Thursday, December 31, 2015

"The Adoration of Jenna Fox" by Mary E. Pearson

You know I read & loved "Cinder," and am waiting on library hold lists to continue the series. While waiting, Book Riot published a list of books to read after The Lunar Chronicles, and it pointed me in the direction of "The Adoration of Jenna Fox."

While Jenna Fox was in an 18-month coma following a traumatic accident, her family moved from Boston to California. Jenna doesn't get to go to school anymore, and her family won't discuss her old life or her accident. Jenna has weird gaps in her memory - she has to learn less about the world around her than about herself and her own life.

As Jenna begins sorting through family videos and trying to remember who she is, she pushes to go back to school and begins to uncover bits of her own life that her parents would rather she didn't know. Though she lacks the bravado of a Katniss or Cinder, Jenna is a quietly determined heroine. She doesn't want to hurt those around her, but she works to figure out who she is and what is being hidden from her. When push comes to shove, she stands up for what she believes in. Most impressive is the way in which the novel explores her thought process in developing her own beliefs and deciding what is worth fighting for.

Though the premise of the book hinges on some science fiction and wades into bioethics and who decides who is human, the book's focus on relationships really shines. Jenna remembers her friends from home, but does not know why she is no longer in contact with them. She makes new friends at school and navigates the ways teenagers interact. Above all, her relationships with Lily, her grandmother, and her parents tie into the themes of the book, providing believable counterpoints on the central bioethics questions through realistic lenses.

Verdict: Affirmed. A surprise read that I listened to in a just two days. I think this is going to be a book whose central questions stick with me. Audio narration is also excellent.

"The Adoration of Jenna Fox" by Mary E. Pearson, published April 29, 2008 by Henry Holt and Co. Audio narration by Jenna Lamia, published April 29, 2008 by Macmillan Audio.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Cinder" by Marissa Meyer

With the recent release of the final installment in the Lunar Chronicles, I figured it was about time I dig into "Cinder," the first in this highly-acclaimed series. I was not disappointed.

The premise: in the future, humans still live on Earth, but another group living on the moon has evolved. Known as Lunars, these people have the power to change what others see and believe. Cinder is a cyborg, living on Earth in New Beijing while a lethal plague is running rampant. Cyborgs aren't considered full citizens, so she works to support her stepmother and stepsisters. Prince Kai is holding a ball, despite his parents' having caught the plague. On top of all this, the feared and reviled Lunar Queen is coming for a diplomatic trip.

Yes, it's a Cinderella retelling - each book in the series is. But it's a fresh take. Cinder is a determined, intelligent, loyal heroine. Her deep love for her stepsister rings true, despite her terrible treatment by her family. Her interactions with Kai, although they are a normal YA-trope romance, feel far more realistic than other novels that shove the male and female characters together to check the box of a central romance plot. She gradually warms to him, instead of falling head over heels immediately. Her stepmother is perfectly awful, but she offers a critical lens into the society that Meyer has crafted.

I'll speak vaguely to avoid spoilers. Did I know where this was going as soon as the android started talking? Yes. Did I care? No. I was excited to see how the characters got there & developed along the way. While the broad arc of the series seems clear to me at the conclusion of this installment, I'm still excited to read on and see how it all unfolds.

Verdict: Affirmed. Highly recommended for YA fans, SF fans who don't mind the YA romance with their futuristic societies, and anyone who loves a fresh take on a classic fairy tale.

"Cinder" by Marissa Meyer, published January 3, 2012 by Feiwel & Friends. Audio narration by Rebecca Soler, published January 3, 2012 by Macmillan Audio.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"The Sword of Summer" by Rick Riordan

The opening installment in Rick Riordan's newest series about the children of gods does not disappoint. The series are beginning to feel formulaic - a child is thrust into a new world populated by mythical beings, meets a dedicated group of friends within the mythical world, goes on a quest, and saves the world. But it's still incredibly entertaining.

Magnus Chase is the new protagonist, son of the Norse god Frey. Unlike the heroes of earlier series, Chase dies before he enters Valhalla, the mythical resting place for those preparing to fight in Ragnarok at the end of days. Like previous series, Chase learns of his parentage and embarks on a quest. His quest is to locate a weapon that will play an important role in Ragnarok.

I give Riordan credit for his commitment to diversity in his books. In this series we see a homeless protagonist, a deaf elf friend, and a Muslim Valkyrie. (The book doesn't get into the mechanics of how one's religious beliefs are impacted by the discovery of an active pantheon or four, possibly because it's a children's book and such explorations could get pretty heavy pretty quickly.) Like the previous series, Riordan has set up a larger battle that will continue throughout the series and the audio narration is impeccable.

Plus, bonus points for Annabeth's appearance as Magnus's cousin - hopefully we'll see more crossovers as the series continues.

Verdict: Affirmed, if you're a Riordan fan. I like learning about various pantheons through Riordan's inventive tales. Aside from the mythology involved, this series doesn't stand out from others. If you enjoyed his previous books, this will be no different.

"The Sword of Summer" by Rick Riordan, published October 6, 2015 by Disney Hyperion. Audio narration by Christopher Guetig, published October 6, 2015 by Listening Library.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Selection Series by Kiera Cass (Pt. 2)

 The second half of this review ended up super delayed because the holds list for the audiobook of "The Heir" was huge! I knew this series was popular, but I did not think I'd be reading the latest installment while bundled up in sweaters. But before I get ahead of myself, let's talk "The One."

"The One" is the final book in America's trilogy. Based on the title, who the protagonist is, and the entire premise of the series, you can probably figure out how this dystopian version of "The Bachelor" ends. And the ride to get there wasn't that great. As I said in my review of the first half of the series, the rebel plot and the hints at Illea's history were what really kept me reading. They really weren't fleshed out too deeply in this third installment, which was a major disappointment.

"The Heir," was a strange fourth novel. We get a new protagonist - Eadlyn, Amera's daughter, who will be holding her own Selection to quell unrest in Illean society. The premise is a bit suspect, since the caste system was dismantled, and one would think the Selection runs counter to that notion. But the bigger problem is that Eadlyn is awful - she's selfish, self-involved, and has no empathy or understanding for anyone else. She's also one big fashion-focused stereotype who finds math difficult. (Though, kudos for her determination to figure the math out.) For the first two parts of the audiobook, I wasn't sure if the character was deliberately insufferable, but later developments made it clear this is a story about Eadlyn's self-discovery and personal growth, complete with Bachelor-style dating.

Unlike the first three books, the secondary characters really made this novel. Henri, a contestant who doesn't speak English but loves to cook, and his translator Erik, were particularly endearing. Eadlyn's twin also takes an action that stands out as the only surprising twist in the series to date. Is there another love triangle coming? Yes. Will Eadlyn discover she's an awful person, change her ways, and realize she's in love with the boy next door? I'm betting yes. I wish Cass would spend more time exploring the dismantling of the caste system, or how it was even established in the first place. This late in the series, I'm not getting my hopes up, though. The fifth installment comes out in May 2016, and despite all of my frustrations with this series, I'll be adding my name to the wait list anyway. I've read too far into the series to turn back now.

Verdict: Jury's Out. This series is definitely not for everyone. I can't put my finger on exactly why all the things that irk me don't add up to a more intense dislike for these books. At the end of the day, they're still entertaining,

The Selection series by Kiera Cass, published by HarperTeen. Audio narration for "The One" by Amy Rubinate and for "The Heir" by Brittany Pressley, publsihed by Harper Audio.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

"The Last Ever After" by Soman Chainani

[Review necessarily contains minor spoilers for the first two books, including endings. I'm as vague as possible, but you shouldn't read this book if you haven't read the first two books. If you don't want to risk spoilers, the short & sweet of it is that this novel wraps up the series well. I affirm & recommend it and the series as a whole].

Not worried about spoilers? Good. We last left Sophie and Agatha separated with their respective beaus from the end of "A World Without Princes." The final installment of "The School for Good and Evil" lacked many of the weird bits that struck me funny from the previous books. Instead we have two strong, powerful heroines trying to figure out what they want from life and who they want to be. The way in which the series wraps up, tying together the girls' pasts and the foundations of their friendship was surprising and fitting. The focus was appropriately back on friendship and the types of  non-romantic relationships that shape and influence our lives.

A quick complaint: I do not understand Tedros. Is he deliberately blah? I don't buy him as a character that two smart girls would be fighting over, nor as someone who would hold Agatha's interest. I believed Agatha and Tedros most when they were bickering, and less the more devoted to each other they became.

Tedros aside, the book's shining moments come from the former stars of story book characters who must face their nemeses again due to Agatha and Sophie's undoing of their story. Cinderella is particularly not-charming as a bawdy, rude woman, whose surprise twist on her background will break your heart. The book felt long and wandering at times, perhaps because I was listening to audio instead of reading. The narration was superb, nonetheless.

Verdict: Affirmed. The final installment redeemed the rest of the series and tied everything up in a satisfying, enjoyable novel.

"The Last Ever After" by Soman Chainani, published July 21, 2015 by HarperCollins. Audio narration by Polly Lee, published July 21, 2015 by HarperCollins.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

"A World Without Princes" by Soman Chainani

The second installment in The School for Good and Evil series opens on Sophie and Agatha home at their village. I did two rewinds on this, since the last book ended [highlight for spoilers, or skip to the next paragraph if you haven't read the first book, "The School for Good and Evil"with them being mysteriously spirited away from school to who knows where. They only went home? Ok fine].

But never fear, because Sophie and Agatha are figuring out that deviating from the typical happily ever after is having major repercussions on the school they left behind. In just a few chapters, they're back at school. But now, the school is split on gender lines - one for girls, and one for boys, thanks to fallout from Agatha's decision at the end of the first book.

This installment does a better, clearer job of questioning gender norms and stereotypical fairy tale roles than the first. (Gender-swapping gnomes are an excellent touch!) The book still has a couple moments that struck me funny - a comment toward the end that felt a bit homophobic, and a pairing at the ending that has a very troubling age disparity, unless I missed something. Despite these off moments, the book as a whole challenges gender roles and emphasizes that importance of friendship. It works to find a balance between romantic and platonic relationships, acknowledging that each has an important role in one's life.

We also get a bit more back story on each of the main characters that contributes to our understanding of them. Sophie especially comes into her own in this book, as we see her discomfort at her father's new relationship and more of her internal struggle to stay good. I'm downloading the final installment in this trilogy as I type, and can't wait to see where these girls go next.

Verdict: Affirmed. Even with the occasional comment that seems to run counter to the overarching themes, the second installment delivers on its promise of exploring a strong female friendship in a fantasy world.

"A World Without Princes" by Soman Chainani, published April 15, 2014 by Harper Collins. Audio narration by Polly Lee, published April 15, 2014 by Harper Audio.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch" by Sally Bedell Smith

For someone who is a big fan of the 2006 film "The Queen," and generally impressed with Queen Elizabeth II, I knew very little about the monarch herself. This audiobook popped up as recommended to me in Overdrive, so I decided to fill the big gap in my knowledge base.

Bedell Smith covers the Queen's life from childhood through just about the present, with a concluding chapter that discusses the potential future of the British monarchy. Her life alone is fascinating, and Bedell Smith seems to have had great access to close friends of the Queen, all of whom spoke fondly and respectfully of the Queen's many strengths and occasional quirks. The book also discusses those surrounding the Queen in great detail - Prince Philip, her children, her mother, Princess Diana, Sarah Ferguson, and Kate Middleton. This detail is all super helpful for someone with very little background on the modern monarchy.

I left this book with a much stronger sense of why Queen Elizabeth II is such an incredible woman. She's reigned longer than anyone in British history, seen the Commonwealth through decades of tumultuous change, and managed to do so with very little controversy or scandal. Even Bedell Smith's insight into how the Queen views her role - as above politics and a steward of the Commonwealth - hints at a woman stronger than most, who can put aside her personal views for the good of her nation, and rule as Queen while supporting a democratic system of government. The personal anecdotes flesh out the steadfast public persona, and, though this could be owed in part to my gaps in knowledge going in, I left with a far deeper understanding of the Queen than I could have hoped from a single book.

Verdict: Affirmed. Though I unfortunately can't compare this to any other works on the Queen, I learned enough that I don't feel the need to hunt down another.

"Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch" by Sally Bedell Smith, published January 10, 2012 by Random House. Audio narration by Rosalyn Landor, published Janury 10, 2012 by Random House Audio.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

"The School for Good and Evil" by Soman Chainani

"The School for Good and Evil" has been getting a ton of buzz since it came out in 2013. I was excited to finally find the audiobook available on my library's Overdrive page.

Every year two children are kidnapped from the village. The children left behind suspect they go to a mysterious school for good and evil, with one child going to each school. Beautiful Sophie and outcast Agatha are this year's chosen. In case you didn't figure it out from the title, the school is real. Yet despite her preparation and planning, Sophie is sent to the school for evil, and Agatha to the school for good. Sophie is certain there must be a mix-up, while Agatha just wants to go home. As the two girls spend time at the school, begin to uncover the truth about why children are chosen from their village and question whether the system is really working.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book. But I have to say, after reading others' reviews, I was expecting more upfront female strength and less stereotyping. There's a lot of discussion of the importance of finding one's prince and looking to the boys to save the princess-hopefuls. The ultimate ending does seem to turn this on its head, but not before a chunk of princely heroics that made me question whether I was mis-remembering reviews. I was such a fan of the two main characters subverting female stereotypes, it was disappointing when they were reinforced later. When the story ended, I was left with more confusion than a clear sense of what the message was.

Verdict: Jury's out - I enjoyed this enough that I'll read the other two books. Hopefully they'll  some prove this series is really committed to portraying strong female friendships beyond a stark good/evil dichotomy.

"The School for Good and Evil" by Soman Chainani, published May 14, 2013 by HarperCollins. Audio narration by Polly Lee, published May 14, 2013 by Harper Audio.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Fall Reviews at the Morningside Muckraker

New reviews are up in my Booked column in the Morningside Muckraker's Fall issue. I reviewed some of the big-name titles that came out recently:
  • "Modern Romance" by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
  • "The Luckiest Girl Alive" by Jessica Knoll
  • "In the Unlikely Event" by Judy Blume
  • "Gold Fame Citrus" by Claire Vaye Watkins
Check them out here.  While you're there, be sure to read the other contributors' fantastic work as well.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Pretty Is" by Maggie Mitchell

This is the last novel off that mysterious list of thrillers that I can no longer locate, but that led me to some truly excellent reads. I expected a thriller of the same caliber going into "Pretty Is," but found something very...different.

Lois and Carly Mae were kidnapped and held in a cabin in the woods when they were twelve years old. Now adults, they have each forged their own life & worked to put this piece of their past behind them. Lois is a successful professor who published a fictionalized account of her kidnapping that is now being made into a novel. Carly Mae, now Chloe, is an actress who hasn't quite made it, but will be starring in the movie of Lois's novel as the detective determined to find the two kidnapped girls. Confusing? Just a bit. Plus, there's a stalker-ish student who may be their kidnapper's son lurking around Lois's life.

The novel gets a bit meta, but it doesn't seem to be intentional. Or at least, there doesn't seem to be a message within this book about a movie being made from a book written by a character about her own kidnapping, starring her fellow victim. The amount of layering struck me as bizarre since I couldn't find a thematic point to it. Maybe I missed it.

But the novel isn't without its strong points. So many thrillers take you through the build-up, crime, and brief resolution. This novel picks up after the crime has already happened, and shows you how the victims are coping as adults. Lois and Carly Mae both try to distance themselves from their experience, while fostering a connection through the novel or film. They don't want to discuss their experience, but they can't discard it and fully move on either. The novel is about how they're coping, and that's not something thrillers typically provide.

Finally, the audio narration was superb. Tavia Gilbert and Nicol Zanzarella each voice one of the female leads, and their voices are different enough that you can easily tell which character's point of view you're listening to at any given moment. It sounds like a small thing, but it makes a huge difference when you're listening intermittently.

Verdict: Jury's Out. Don't be misled and go in expecting a typical thriller with shocking twists. The action-y parts were my least favorite, and I think the novel would have been stronger without them (and the stalker student entirely). But if you're interested in what happens after most thrillers end, this is worth checking out.

"Pretty Is" by Maggie Mitchell, published July 7, 2015 by Henry Holt and Co. Audio narration by Tavia Filber and Nicol Zanzarella published July 7, 2015 by Blackstone Audio.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

"Burn" by Julianna Baggott

I've been writing of my love for this trilogy for the past two weeks. I'm so happy that the third and final book completely delivers. Again, I'll tackle this without spoilers and speak vaguely of themes and what I most enjoyed.

The novel picks up with an intriguing prologue that I went back and re-listened to after I finished the audiobook. It then picks up with Pressia, Lyda, Partridge, and El Capitan where we left them at the end of "Fuse." It was great to listen to these three books back-to-back, and I highly recommend doing so if you can. There's a lot to keep track of in the complicated, well-woven plot, and some of the other reviewers on Goodreads who took time off in between noted their confusion.

The conclusive novel digs deeper into what a rebellion looks like. I agree with other reviewers who think this series has been mis-marketed as YA - it has the romance tropes, but is otherwise far more complex and darker. The novel captures the messiness and lack of surety that plagues those fighting to overthrow the Dome. Each character faces their own unique uncertainty and concerns, fails in their own unique way, and figures out their unique path forward. Miscommunications and missed connections with other rebels abound, as do differing goals, motivations, hopes, and plans for the future. The way to a new future post-apocalypse is not neat or certain or easy. It is confusing and difficult, impossible at times to know if one's actions will do more help or harm. "Burn" portrays this hopeful mess beautifully, with well-drawn, believable, heart-breaking characters.

El Capitan's still my favorite, Lyda and Pressia are inspiring, and Partridge is fascinating. The audio narration does not disappoint. "Burn" delivers on the promise of "Pure" and "Fuse" in a satisfying, realistic way.

Verdict: Affirmed. Highly recommended for fans of post-apocalyptic fiction who want to see what the complex process of starting to rebuild looks like up close.

"Burn" by Julianna Baggott, published February 4, 2014 by Grand Central Publishing. Audio narration by Khristine Hvam, Casey Holloway, Kevin T. Collins, and Nicholes Tecosky, published February 4, 2014 by Hachette Audio.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"Fuse" by Julianna Baggott

I wasn't kidding when I said last week that I'd be heading straight to the next two books in Julianna Baggott's Pure Trilogy. I'm pleased to say Fuse was even better than the first.

To avoid spoilers for "Pure," I'm going to skip the summary & go straight to what I liked. Mainly, El Capitan and Helmud. I talked in my first review about the compelling cast of characters Baggott creates with her rotating points of view. While all characters get significant development and adequate time in the spotlight, for me this book was all about Capitan and his fused-to-his-back brother Helmud.

The romances from the first book are still here, and play a much larger role. They no longer feel shoehorned and forced - if you read this without the first, you'd just assume these are real, fully-developed relationships. It's only because I remember their shaky foundations from the first novel that I'm still meh on them. But Cap's relationship with his brother is real. The stress, obligation, guilt, pride, and love that he feels are well-drawn and deeply explored. I could connect with him and understand the difficulties he faces and the guilt he feels for the resentment they cause. His romantic feelings felt similarly well-developed. They weren't rushed into the first book, so his gradual discovery of them felt organic and earned.

This installment packs more puzzles and allusions as some of the characters head back to the Dome and others continue their search from the first book. This was an excellent second book, and I'm glad I can go straight on to the third!

Verdict: Affirmed. One of my few five-starred books on Goodreads this year.

"Fuse" by Julianna Baggott, published February 19, 2013 by Grand Central Publishing. Audio narration by Khristine Hvam, Casey Holloway, Kevin T. Collins, and Pierce Cravens, published February 19, 2013 by Hachette Audio.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

"Pure" by Julianna Baggott

This YA trilogy started popping up on several blogs and sites I read. Since I'm always looking for more audiobooks to take on my dog walks, I put holds on all three.

The world has collapsed under some sort of nuclear attack. Society has been split in two - the "pures" in the Dome who were protected from the blasts; and the "wretches" who live outside and suffer illness, mutations, and deformities as a result of the attacks. Those who made it to the Dome promised to return for those outside, but many outside are skeptical and resentful. 

Pressia lives with her grandfather outside the Dome. Her hand was fused with a baby doll's head and her face was burned during the attacks. She is 16, and age at which her life becomes far more dangerous. Partridge, son of one of the Dome's designers, lives inside the Dome. His mother died trying to bring those outside to safety, and his older brother committed suicide. Both begin to question society as they know it, are brought together, and decide whether they want to protect their ways of life or fight for the hope of something better. 

Baggott creates a unique cast of characters, and her rotating between several points of view is natural. She focuses on characters impacted by the blast and how their lives, and society around them, have been reshaped by their mutations. I was surprised by the turns the book took, and enjoyed them all. Bonus points for clever plotting & mythological references. My one complaint is the romances. Perhaps they're obligatory in YA, but they felt underdeveloped, circumstantial, and unrealistic. It would've been a stronger novel without them. 

Verdict: Affirmed. Not a crossover stunner, but if you're a fan of post-apocalyptic YA, it's definitely worth checking out. I'm moving straight to book two.

"Pure" by Julianna Baggott, published February 8, 2012 by Grand Central Publishing. Audio narration by Khristine Hvam, Joshua Swanson, Kevin T. Collins, and Casey Holloway, published on February 8, 2012 by  Hachette Audio.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Fates and Furies" by Lauren Groff

"Fates and Furies" generated a ton of buzz. I'm pretty sure I first heard about this book all the way back in January, and it was just released in September. Lauren Groff is known for several previous novels, including "Arcadia" and "The Monsters of Templeton," but this was my first of hers.

Lotto and Mathilde have been married since their last semester of college. Each is the product of a tumultuous upbringing, though in different ways unbeknownst to the other. The novel traces the story of their marriage, first from Lotto's perspective, then from Mathilde's. Lotto finds success and acclaim as a playwright; Mathilde supports him in his career, ever the dutiful wife. The novel moves gradually forward in time, flashing back from Mathilde's perspective to fill in background on some events we initially see only from Lotto's point of view.

Lotto observes the great paradox of marriage - "You can never know someone entirely. You do know someone entirely." Groff spends the novel exploring that gap - how it's created, its impact on the couple and those around them. Who are Lotto & Mathilde really? Is our true self who we believe ourselves to be, or who our partners know us to be? It's a deep book, tackling the questions of who we are among all of our secrets and hidden histories; why we choose to hide certain things from our partners; and whether our partner's perceptions of us can drive us toward kindness, greatness, and the best version of ourselves.

Throughout reading the book, I waffled as my interest waxed and waned. Yet, like many books this year, the last two or three chapters grabbed me and shifted my perspective on all that preceded them, such that the book as left a lasting impression. As a bonus, the audio narration is great, and the themes of Greek tragedy woven throughout are complementing my reading of "The Secret History" quite nicely.

Verdict: Affirmed. I wouldn't recommend to all readers, but anyone looking for the literary novel of the season, or generally enjoys domestic sagas should take a look. I'm especially curious to hear how readers who are not in committed relationships interpret these themes

"Fates and Furies" by Lauren Groff, published September 15, 2015 by Riverhead Books. Audio narration by Will Damron and Julia Whelan, published September 15, 2015 by Penguin Audio.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Uprooted" by Naomi Novik

I'm a fan of the books I've read in Novik's Temeraire series, so I was particularly excited for her new standalone novel with a female protagonist. Even more so when Sword & Laser chose it for their August book pick.

Agnieszka lives on the edge of the Wood, protected by the Dragon. In exchange for this protection, the Dragon chooses one young woman from her village to live with him for ten years, at which point he chooses a new woman. Agnieszka assumes, with the rest of her village, that her best friend Kasha will be chosen. Surprise, surprise, Agnieszka is the Dragon's choice. Truthfully, this information, all covered in the blurb on the back of this book doesn't even make a dent in the true plot.

"Uprooted" is the story of Agnieszka's growth as a wood witch and a young woman. She learns of and develops her powers, and must uncover the secrets of the Wood to prevent it from corrupting and harming those she loves. Her journey of personal growth is also a tale of adventure, court intrigue, and friendship.

Grounded in Slavic myths with which I was completely unfamiliar, this story felt fresh. Kasha and Agnieszka's friendship was wonderful to explore, and I appreciated that it took center stage over the somewhat stinted romance between Agnieszka and the Dragon. Agnieszka and Kasha have complementing strengths, and Novik explores their differences in such a way that respects both.

Side note, the accent in the audio narration is a bit irritating if you prefer to listen at higher speeds, though the accent does add authenticity and helps with name pronunciations. Overall, it's a solid audio book of an excellent standalone fantasy novel.

Verdict: Affirmed. With standalone fantasy novels getting harder and harder to find among new releases, this is a must-read for any fan of current fantasy.

"Uprooted" by Naomi Novik, published May 19, 2015 by Del Ray, Audio narration by Julia Emelin, published May 19, 2015 by Random House Audio.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

"All the Bright Places" by Jennifer Niven

I almost put this book down, despite the overwhelming love for it on #bookstagram. The opening felt cliched - boy and girl save each other from suicide, work on a school project together, fall in love and help each other tackle their respective challenges. I thought I'd read this story line before, and wasn't particularly interested in reading it again.

Luckily, I stuck with it. Finch is a troubled bad boy, known for his emotional outbursts and odd behavior. His home life is in shambles - his dad left for another family, and his mom isn't so great at taking care of him and his two sisters. Violet is a popular girl, new to Indiana, and still coming to terms with her older sister's death in a car accident. She's lost her interest in writing, and much of anything as her struggles to cope with her loss. As they work on their project to explore Indiana, they grow closer and come to understand each other.

I started to come around because of Violet's initial behavior toward Finch, avoiding him and hiding their relationship. It's sad but realistic for a high school girl still figuring out who she is and where she belongs. This book goes on to go places other YA books stray away from, tackling suicide, mental health, and death in a more honest and real way than other YA I've read on these themes. Things aren't neatly tied up in a bow, resolved through the incredible power of adolescent love. The protagonists struggle, and the adults around them struggle, under the weight of their personal histories and mental health challenges.  This is an important book for teens, and I hope it makes it onto many required reading lists.

Verdict: Affirmed. I was surprised by how much I like it, and hope this finds its way into many, many teens' hands. Side note, the dual audio narration was also great, particularly by Ariadne Meyers who also did "We Were Liars."

"All the Bright Places" by Jennifer Niven, published January 6, 2015 by Knopf. Audio narration by Kirby Heyborne and Ariadne Meyers, published January 6, 2015 by Listening Library.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

"Disclaimer" by Renee Knight

I wish I remembered what list suggested this novel. It was one that included "Unbecoming" and "The Girl on the Train," both of which I think far surpass "Gone Girl" as crossover thrillers. I looked a little closer at everything else on the list as a result. After reading "Disclaimer," I'd add every other title on that list to my TBR if I could only find it!

The book opens on Catherine, shocked to discover that a novel portrays a thinly-veiled version of herself, recounting events that only she should recall. Anyone else who would have known should be dead. Someone is tormenting her with this information, and its wrecking havoc on her life. Catherine must figure out who and why before her secret is revealed.

The novel alternates between Catherine's perspective and that of her tormentor, and the audiobook uses a different narrator for each perspective. Most importantly, and most brilliantly, the characters have motives for their actions in this book, and the motives actually work. These motives might not be clear initially, but by the end you as the reader can figure out why each character does what they do throughout the novel. This doesn't mean you'll like everyone - far from it. But the book rings far more true as a result. There are no actions that seem to be taken simply to move the plot forward, an impressive feat for a thriller.

Moreover, this novel digs into themes of family and the truth - what makes us believe certain people over others, and how can these layers of trust and shades of truth affect our relationships? How should we, and do we, react when we learn new information about those we love? Do we squeeze it into the picture we already have, or do we amend our image of them to fit this new information? It's a deeper read than many thrillers, and one I'll continue to ponder, despite having listened to the entire thing in a single day.

Verdict: Affirmed. If your book club liked "Gone Girl" but found your discussion fell a bit flat, try this out. It has the same compulsive readability, with some deeper themes tossed in to sustain a lengthier discussion.

"Disclaimer" by Renee Knight, published May 19, 2015 by Harper. Audio narration by Laura Paton and Michael Pennington, published by HarperAudio.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Born with Teeth" by Kate Mulgrew

I downloaded Kate Mulgrew's "Born with Teeth" from Overdrive, expecting a typical celebrity's memoir - a romp through her exciting career. And let me be clear, Mulgrew's career is fascinating. She left NYU after only one year to pursue a role on the soap opera "Ryan's Hope," had a "Columbo" spin-off created especially for her, starred as the first female captain on "Star Trek: Voyager" and continues to act as Red on "Orange is the New Black." Amid her TV success, she has also acted in many stage productions.

Yet, what I got was something much, much more. Mulgrew lays bare her personal life in her memoir, allowing a level of access that I haven't before seen in a celebrity's memoir. For example, Felicia Day was incredibly honest when describing her personal mental health struggles, but throughout the novel she refers to her boyfriend, without name, only a handful of time. She kept the lens tightly on herself, as is entirely her right. In contrast, Mulgrew throws open the curtains on her personal life, naming several of her past lovers (to be fair, these were likely already public knowledge), and describing in intense detail, her feelings and passions surrounding her relationships. She admits to being a passionate woman and is unashamed of this aspect of her personality and the relationships it has forged and shaped.

As a result of the depth of emotion Mulgrew reveals, her memoir reads like a novel. We're given a first-person perspective of her journey through life, love, and career. Readers share in her joy and heartbreak because of the access we are given to her innermost thoughts and feelings. Mulgrew made headlines with the revelation that she gave up a daughter for adoption at the beginning of her career, and we see their reunion. We see her sons' difficulties with their parents' divorce, and Mulgrew struggle to balance her own romantic relationships with her responsibilities to her children. She even discusses, albeit briefly, the unique difficulties faced by female actors who also have responsibilities to their families, often unshared or underappreciated by their male colleagues.

Mulgrew's honesty and passion may be too much for some readers, especially those of more traditional sensibilities. Yet, I was enthralled by her memoir and greatly appreciated the access she has permitted readers into her personal life. She narrates the audiobook herself, adding to the intimacy of the reading experience.

Verdict: Affirmed, for fans of Mulgrew, or those looking for a memoir of a strong, trailblazing woman who is in touch with her passions and unafraid to share them. A quick note though, the memoir ends many years before "Orange is the New Black," so if you're looking for a discussion of her work there, this isn't for you.

"Born with Teeth," written and narrated by Kate Mulgrew, published April 14, 2015 by Little, Brown and Company.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen

Confession: I somehow made it to age 25 without ever reading "Pride and Prejudice." My high school was swapping around English curricula when I was a Sophomore/Junior, which meant I missed the staples of English fiction - no Austen, no Dickens. The more remarkable fact is that I also made it to age 25 without being even remotely spoiled for what the book was about. All I knew was that there was a character named Lizzie Bennet (thanks to press on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries), another character named Darcy, and I guessed they probably ended up together. That was it.

When two dear, book-loving friends discovered this, they were appropriately shocked. And promised that if I read the book this summer, they would reward me with a book chat over tea. I was in. I dug my copy and dug in.

It's a good thing I waited on this book. High-school-Nicole was super into fantasy, science fiction, and current literary fiction. Not so much into 19th-century prose. Even when I sat down to read this a few weeks ago, I was frustrated by how long it took me to get through a page. Plus, the character names are confusing - you can call the same person by his first name, last name, or the land he owns. Headaches ensued.

But once I got past all that - or, more accurately, gave up and checked out the audiobook - the charm and wit of the novel carried me pleasantly through. Austen is a master of capturing the dozens of little ways people snipe and snark at, gossip about, and generally interact with each other. The behavior of her characters rings true and even feels familiar over 200 years later. Circumstances may have changed, but as social beings, we still relate to each other in many of the same basic ways as her characters in this novel.

I'm excited to read the rest of Austen's cannon, and super excited to finally read/watch all of the adaptations. I marathoned "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries," and am waiting for Kyle to finish reading "Pride and Prejudice" himself so we can start comparing adaptations. If you have a favorite, definitely let me know!

Verdict: Affirmed, it's a classic for a reason.

"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen. Originally published January 28, 1813. Audio narration by Carolyn Seymour, published March 10, 2005 by Blackstone Audio.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"Where She Went" By Gayle Forman

I checked this out on Overdrive almost immediately after finishing "If I Stay." Somewhat surprisingly, I enjoyed this sequel to  even more than the original.

The novel picks up about three and a half years after the car crash and subsequent events in "If I Stay," and is told from Adam's point of view, which I wasn't expecting.

Adam is now a rock star with Shooting Star, his same band that was on the verge of breaking out in "If I Stay." But the group's dynamics have completely shifted from the close-knit, supportive group we glimpsed in "If I Stay." Isolated and shut out from the group, hunted by paparazzi hoping to get a shot of him and his movie star girlfriend, it's no wonder Adam is on the verge of a breakdown, even as Shooting Star is currently the biggest act in music.

Adam is dreading the start of a 67-day tour with his band, to whom he no longer speakers, nor even stays in the same hotel. As he checks off his to-do list in New York City before the show starts, he encounters something that makes him recall Mia. He now has new plans for how he will spend his dwindling time before the tour starts. I don't want to say more on the plot, to avoid spoilers for both this and "If I Stay."

Forman uses the same narrative structure that I found so intriguing in "If I Stay." She sets the story in just a brief day or two, but tells the tale of all that came before through flashbacks, grouped thematically, rather than chronologically. She packs big emotional punches through those flashbacks, both happy and sad. The story and the structure still feel fresh, and this title was every bit as engaging in the first, without the coma-ghost weirdness lurking around.

Verdict: Affirmed, though you'll need to read "If I Stay" to fully grasp this sequel.

"Where She Went" by Gayle Forman, published on April 5, 2011 by Dutton Juvenile. Audio narration by Dan Bittner, published on April 5, 2011 by Penguin Audio.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

"You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)" by Felicia Day

I'm not sure exactly when I became a fan of Felicia Day. When I started watching "The Guild," I already knew Day as one of the Potentials on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." She then went on to star in "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" and to create the YouTube channel Geek & Sundry (which introduced me to Sword & Laser, my first & favorite online book club/podcast!)

If that blurb wasn't clear, Felicia Day is enormously accomplished. A pioneering web creator, she also graduated from UT Austin with dual degrees in math and music at only 19. She's also smart, funny, and charming in her many, many, many YouTube videos. So I was excited to read her memoir about how this home-schooled violin prodigy became an actress & general internet superstar.

The book starts about as I expected. Quirky stories told with Day's self-deprecating humor. It bounces from topic to topic a bit. Day's career has happened all at once. She seems to have her hands in a bunch of really cool projects at once, and the book is separated into chapters by project, rather than time. It makes it easier to follow, but a does make it a bit difficult to figure out just how much she was actually doing all at once (which was a lot!). If I'm nit-picking, I could've used fewer ALL-CAPS SENTENCES, and would have liked to see a paragraph or two on her time on Buffy, but on the whole I enjoyed it.

The last three chapters, though, really pushed this book from a solid three-star that I'd recommend to Day's fans, to an incredible memoir that I'll recommend widely. Day talks honestly about her struggles with depression, anxiety, and physical health problems at the height of her success. She admits to several bouts of crippling mental health struggles, and how difficult it was to overcome them. Her last chapter on GamerGate describes the frustration, anger, and even danger that comes with being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated corner of the Internet. The raw honesty with which she describes her struggles is inspiring and empowering.

Verdict: Affirmed. Prior to reading this memoir, I knew only of Day's immense success as a creator and actress. In "Never Weird" she lets her fans see her failures, and her success shines all the more brightly for it.

"You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)" by Felicia Day, published August 11, 2015 by Touchstone

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"If I Stay" by Gayle Forman

I checked out this audiobook while browsing for something to fill my dog-waking time. I recognized the title from bookstagram, where dozens of the instagram-ers I follow had been raving about it. I went in blind & deeply appreciated what the author managed to achieve.

Mia is an incredible cellist, born to punk-rock parents and dating a budding alt rock musician. She's at a crossroads as she wraps up her final year of high school and faces decisions about her future, her music, and her relationships. Those are all put in a starkly different light when she is gravely injured in a car accident with her family. Now she must decide if she should continue living or move on to whatever comes next.

It's a different approach for a high school coming-of-age story. Mia does spend a lot of time reflecting on her current predicament, but this often leads to flashbacks where she recalls scenes from her relationships with various characters. How she met her best friend, how she began dating Adam, when her younger brother was born, what it was like growing up among her parents' punk rock friends. Telling her life's story out of chronological order, and instead grouped by relationship is unique, and I'm impressed with how well Forman pulled it off. She is able to distill the essential qualities of each relationship, and demonstrate how they've shaped the person Mia has become.

I can't say the ending was too surprising, but it fit nicely with the rest of the novel. I was surprised to see that Forman wrote a sequel, as I felt everything was tied up nicely in this single volume. I'm curious enough to continue on, though! Kirsten Potter's audio narration was on point, and I hope she continues to narrate the next volume(s) in the series.

Verdict: Affirmed for fans of YA who want to see something structured a little differently.

"If I Stay" by Gayle Forman, published April 2, 2009 by Dutton Books for Young Readers. Audio narration by Kirsten Potter, published July 31, 2014 by Listening Library.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Selection Series by Kiera Cass (Pt. 1)

This series was one of my dog walking picks. Light enough to follow while half of my attention is on the dog, but interesting enough to make the time pass a bit more quickly. The series has it's hits and misses, but it's interesting enough that I saw it through. The audio narration is also excellent, so if that's your medium of choice, I definitely recommend it.

The first novel, "The Selection," lays the groundwork for the world-building. We're in a future America, renamed Illea after some political shifts and developments explored over the course of the series. Society is organized into a strict caste system, and one of the few ways of moving castes is by marriage. America Singer, a lowly Five (out of eight castes) is chosen for the Selection, a Bachelor-like dating competition to marry Crown Prince Maxon. Like many YA novels, the love triangle is completed by America's beau from home, the Six, Aspen. Once America arrives at the castle for the Selection, she gets to know the prince she never thought she'd be interested in, and learns more about her country as rebels seek to break into the castle.

The love triangle is predictable to anyone who's read more than a couple YA novels of this type. But the world-building and rebel plot lines kept me intrigued enough to continue the series. You can't read the description of the book without knowing you're getting into a YA romance, but if you accept it for what it is, this is a fun read.

I liked the first enough to continue on to the second, "The Elite." It can hardly be considered a spoiler that America continues past the first round of the competition, seeing as "The Selection" is the first in the series, and, as I've already mentioned, the romance plotlines are extremely predictable. As I mentioned in my Goodreads review, the second novel expands on both the positive and negative aspects of the first. The romance plots are even more frustrating, with excruciating miscommunication and changes of heart that will give you whiplash. But we also learn more about the rebels, how Illea came to be, and the ways in which the history of the country has possibly been covered up.

I have my name on the wait lists for the third and fourth books in the series, and am looking forward to continuing. While waiting, I checked out "The Selection Stories: The Prince & The Guard." This was a colossal mistake. While I cautiously recommend the main series to general YA fans who don't mind (or even enjoy) a love triangle amid their revolutions, these side stories did nothing for me. They actually made me dislike Maxon and Aspen even more. The stories are just different pieces of the main story told from side characters' points of view. Yet their motives and thoughts were not compelling, and at times a bit infuriating. After listening,I could only think wonder why anyone would fall in love with either of these two. I turned off "The Queen" after listening to about one quarter of it.

Verdict: Jury's Out on the main series - if you're into YA dystopia, and don't mind a love triangle, this is a solid choice. It doesn't cross over well to mainstream readers, though. The short stories are dismissed - not worth it unless you're the most intense of fans who needs to know everything about the series.

The Selection series by Kiera Cass, published by HarperTeen. Audio narration by Amy Rubinate for "The Selection" and "The Elite," and by Amy Rubinate, Nick Podehl, and Tristan Morris for "The Selection Stories: The Prince & The Guard."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Recent Reads - 7/30/2015

Three quick reviews of titles on which I want to comment, but don't have enough thoughts on for a full post!

"China Rich Girlfriend" by Kevin Kwan, narrated by Lydia Look

You might remember that I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and wit of Kevin Kwan's "Crazy Rich Asians." I eagerly awaited the follow-up, and "China Rich Girlfriend" delivered. Though not quite as deep as the first, the sequel is the same type of fun romp through the upper echelons of Asia's super-rich. Kwan checks in on old characters and introduces us to new ones. We see Rachel confront decisions about searching for her birth father, and marriages evolve and fall apart. Plus, the narrator drops the grating edge to the accents this time, keeping them lighter and far more enjoyable. If you're a fan of the first, definitely check out this sequel.

"The Rocks" by Peter Nichols

I had so looked forward to this debut, and I was so disappointed. An estranged couple falls to their deaths and secrets are unveiled in sunny Mallorca? Sounds like just my cup of tea. But this novel was just weird, and the ending did not deliver. The characters don't behave like anyone I've ever met or read about, to the point of stretching suspension of disbelief. What's more, their eccentricities don't make them interesting, just irritating. The ultimate reveal wasn't worth the read, and the character's incestuous sexual relationships that happen without having their implications fully explored or even acknowledged pushed this into dismiss territory for me.

"Go Set A Watchman" by Harper Lee

If you follow me on Goodreads, you already know I don't have anything new to contribute to the conversation about this highly-controversial novel. The wide range of reviews posted already cover most of my thoughts. I don't believe that Lee wanted this novel published, but I'm glad that I read it as someone who appreciates, but doesn't love, "To Kill a Mockingbird." The insight into how Lee first envisioned her iconic characters and the way she originally conveyed her message was fascinating. The novel has its shortcomings, and it's clear the ways in which "To Kill a Mockingbird" benefited from heavy editing.  I'm disappointed that The New York Times spoiled Atticus' different personality in a headline that was unavoidable for many. Yet, I think the new take on a beloved character - whether you view Watchman's Atticus as an older version of the Mockingbird's Atticus or a separate character entirely - adds important depth and shades of gray to this beloved white knight. I hope this novel will prompt much-needed conversations around race, both in and out of the classroom. Plus, Reese Witherspoon does impeccable audio narration. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

"Destiny of the Republic" by Candice Millard

As summer really got underway, I got a new dog and fell woefully behind in blogging. While dog walks are great for moving through audiobooks, having a playful pup at your feet is not so good for finishing books in print! Apologies all around.

Pre-pup, I read Candice Millard's "Destiny of the Republic" on the recommendation of a colleague who knew I had enjoyed "River of Doubt." If I liked "River of Doubt," I was completely blown away by "Destiny of the Republic." I knew very little about President James A. Garfield prior to reading this book, and now I regret that oversight.

President Garfield was the 20th President of the US, and the second president to be assassinated. Unfortunately, that's the fact for which he was best known. He became a presidential nominee at a nominating convention he attended in order to stump for another candidate, was modest and down-to-earth, and firmly believed in the need for civil rights reform. He cared deeply for his family, and had he lived longer, he could have been an incredible president.

Millard tells the story of Garfield's short presidency, beginning with his nomination and campaign, and running through and after his assassination. Interwoven with Garfield's story are the two men who played a large role in his death - his shooter and the doctor whose negligent treatment failed to save his life. Characteristic of Millard's work, this non-fiction book reads like a novel. I learned a ton, and had a great time. The audio narration was also superb.

Verdict: Affirmed - highly recommended for history fans, thriller fans, or anyone who just likes a good read. I can't wait for Millard's next book.

"Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President" by Candice Millard, published September 20, 2011 by Doubleday. Audio narration by Paul Michael, published September 20, 2011 by Random House Audio.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Recent Reads - 6/20/2015

Another round up post, since I haven't read deeply enough for a substantial review lately. Audiobooks have been my go-to, keeping me moving through books when I can't find the time to sit down with a paper copy. All three of these had spot-on audio narration as well!

"The Room" by Jonas Karlsson, translated by Neil Smith

I'm glad Michael on Books on the Nighstand pointed me in the direction of this quirky little gem. Bjorn works in an office in Stockholm, and doesn't fit in too well with his co-workers. He's delighted to find a quiet room in the office where he can get his work done efficiently. His co-workers insist the room doesn't exist, however. Are they messing with him? His Bjorn delusional? This is a quick, fun read that will keep you pondering through the end, and Bjorn is a chuckle-inducing protagonist who manages to be both grating and endearing. Recommended for friends of "Office Space" and "The Office," or anyone looking for a brief palate-cleanser or something different.

"The Lifeboat" by Charlotte Rogan

Grace survived the sinking of the ocean liner carrying her and her new husband to America, only to be put on trial for the events that occurred prior to her rescue. Lucky enough to snag a spot on a lifeboat as the ship sank, Grace must navigate both the interpersonal perils and basic survival while awaiting rescue with only a few dozen others. As the struggle to survive becomes more dire, impossible choices must be made, and those choices result in the trial in which we first meet Grace at the onset of the book. She is a fascinating heroine who is trapped by the conventions of her time but so determined to survive that she will pick and choose the conventions that best promote her personal survival. This would make an excellent book club pick, with its fast-paced, slightly mysteriously plot, and weighty moral questions.

"The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey" by Candice Millard

A colleague recommend this book, and I checked it out from Overdrive immediately. The perfect example of non-fiction that reads like a novel, this book describes Teddy Roosevelt's journey to explore the River of Doubt in the Amazon jungle following his failed bid for re-election to the presidency. I knew going in that Roosevelt did not die in South America, yet this book was so well-written and engaging that it had me concerned over his immediate safety and re-thinking my knowledge of American history. Kyle even ended up listening along for the last two hours, every bit as enthralled as I was. Highly recommended for history buffs and fans of adventure tales.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Few Brief Mentions

I've been reading pretty casually lately since I've been so busy. I've finished a few books that didn't quite merit full reviews, but are still worth a brief mention.

"All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

I was excited to read this book for both my NYC and DC book clubs. It got a ton of positive buzz and won the Pulitzer, after all. Basically, I thought it was just fine, but wasn't blown away. Maybe I'm being more critical of it after all the acclaim it has received, but I don't feel this is in the same league as "The Goldfinch" or "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." It has its charming moments, clever turns of phrase, and nifty novelties, but I don't think it adds anything substantially new to World War II novels. I'd recommend to fans of that sub-genre within historical fiction and those who like a heartfelt tale, but not much more widely.

"Shine Shine Shine" by Lydia Netzer

This audiobook, on the other hand, was underrated. I remember the buzz when it was first released, but it never really rose to the top of my list. I downloaded it on impulse when I saw it was available on Overdrive. It's difficult to capture all of the great things this novel has going on in a brief overview, and that might be why it didn't get quite the amount of attention it really deserved. Sunny's robot-programmer husband is up in space, and she's bald and pregnant back on Earth raising their autistic son. Though she tries to preserve her facade of normalcy, we learn just how unique and strong she really is. I can't put a finger on all the themes at play, but I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

"Lord of the Scoundrels" by Loretta Chase

I appreciate a solid historical romance every once in a while, especially when I have a lot going on. I read this during finals and it was the perfect amount of escapism and smut. There's a reason this book has over 16,000 ratings and over 1,100 reviews on Goodreads. It's a textbook example of a rake romance - a smart, sassy woman and a devilishly handsome scoundrel who can't help but fall in love. But this novel executes the typical story line perfectly, with witty dialogue and steamy romance. As a romance reader who got started on Harvard-educated, Shakespeare-scholar Eloisa James, I have a high bar for my romance novels. "Lord of the Scoundrels" leaped over it without breaking a sweat.

"Unbecoming" by Rebecca Scherm

Rebecca Scherm's "Unbecoming" is completely undersold by its cover. The image itself did nothing to catch my attention, so I'm glad I read the text accompanying it in "Buy, Borrow, Bypass" on Book Riot. If "The Secret Wisdom of the Earth" hadn't topped the list, I might've skipped the piece and missed this gem entirely.

Grace is living in Paris several years after fleeing her home town of Garland, Tennessee. Now known as Julie, she takes care to hide her background from her co-workers in an antiques repair shop. She makes no friends and avoids her roommate. She simply checks her hometown newspaper for updates on her former lovers, both imprisoned for a heist gone wrong. She lives quietly with her guilt over escaping with her freedom and a valuable painting.

As Grace-Julie's lies begin to unravel, she recalls the circumstances that led to her current predicament and decides what to reveal and what to continue to conceal. Scherm has created an enthralling protagonist - she's not a good person, but she's absolutely fascinating, even (and especially) when she makes terrible split-second decisions. As I wrote in my brief Goodreads review, the novel has a little something for everyone. There's suspense, lies, a heist, an inside look into the antiques and art world, a love triangle in a small town, and a bit of growing up.

Verdict: Affirmed, for anyone looking for their next exciting female lead, thriller readers seeking a bit of depth, and fans of "The Goldfinch" looking for a bit more information on art restoration and theft hidden in an entertaining fiction. If you're a listener, the audio narration is on point as well.

"Unbecoming" by Rebecca Scherm, published January 22, 2015 by Viking. Audio narration by Catherine Taber, published January 22, 2015 by Penguin Audio.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

"Snow Like Ashes" by Sara Raasch

Things have been super busy lately, with finishing finals, moving back to DC, and starting a new job. Luckily, I did manage to squeeze in this enchanting YA fantasy during finals.

Meira is an orphan from the conquered kingdom of Winter, on the run with a handful other refugees, including the heir to the Winterian throne, Mather. They're on the hunt for their kingdom's magic pendant to reclaim their kingdom, while hiding from the Spring kingdom's leader. Meira, Mather, and the other characters that pop up are excellent. Major bonus points for a love triangle where both the interests are interesting, and you can actually understand why Meira would be torn between them!

The world-building in this series is fascinating. There are four season kingdoms and four rhythm kingdoms. I'm not totally clear on why the other half is rhythm, but sure. In the past, all the kingdom's leaders got together and decided to put their kingdom's magic into an emblem they that can use to rule and give their power to their subjects. Each kingdom has a different specialty that affects the way they use their magic. I can't wait to read the next book, due out in October, just to see more of these kingdoms.

But I have a big complaint. SPOILERS COMING, skip this paragraph if you're not interested! Highlight to read the text if you don't mind. So, if you follow me on twitter, you'll know that as I was reading I loved the twists that kept coming throughout the novel. One of the things I was most loving about the book was seeing a main character who wasn't the chosen one, but was supporting the heir & strong in her own right, despite her non-special heritage. Meira's receiving visions from the former Winterian queen that help her understand more of the magic of the kingdoms, awesome! Common people can wield magic and she's going to be a normal person bringing it back! Great! Except, turns out she's actually the heir & was switched with Mather to protect her. Yawn. Maybe this is a case of my wanting the novel to be something it wasn't, but this predictable "twist" turned the thrust of the second half of the novel into a big old trope. Don't get me wrong, the world-building and characters will keep me reaching for the second, but I was pretty disappointed at the predictability, since I had really been digging the normal girl at the center.

Finally, the audio narration is fantastic and really added to the book. Kate Rudd is just the right amount of enthusiastic and engaging. Highly recommend the audio on this!

Verdict: Jury's out - if you're a fan of YA fantasy, it's a solid choice. Not a stand out if you're not already a fan, since the ultimate twist is fairly predictable. I'll definitely be listening to the second!

"Snow Like Ashes" by Sara Raasch, published October 14, 2014 by Balzer + Bray. Audio narration by Kate Rudd, published October 14, 2014 by Harper Audio.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"Silver Sparrow" by Tayari Jones

I had heard of the opening line of "Silver Sparrow" long before I knew anything else about the book: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist." At once it captures everything and nothing about the core of this powerful novel of family, secrets, and trust.

Dana grows up knowing she's the other daughter. In order to keep her father's two lives separate, she must defer to anything Chaurisse wants - Dana can't go to the same school, summer programs, or anywhere she might run into Chaurisse. Meanwhile, Chaurisse has no idea her father has another wife and daughter living in the same city.

The first half of the book is told by Dana as she grows up, navigating the world and figuring out where she can rebel against her father's strict rules of separation and learning as much as she can about her mysterious sister, while resenting all she must give up to keep her father's dual lives. The second half shifts to Chaurisse's point of view. The reader sees Dana pop up, and the dramatic irony and tension is perfect. We know who Dana is and that this can only end poorly, but Chaurisse has no idea. Jones does a remarkable job balancing the two points of view. I thought after reading Dana's section that I would loathe Chaurisse, but her section was every bit as empathetic and earnest and heartbreaking as Dana's. The lives and backgrounds of James and his wives were fascinating and the historical details from Atlanta's history fleshed out the story without feeling the least bit forced.

Verdict: Affirmed, particularly for readers looking for an incredible family drama and/or a solid book club pick. Audio narration was fantastic, for those who listen.

"Silver Sparrow" by Tayari Jones, published May 24, 2011 by Algonquin Books. Audio narration by Rosalyn Coleman Williams and Heather Alicia Simms, published June 8, 2011 by AudioGO.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Spring Reviews at the Morningside Muckraker

New reviews are up in my Booked column in the Morningside Muckraker's Spring issue, out today. And a good thing, too, since finals have slowed my reading to a crawl! This issue I reviewed:

  • "Boy, Snow, Bird" by Helen Oyeyemi
  • "Dept. of Speculation" by Jenny Offill
  • "The Girl on the Train" by Paul Hawkins
  • "The Paying Guests" by Sarah Waters
  • "God Help the Child" by Toni Morrison
  • "The Walls Around Us" by Nova Ren Suma
There's something in there to kick off everyone's summer reading! Check them out here.  While you're there, be sure to read the other contributors' fantastic work as well.

Friday, May 1, 2015

"The House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer

This YA book kept popping up in lists of speculative or dystopian books, suggested based on other things I've read and enjoyed. I don't remember what the final article or suggestion was that made me read it, but it fits right into my personal wheelhouse: gripping, fast-paced YA; a new government system that grew out of the present in some way; and clones and the role of genetic engineering in human society.

Matteo Alcaron is a clone in a world where clones have no rights. He is the clone of a drug kingpin so powerful he forged his own country called Opium.  As he grows up, he meets the few other children who also inhabit this world by pure chance. Through the differences between his life and theirs, he learns more about his assigned place in the world and his understanding of his own identity evolves.

Cloning and human genetic engineering makes fascinating fodder for novels exploring the future of human society. How will clones shape how humans see themselves and others? How will societal roles shift with the addition of genetically-engineered or cloned people? What does it mean to be both an individual and a clone? Like many speculative fiction novels, it's hard to discuss in too much detail without taking away the experience of discovery alongside Matteo. Through Matteo's limited view, the reader is slowly introduced to the shape of society, with clarification and new information added as Matt grows up and understands more of what occurs around him. Suffice to say, this novel does not shy away from these issues.

Always the character reader, I was enthralled with the cast of supporting characters - Tam Lin, Maria, Celia, Ton Ton, and Fidelito. Matteo's interactions with these characters subtly shift as he ages and adjusts his own world view in light of new information. His relationships are not static, and that level of realism adds to the book's grit and ability to enthrall. Raul Esparza's audio narration includes different voices for the characters that help distinguish without distracting from the story as a whole.

Verdict: Affirmed for fans of YA or speculative fiction generally. Audio is great, though I think there may have been a few spelling jokes I missed in listening.

"The House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer, audio narration by Raul Esparza, published by Simon & Schuster Audio on October 21, 2008. Print originally published by Atheneum Books on September 1, 2002.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Friendship" by Emily Gould

By the time my hold came through on Overdrive, I couldn't remember what prompted me to request this book in the first place. Yet, I started it Sunday night and finished it the following afternoon, opting for a long walk in place of a Pilates class so I wouldn't have to stop listening.

Bev and Amy are best friends who met while working at a publishing house in New York City. They're the unique kind of friends you form in your mid- to late-twenties when others around you are settling down and starting families, and you're adrift in a big city and need someone else upon whom you can depend. They've seen each other through their post-college years, and now that they're rounding the corner into their thirties, what was once a carefree existence barely making ends meet is becoming somewhat pathetic. As the girls struggle to determine where they go with their dead-end jobs and in their flailing relationships, they navigate this new phase in their friendship as well.

Gould does a great job with the characters - I know Amy's, girls who are used to having things work out but haven't put much thought into where they'd like to end up; and I know Bev's, girls who know what they wanted but once life got in the way weren't sure how to get things back on track. Gould lets the reader peak into these character's inner monologues, not shying away from their foolish decisions and the shortsighted selfishness that leads them to make them.

A few quick notes on the audio: there was a bit of timeline-weirdness with an extended flashback. It went on so long I wasn't sure if we had done a forward time jump and the story was still progressing, rather than providing background. It was weird when listening, but might have played out better in print. Amy Rubinate, whom I don't think I've encountered before as an audio narrator, also did this drawn-out hissing effect at the end of each sentence that was a bit grating on 1.25 (my normal listening speed). At first I thought it was just for certain characters who were supposed to be irritating, but it was done throughout the novel, unfortunately. When I sped up to 1.5 it was still noticeable, though the story grabbed me soon after & I got over it.

I finished the bulk of this audiobook in a straight marathon listen and enjoyed every minute. What I thought would be a light romp left me pondering the nature of growing up as a millennial and how our generation finds and defines our own families within the cities to which we've flocked.

Verdict: Affirmed, for fans of Lena Dunham's "Girls" and Meg Wollitzer's "The Interestings," young women living in big cities, and those who want to think about the roles our friendships play in our lives as we grow older. This short read has left me with topics I'd really like to discuss with others who have read it  - so pick up a copy & let's chat

"Friendship" by Emily Gould, audio narration by Amy Rubinate, published by Tantor Audio on September 23, 2014. Originally published in print by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux on July 1, 2014.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Two "Good" Books That Didn't Work for Me

I discussed on Tuesday how sometimes, a book just won't work for me. I have learned to allow myself to put the book down & pick it up in another format or at a better time. Recently, I've encountered this feeling with two books: "The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro and "Fourth of July Creek" by Smith Henderson.

If you follow me on Instagram (back when I could still open it on my phone...) you may have seen this beautiful cover make an appearance, For "Fourth of July Creek," I originally tried it in print, and just could not get into it. I returned it to the library and put myself on the holds list for the audio. I finished listening to it a few days ago. While it still wasn't my cup of tea, the audio was definitely the version I needed while running around to wrap up my semester. It's a dark book, about a social worker whose work hits a bit too close to his own life and whose cases take dark, surprising, disturbing turns. Maybe a bit too dark for when the weather is finally starting to warm up and I just want to be outside thinking happy thoughts. I'm glad I returned to it, as I appreciate the story Henderson told and the way he balanced the main character's work and his personal life. Though I might have enjoyed it more if I had given it a bit more time and returned to it in the winter, when I'm more in the mood for darker reads.

I mentioned "The Buried Giant" in my pre-spring break post, but in contrast to "Fourth of July Creek," I could not get through it and haven't returned to it. I initially went into this Ishiguro's foray into fantasy blind to the plot, knowing only that Ursula K. LeGuin had criticized his approach, and he had defended it. As I got deeper in though, I started reading reviews to try to figure out what Ishiguro was up to so that I could gain an appreciation for what he was doing. While the reviews discussing his themes of memory and history gave me an insight into the book, it just wasn't hitting the right notes. Axl and Beatrice are an elderly married couple who embark on a journey to visit their son - it's an endearing premise. At least they started out that way. Maybe if Axl hadn't bookended every sentence he spoke to Beatrice with the term of endearment "princess," I would've made it a bit further. That was the last straw that pushed me to put down the book. It's entirely possible I didn't make it far enough to start caring about the characters enough; I stopped on page 87. I plan to return to this book eventually - I respect Ishiguro too much not to - but it'll have to be at a time where I'm ready to let the book wash over me, rather than when I'm looking for something to grip me and pull me in.

"Fourth of July Creek" by Smith Henderson, audio narration by MacLeod Andrews and Jenna Lamia, published by Harper Audio on Mary 27, 2014. "The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro, published by Knopt on March 3, 2015.