earlier. So much tragedy in such a short amount of time has left her completely stricken and at a loss. Carla no longer trusts anyone and views those around her as damaged creatures. All she wants is peace. Or does she?

Others circulate behind the scenes: Carla’s husband Theo and the women who lives next door to the deceased man’s mother. Everyone in this story is filled with resentment. While their reasons may be varied, they all desire to right the wrongs perpetrated against them. Their journeys to revenge will lead them to peace or destruction, risks they are all willing to take.

This book is also available in the following formats: