Book Review: You Don’t Know My Name

Book Review:  You Don’t Know My NameYou Don't Know My Name (The Black Angel Chronicles #1) by Kristen Orlando
four-stars
Series: The Black Angel Chronicles #1
Published by Swoon Reads on January 10th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Seventeen-year-old Reagan Elizabeth Hillis is used to changing identities overnight, lying to every friend she’s ever had, and pushing away anyone who gets too close. Trained in mortal combat and weaponry her entire life, Reagan is expected to follow in her parents’ footsteps and join the ranks of the most powerful top-secret agency in the world, the Black Angels. Falling in love with the boy next door was never part of the plan. Now Reagan must decide: Will she use her incredible talents and lead the dangerous life she was born into, or throw it all away to follow her heart and embrace the normal life she’s always wanted? And does she even have a choice?

 

MY REVIEW

 

Kristen Orlando’s You Don’t Know My Name follows the story of Reagan, 17 year old high school student who also happens to be actively training to become a member of the Black Angels, a top secret elite spy organization which both of her parents are also members of.  The Black Angels are such a top secret agency that Reagan has lived under assumed names all of her life and she and her family relocate every year or so if there is a fear that their identities have been discovered.  Reagan has been training to join the Black Angels for as long as she can remember – she’s already an expert marksman and is trained in mortal combat – and her parents fully expect her to follow in their footsteps to serve her country.  As the time gets closer for her to commit to the Black Angels, however, the more conflicted Reagan becomes. Is this really the life she wants for herself?  A lonely life filled with constant danger, panic rooms, secret identities, never staying in one place for any amount of time, etc. What about love, friends, college, a normal job, a family of her own someday?

 

LIKES

Reagan was, by far, my favorite part of this story.  I love that on the one hand, she’s this total badass spy-in-training, but on the other hand, she still comes across as quite vulnerable because she’s so conflicted about her future.  Her doubts are also completely understandable so it’s easy to relate to what she is feeling and to sympathize with her.  I can’t even begin to imagine living the way that she does, having a panic room built into her basement in case someone discovers who her parents really are.  Any time a mission goes wrong and identities are potentially compromised, her life gets turned upside down and she has to start all over again.  It’s very easy to understand why the idea of saying no and making her own way in the world would be so appealing.  In that sense, You Don’t Know My Name is as much a coming of age story as it is a spy novel.

There’s even a bit of romance thrown in for good measure.  Luke is a super hot ROTC cadet who lives across the street from Reagan at her home of the moment. Reagan and her family have actually stayed at this location for a little over a year now and so Reagan and Luke have gotten to know each other.  They’re in the “friends on the way to maybe becoming more than friends stage” when we meet them and I really enjoyed their chemistry.  In many ways, Luke is the impetus for many of Reagan’s conflicted feelings.  She really likes him and wonders what it would be like to have a future with him and it kills her to think she’ll never have that kind of experience if she follows in her parent’s footsteps.  She also worries about getting too close to Luke because what happens the next time she and her parents have to abruptly relocate? She wouldn’t even get to tell Luke goodbye. She would just disappear, never to be heard from again.  I don’t want to give any major plot details away, but I totally fell head over heels for Luke when something happens later in the story and he ends up finding out about Reagan’s family and the Black Angels.  As much of a badass as Reagan is, Luke scores pretty high on the badass meter himself.

Speaking of badass, the action and suspense in this story is off the charts.  From the first pages of the novel when we witness Reagan and her family abandon their house in the middle of the night to escape from a threat all the way through to what can only be described as a heartbreaking, life-changing event when one of her parent’s mission goes terribly wrong, this is a book you won’t be able to put down once you get started.

 

DISLIKES

Only one dislike comes to mind as I’m thinking back on this book and that’s a conversation between Reagan and her mother.  Reagan is slated to visit a college she’s interested in possibly attending.  In Reagan’s parents’ minds, this is just part of Reagan’s cover story since she clearly won’t be going to college.  Even though they were supposed to go with her to visit the college, they back out at the last minute because of something work related.  Upset by this, Reagan breaks down and confesses to her mother everything that she has been feeling so conflicted about. She tells her mom she doesn’t know if the Black Angels is for her, that she might just want to live a normal life and be happy and safe.  What got to me was her mother’s response to what Reagan says.  Her mom basically says that some people are born to be happy but that Reagan isn’t one of them. Reagan was born to serve her country, end of story.  I just found that very off-putting and couldn’t imagine any parent saying something like that to their child. Thankfully her mom reconsiders those words and apologizes later, but boy was she on my bad list for a while there.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

This is my first time reading a YA spy novel so I don’t have anything to compare You Don’t Know My Name to, but that said, what a fantastic read this was for me. I truly loved pretty much everything about it.  The story grabbed my attention from the first few paragraphs and I was glued to the book until I reached the last page, which has left me dying to get my hands on the next book in the series. I highly recommend this book!

 

RATING:  4 STARS

 

four-stars

About Kristen Orlando

 

“Writing is one of the great loves of my life (with bacon mac and cheese, Netflix binges and PJs also in the mix). My childhood in Columbus, Ohio was spent reading every single Baby-Sitter’s Club book ever written and acting out imaginary tragedies in my room (complete with costumes and props) until a really embarrassing age. I started writing plays for my younger cousins as soon as they were all old enough to act (The Spoiled Princess may be a personal favorite) and haven’t stopped writing since. After graduating from Kenyon College with a B.A. in English Literature, I’ve been lucky enough to make writing my career; first as a television producer, then as a marketer and now as a novelist.” (Kristen Orlando, in her own words, taken from kristenorlando.com)

Book Review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Book Review:  Swimming Lessons by Claire FullerSwimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
five-stars
Published by Tin House Books on February 7th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 350
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband, Gil, about the truth of their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in the thousands of books he has collected over the years. When Ingrid has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving behind her beautiful but dilapidated house by the sea, her husband, and her two daughters, Flora and Nan.

Twelve years later, Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, but he’s getting older and this unlikely sighting is chalked up to senility. Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid. But what Flora doesn’t realize is that the answers to her questions are hidden in the books that surround her. Scandalous and whip-smart, Swimming Lessons holds the Coleman family up to the light, exposing the mysterious truths of a passionate and troubled marriage.

 

MY REVIEW

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I picked up Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons, but wow, what an incredibly beautiful and engaging read it was for me.  In fact, I think it’s my first 5 star read of 2017. What I loved about Swimming Lessons was that while it contains a great deal of suspense, it was not at all what I would classify as a typical thriller.  Instead of nonstop, heart-pounding action, this story was a quiet exploration of a troubled marriage and its impact on an entire family.

When the novel opens, Gil Coleman has suffered an accident.  When his two daughters, Flora and Nan, hear of his accident, they rush home to be by their father’s side but are distraught when they hear him say that he hurt himself while following their mother, Ingrid.  Why?  Because Ingrid Coleman was presumed dead in a drowning accident twelve years earlier. The fact that Ingrid’s body was never found has always haunted the family.  Was there any way she could have survived, but if so, why would she then have disappeared for twelve years?  Nan chooses to believe that her mother is dead so that she can move on with her life and chalks her father’s story up to the delusions of an elderly man, but Flora and of course Gil, still seem to hold on to a sliver of hope that Ingrid may be out there somewhere.  At one point, Flora even swears that she sees her mother and starts trying to follow her across town.  The discrepancy in how the family members feel regarding Ingrid’s disappearance introduces a thread that runs throughout the novel – is it better to know the truth even if it’s not the truth we wanted or is it better to keep hope alive even if it means we may spend our entire lives hoping for something that may never happen?

 

LIKES

 

One of the elements of Swimming Lessons that I really loved is that the story is revealed to us in two parts, through alternating chapters – we see the present from the viewpoint of Flora, but then we are also given a rich portrait of the past from the viewpoint of Ingrid.  How? Because unbeknownst to Flora and Nan, and perhaps even to Gil, Ingrid has written a series of letters and hidden them in books strategically around the Coleman house.  In these letters, she lays out for Gil the way she viewed their lives together – from the moment they first met when Ingrid was a student in one of Gil’s writing classes in college through all the years of their marriage leading up to the moment when Ingrid presumably drowned.  Honestly, Ingrid’s letters are the backbone of this story. They add layer upon layer of rich detail and history that, especially with regard to Gil, are often quite different from the present-day version of Gil that we see through Flora’s eyes.  What Ingrid’s letters give us is the portrait of a young woman who wants to be a writer but then gets so caught up in an affair with her charming college professor that she ends up not graduating from college, getting pregnant instead, and settling into what eventually becomes a very troubled marriage.  Gil wants her to be a baby-making machine and little more than that and she resents it.  Since he won’t listen to her, Ingrid resorts to writing these letters to him in hopes that he’ll find them someday in his precious books which fill nearly every room of their house.  What we see as we get to read the letters is that their relationship becomes so stifling to her over the years, it becomes easier and easier for the reader to wonder if perhaps there is any truth to the idea that she may still be out there somewhere.  Could she have faked her death so that she could have a fresh start somewhere else?  Or are we just getting caught up in the same line of wishful thinking that Flora and Gil are in?

Another thread that runs through Swimming Lessons that I loved was the idea that readers bring their own meaning and interpretations to a book.  One of Gil’s favorite pasttimes is to collect books and study the marginalia (i.e. what readers have written or doodled in the margins, what they’ve left behind, while they’re reading).  He believes that those little pieces of themselves that readers leave behind are what give insight into the character of the book and add meaning to the book itself.  It therefore makes it all the more meaningful that Ingrid has chosen to leave behind these little pieces of herself in so many of his books.  I loved the idea that she had left clues right under his nose for years and that if he were to find them all and follow the evidence, he might have a definitive answer as to what happened to her or at least a definitive why anyway.

I think my absolute favorite aspect of this novel was the author’s writing style.  Fuller’s writing is just so elegant and simple – the story felt very organic as it unfolded.  It wasn’t this huge melodramatic event, more just the quiet reveal of a troubled family.

 

DISLIKES

The only dislike I had in this book was Gil himself.  At first I was somewhat indifferent to him or maybe even felt a little bad for him that he was imagining seeing his dead wife. But then once I started reading Ingrid’s letter, I felt a strong dislike for pretty much everything about him.  As much as I disliked him though, I still very much appreciated the rich character portrait we were given of him so hats off to the author for doing such an incredible job portraying him, his warts and all.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS?

 

Swimming Lessons was a powerful read for me, not just because of the ‘Is she really dead or could she possibly be alive?’ mystery that runs through the novel, but also because it embraces those threads that are woven through it and leaves the reader to interpret what really happened to Ingrid.  We all bring our own meanings to the books we read, and as Gil says, no two of us read the exact same book.  Want to find out what really happened to Ingrid?  Read Swimming Lessons yourself and find your own meaning.

 

RATING:  5 STARS

 

 

five-stars

About Claire Fuller

Claire Fuller trained as a sculptor before working in marketing for many years. In 2013 she completed an MA in Creative Writing, and wrote her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. It was published in the UK by Penguin, in the US by Tin House, in Canada by House of Anansi and bought for translation in 15 other countries. Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott prize.

Claire’s second novel, Swimming Lessons was published in early 2017.

Book Review: Roseblood

Book Review:  RosebloodRoseBlood by A.G. Howard
three-stars
Published by Harry N. Abrams on January 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  In this modern day spin on Leroux’s gothic tale of unrequited love turned to madness, seventeen-year-old Rune Germain has a mysterious affliction linked to her operatic talent, and a horrifying mistake she’s trying to hide. Hoping creative direction will help her, Rune’s mother sends her to a French arts conservatory for her senior year, located in an opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.

At RoseBlood, Rune secretly befriends the masked Thorn—an elusive violinist who not only guides her musical transformation through dreams that seem more real than reality itself, but somehow knows who she is behind her own masks. As the two discover an otherworldly connection and a soul-deep romance blossoms, Thorn’s dark agenda comes to light and he’s forced to make a deadly choice: lead Rune to her destruction, or face the wrath of the phantom who has haunted the opera house for a century, and is the only father he’s ever known.

 

 

MY REVIEW

 

As soon as I started reading A. G. Howard’s Roseblood, I had a vague sense of déjà vu.  Déjà vu, not because of the obvious expected connection to the original Phantom of the Opera story upon which it is based, but more so because main character Rune Germain’s story starts to follow a predictable pattern that I seem to keep running into when I’m reading YA fantasy.  You know the one – YA heroine has a magical ability that may be a gift or it may be a curse because she can’t really control it.  She is sent away some place where she can be trained to better control the ability, meets a boy along the way, and so on.  Rune’s gift (or curse as the case may be) is that she can’t hear opera without literally bursting into song wherever she is.  She has an angelic, mesmerizing singing voice but truly has no control over this overwhelming draw to opera.  Then as if spontaneously bursting into song isn’t embarrassing enough, she also typically faints once she has finished these little outbursts of song.  Weird, right?

Anyway, so Rune’s mother has been searching high and low for a way to “cure” Rune of this problem and decides to send her to Roseblood, a school for the Arts in France that happens to be located in an old opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.  I was a little skeptical about the choice of a music school over something a little more medical or psychological in nature, but whatever, I decided to just roll with it and see what happened next since this obviously got her to this old opera house and closer to the Phantom roots of the story.

Where I was a little disappointed was that I didn’t feel like I really connected much with Rune for the longest time and part of that had to do with the pacing of the story.  So much of the first half of the book was devoted to Rune getting settled in at her new school that I really started to get bored waiting for something more exciting to happen.  Thankfully the second half of the novel moves along at a much faster clip.

I think the other reason for my initial lack of connection with Rune was my feeling that her musical gift, curse, whatever was just so odd.  I didn’t really start to feel any connection to her at all until she finally meets the boy that I knew would eventually appear in the story, Etalon (or Thorn as he is called by his adopted father, The Phantom! Yes, you read that right. The Phantom has a son in this story.)

* * * * * *

Now, where Rune’s story didn’t really tug on my heartstrings, A. G. Howard got me hook, line, and sinker with Etalon.  Etalon’s story is just so heartbreaking.  Etalon was orphaned as a young child, sold to the gypsies by his neighbor, and ended up imprisoned and abused by men who were known to sell children to those who wanted them for sexual reasons.  Like Rune, Etalon possessed an angelic singing voice, which annoyed his captors so much that they poured lye into his throat to permanently damage his vocal cords.  He lives at the mercy of these men until the Phantom finds and frees him, killing his captors and setting all of the other children free.  The Phantom takes Etalon in and they live together as father and son, underground and in the shadows of Roseblood.

Etalon lives most of his life feeling indebted to his “father,” which leads to the biggest conflict in the story.  The Phantom is desperate to be reunited with his lost love, Christine, and has actually come up with a pretty shocking way to make this happen.  I can’t go into any details, but what he has come up with is truly O.M.G.  The one catch though is that the Phantom needs Rune and her voice to make it happen. He charges Etalon with the task of getting close to Rune by convincing her that he can help her control her compulsive need to sign.  Then he is to gradually gain her trust so as to eventually lead her to the Phantom so that he can use her to achieve his goal.  As he gets closer to Rune, however, he realizes that they share a connection that he has never felt before, that she is his soul mate.  This puts him in the impossible position of having to choose between the only father he has ever known and the girl that he loves.  For me, Etalon’s internal conflict was what really made the story.  I think I might have given up on the book if I had not found his story so compelling.

* * * * * *

In spite of my disappointment with the pacing and with the somewhat predictable storyline of Rune, there were still some things that I really liked about Roseblood.

Howard does an incredible job of conveying the creepy Gothic atmosphere that you would expect to find in a story about the Phantom of the Opera.  I also liked that Howard stayed pretty true to the original Phantom story, actually using many of the details as a backstory for Roseblood, which seemed more like a sequel to the original Phantom story set in modern times, with the Phantom alive and well in 21st century France. I won’t get into how exactly that is even possible because that would probably be the biggest spoiler of the entire story, but it adds quite a twist and breaks up that predictable pattern that Rune’s story had started down.

I also really liked the chemistry between Rune and Etalon. Their chemistry is undeniable – the intense bond they share actually reminds me a lot of Feyre and Rhysand in A Court of Mist and Fury – and even though I’m not typically big into romance, I was all about hoping that somehow things would work out and these two would end up together.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I went into Roseblood expecting to absolutely love it because The Phantom of the Opera is such an incredible story.  I don’t know if my expectations were just too high, but I have to say I came away a little disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good solid read that I would still recommend to fans of the original story, but it just didn’t blow me away as much as I thought it would.

RATING:  3 STARS

three-stars

About A.G. Howard

International and NYT best-selling author, Anita Grace Howard, lives in the Texas panhandle. She is most at home weaving the melancholy and macabre into settings and scenes, twisting the expected into the unexpected. She’s inspired by all things flawed, utilizing the complex loveliness of human conditions and raw emotions to give her characters life, then turning their world upside down so the reader’s blood will race.

Married and mother of two teens (as well as surrogate mom to two Guinea pigs and one Labrador retriever), Anita divides her days between spending time with her family and plodding along or plotting on her next book.

When she’s not writing, Anita enjoys rollerblading, biking, snow skiing, gardening, and family vacations that at any given time might include an impromptu side trip to an 18th century graveyard or a condemned schoolhouse for photo ops.

Book Review: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

Book Review:  The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnisThe Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
four-half-stars
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on September 20th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 341
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:   Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best. The language of violence.  While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people, even in her small hometown. She relegates herself to the shadows, a girl who goes unseen in plain sight, unremarkable in the high school hallways.

But Jack Fisher sees her. He’s the guy all other guys want to be: the star athlete gunning for valedictorian with the prom queen on his arm. Guilt over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered hasn’t let him forget Alex over the years, and now her green eyes amid a constellation of freckles have his attention. He doesn’t want to only see Alex Craft; he wants to know her.

So does Peekay, the preacher’s kid, a girl whose identity is entangled with her dad’s job, though that does not stop her from knowing the taste of beer or missing the touch of her ex-boyfriend. When Peekay and Alex start working together at the animal shelter, a friendship forms and Alex’s protective nature extends to more than just the dogs and cats they care for.

Circumstances bring Alex, Jack, and Peekay together as their senior year unfolds. While partying one night, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting the teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever.

MY REVIEW

Wow, what a book! I hardly know where to even begin so I’m going to start off by saying Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species is a book that definitely isn’t going to be for everyone.  This is not a light contemporary read by any stretch.  The Female of the Species is dark, violent, and incredibly intense.  It’s also one of the most powerful takedowns of rape culture that I’ve ever read.

LIKES

For me, the most fascinating part of The Female of the Species is main character, Alex Craft.  Alex has always had a dark side. She can feel the violence bubbling beneath the surface, just waiting to be unleashed.  For most of her life, she has been able to keep this dark side under control.  However, when her older sister Anna is sexually assaulted and murdered and the murderer goes free, the beast within Alex awakens and she takes matters into her own hands to get justice for her sister.  Alex gets away with her crime but feels like she could easily do the same thing again if she encounters another predator so she doesn’t really trust herself to be around other people.  Because of this, she doesn’t really make any friends at school and is mainly known by her classmates as “the girl with the dead sister.” That is, until she unexpectedly becomes friends with Jack and Peekay, her first real friendships, and it suddenly becomes a lot harder to hide her true dark nature.

I loved the complexity of Alex’s character.  On the one hand, she’s a straight A student in line to be valedictorian of her class and she also volunteers at the local animal shelter and is super gentle with all of the animals that she cares for.  On the other hand, she’s a stone cold vigilante who will go after anyone she views as a predator.

The first time her new friends witness vigilante Alex in action is in the hallway at school when a guy makes a really bad sexual joke in front of Alex.  The joke is stupid, hurtful, and offensive and it earns the guy a punch in the groin from Alex that brings him to his knees.  The reactions of those who witness the punch are a mixed bag: some are shocked and appalled, while others pretty much cheer her on.  I count myself as one of those who cheered her on.

At first I thought that perhaps her friendship with Peekay (aka Preacher’s Kid, but whose real name is actually Claire) would help to settle Alex and help her live a more normal day-to-day life as they worked at the shelter together and bonded so well.  Instead, however, it actually makes the vigilante behavior escalate because the more Alex begins to care about Peekay, the more protective she becomes of her.  When Peekay gets drunk at a party and some guys try to take advantage of her, Alex swoops in like a hawk and violently attacks the guys, actually drawing blood and disfiguring one of them.  I have to admit that I cheered Alex on here as well but at the same time was a little uncomfortable with just how violent she got.  Or maybe my discomfort was more with myself for thinking “Yes! Get them, Alex!” while she was pulverizing them.  Either way, this was kind of a ‘Holy crap!’ scene for me.

To fully flesh out Alex’s character, McGinnis structures the story so that it is told from three different points of view, each of them giving us a slightly different look at Alex.  Alex, of course, is one of them, while her friends Peekay and Jack are the other two.

It is through Alex’s chapters that we see how dark of a character she really is.  One standout moment for me was when she thinks back to a time when she tried reading a bunch of psychology textbooks trying to figure out what’s wrong with her because she knows the way she feels isn’t normal but doesn’t think she’ll ever feel differently:  “I’m not fine, and I doubt I ever will be. The books didn’t help me find a word for myself; my father refused to accept the weight of it. And so I made my own. I am vengeance.”

Alternating Alex’s dark chapters with those of Peekay and Jack allows us to not only see how Alex views herself, but also how others around her see her and how their views of her change the more they get to know her and see her darker side showing itself more and more.  While Alex views herself as this monster who can’t be trusted around others, Peekay sees her as a wonderful friend and as the one who can work magic with even the most hostile animals at the shelter where they work.

Jack, along the same lines as Peekay, sees Alex way different from how she sees herself.  He sees her as a girl he wants to know as more than just the girl with the dead sister. He becomes attracted to Alex because he sees her as having so much more substance than other girls their age. Eventually Jack and Alex do become romantically involved and their closeness gives Alex a glimpse at what a normal life could look like and she starts to wonder if it’s possible to control the darkness within her and live happily ever after with Jack.

Seeing the story from these three different points of view made for a very suspenseful read because as that darkness kept showing itself and giving Jack and Peekay little glimpses into Alex’s violent nature, I couldn’t help but want to know if these relationships would survive if they were to find out the whole truth about Alex and what would happen to Alex if she were to lose these two people who had become so important to her.

DISLIKES

My only real dislike was that there was one scene that contained animal cruelty, which is always a turnoff for me.  Thankfully it was a small scene, but it just didn’t feel necessary to the plot so I was disappointed that it was in the book.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Even though I’ve said this isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone because of the darkness and the violence, The Female of the Species is still such an important book that I wish everyone would go outside of their comfort zones and read it anyway.  It makes a powerful statement about rape culture and how it affects people.  There shouldn’t need to be Alex Crafts in the world to take matters into their own hands.

That said, I can state without hesitation that Alex Craft and The Female of the Species are going to stick with me for a long time.  They’ve given me a lot to think about.

RATING:  4.5 STARS

four-half-stars

About Mindy McGinnis

Mindy McGinnis is an Edgar Award-winning author and assistant teen librarian who lives in Ohio. She graduated from Otterbein University with a degree in English Literature and Religion, and sees nothing wrong with owning nine cats. Two dogs balance things out nicely.

Mindy runs a blog for aspiring writers at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire, which features interviews with agents, established authors, and debut authors. Learn how they landed their agents, what the submission process is really like, and how it feels when you see your cover for the first time. Mindy does query critiques every Saturday on the Saturday Slash for those who are brave enough to volunteer.

Book Review: Stalking Jack the Ripper

Book Review:  Stalking Jack the RipperStalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper, #1) by Kerri Maniscalco
four-stars
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper #1
Published by Jimmy Patterson on September 20th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 326
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Seventeen-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth was born a lord’s daughter, with a life of wealth and privilege stretched out before her. But between the social teas and silk dress fittings, she leads a forbidden secret life.

Against her stern father’s wishes and society’s expectations, Audrey often slips away to her uncle’s laboratory to study the gruesome practice of forensic medicine. When her work on a string of savagely killed corpses drags Audrey into the investigation of a serial murderer, her search for answers brings her close to her own sheltered world.

 

MY REVIEW

Kerri Maniscalco’s Stalking Jack the Ripper is, as its title implies, a retelling of the murderous rampage of infamous serial killer, Jack the Ripper.  As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of it as a cross between the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and then on a more modern note, a little Forensic Files with a touch of Rizzoli and Isles thrown in.  The end result is a novel that will keep you on the edge of your seat and thoroughly engaged.

LIKES

Maniscalco does a wonderful job of fleshing out her main character, Audrey Rose Wadsworth and making her seem so realistic.  She’s fiercely independent, headstrong, and sassy as all get out, which makes her such a fun character to follow.  Even with the overriding creepy serial killer plot, Audrey Rose still managed to make me chuckle quite a few times throughout the novel.   You just never know what she is going to say at any given moment, but you can pretty much guarantee that it will be completely inappropriate based on society’s expectations.  Speaking of society’s expectations, Audrey Rose truly doesn’t give a flip about those and instead is way ahead of her time and wants to pursue a career in forensic medicine.   When the novel opens, she is, much to her father’s chagrin, working as an apprentice to her Uncle, who is an expert in the field. I kept thinking to myself “She’s like a Victorian Era Maura Isles” (from the popular series Rizzoli and Isles).

Maniscalco also adds a character flaw or two, which serve to further humanize Audrey Rose.  Recklessness, in particular, seems to be a hallmark trait of hers.  While it’s easy to admire how passionate Audrey Rose is about catching this serial killer who is on the loose, at the same time, I wanted to scream at her at times for lurking around in shady areas of the city and putting herself in harm’s way trying to catch him in the act.  It was downright infuriating actually. For someone who is clearly supposed to be quite intelligent, Audrey Rose definitely doesn’t always make the smartest choices.

Speaking of infuriating, let me talk about another main character, Thomas Cresswell.  Cresswell is another student of Audrey Rose’s uncle and may actually be the most arrogant and annoying person on the planet.  However, he is as brilliant as he is arrogant and annoying and somehow the combination actually works to make him incredibly charming. Weird, right?  As they study the Ripper’s victims, Cresswell’s powers of deductive reasoning are so astute that every time he spoke, he reminded me of a young Sherlock Holmes.  From the moment they meet, he gets under Audrey Rose’s skin and their chemistry is off the charts.  I don’t know if I would ever buy into them as a couple, but they are quite the dynamic duo as they work together to solve these murders.

Aside from these two entertaining main characters, Maniscalco also does a brilliant job of making the reader feel as if they are truly in 19th century London and that there really is a killer on the loose.  It was clear Maniscalco did her research on every aspect of the story.  The descriptions of the city feel authentic and the atmosphere at night is utterly creepy.  You can practically sense the danger lurking around every corner, which makes for a real page turner.

 

DISLIKES

I think my only real dislike was that even though this was a retelling and so the author had creative license to make Jack the Ripper whoever she wanted him to be, I still had the murderer figured out way too soon. In that sense, I was a little disappointed.  The murderer’s reasoning for the killings was quite another matter though. Totally did not see that coming and liked the unexpected Dr. Frankenstein-ish twist.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I very much enjoyed Stalking Jack the Ripper and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in historical fiction, anything to do with the crimes of Jack the Ripper, or even an interest in forensic medicine or 19th century society’s expectations for its young women.  I would issue a word of caution to anyone who doesn’t like to read about blood and gore, however. As is probably expected since we’re dealing with the Ripper and his victims and we’re examining the victims from the vantage point of forensic scientists, the descriptions of the victims are quite graphic and stomach-turning.  It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.  If that doesn’t bother you though, it’s a fascinating read.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Kerri Maniscalco

Kerri Maniscalco grew up in a semi-haunted house outside NYC where her fascination with gothic settings began. In her spare time she reads everything she can get her hands on, cooks all kinds of food with her family and friends, and drinks entirely too much tea while discussing life’s finer points with her cats.

Her first novel in this series, Stalking Jack the Ripper, debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. It incorporates her love of forensic science and unsolved history.

Beat the Backlist Book Review for Jellicoe Road

Beat the Backlist Book Review for Jellicoe RoadJellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
four-stars
Published by Penguin Australia on August 28th 2006
Genres: Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 419
Source: Library
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis: 

I’m dreaming of the boy in the tree. I tell him stories. About the Jellicoe School and the Townies and the Cadets from a school in Sydney. I tell him about the war between us for territory. And I tell him about Hannah, who lives in the unfinished house by the river. Hannah, who is too young to be hiding away from the world. Hannah, who found me on the Jellicoe Road six years ago.

Taylor is leader of the boarders at the Jellicoe School. She has to keep the upper hand in the territory wars and deal with Jonah Griggs – the enigmatic leader of the cadets, and someone she thought she would never see again.

And now Hannah, the person Taylor had come to rely on, has disappeared. Taylor’s only clue is a manuscript about five kids who lived in Jellicoe eighteen years ago. She needs to find out more, but this means confronting her own story, making sense of her strange, recurring dream, and finding her mother – who abandoned her on the Jellicoe Road.

The moving, joyous and brilliantly compelling new novel from the best-selling, multi-award-winning author of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca.

MY REVIEW

I think I’m probably the last person on the planet to read Melinas Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road.  I’ve always heard wonderful things about it and actually know a couple of people who say it’s one of their favorite books. But yet, there it still sat on my TBR pile, getting buried deeper in the pile by newer books as the years went by.  Well, finally, thanks to the BeatTheBacklist challenge, I can finally say that I’ve read this beautiful book as well.

Jellicoe Road is not an easy book to read, by any means. It starts off very confusingly, tossing out a lot of seemingly random information that doesn’t appear to fit together in any meaningful way.  There are territory wars taking place between townies, military cadets, and the students at a boarding school, which is located on the Jellicoe Road.  Add to that dreams of a boy sitting in a tree, flashbacks to a car accident that appears to have decimated a family, throw in a hermit who kills himself, and a mysterious, somewhat creepy brigadier.   Top all of that off with a protagonist who was abandoned at a nearby convenience store at the age of 11 and who ends up living at the boarding school on Jellicoe Road and a caretaker who mysteriously goes missing, a manuscript about a group of kids who lived at the Jellicoe Road school decades ago and you have the ingredients that make up this wonderful puzzle of a story.

LIKES

The beauty of the book lies in the way that Marchetta is able to take all of these seemingly random elements and weave them together into one of the most heartbreaking and poignant stories I think I’ve ever read.  Taylor Markham is definitely the glue that holds the story together and it is through her eyes that we finally break through all of that initial confusion and start to make sense of the various elements that have been thrown at us.   Marchetta makes Taylor such an interesting and sympathetic character that I found myself instantly wanting to know more about her – how could her mom just leave her like that, why is she having these odd dreams about the boy in the tree, why are her classmates opposed to her being a leader in the territory wars? Because many of my questions mirror Taylor’s own questions about her life, it made me very willing to wade into the chaos looking for answers.

At its heart, Jellicoe Road is a book about relationships – family, friendships, even in some cases, an absence of relationships. I don’t want to give away too many details because I think this book is best enjoyed if you follow along Taylor’s journey and discover the connections as she discovers them, but I will say that Taylor’s journey is a very personal one and often a heart-wrenching one.  She knows next to nothing about her own life.  There is no real mention of her father, and aside from the fact that her mother left her at a Seven Eleven and that she has been living at the Jellicoe Road School ever since, she has no real sense of self.  Taylor is desperate to know who she is, why she was left behind, and even tried to run away from the school when she was 14 in hopes of getting some answers.

The closest thing to family Taylor has ever known is Hannah, a caretaker who lives on the school grounds.  Hannah is the one who found Taylor at the Seven Eleven and brought her back to the school to live.  When Hannah up and disappears one day without a word, Taylor is beside herself because now, in her mind, she has no one left to care about her.  She desperately searches for clues as to Hannah’s whereabouts and in doing so, starts to unravel the mystery of not only Hannah’s past, but her own as well.  Both of their pasts are filled with pain and plenty of angst, seemingly too much at times, but yet still completely realistic.  I think what I loved most about the story was that even though there is so much pain and angst revealed throughout, Jellicoe Road still ends on what I would consider to be a very hopeful note.

DISLIKES

I did find all of the confusion at the beginning of the novel to be a little off putting.  If I hadn’t liked Taylor so much right from the start, I think I probably would have just given up on the book.  It was a pretty fascinating way to start a story though as I imagined all of those same elements swirling around in Taylor’s head just like they were swirling in mine. Both of us sitting there like WTF is going on, haha!

One other issue I had was why all of the secrecy. At the time the story takes place, Taylor is about 17 years old. She’s more than mature enough to handle the truth about her past, so why torture her by hiding it from her for all of these years?  I know the people involved had their reasons, but I think all of the secrets probably just made things a lot more complicated than they needed to be.

FINAL THOUGHTS?

I would definitely recommend Jellicoe Road to anyone who likes a good mystery.  Although the story focuses on relationships and angsty family history, much time is also spent following the clues and connecting the dots.  Jellicoe Road is a beautifully complex read that will just keep tugging at your heartstrings from start to finish.

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta was born in Sydney Australia. Her first novel, Looking For Alibrandi was awarded the Children’s Book Council of Australia award in 1993 and her second novel, Saving Francesca won the same award in 2004. Looking For Alibrandi was made into a major film in 2000 and won the Australian Film Institute Award for best Film and best adapted screen play, also written by the author. On the Jellicoe Road was released in 2006 and won the US Printz Medal in 2009 for excellence in YA literature. This was followed up by Finnikin of the Rock in 2008 which won the Aurealis Award for YA fantasy, The Piper’s Son in 2010 which was shortlisted for the Qld Premier’s Lit Award, NSW Premier’s Lit Award, Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, CBC awards and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Her follow up to Finnikin, Froi of the Exiles and Quintana of Charyn were released in 2012 and 2013. Her latest novel Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is an adult crime novel.

Book Review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Book Review:  Under Rose-Tainted SkiesUnder Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall
four-half-stars
Published by Clarion Books on January 3rd 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  At seventeen, Norah has accepted that the four walls of her house delineate her life. She knows that fearing everything from inland tsunamis to odd numbers is irrational, but her mind insists the world outside is too big, too dangerous. So she stays safe inside, watching others’ lives through her windows and social media feed.

But when Luke arrives on her doorstep, he doesn’t see a girl defined by medical terms and mental health. Instead, he sees a girl who is funny, smart, and brave. And Norah likes what he sees.

Their friendship turns deeper, but Norah knows Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can walk beneath the open sky. One who is unafraid of kissing. One who isn’t so screwed up. Can she let him go for his own good—or can Norah learn to see herself through Luke’s eyes?

 

MY REVIEW

Louise Gornall’s Under Rose-Tainted Skies is a contemporary young adult novel that focuses on what it’s like to live with a mental illness.  The novel follows protagonist, seventeen year old Norah Dean, and the day-to-day challenges she faces because she has agoraphobia and OCD.  Up until about four years ago, Norah was living the life of a typical teen – going to school, hanging out with her friends – until one day something abruptly changes and she gets caught in the grips of a terrifying panic attack, an attack so severe that she loses consciousness. When she wakes up, everything is different and she finds herself suddenly terrified of doing all of the things she used to do.  When we first meet Norah, she is basically housebound.  She no longer attends school, instead doing her coursework online, and the only time she ever leaves the house anymore is to attend weekly therapy sessions, which are emotionally exhausting for her, not so much because of the therapy itself, but more so because of the stress having to leave the safety of her home causes her.  Because she has stopped leaving her home, she and her friends gradually drift apart and, by the time we meet Norah, her main social interactions are now with her mom and her therapist.  That is, until Luke moves in next door.  When he spots Norah peeking at him from her bedroom window, he decides to come over and introduce himself.

After a few awkward false starts, such as when Luke catches Norah “fishing” for her groceries out the front door with a long-handled broom because she’s too afraid to step out and retrieve them, Luke and Norah do finally meet and become friends.  At first Norah tries to hide all of the details of her mental illness from Luke for fear of how he will react, but Luke is pretty perceptive and picks up on it anyway.  She still withholds the extent of it, but does start to try to explain what she is going through.  As their friendship slowly develops into something more, Norah struggles with the idea that she really is not worthy of Luke because she may never be able to do “normal” boyfriend/girlfriend activities with him and believes that he deserves much more than she has to offer him.  This creates even more turmoil to Norah’s life as she must decide what she is going to do about Luke – let him in or let him go…

LIKES

Norah – I really adored Norah.  She’s smart and funny, incredibly resourceful when it comes to coping with her illness, and she’s also much braver than she gives herself credit for being.  I found Norah so likeable that I immediately wanted to know more about her condition since agoraphobia is something that I know next to nothing about.  Being in Norah’s head as she struggles through each day made the story especially powerful and gave me a much clearer picture of the illness and how truly crippling it can be.  Norah’s frustration is palpable throughout, especially the fact that she is very much aware that most of her fears were irrational, but still can’t stop their paralyzing effects.  By allowing us access to Norah’s thoughts, Gornall paints an authentic and vivid portrait of agoraphobia and allows us to see beneath the surface of what is often considered an “invisible” illness.

Luke – Luke is just as adorable as Norah is and I especially loved how determined he was to befriend Norah in the beginning of the story, no matter how much she tried to avoid him.  I don’t know that I completely bought into the idea of Luke and Norah as a romantic couple, but I was 100% into their friendship.  I liked that he really wanted to know more about Norah’s condition – not to judge her as Norah had initially feared – but so that he could interact with her in ways that would be most comfortable to her.

Romance is not a “cure” – Even though I didn’t completely buy into the romantic aspect of the story, I did really like how Gornall keeps it real.  Just as it wouldn’t happen in real life, having a boyfriend does not magically cure Norah.  Granted, she does have more of a support system now that she has Luke in her corner in addition to her mom and therapist, but the illness is clearly still there throughout the book.

Humor – Even though Norah’s struggles with mental illness are quite serious, I loved that the author was still able to incorporate some light and humorous moments into the story.  Norah occasionally finds herself in awkward situations, such as when she is shooing an obnoxious bird away from her window one day and new neighbor Luke sees her and thinks she is flirting with him.  As embarrassing as it was for Norah at the time, I liked that later in the book, as Norah gets more comfortable with Luke, she’s able to laugh that moment off and explain to Luke that she wasn’t flirting with him – It was that the bird was messing with her OCD.  Not that OCD is funny by any stretch of the imagination, but I did like that Norah was able to find humor and laugh at herself a bit rather than be humiliated about what happened.

DISLIKES

I can’t really say that there’s anything I disliked about Under Rose-Tainted Skies, although I would have  liked a little more for the ending, mainly because I felt it wrapped up a little too quickly.  I think that’s mainly because I had become so invested in Norah that I just didn’t want her story to end.  I wanted to follow her longer and see how she was doing.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Norah’s story is one that needs to be told and Louise Grovall does a beautiful job in telling it.  If you’re looking for a raw and honest look at the life of someone who is coping with agoraphobia and OCD, you should definitely check out Under Rose-Tainted Skies.

TRIGGERS  

There is mention of self-harm and Norah’s therapist talks to her at length about it.

RATING

4.5 stars

four-half-stars

About Louise Gornall

Louise Gornall in her own words:  

“My name is Louise, and I write YA books. Sometimes contemp, sometimes horror, sometimes thriller. My debut YA contemp, Under Rose-Tainted Skies, will be published by HMH/Clarion (US), and Chicken House/Scholastic (UK) in the fall 2016/17.

Under Rose-Tainted Skies is about this chick, Norah, who suffers from agoraphobia, OCD and depression. Her life is one long blur of cheese sandwiches and trash tv, until she meets the new boy next door, Luke, and he starts to challenge her way of thinking.

I’m represented by the amazing Mandy Hubbard of Emerald City Literary.”

Source:  bookishblurb.com

Book Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Book Review:  Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens AgendaSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
four-stars
Published by Balzer + Bray on April 7th 2015
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 303
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.

My review:

I have to say that going in, I had no idea what to expect from Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. I had never heard of the book and the cover just happened to catch my eye as I was browsing at the library – bright red with a headless guy on the front and a stack of what appeared to be OREO cookies on the back. Say what?! Curious and quite amused by this combination of images, I decided to check it out and give it a go.

I’m so thrilled that I did too.  I kid you not – I don’t think I have ever smiled so much while reading a book as I did while reading Simon vs. the Home Sapiens Agenda.  Even now, just thinking about the book again while writing this review, I’m sitting here grinning.

What made this book such a wonderful read for me is that it’s a light and humorous story about love, family, friendship, high school life, and coming out as gay that, at the same time, conveys such an important message regarding the LGBTQ community – namely, that people who identify as LGBTQ are just like everyone else.

Highlights of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for me:

Simon Spier, of course!  Simon is this Oreo-obsessed high school junior who is in the drama club, knows pretty much everything there is to about Harry Potter, has a golden retriever named Bieber, and who is just all around adorable.  Simon also has a bit of a crush on a fellow student who calls himself ‘Blue’.  This budding relationship serves to add an extra layer of depth to Simon’s character.  In what way? Well, because in spite of their growing mutual attraction, Simon and Blue have never actually met face to face and don’t even know each other’s real names.  They met via the school’s tumblr and only communicate with via email using aliases.  Why all the secrecy? Because as much as they like each other, neither Simon nor Blue are quite ready to come out publicly as gay.

Aside from his just overall cuteness and his humor, what I loved most about Simon was the honest and relatable way in which Becky Albertalli portrays him. The first person point of view was key here.  From the first page, you feel like you’re inside the mind of a teenage boy – how Simon can’t wait to rush to the nearest computer and read his next email from Blue and how his brain is on such overload when it comes to Blue that he walks off and absentmindedly leaves his emails to Blue open for the world (or at least for class clown Marty Addison to see).  Once Simon realizes that Marty has the power to expose his biggest secret, and Blue’s as well if anyone were to figure out what Blue’s true identity is, we then go inside of Simon’s mind as he has to decide how to handle Marty.

I really enjoyed how realistically and convincingly Albertalli writes the internal struggle that Simon faces.  There are so many factors to be considered and we get an up close look as Simon goes through all of the pros and cons in his mind. Does he beat Marty to the punch and go ahead and come out as gay?  But how will his family, friends, and other students react? Will they treat him differently? Will he be mocked and bullied?  And himself aside, there’s Blue to consider.  What if Blue isn’t ready to come out?  He’s tormented by the idea that Blue could suffer because of his own carelessness.

Simon and Blue as a couple.  In addition to being inside of Simon’s head while he tries to figure out what to do about this whole blackmail situation, I also adored being able to follow his thoughts when it comes to his attraction to Blue.  It’s a budding high school romance and Albertalli portrays it exactly like any other budding high school romance would be portrayed.  Their flirtations are no different than if the two characters were male and female and I just thought this was so wonderful and so important.  There are still too many people in the world who consider the LGBTQ community as deviant, and this book helps to dispel that mistaken impression.  With Simon and Blue, there is absolutely no sense that they are in any way deviant.  They are just two people who feel a connection and want to explore that connection, and the progression of their relationship is lovely to watch unfold.  Not only are they portrayed as completely normal teens in love, but they are completely adorable.  Even sight unseen, relying on nothing but emails to slowly build their relationship, Simon and Blue are seriously the cutest couple ever.   I loved reading their silly flirtatious conversations, as well as their deeper and more meaningful conversations as they are each trying to decide how, when, or if they should come out as gay.  Albertalli has made these two characters so likeable together and the progression of their relationship so completely natural that I think reading this book could be a mind-opening experience for a lot of people.

Simon’s Squad.  Okay, I’m all about a great cast of secondary characters and let me just say that this book has them in spades.  I simply adored all of Simon’s friends – Nick, Abby, and Leah, and heck even Marty, the blackmailer, grew on me the more I got to know him.

Another quality I really liked about this book is that Albertalli so vividly and fully captures the high school experience, that no matter how long you have been out of school, she transports you right back there.  She is especially effective at portraying the often messy dynamics of high school friendships – when long-time friends suddenly become more than friends, when new friends join a peer group and others feel threatened or jealous because they worry they’ll get squeezed out, etc.   Each time Simon’s circle of friends got shaken up by one of these things, I felt like I was being transported right back in time to my own messy circle of friends. It was very nostalgic for me in that sense.

The Search for Blue:  I had a lot of fun following Simon around and trying to guess which of his classmates might be Blue.  And again, because Albertalli has portrayed every character as typical, average high school kids, Blue really can be anyone Simon encounters throughout his school day.  I loved exploring all of the possibilities, especially as I got to know a little more about each character. And like Simon, I made several incorrect guesses before Blue is finally revealed.

Themes:  I love that, in addition to being such a fun and entertaining read, this book is also filled with so many positive messages in it about love, friendship, family, and community.  I also wish this book had been around when I was in school because I think a lot of LGBTQ students I went to school with would have found this book helpful : 1) in letting them know they’re not alone in what they might be feeling, and 2) in helping them realize that family and friends might be way more supportive than they might otherwise expect.

Anything I didn’t like?

The only thing that comes to mind was that it did take me a while to get used to reading the emails between Sam and Blue. Not because of the subject matter or anything like that, but just because at first, it didn’t feel like they flowed well with the rest of the novel.  Once I got a little more used to the style, it stopped bothering me though.

Who would I recommend this book to?

This is one of those books I would recommend to pretty much everyone from high school age right on up through adulthood, and I’d especially recommend it to parents.  Why?  1) Because it’s a super cute and fun read that I think everyone can enjoy, and 2) Because it’s an important book that has a lot to teach you, if you let it.  Maybe you’re not a student yourself, but you might be a parent with a child who might be LGBTQ and who might go through something like Simon and Blue did.  This book can only help to increase your understanding of what your own child might go through.  As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that Simon could easily be my own son.  So yes, just such an important book on many levels.

 

Rating:  A very strong 4 stars!

 

four-stars

About Becky Albertalli

Becky Albertalli is a clinical psychologist who has had the privilege of conducting therapy with dozens of smart, weird, irresistible teenagers. She also served for seven years as co-leader of a support group for gender nonconforming children in Washington, DC. These days, she lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons, and writes very nerdy contemporary young adult fiction. Her debut novel, SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA, releases from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins on April 7th, 2015.

Book Review – The Light of Paris

Book Review – The Light of ParisThe Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown
four-stars
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on July 12th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 308
Source: Library
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:

The miraculous new novel from New York Times–bestselling author Eleanor Brown, whose debut, The Weird Sisters, was a sensation beloved by critics and readers alike.
 
Madeleine is trapped—by her family’s expectations, by her controlling husband, and by her own fears—in an unhappy marriage and a life she never wanted. From the outside, it looks like she has everything, but on the inside, she fears she has nothing that matters.  In Madeleine’s memories, her grandmother Margie is the kind of woman she should have been—elegant, reserved, perfect. But when Madeleine finds a diary detailing Margie’s bold, romantic trip to Jazz Age Paris, she meets the grandmother she never knew: a dreamer who defied her strict, staid family and spent an exhilarating summer writing in cafés, living on her own, and falling for a charismatic artist.  Despite her unhappiness, when Madeleine’s marriage is threatened, she panics, escaping to her hometown and staying with her critical, disapproving mother. In that unlikely place, shaken by the revelation of a long-hidden family secret and inspired by her grandmother’s bravery, Madeleine creates her own Parisian summer—reconnecting to her love of painting, cultivating a vibrant circle of creative friends, and finding a kindred spirit in a down-to-earth chef who reminds her to feed both her body and her heart.

Margie and Madeleine’s stories intertwine to explore the joys and risks of living life on our own terms, of defying the rules that hold us back from our dreams, and of becoming the people we are meant to be.

My Review: 

I was unfamiliar with Eleanor Brown prior to reading The Light of Paris and have to confess the main reasons I picked it up were 1) I had just visited Paris last summer and wanted to recreate the magic I experienced during my time there, and 2) that gorgeous purple cover kept catching my eye every time I saw it displayed at the bookstore and in the library.

I’m so glad that I picked up The Light of Paris though because it introduced me to a wonderful writer in Eleanor Brown and it most definitely made me fall in love with Paris all over again.

 

View of Paris from the bell tower at Notre Dame Cathedral - photo taken by me.

View of Paris from the bell tower at Notre Dame Cathedral – photo taken by me.

 

So what did I love about The Light of Paris?

Dual Narrative Point of View and Time Jumps:

I’ve always enjoyed novels where a historical tale is framed within a contemporary one and The Light of Paris fits that bill for me.  Eleanor Brown has beautifully woven together the stories of Madeleine in 1999 and her grandmother Margie in 1924.  Aside from their biological relationship, their stories, although being told 75 years apart, are tied together by another common thread as both women are dealing with the same basic struggle – how to live their own lives and pursue their passions when societal and family expectations dictate they should do otherwise.

Brown begins with Madeleine’s journey.  Madeleine is dealing with an overly controlling husband and, consequently, an unhappy marriage.  When she learns that her mother is selling her home, Madeleine uses this as an excuse to get away from her husband for a while.  It is while she is at her mother’s home that Madeleine discovers some old journals in storage and first learns about Margie and her trip to Paris.  The rest of the novel alternates between Madeleine in 1999 and Margie in 1924 as they each try to find their own way and live life on their own terms.  I have read books where the time jumps and switch in point of view can be confusing and doesn’t work well, but Brown does a lovely job and the story flows smoothly and naturally between Madeleine to Margie from start to finish.

Setting:

I also love the way Brown captures the sights, sounds, and spirit of Paris as she describes Margie’s time there.  If you’ve never been to Paris before, by the time you’re finished reading, you’ll have a first class case of wanderlust and will want to pack your suitcase and head there for a romantic adventure of your own.  And if you’ve been to Paris before, Brown will make you fall in love with the City of Lights all over again.  Brown also paints a truly vivid portrait of 1920’s Jazz Age Paris — so much so, in fact, that as I was reading, I half expected Ernest Hemingway to come strolling through the doors of one of the cafes that Margie frequented.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris. Photo taken by me.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris. Photo taken by me.

Main Characters You Can Root For:

Margie’s story was, by far, the more interesting of the two narratives for me.  Margie’s dilemma is that while her parents expect to her marry and settle down with a suitable husband as soon as she is finished with her education, what she really wants to do is follow her passion, which is writing, and become an author.  It was spectacular watching her go from being this little cotillion-attending, debutante girl doing everything that was expected of her to suddenly rejecting the suitor her parents have chosen for her, then further rebelling against them by refusing to return home from a trip to Paris and instead living there on her own for months.  She was really a woman ahead of her time in that sense and I cheered her on every step of the way.  Watching her blossom into her own person as she sat in cafes indulging in her writing habit and then finding love on her own terms was so inspirational.  I loved Margie’s story so much that if that had been the sole focus of the novel, this probably would have been a 5 star read for me.

Where Margie’s story was inspiring, however, Madeleine’s story was often frustrating for me.  Similar to Margie and her passion for writing, Madeleine has a passion for art and actually wanted to go to school to study to become an artist.  Instead of following her heart though, Madeleine instead lets her family convince her that being an artist isn’t a viable career and that she should study something more practical like Marketing, and then find herself a good husband.  I loved Madeleine and wanted her to be happy, but it blew my mind how much she let her mother, in particular, dictate how she lived her life.  As I watched her mope and lament this miserable marriage she’s supposedly trapped in, all I kept thinking was ‘Why did you marry Phillip in the first place? He’s a controlling ass. Why would you let anyone — your husband or your mother — convince you that you shouldn’t pursue your love of art? It’s 1999 and you are a modern woman so start acting like one!’  It made no sense to me that Madeleine needed to read about her grandmother’s rebellious and romantic time in Paris to come to the conclusion that perhaps it was time to kick Phillip to the curb and try something different.  I actually think if Margie had still been alive in 1999, she probably would have wanted to give Madeleine a kick in the pants and tell her life is too short not to do what makes you happy.

Likeable Secondary Characters:

I guess it’s a quirk with me but I have to have a likeable secondary cast of characters in order to thoroughly enjoy a story and Brown has given me exactly what I need with the characters of Sebastian and Henry.  Sebastian is an artist that Margie meets while in Paris, and Henry is a restaurant owner that Madeleine meets while visiting her mother.  Both Henry and Sebastian are charming, down to earth, and just delightful characters.  I liked the touch of romance that each of the characters brought to the story, and I especially liked the pivotal role each of them plays in helping Margie and Madeleine discover who they are meant to be.  In addition to showing her all that Paris has to offer on a social and artistic level, Sebastian is actually the one who convinces Margie she should stay in Paris when the trip with her cousin doesn’t go as planned. He takes her to a place where she can find suitable, affordable housing and that also helps with job placement for Americans.  Henry plays a similar role in Madeleine’s journey,  first and foremost, by being her friend and being supportive about things that are of interest to her, namely her artistic abilities, which is something her husband never bothered with.  Henry also serves as an inspiration to Madeleine because the whole reason he has this restaurant next door to Madeleine’s mother’s house is because he left his job as a chef at a restaurant to follow his dream – that of owning his own restaurant.  If he hadn’t followed his own heart, he and Madeleine never would have met. His journey, especially when considered alongside Margie’s brave and adventurous sojourn in Paris, really give Madeleine the push she needs to start re-evaluating the direction her life has taken and to forge a new and more fulfilling path for herself.

Anything I didn’t care for?

Aside from my frustration with Madeleine, I can’t think of anything else that I didn’t enjoy.  Margies’s cousin, Evelyn, was a nasty little girl, but that said, I like to have characters that I can actively dislike as well and she definitely falls into that category.

Who would I recommend this book to?

The Light of Paris was a delightful read on many levels so I’d recommend it, first of all, to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a hint of romance. I’d also recommend it to anyone who wants a taste of the City of Lights and to anyone who likes a story about people finding themselves.

 

Rating:  A strong 4 stars

 

 

 

four-stars

About Eleanor Brown

Eleanor Brown is the New York Times and #1 international bestselling author of The Weird Sisters, hailed by People magazine as “a delightful debut” and “creative and original” by Library Journal.

Her second novel, The Light of Paris, will be published by Putnam Books in the summer of 2016.

Eleanor teaches writing workshops at The Writers’ Table in Highlands Ranch, CO, and at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, CO, as well as writing conferences and centers nationwide.

An avid CrossFit participant, Eleanor is the author of WOD Motivation and a contributor to CrossFit Journal.

Born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Eleanor lives in Colorado with her partner, writer J.C. Hutchins.

Book Review: Glass Sword

Book Review:  Glass SwordGlass Sword (Red Queen, #2) by Victoria Aveyard
three-stars
Series: Red Queen #2
Published by HarperTeen on February 9th 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 444
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Synopsis from Goodreads: If there’s one thing Mare Barrow knows, it’s that she’s different. Mare Barrow’s blood is red—the color of common folk—but her Silver ability, the power to control lightning, has turned her into a weapon that the royal court tries to control. The crown calls her an impossibility, a fake, but as she makes her escape from Maven, the prince—the friend—who betrayed her, Mare uncovers something startling: she is not the only one of her kind.

Pursued by Maven, now a vindictive king, Mare sets out to find and recruit other Red-and-Silver fighters to join in the struggle against her oppressors. But Mare finds herself on a deadly path, at risk of becoming exactly the kind of monster she is trying to defeat. Will she shatter under the weight of the lives that are the cost of rebellion? Or have treachery and betrayal hardened her forever?

The electrifying next installment in the Red Queen series escalates the struggle between the growing rebel army and the blood-segregated world they’ve always known—and pits Mare against the darkness that has grown in her soul.


My Review of Glass Sword:

For those familiar with the Red Queen series, the second book Glass Sword picks up right where the first book leaves off. The “little lightning girl” Mare Barrow and fallen Prince Cal have escaped from King Maven and his silver minions, and along with members of the Scarlet Guard, they’re on the run. Aveyard sets a fast and exhilarating pace from the first page as the band of rebels flee to safety and then regroup to devise their own plan of attack against Maven. The action-packed conclusion of Red Queen was my favorite part of that novel, so I was very excited to see there was no gap in the action between the two books.

The first mission at hand for the band of rebels is the list that Mare’s mentor, Julian, had given her before Maven had him killed – a list of what they have now dubbed ‘New Bloods’. These ‘New Bloods’ are others who are just like Mare – red blooded but with Silver abilities. Mare and the others know that since Maven is determined to prove that she is nothing more than a fraud with no special abilities, then he will try to find and eliminate everyone on that list to hide the fact that ‘New Bloods’ actually exist.

The story then becomes a race against time for Mare and the Scarlet Guard to find each New Blood first and to hopefully recruit them to their cause. With an army of New Bloods on their side, the odds of stopping Maven become much greater. This sounds exciting, and at first it is, as each ‘New Blood’ is found and we learn what their special powers are. However, and maybe it’s just me and my impatience, but after a few journeys to find, save, and recruit, I got bored and just wanted to fast-forward to when all of the ‘New Bloods’ had been located so that I could just move along with the rest of the plot.


Okay, so what did I really like about Glass Sword?

Backstory on Farley – Farley is still my favorite character so I love that I got to learn a lot more about her in this book.

Cal – I didn’t really think Cal was all that in the first book, but he’s really starting to grow on me in this one. He’s a bit of an enigma now that he has lost everyone and everything he held dear and we get to see a side of him that we haven’t seen before as he’s trying to figure out who he is and what he wants. Will he help Mare and the Scarlet Guard or will he ultimately side with his Silver brethren if they will take him back? Only time will tell, but I like the developments in this character and want to see more of him.

New Blood super powers – I know I said I got bored with the actual tracking down of the New Bloods, but that said, the powers they possess are awesome! Aveyard seems to come up with an endless supply of super cool abilities for our rebels. Among others, there’s a chameleon, one who can manipulate gravity, and another that can create optical illusions. The powers are very different from the brute force, X Men like powers we saw in ‘Red Queen’ and seem sure to come in handy in a death match versus King Maven and his army of Silvers.

The ending! – I don’t want to give it away, but the ending is cliffhanger of epic proportions. In spite of my disappointment with certain aspects of ‘Glass Sword’, the ending alone makes me want to get my hands on the next book as soon as possible.


And what didn’t I like about Glass Sword?:

Aside from the repetitive nature of the recruiting missions I already mentioned, there was one other problem area for me and I hate to say it, but it’s Mare. I don’t know why, but I’m just not feeling the connection to her that I think I should be feeling, especially since she’s the protagonist. I don’t want to say that I don’t care what happens to her because that’s not true, but there is still something about her that frustrates me to no end. I understand that she’s in turmoil because of what has already happened to her and because of her fears about what she could become in her quest to defeat Maven – the fact that she would be responsible for not only taking lives herself, but also for potentially sacrificing the lives of those around her. I get it; I really do.

However, her constant running internal dialogue about it drove me crazy after a while, especially her repetitive bemoaning of the fact that she misses her Maven – the boy she thought Maven was before he turned out to be such a complete and utter monster. I really just wanted to scream at her Cher-style: “Snap out of it!” So, yeah, even though I truly do love Mare’s badass side and want her to rise up and defeat Maven, I really need her to hurry up and move past the whole ‘missing Maven’ thing and get focused on the task at hand.


Would I recommend Glass Sword?:

Well, I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Even with my disappointments though, the overall story still has potential to be pretty amazing if I could just find a way to better connect with Mare. I’m still hopeful this will happen as she grows more into her role. Even if that doesn’t happen though, I’m still committed enough to the story to want to see how it ends and, for that reason, would definitely still recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the first book.

Rating: 3 stars

three-stars

About Victoria Aveyard

In her own words:

“I’m a writer repped by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc. I split my time between my hometown East Longmeadow, Massachusetts and Los Angeles. After graduating with a BFA in Screenwriting from the University of Southern California, I decided to try my hand at writing a novel. My debut RED QUEEN came out of the terrifying, unemployed year after college. The sequel GLASS SWORD released in February 2016.

Currently I’m working on the third book in the RED QUEEN series, along with pursuing other projects in literature and film. My proudest achievements are riding a horse in the mountains of Montana and navigating from London to Edinburgh without GPS.”