Titanic Fans, Rejoice – A Review of The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

The Midnight Watch Book Cover The Midnight Watch
David Dyer

As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.

Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel--the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author's own experiences as a ship's officer and a lawyer.

 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for the review copy!

The Midnight Watch, David Dyer’s account of the sinking of the Titanic and its aftermath, is one of the best pieces of historical fiction I’ve read in years. Dyer’s ability to bring history to life with his beautiful writing and poignant attention to detail, coupled with his talent for heightening dramatic irony, make this book a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in the Titanic disaster.

One of the most tragic and compelling things about the Titanic, aside from the staggeringly high death toll, is that the catastrophe could and should have easily been avoided. There were so many opportunities to avert disaster: If only the ship hadn’t been traveling so fast in the dark ice field…. If only there had been enough lifeboats for all passengers…. If only another ship could have arrived on the scene sooner, and saved more lives….

This last “if only” is the focus of The Midnight Watch. History tells us that the Californian, another steamer, was only six miles away from the Titanic when she struck the iceberg. The crew saw the distress rockets and were close enough to save hundreds of lives – yet they did nothing. 

The Midnight Watch delves into the mystery behind what happened that fateful April night, and man, is it fascinating. The point of view jumps from the crew of the Californian, trying to cover up their failure, to a young girl on board the doomed ship, to an intrepid reporter who won’t rest until he gets to the bottom of the Californian’s dirty little secret:

“People tell me there’s no such a thing as love at first sight. I don’t know about that. But I do know that there’s such a thing as a story at first sight. And there was something about these men – their stillness, perhaps, or maybe their unimpeachable solidarity – that told me at once that something strange had happened on this ship, something more than ‘a nice little story.’”

Dyer does a brilliant job of setting all of the pieces in place and building the reader’s anticipation and sense of dramatic irony. I had goosebumps for the duration of this book and was in a constant state of helpless dread. Modern-day readers know how the story of the Titanic plays out, but the characters in the book do not, and that’s what makes The Midnight Watch so heart-wrenching. All you can do is sit and watch as the events unfold.

You’ll shiver when, on the night of April 14, the captain of the Californian casually tells the officer on duty that “it should be a quiet watch tonight.” You’ll cringe when you listen to the White Star Line’s spokesman naively ensure the media, shortly before the ship sinks beneath the waves, that “his understanding was that [the damage] was slight and the ship was making her way to Halifax under her own steam.” You’ll silently, futilely plead with the characters to pay closer attention to the warning signs, and chills will go down your spine when the unwitting crew of the Californian watches the “mysterious ship’s” lights finally blink out in the wee hours of the morning on April 15.

Dyer has a gift for choosing descriptions and details that bring this story to life in excruciating vividness. He immerses you in the sounds of foghorns calling in the night and Morse code tapping in the wires room, and paints a picture of sailors “lying in their bunks with less than half an inch of steel between their sleeping heads and the black Atlantic hissing past outside.” He writes a scene from the perspective of a passenger on board the sinking Titanic who spots the Californian‘s lights and waits patiently, but in vain, for rescuers to arrive. His reporter reveals the horrifying statistic that “fifty-eight first-class men had found their way into the lifeboats but fifty-three third-class children had not.” Every sentence Dyer writes cuts straight to your heart.

One of the things that I found fascinating about The Midnight Watch is that it focuses not just on the night of the Titanic disaster, but also on the fall-out that takes place afterwards. Dyer shows the reactions of the world as they learn the ship’s fate and describes the U.S. president’s grief at the loss of his friends who were on board. He depicts the moment when the ship Carpathia semaphores the number of dead to the Californian – 1,500 lost – and goes into detail about the U.S. Senate’s investigation into the the causes of the tragedy.

My only complaint about The Midnight Watch is a minor one: it’s tough to keep all of the characters straight. There are lots of people to remember, and trying to keep track of all of their names and jobs and why they’re significant to the story is challenging at times.

All things considered, I couldn’t be more impressed with Dyer’s debut novel. It’s so good it hurts, a rich, fascinating book that does what all great historical fiction should: sparks curiosity in its reader and inspires them to discover more about the subject matter. Highly, highly recommended.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top 10 Retellings I’ve Recently Added To My TBR List

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is “Books in X Genre I’ve Recently Added To My TBR Pile.” Because I’m a retelling fanatic, I’ve chosen to focus on books that put a new spin on well-known stories.

1) Marian by Ella Lyons: Robin Hood retellings will always be my favorite retellings, which is why I was so excited to find this LGBT take on my favorite hero(ine).

2) My Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen by David Clawson: In this contemporary reimagining of the Cinderella fairy tale, poor, downtrodden Chris falls for his wicked stepsister’s charming boyfriend.

3) Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George: Although I’m not very familiar with the plot of Much Ado About Nothing, this retelling of the Shakespearean play intrigues me because it’s set in New York City in the Roaring Twenties.

Book cover for Marian by Ella LyonsBook cover for My Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen by David ClawsonBook cover for Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George

4) Bull by David Elliot: Written in verse, this retelling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, from Greek mythology, is supposedly hilarious and twisted.

5) Sway by Kat Spears: My only knowledge of the play Cyrano de Bergerac comes from watching the children’s TV show Wishbone, but that’s all it takes for me to want to read this modern spin on the classic about a guy who falls in love with a girl who he’s charming on another guy’s behalf.

6) Ensnared by Rita Stradling: This sci-fi retelling of Beauty and the Beast comes with a warning that the book contains “adult situations.” Color me intrigued.

Book cover for Bull by David ElliottBook cover for Sway by Kat SpearsBook cover for Ensnared by Rita Stradling

7) The Humming Room by Ellen Potter: This is the first book I’ve found that’s claimed to be inspired by The Secret Garden, which was a childhood favorite of mine.

8) Ivory and Bone by Julie Eshbaugh: I’m not sure if it’s intended to be an actual retelling, but Ivory and Bone‘s synopsis touts it as “a prehistoric fantasy – with allusions to Pride and Prejudice,” which catches my attention.

9) Black Paper Mask by Lauren Gattos: I confess to being kind of confused by this novel’s synopsis, and I’m not certain if it’s meant to be a retelling or a sequel, but I’ll give any book a try that’s related to The Phantom of the Opera. Especially since this particular book’s synopsis calls it a “feminist revision” and a “gothic romance.”

Book cover for The Humming Room by Ellen PotterBook cover for Ivory and Bone by Julie EshbaughBook cover for Black Paper Mask by Lauren Gattos

10) The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest by Melanie Dickerson: I’m somewhat wary of Dickerson’s fairy tales – the ones I’ve read so far have been too light and innocent for my taste – but this Swan Lake/Robin Hood mash-up has piqued my curiosity.Book cover for The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest by Melanie Dickerson

 Are you a fan of retellings? If so, what are your favorites? Let me know in the comment section below!

Top Ten Tuesday: Top 10 Books to Get You in the Mood for Summer

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is a Summer Freebie, so I’m featuring books that will get you in the mood for summer.

Books Set at the Beach

1) Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler: This book’s cover and synopsis hint at a breezy beach read, but don’t be fooled – Twenty Boy Summer packs a punch. This moving story about friendship, loss, and healing is told from the point of view of a girl mourning her first love as she spends a summer with her best friend’s family on the shores of California.

2) Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen: Reading Along for the Ride always makes me yearn for a trip to the beach, as it follows a girl named Auden who spends the summer after her senior year with her dad and new stepmom in their seaside town. It’s a fun, relatively light read with boardwalk boutiques, new friendships, and a budding romance.

3) The Prince of Venice Beach by Blake Nelson: This book has a sweet, delightful protagonist, who also happens to be a homeless teenager living on the streets and beaches of California.

Book cover for Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah OcklerBook cover for Along For The Ride by Sarah DessenBook cover for The Prince of Venice Beach by Blake Nelson

Stories of Magic and Wonder

4) Summerland by Michael Chabon: When I was a kid, summer felt like a time of infinite possibilities, as though anything could happen. Summerland, whose pages are full of faeries, baseball games, heroes, and a battle between good and evil, embodies that feeling perfectly.

5) Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon: This is the first magical realism book I ever read, and the wonder and joy of it have lingered with me for years. It follows the adventures of a young boy in his marvel-filled hometown of Zephyr, Alabama, and something about it just feels like summertime to me.

6) The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater: This second book in the Raven Cycle Quartet will always be my favorite of the series, with its powerful dreamers, whispering forest, fantastical quest, and steamy Virginia-summer setting.

Book cover for Boy's Life by Robert McCammonBook cover for Summerland by Michael ChabonBook cover for The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Tales of Hijinks and Last Hurrahs

7) My Best Everything by Sarah Tomp: Most 18-year-olds spend the summer after high school graduation hanging out with friends or lounging by the pool. Not Lulu Mendez from My Best Everything; she uses her time to raise money for college by engaging in an illegal moonshining operation. (Read my review here.)

8) Kill All Happies by Rachel Cohn: This hilarious story about a graduation bash that runs wildly out of control takes place in an abandoned theme park and is absurdly fun.

9) FML by Shaun David Hutchinson: FML is another an end-of-school-year-party book, one that will have you wanting to throw a crazy blowout of your own. (Read my review here.)

10) Why We Took The Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf (translated by Tim Mohr): This road trip book follows two teenage boys who steal a car and take off on a crazy jaunt through Germany.

Book cover for My Best Everything by Sarah TompBook cover for Kill All Happies by Rachel CohnBook cover for FML by Shaun Hutchinson Book cover for Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf

Let’s chat! I’d love to hear what books put you in a summery mood – drop me a comment below!

In Which I Express My Frustration Via GIFs: A Review of In A Gilded Cage by Mia Kerick

In A Gilded Cage Book Cover In A Gilded Cage
Mia Kerick

Lucci Grimley is indeed alluring—crowned with a mane of long blond hair, and blessed with an enchanting musical talent that draws a brave rescuer to a high tower hidden in the forest.

However, this modern-day Rapunzel is a young man, sold as a child to the wealthy and childless Damien Gotham for the price of a fast car and a pile of cash. And Lucci’s heroic prince is William “Prin” Prinzing, a handsome college student and star soccer player, hired to care for the grounds of the lavish Tower Estate. Prin climbs an extension ladder rather than a long golden braid to gain access to Lucci’s second floor bedroom window, ultimately penetrating the secrecy surrounding the cloistered young man.

Friendship, and soon romance, blooms. The tower captive eagerly gives his loving innocence to his brave rescuer, which sends the strict and reclusive Gotham into a frenzy of jealous rage. With Prin, Lucci gets a taste of real life, and he wants more. Together, the young men must face Gotham’s ruthlessness and pay the price of liberating Lucci.

 

Thank you to Xpresso Book Tours for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Fair warning: this is going to be a rant.

I went into In A Gilded Cage fully expecting to love it, as the description makes it sound like exactly my type of book. Not only is it a modern-day retelling of Rapunzel, it’s also a male/male romance. What more could I possibly ask for, right?

Well, for starters, I’m not sure “romance” is the right word for the relationship between the book’s two protagonists, Prin and Lucci. To me it’s less a love story and more the story of one person taking complete advantage of another person’s vulnerability and innocence. Allow me to explain.

Lucci is the adopted son of a ridiculously wealthy – and hideously controlling – business mogul by the name of Damien Gotham. Gotham is a total creep and actually bought Lucci from his parents when he was a young boy so he could “lift [Lucci] out of squalor and place (him) in surroundings befitting [his] beautify and potential.” To Gotham, lifting Lucci from squalor essentially means imprisoning Lucci in Gotham’s mansion and controlling every single move he makes for the rest of his life.

Gotham isn’t just your run-of-the-mill, over-protective helicopter parent – he’s legitimately crazy and abusive. Lucci is isolated from the world, with only Gotham for company. Gotham dictates how Lucci spends every minute of his day, how he talks, what he eats, even how much water he may drink. His standards for “appropriate” behavior are unattainably high, and the punishments he doles out when Lucci can’t measure up are imaginative and horrible. And don’t even get me started on how far over the line his physical relationship with Lucci is. Yick.

via GIPHY

I hoped things would look up for poor, victimized Lucci when his “prince charming” showed up…but nope. The relationship that develops between William “Prin” Prinzing and Lucci makes me cringe just thinking about it. Even though Lucci’s almost 21 during the main events of the book, his isolated upbringing has left him so innocent and naïve that the relationship between him and Prin feels like the relationship between an adult and a child.

Lucci doesn’t understand what friendships are, let alone sexual encounters. At one point when Prin is sticking his tongue in Lucci’s mouth, Lucci pulls back and innocently asks, “Is this the way of friendship, Prin?” He honestly has no idea what’s going on. Lucci doesn’t even know the names for his various pieces of anatomy – he calls them his “man parts,” for crying out loud. It’s such an unequal relationship, where Prin has all the knowledge and power and Lucci is just trustingly going along with whatever Prin tells him.

Prin knows something’s not right with Lucci’s home life, but is rescuing Lucci his first priority? No, of course not. He’s more concerned with how far he’s able to get with Lucci sexually. He’s basically like, “Hey, I know you’re being abused, and you have zero concept of the world beyond your creepy dad’s house and his carefully-selected servants, but rather than doing anything REAL to help you, I’m going to feel you up in my truck instead. ‘Kay?”

via GIPHY

The sexual scenes are intensely uncomfortable because they almost feel like instances of statutory rape. It doesn’t help that every time Prin and Lucci have a sexual encounter, Lucci compares the experience to his interactions with his adopted father. For example, there’s a scene where Lucci runs his hands over Prin’s bare chest while envisioning his father’s chest hair. And then there’s this gem from one of Lucci’s POV chapters:

“‘I notice that [Prin’s] hands are trembling as Father’s often do when he gives in to his need to touch me.’”

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I felt like screaming at Prin for so much of this book. It’s like, dude – can we remember that Lucci’s father makes him cuddle with him in bed at night, naked? And that he withdraws food and water from Lucci if he feels Lucci is not appropriately affectionate during those cuddle sessions? And forces Lucci to kneel on a grate for hours as punishment for other minor “infractions”? With all this in mind, do you really think sexing him up is your best course of action? As opposed to, oh, I don’t know – HELPING HIM ESCAPE?!

Even if Lucci and Prin were both happy, healthy, well-adjusted people, I’d still wince at their love scenes, which are mega-awkward and not sexy or sensual in any way. Please, share in my horror and discomfort with this quote about Lucci’s second-ever erection:

“‘It is happening to me again, Prin.’ I take his hand in mine and press it to the stiffness of my private part.”

And how about this:

“I pull him down so his privates dangle before my face, and I open my mouth more eagerly than does a baby bird to his mother.”

via GIPHY

The scene that really pushes me over the edge, though, is the one where Prin takes his sock off and wipes Lucci’s mouth with it after fellatio. Yes, you read that right – he uses his dirty sock, which was just on his sweaty-ass foot while he was doing yard work, and uses it to WIPE LUCCI’S MOUTH. *Gags*

via GIPHY

If there’s one saving grace in In A Gilded Cage, it’s the presence of Prin’s awesome parents. They don’t have a huge role in the book, but the few scenes they’re in are pretty great. What I appreciate about Prin’s mom and dad is that they’re fantastically supportive of Prin and very much in love with each other. Their lives aren’t easy – they got pregnant and married at 17, live in a trailer and work long hours as custodians – and yet they’re blissfully happy and still full of love for one another after so many years and hardships.

Still, my fondness for Prin’s parents isn’t nearly enough to redeem the rest of the book in my eyes. The serious issues with the supposed “romance,” as well as the amount of cringing I did while reading, make In A Gilded Cage an absolute “no” for me.

Review: Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist Book Cover Flame in the Mist
Renee Ahdieh

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Wrath and the Dawn, comes a sweeping, action-packed YA adventure set against the backdrop of Feudal Japan where Mulan meets Throne of Glass.

The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place—she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor's favorite consort—a political marriage that will elevate her family's standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.

Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and track down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she's within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she's appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she's ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Penguin Random House and their First to Read program for the review copy!

Flame in the Mist, you had me at “dangerous gang of bandits.” Authors, publishers, listen up – if you ever want to get me to read your book, all you have to do is make the slightest mention of thieves, bandits, or other disreputable rogues and I will be at the bookstore or library in a flash. These sorts of characters are my kryptonite, and the ones in Flame in the Mist are especially delightful.

Flame in the Mist follows the adventures of Hattori Mariko, a young woman whose traveling party is attacked on the way to Mariko’s wedding. Though she survives, Mariko is presumed dead, and she takes advantage of the newfound freedom this brings from obligation and expectation. Disguising herself as a boy, Mariko strikes out in pursuit of the Black Clan, the notorious band of thieves she presumes to be responsible for the attack. Her hope is to bring them down from the inside, and thus prove to her family that her worth goes beyond that of her value as a bride.

The Black Clan members are everything a rascal-loving reader could wish for. First off, there’s Ranmaru, their leader. He’s young, sharp, and canny, too clever by half. Then there’s his right-hand man, Ōkami. Known as the Wolf, Ōkami is the Black Clan’s deadliest warrior. He’s enigmatic, dangerous, and aloof, and his interactions with Mariko are my favorite parts of the book. The two needle one another constantly, and Mariko is both annoyed by Ōkami and drawn to him.

“‘If you were me, you would have done the same thing.’ She could not prevent her voice from quavering on the last word.

‘No, I wouldn’t.’ Ōkami’s dark brows lowered. Shadowed his gaze. Something tugged at his lips. ‘I would’ve succeeded.’”

Mariko herself is an interesting character, though I’m not sure I can truthfully say I like her. She has certain traits that I respect, and I could sympathize with her, but there’s something about Mariko that kept me from fully connecting with her. I did appreciate that she seems like a real person; not annoyingly inept, but not unrealistically capable, either. I like that she knows her own limitations and goes about finding ways to work around them. Likewise, she is able to acknowledge disappointing truths and deal with them accordingly. She’s smart and a quick study, but still errs and misjudges from time to time. She has weaknesses and flaws and frustrations, the most interesting of which is her resentment of the strictures placed upon her as a woman. She aches to prove herself and rages against her femininity like a trapped moth beating its wings against a glass jar.

“Mariko suddenly felt acutely aware of her appearance. Almost self-conscious. A feeling she disdained.

So much like a girl, despite all her efforts to the contrary.”

During Mariko’s time with the Black Clan, she attempts to insinuate herself into their ranks. She’s at a disadvantage among the older, tougher men but does everything in her power to show herself as willing and able to contribute. At the same time she works to unravel the mysteries surrounding the band. Ranmaru and Ōkami are particularly inscrutable. You get the sense that everyone in the book has secrets, and everyone is lying. You’re always trying to keep up and figure out who people are, what their motivations are, and whether they can be trusted. This constant second-guessing kept me engaged from beginning to end, so much so that I read the entire book in one sitting.

“That same awful feeling of being mocked took hold of Mariko. Vicious, unrelenting hold. Making her feel so much smaller than those around her. So much less of everything when all she wished was to feel taller and stronger and braver. So much more. It made her afraid to be herself. Afraid these men would see how every step she took each day was a lie.”

One last thing worth mentioning about Flame in the Mist is that it’s set in a magical version of feudal Japan. This means there are samurai, and bloodthirsty trees, and shape-shifting, and tea houses, and beautiful, mouth-watering descriptions of Japanese cuisine. I’m hopeful there’ll be even more of these things in the second book, which I will certainly be reading. There’s so much going on in the world of Flame in the Mist that I want to soak in as much of it as I can!