I try not to judge a book by it’s title. I’m not generally into the paranormal, so I didn’t really give this one a second glance. I assumed it would be full of vampires or zombies, or at least some sort of undead creature. But I saw the cover and I was drawn to the art for some reason. The description didn’t mention any creatures who were supposed to be dead or with special powers so I decided to give it a shot.
I should have stuck with my first instinct.
Queen of the Underworld is actually about Emma Gant, a fresh graduate of journalism school, on her way South from the mountains of North Carolina to join the staff of the Miami Star. She’s happy to leave behind her abusive stepfather, who’s not afraid to give her a black eye as a reminder of home or visit her in the middle of the night. But this is the summer of 1959, and Emma finds herself in the middle of a flood of Cubans fleeing their new dictator, Fidel Castro.
So why did Emma choose Miami? One college summer, she waitressed at the Nightingale Inn in North Carolina. She arrived on her first day with a shiner, courtesy of her stepfather. The Inn’s owner, Paul, stashed her away in a cabin until it could heal and she could be presentable to the guests. Of course, they fell in love. Of course, Paul is married and old enough to be her father. The fact that an older, adult man was preying on a sexually abused woman barely out of her teens (or still in them, she was 19 by my math) was never addressed.
Paul also owns a private club in Miami, and her fate is sealed. Miami it is.
Once she’s in Miami, Emma quickly throws herself into her job at the star. She’s assigned to the obituaries and the hospital beat, but she uses her downtime to research the stories that made the careers of the star reporters. That’s how she finds the Queen of the Underworld. Genevera Snow was plucked from an Alabama farm stand by a mafia boss’s nephew, and groomed at the finest Miami charm school. When the nephew decided he didn’t want to marry her after all, Genevera made herself useful as a madam for the mob, and then as a state’s witness. Emma makes it her mission in Miami to find out the rest of Genevera’s story.
Meanwhile, at Emma’s hotel, Cuban refugees are pouring in every day. And as she works on her Spanish with the desk clerk Alex, she learns more and more about the conflict.
Honestly, Paul wasn’t the only issue I had with this book. Emma is a graduate of journalism school in 1959, and in a discussion about the Korean War, she asks what the 38th Parallel is. Really? And she questions why a Jew in Germany would sell his store instead of fighting back against the Nazis. Even though women in the 50s were less educated, as a journalist, Emma has no excuse.
As uninformed as Emma is, she certainly thinks highly of her own opinions. Long passages are devoted to her daydreams, thoughts about minutiae like arranging flowers, and one mind-numbing blow-by-blow of her reading the newspaper, including the weather report. Note to the author: I don’t care about the weather report in Miami in 1959 unless it’s important to the story. It wasn’t.
Add in the fact that every character in the book seems to exist to tell Emma just how wonderful she is, and I was reaching for the anti-nausea meds.
The dialogue was also terribly awkward. At first I wondered if it could be explained by the different era, or the differences in cultures. But the way these characters phrased things was completely unnatural. This is one of those things that might go unnoticed in print, but is glaring in an audiobook.
Like the other aspects of the book, the narration left a lot to be desired. I cringed from the very first moment at one of my least favorite features of any media: the fake Southern accent. Stephanie Zimbalist’s list of accomplishments suggests that she’s a fine actress and would be a great narrator for the right project. But book producers, if you have a Southern protagonist, why would you hire an actress born in Manhattan and raised in California?
Her Southern accent was so terrible, I couldn’t ignore it. Her (little used) Jewish accent was nearly offensive. And her Cuban accent was mostly passable (except for Lydia, who was horribly over the top), but that may only be because I don’t know any Cubans in real life for comparison.
I struggled for a week to get through this book. I wish I had gone with my first impression and ended this with a speed date.
Sadly, a 1 out of 5, only because of my affection for the Alex character.