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.