Book Review: The Marriage Pact


Newlyweds Alice and Jake are a picture-perfect couple. Alice, once a singer in a well-known rock band, is now a successful lawyer. Jake is a partner in an up-and-coming psychology practice. Their life together holds endless possibilities. After receiving an enticing wedding gift from one of Alice’s prominent clients, they decide to join an exclusive and mysterious group known only as The Pact.

The goal of The Pact seems simple: to keep marriages happy and intact, and most of its rules make sense: Always answer the phone when your spouse calls. Exchange thoughtful gifts monthly. Plan a trip together once per quarter. . . .

Never mention The Pact to anyone.

Alice and Jake are initially seduced by the glamorous parties, the sense of community, their widening social circle of like-minded couples–and then one of them breaks the rules. The young lovers are about to discover that for adherents to The Pact, membership, like marriage, is for life, and The Pact will go to any lengths to enforce that rule. For Jake and Alice, the marriage of their dreams is about to become their worst nightmare.

The premise of this book sounded intriguing: A mysterious, secretive club, with complicated rules and requirements, dedicated to enhancing and strengthening marriage. Alice and Jake join the Pact mostly on a whim — they’re amused by the sense of formality and ritual during the initial sales pitch, and sign the contract without a moment’s hesitation. After all, if they sign now, they’ll be just in time to attend the big fancy party coming up.

Uh oh. Never sign without reading the fine print! Alice, a lawyer, really should know better.

Alice and Jake soon learn that there’s a dark side to the Pact. First tip should have been the manual — a huge volume containing endless rules about how to behave in the marriage — and long lists of punishments, graded misdeamenors to felonies — for marital infractions big and small. The couple simply doesn’t take any of it seriously. They act like it’s a silly game. No one actually MEANS any of this stuff, right?

Wrong.

They realize quickly enough that crimes like lack of focus on the marriage carry a penalty, such as relatively benign mandatory counseling sessions with a more senior Pact member, or required early-morning workout sessions with a trainer when one’s weight falls outside the prescribed limits. Yes, there are weigh-ins. Shudder.

The penalties escalate with the severity of the crime against the marriage, and before they know it, Alice is being manacled and shackled and carted off to a prison facility in the Nevada desert. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Too late, Jake and Alice realize that the Pact is not a game at all… and that there’s no way out.

What I liked:

The premise is certainly different, I’ll grant the book that. It’s intriguing at the start to wonder about the true agenda of the Pact. As each consequence become harsher than the previous one, the suspense ratchets up. The book moves quickly, and the tension continues to mount as the book proceeds. Who can be trusted? Where can they turn? Is the danger real? There’s definitely a lot to keep us going.

I liked Alice and Jake as characters, although I need to counter that by saying that they’re way too smart to end up in the situation they find themselves in.

And stretching for anything else positive to say — well, I did like the author’s use of the San Francisco setting. Every time Jake describes which route he took from his house, I can picture the turn-by-turn directions, and I enjoyed seeing “my” beach, Ocean Beach, feature into the plot.

 

What I didn’t like:

Oh, where to start?

My biggest issue, and the one that will pretty much keep me from recommending this book, is that it pretty quickly changes from being dark to being outright sadistic. Yes, people, the punishments include all sorts of sadistic, painful torture and humiliation, and that is so NOT what I thought I was signing up for. The book became frankly unpleasant by the last third. I don’t mind creepy thrillers — but this isn’t that. The Marriage Pact gets into detailed descriptions of horrible acts involving pain and loss of control and cruelty for the sake of cruelty.

Beyond the awfulness of those parts, the plot itself doesn’t hold together. I made light of it earlier, but really, these are two well-educated people who should absolutely know better than to sign contracts on the spot, as if they’re buying a timeshare that they’ll regret later. There’s every indication right from the start that they’re getting involved in something big and scary, and they just ignore the warning signs and sign on the dotted line. Sheesh.

Also, hate to say it, but the Pact just never made sense to me. It’s filled with rich and powerful people, the implication being that if you ever try to leave or expose the Pact, they have the power and the reach to destroy your careers, your reputations, and possibly even your chance of staying alive. But why? The Pact is dedicated to the preservation of marriage. Fine. But what drives all these people to enforce it and be loyal to it? It’s not about money or power — it seems to be only about dedication to the Pact itself. The rituals of punishment, coupled with the loyalty of Pact members, just doesn’t add up.

 

Wrapping it all up:

Reading The Marriage Plot is like watching a train wreck. It’s a horrible sight, but I had a hard time looking away. I did want to know what would happen next and whether Alice and Jake would find a way out. Also, the truly sadistic, torture-ific parts don’t come until later in the book, and by that time I was too far in to walk away without finishing. I guess not everyone will be as bothered by those parts as I was, but that’s definitely not what I thought I was signing up for when I started this book.

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The details:

Title: The Marriage Pact
Author: Michelle Richmond
Publisher: Bantam
Publication date: July 25, 2017
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

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Audiobook Review: The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland


When 38 jetliners bound for the United States were forced to land at Gander International Airport in Canada by the closing of U.S. airspace on September 11, the population of this small town on Newfoundland Island swelled from 10,300 to nearly 17,000. The citizens of Gander met the stranded passengers with an overwhelming display of friendship and goodwill. As the passengers stepped from the airplanes, exhausted, hungry and distraught after being held on board for nearly 24 hours while security checked all of the baggage, they were greeted with a feast prepared by the townspeople. Local bus drivers who had been on strike came off the picket lines to transport the passengers to the various shelters set up in local schools and churches. Linens and toiletries were bought and donated. A middle school provided showers, as well as access to computers, email, and televisions, allowing the passengers to stay in touch with family and follow the news.

Over the course of those four days, many of the passengers developed friendships with Gander residents that they expect to last a lifetime. As a show of thanks, scholarship funds for the children of Gander have been formed and donations have been made to provide new computers for the schools. This book recounts the inspiring story of the residents of Gander, Canada, whose acts of kindness have touched the lives of thousands of people and been an example of humanity and goodwill.

I can’t say enough good things about this moving, uplifting book. It documents human goodness and kindness in the face of tragedy, and is, pure and simple, a marvelous listening experience.

As the book opens, we meet an assortment of passengers and crew members from the 38 planes, as well as some of the locals in Gander. The initial chapters recount the start of these flights from Europe to various points in the United States, and the slowly spreading news that some sort of catastrophe in the US has forced a closure of all US airspace, requiring all planes in the air to land elsewhere. Gradually, the pilots and then the passengers start to learn about the terrorist attacks. The fear and disbelief and outrage are palpable, as is the very real fear that — given all the unknowns of events still occurring — there could be terrorists on board any of the planes still in the air.

As the planes land in Gander, we see the amazing efforts and generosity of the townspeople, both those in official capacities as mayor or police officer or customs official, and those who are simply people whose hearts are open to the strangers who arrive by the thousands in their small town.

The acts of kindness are beautiful to hear described. Townspeople drop off towels and linens by the carload at the shelters, with no thought of getting them back. Local pharmacists work round the clock to contact passengers’ physicians around the globe so that they can get copies of their prescriptions and make sure they have their needed medications. Local animal shelter volunteers care for the stranded animals who’d been in transit in the airplane cargo holds. A local retailer is instructed by headquarters to give the “plane people” everything they need, no money necessary. Toys are delivered, so that every single child from the planes has a new toy to play with. When it’s discovered that two Orthodox Jews are among the passengers, extraordinary efforts are made to make sure kosher food is delivered for them. The care and love, given so freely to complete strangers, is just beautiful.

Two of the most moving stories are about passengers going through extreme stress in an already stressful situation. First, there’s the couple returning from visiting relatives abroad whose son is a New York firefighter. They know he was likely one of the first responders who entered the towers, and through the time of their stay in Gander, his fate remained unknown. Second, there’s a couple from Texas on the way home from weeks in Kazakhstan where they’d just adopted a daughter. What should have been her first entry into the US and an introduction to her new life turns into an extended stay in a shelter with parents she barely knows. In both cases, as with really everyone there, the support they receive is heartwarming and unforgettable.

The book is filled with story after story of the amazing interactions between the “plane people” and the “Newfies”. The book was published just about a year after 9/11, and the author includes some follow-up in the epilogue to let us know how certain people’s lives changed since those fateful days. I’d love to know now, so many years later, how they’re doing, and whether the bonds formed in Gander have stayed strong over the years.

The Day the World Came to Town is an amazing listen. No matter how many years have gone by, the images from 9/11 remain indelible. and I found it particularly chilling to listen to the chapters which described the initial attacks and the various ways in which the passengers and flight crews heard the news. Despite the sorrow of the tragedy, this book is a lovely reminder of the good that exists in the world and the huge difference small acts can make.

Side notes:

First, a big thank you to author Dana Stabenow, whose review of this book on her blog is what made me find a copy in the first place!

Second, the musical Come From Away, now on Broadway, is also based on the events in Gander during the week of 9/11. I’ve heard such wonderful things about the show! I really hope to get to New York in the coming year — and if I do, seeing Come From Away will be high on my “must” list!

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The details:

Title: The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland
Author: Jim DeFede
Narrator: Ray Porter
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: September 3, 2002
Length (print): 256 pages
Length (audiobook): 6 hours, 27 minutes
Genre: Non-fiction
Source: Purchased (Audible)

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Shelf Control #100: Needful Things

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.pngTHIS IS MY 100th SHELF CONTROL POST! Wooooooo. And the scary thing is that I’m not in any danger of running out of unread books on my shelves. Of the 100 books I’ve chosen for Shelf Control, I’ve managed to read only 11 so far, plus one more that I DNFd and one that went in my most recent discard pile. That’s not a particularly impressive reading rate… but, I keep moving forward.

Onward to this week’s pick…

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Title: Needful Things
Author: Stephen King
Published: 1991
Length: 690 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Stephen King’s #1 national bestseller about a store where Leland Gaunt can sell you whatever your heart desires—sexual pleasure, wealth, power, or even more precious things—but not without exacting some price in return. “A read in the tradition of The Stand” (Booklist).

Leland Gaunt opens a new shop in Castle Rock called Needful Things. Anyone who enters his store finds the object of his or her lifelong dreams and desires: a prized baseball card, a healing amulet. In addition to a token payment, Gaunt requests that each person perform a little “deed,” usually a seemingly innocent prank played on someone else from town. These practical jokes cascade out of control and soon the entire town is doing battle with itself. Only Sheriff Alan Pangborn suspects that Gaunt is behind the population’s increasingly violent behavior.

How and when I got it:

I don’t remember buying this book, but I do have a copy on my shelf. Maybe it just showed up by itself one day. Kind of creepy and appropriate for a Stephen King book!

Why I want to read it:

Stephen King! Castle Rock! I’m a big fan of King’s, and still have some major reading gaps when it comes to his books. I’m trying to fix that, bit by bit, so whenever I’m next in the mood for a King read, I think this will be the one to grab.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Top Ten Tuesday: My top ten books of 2017

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Top Ten Favorite Books Of 2017.

According to Goodreads, I gave a 5-star rating to 76 books in 2017. SEVENTY-SIX. That’s a lot. So how to narrow down my top books to just 10? Here are the books I consider the best of the best from my 2017 reading — not necessarily books published in 2017; simply the books I read this past year that I loved the most. (And okay, I cheated a bit and snuck in more than 10!)

Note: If you want to know more about any of the books mentioned here, click on the links to see my reviews.

1) Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant (review)

2) La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1) by Philip Pullman (review)

3) The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (review)

4) A whole bunch of books by Gail Carriger! (reviews here and here)

5) How to Stop Time by Matt Haig (review)

6) Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin (review)

7) Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford (review)

8) Leviathan Wakes (review)/Caliban’s War/Abaddon’s Gate (review) by James S. A. Corey

9) A first introduction to the world of Georgette Heyer (reviews here, here, here, and here)

10) Two classics that I finally tackled (and adored):
(Great Expectations reading update here)

 

What were your favorite reads of 2017? Please leave me your link!

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

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The Monday Check-In ~ 12/11/2017

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

My husband is traveling for a few weeks, so I’m single-parenting. Geez, it’s tiring! I guess I’m usually super spoiled, because my hubby is the family cook and all-around food person. Having to do the food shopping and make dinner after a day of work is exhausting! (I’m very challenged when it comes to the kitchen, which is why my meal-related chores are usually limited to washing the dishes.) Okay, I’ll stop whining now!

What did I read last week?

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway: Moving and powerful. My review is here.

The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza: My book group’s December book. I listened to the audiobook, and was surprised by how much fun it was. Check out my review, here.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherin Arden: An engaging follow-up to the beautiful The Bear and the Nightingale. My review is here.

Lord John and the Private Matter by Diana Gabaldon: Also in book group updates, we finished this installment of our Lord John readalong. It was a great experience, and I’m looking forward to our next book in January!

Outlander !!

That’s a wrap — season 3 has come to an end. What will I do now?

My reaction post for episode 313, “Eye of the Storm”, is here.

Here’s a little peek at the episode:

Elsewhere in pop culture:

Anyone else watching The Crown? I’m so excited for season 2!

Fresh Catch:

New books!

Other new stuff:

My friend gave me a SLOTH BOOKMARK and it is the best thing ever!

 

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:
 

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond: Good and ominous so far!

Now playing via audiobook:

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim DeFede: Non-fiction, telling the story of the amazing experiences in Gander, Newfoundland when planes diverted due to 9/11 stranded passengers from all over the world in this remote town.

Ongoing reads:

Book group reads:

  • Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott: My book group’s classic read! We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week.
  • Lord John and the Succubus by Diana Gabaldon: We’ll be starting our group read of the novella Lord John & the Succubus in January — contact me if you’d like to join in.

So many books, so little time…

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Insta-Reaction: Outlander, Season 3, Episode 13 (season finale)

Season 3 is here! My intention is to write an “Insta-Reaction” post for each episode soon after viewing, to share some initial thoughts, questions, reactions — you name it.

Warning:

Spoilers

I may be talking about events from this episode, other episodes, and/or the book series… so if you’d rather not know, now’s your chance to walk away!

Outlander, episode 313: “Eye of the Storm”

The official synopsis (via Starz):

Claire is forced to play a game of cat and mouse with an old adversary as she searches for Young Ian. The Frasers race through the jungles of Jamaica to prevent the unthinkable.

My take:

It’s the season finale! Where has the time gone?

Major plot points:

  • Captain Leonard’s arrest of Jamie is quickly foiled by Lord John, who declares the arrest invalid without a warrant or witness affidavit and sets Jamie free.
  • Claire pursues Ian to Rose Hall, where she’s found wandering the slave quarters and is brought to Geillis.
  • Geillis confronts Claire and accuses her of plotting against her. Claire is finally able to convince Geillis that she’s been in the future for the past 20 years by showing her photographs of Brianna.
  • Claire is locked up, but is freed by Jamie, and together they chase Ian’s trail, first encountering a voodoo circle, Mr. Willoughby, and Margaret Campbell.
  • They follow Geillis to the cave Abandawe, where she’s preparing a ritual aimed at going back through the time portal so she can kill Brianna and fulfill the prophecy to bring about Scottish independence. She’s preparing to sacrifice Ian as a blood ritual to travel through time.
  • Claire and Jamie arrive in time. Claire kills Geillis, and they escape with Ian.
  • Claire and Jamie enjoy a romantic interlude on board the Artemis before a hurricane strikes.
  • After Claire almost drowns, the two wash up on shore and discover that they’ve landed in America.

Insta-reaction:

What an action-packed final episode to the season! Once again, kudos to the production team and the cast for their amazing work in such a physically demanding set of scenes.

The episode really never lets up, with chase scenes and high drama and life-or-death confrontations. Claire’s meeting with Geillis is powerful, as Geillis invokes their friendship and the fact that she sacrificed herself at the witch trial in order to save Claire’s life. When Claire finally convinces Geillis that she’s been back in the 20th century by showing her the photos of Brianna, it’s like all the pieces come together in Geillis’s mind. She remembers meeting Brianna at the White Roses rally back at the university in 1968, and realizes that the strange prophecy (about a 200-year-old baby dying in order to bring about the next Scottish king) must be about the daughter of Claire and Jamie. The fanatical look on Geillis’s face is crazy scary. Heck, this is a woman who killed her husband to move her plans forward (one of many, it turns out) — Claire is fully aware that Geillis won’t hesitate to kill Brianna if she can find her.

The voodoo scene is well-done, and I loved the call-back to the first season, as Claire flashes back to her first glimpse of the dancers on Craigh na Dun so many years earlier.

It appears that Margaret Campbell and Mr. Willoughby will have a happy ending of sorts, as she breaks free from her scummy brother (who’s ultimately killed by Mr. W.). The two seem to have connected, Margaret seems comparatively sane relative to the previous times we’ve seen her (apart from getting all spooky-eerie-creepy when she takes on Brianna’s voice to talk to Jamie and Claire), and the pair plan to run off to Martinique to start a new life.

In the cave, Claire can full the hum of the portal, and tells Jamie that if she gets pulled through, she may not be able to come back. They kiss. They both know that if Geillis manages to travel, Claire will have to follow to try to keep her from harming Brianna. Geillis is preparing a ritual involving gemstones, Brianna’s photo, and murdering Ian — but she’s stopped as Claire swings a machete at her, slicing her throat open. Claire remembers the skull Joe Abernathy had shown her back in Boston, and realizes that it was Geillis’s.

Jamie embraces Claire and Ian, as this dangerous chapter draws to an end. But they’re not out of the woods yet!

Jamie and Claire enjoy a very steamy romantic encounter on board the Artemis. Their plan is to return to Scotland and deliver Ian safely back to Jenny at Lallybroch. The gods of weather don’t seem to like this plan, as a hurricane hits. The entire ship seems about to sink, and Claire is swept overboard. Jamie saves her, and the two wash up on shore. A local family finds them and informs them that the other survivors from the ship are just down the coast… and tells them that they’re in Georgia.

And we pan out to see a lovely view of the land, as the series closes one chapter and sets the stage for what’s to come. From here on out, Claire and Jamie will be starting a new life in the American Colonies.

Insta-reaction wrap-up:

Visually, this was quite the impressive episode. You can just tell watching it that the cast and crew gave it their all. From the scenes of running through the jungle, to the dancing by the fire, to the fight in the cave, and then to the storm at sea, it was one magnificent set-piece after another.

The episode hit all the major beats that it needed to, from the relief at finding and rescuing Ian to Jamie and Claire’s lovemaking on board the ship to the devastation of the hurricane. It’s a lot, but it works. This episode marks the end of the story from Voyager, book #3, and is the turning point toward a new adventure as the Fraser family begins building a new home for themselves in America.

I loved the cinematography of the final scenes, as Jamie and Claire are bathed in sunshine. It’s bright and beautiful, and full of promise of a new day. They’ve survived the storm, and they’re together. It’s a moment full of hope and love, and the swooping shot of the Georgia landscape is a perfect ending, balancing out the gorgeous shots of green Scottish landscapes from the season 1 title sequence.

 

Wrapping it all up…

I’m so sad to see season 3 come to an end! Overall, it’s been a phenomenal season. It’s hard to think back and realize just how much has happened over these 13 episodes — Culloden, Claire’s life in Boston, the years apart, the search for Jamie, the reunion, the ocean voyage… it’s a huge amount of plot to get through, but the show has done an admirable job of condensing the story without losing the emotional connections at the heart of it all.

It’s been a beautiful, moving, exciting ride. And now, we’re back to Droughtlander! Let’s raise our glasses and drink a wee dram in honor of the wonders of season 3 — and now we can start counting the months, weeks, and days until season 4!

Book Review: The Girl in the Tower

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

The Bear and the Nightingale was one of the most lovely and original books of 2017. I reviewed it back in January when it was released, and have been raving about it ever since. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to get my hands on the sequel!

The Girl in the Tower picks up where the first book leaves off. Vasya has fled her home and her village, someplace she’s never left in her entire life, after the death of her father. She knows she cannot stay in a place where she’s suspected of witchcraft and distrusted by almost all. In medieval Russia, girls have really zero choices in their lives, and there are only two paths available: Marry, produce children, and run a household… or don’t marry and go instead to a convent.

But Vasya is a free spirit who sees and communicates with the chyerti, the spirits of Russian folklore who inhabit the forests, the hearth, and all aspects of the natural and man-made world. However, the people have become blinded by the edicts of the Church and no longer tend to the chyerti as they should, and now consider them to be demons and devils to be feared and cast out. Vasya chooses a different path for her life, and leaves on her beautiful horse Solovey. As she rides through freezing forests, she is occasionally accompanied by Morozko, the frost-demon who cares for her, with whom she has a mysterious bond.

Meanwhile, bandits have been raiding villages in the area near Moscow, slaughtering the villagers, burning the towns to the ground, and stealing their young girls to sell as slaves. Vasya’s brother Sasha, a fierce warrior and a monk, brings word to Grand Prince Dmitrii, and they set out to track down the bandits and stop them, while also fearing the threat of a Tatar invasion.

Paths converge, as Vasya shows up with children rescued from a burned village and seeks shelter at Sasha’s monastery, but she’s traveling in disguise as a boy, and must maintain the fiction in order to be allowed to fight and defend Moscow from the forces that threaten their world. In Moscow society, women live their lives in their towers and are not permitted on the streets or to mingle with men, so Vasya’s masquerade is a huge breach that, if revealed, will end in disaster for her, as well as for her brother and sister Olga, a princess of Moscow.

That’s the gist of the plot in The Girl in the Tower, and I won’t go into further detail, because this book really should be explored and appreciated with fresh eyes.

Once again, author Katherine Arden paints a picture of a time and place where harsh societal strictures limit women’s options, and yet at the same time, a world where magic is fading but isn’t quite gone. Reading this book, I could practically feel the freezing temperatures of the forests, and wondered at the forces keeping Vasya live when she should have frozen to death.

The traditions and daily routines are vividly described, especially the role of the bathhouses and the terem, the secluded dwelling areas for upper class women. A glossary at the back of the book provides a key tool in gaining a fuller understanding of the terms used throughout the story — reading through this section is a must, either during or after reading the book itself.

The books starts a little slowly, and it’s not until we get a bit further into Vasya’s adventures that the story truly picks up. Once it does, it’s impossible to put down.

Vasya, as in the first book, is a marvelous character. She’s brave and defiant, but with inner doubts and wounds. She knows that her society has no place for her, and all she dreams of is escape, riding off with her horse to see as much of the world as she can. Getting drawn into the intrigues and dangers of Moscow is not a part of her plan, but she can’t walk away when people she cares about are in danger, and displays her courage again and again.

As the second book in a trilogy, The Girl in the Tower doesn’t have the incredible newness of The Bear and the Nightingale. It’s definitely a middle book, continuing on with the world introduced in the first book, rather than focusing so much on world-building and the introduction of the beliefs, superstitions, and traditions of the time. The story is much more action-focused, and lacks the sense of wonder evoked in the first book as we meet the chyerti and see Vasya coming of age with her sight and her strength.

Still, The Girl in the Tower is an engaging and moving read, and does what it needs to do in terms of moving the story forward and showing the next chapter of Vasya’s life, as she leaves behind the village girl she once was and sets out to find a new path. This book is a transition from the start of Vasya’s story, laying the groundwork for what’s to come.

Now that I’ve read The Girl in the Tower, I cannot wait for the third book! Vasya is an amazing character, and her journey to become her true self is inspiring and thrilling. The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower are must-reads. Check them out!

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The details:

Title: The Girl in the Tower
Series: The Winternight Trilogy, #2
Author: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: December 5, 2017
Length: 363 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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Audiobook Review: The Knockoff


An outrageously stylish, wickedly funny novel of fashion in the digital age, The Knockoff is the story of Imogen Tate, editor in chief of Glossy magazine, who finds her twentysomething former assistant Eve Morton plotting to knock Imogen off her pedestal, take over her job, and reduce the magazine, famous for its lavish 768-page September issue, into an app.

When Imogen returns to work at Glossy after six months away, she can barely recognize her own magazine. Eve, fresh out of Harvard Business School, has fired “the gray hairs,” put the managing editor in a supply closet, stopped using the landlines, and hired a bevy of manicured and questionably attired underlings who text and tweet their way through meetings. Imogen, darling of the fashion world, may have Alexander Wang and Diane von Furstenberg on speed dial, but she can’t tell Facebook from Foursquare and once got her iPhone stuck in Japanese for two days. Under Eve’s reign, Glossy is rapidly becoming a digital sweatshop—hackathons rage all night, girls who sleep get fired, and “fun” means mandatory, company-wide coordinated dances to Beyoncé. Wildly out of her depth, Imogen faces a choice—pack up her Smythson notebooks and quit, or channel her inner geek and take on Eve to save both the magazine and her career. A glittering, uproarious, sharply drawn story filled with thinly veiled fashion personalities, The Knockoff is an insider’s look at the ever-changing world of fashion and a fabulous romp for our Internet-addicted age.

If not for my book group, I probably would never have considered this book. The Knockoff checks a lot of boxes for topics I usually avoid: the fashion world, corporate life, women being catty, descriptions of what people are wearing, focus on millennials… Still, in the spirit of being a good book group-ie, I plunged right in. Surprise! I ended up having a lot more fun with this book than I could possibly have imagined.

The story is fairly straightforward: Imogen Tate has been the editor-in-chief of Glossy for years, connected with all the top names in the fashion world, guaranteed a front-row seat at Fashion Week, and considered one of the biggest names in the world of fashion media. But after a six-month medical leave, she returns to work to find that nothing is as she left it. Her former assistant Eve is now basically running out the show, throwing out the physical magazine in favorite of an app whose raison d’etre is their BUY IT NOW tagline on every single item in every single photo shoot. Suddenly, Glossy is Glossy.com, staffed by interchangeable millennial 20-somethings who are all looking for their breakthrough into tech gold.

Imogen is immediately out of her depth, helpless with anything related to technology, and being made to feel like a dinosaur. (Literally. Eve has a toy dinosaur on her desk with “Imogen” printed on the side.) But Imogen isn’t without allies and resources, and she sets out to become relevant, going from hopelessly inept twitterer to Instagram idol practically in the blink of an eye.

What I liked:

The characters and the dialogue are bubbly fun. The writing is snappy and witty, moving quickly from scene to scene. The story is mostly told from Imogen’s point-of-view, but we get occasional sections narrated by Eve or by Imogen’s new assistant Ashley, and their voices are distinct and finely honed.

Imogen is a strong lead character, and I loved seeing a woman at the helm of a business, with all the respect and acclaim she deserves. It’s also rewarding to see a powerful businesswoman with a home life. She works hard, but she’s also got a great, supportive husband, and is a devoted mom to two young children. The other thing that’s great about Imogen is that she’s NICE. She’s not the cookie cutter mean boss, the woman who has to be a bitch to get ahead. Imogen believes in treating people kindly and with respect, no matter their role, and it pays off for her tremendously, both in terms of actual results and in the good will generated.

I can’t say that I “liked” Eve — but I think the authors did a great job with her character. She’s completely insufferable, but she’s supposed to be. As written, Eve is simply an awful person, shouting “GO GO GO” at her staff, forcing them to attend spin classes with her and admire her every move, and ready to fire people at a moment’s notice for really no reason at all. She’s abrasive and totally oblivious to the horrible impression she makes on fashion world movers and shakers — she’s all about her Harvard MBA, and can’t see beyond her adorable selfies for more than a moment. So while I despised Eve, kudos to the authors for creating such a thoroughly unlikable character!

Side characters are quite well-drawn as well, from the anxious, eager-to-please young women who follow Eve’s every move, dreaming of their own big breakthroughs, to the supermodels who are Imogen’s friends and the tech gurus whom Imogen finds surprisingly agreeable, each has interesting quirks and personalities. I got a big kick out of Imogen’s nanny Tilly, who becomes Imogen’s emergency social media advisor, teaching her how to hashtag like a boss.

What I didn’t like so much:

Certain parts of the premise just didn’t ring true for me. Imogen is 42 years old. 42! That’s not ancient! There’s no way that a 42-year-old should have to have her assistants print her emails before she reads them. She may not have rocked social media previously, but I simply found it incredible that a woman in business, in her early 40s, would be that incapable of using and understanding technology.

Imogen is out on medical leave for six months, and returns to find her business completely revamped — and no one let her know ahead of time? Is it realistic that over the course of half a year a well-established magazine would completely throw out its business model and turn itself into an app? Didn’t feel that way to me.

The focus on Eve’s wedding toward the end creates the climactic moments of the story, but honestly, the wedding shenanigans seemed overblown to me and beyond the point of credulity. It’s hard to believe that the wedding would have created that level of buzz or attracted the who’s-who of attendees — although Eve’s wedding plans, from choosing only size 2 bridesmaids to dictating guests’ outfits, are kind of hilarious in their awfulness. As the madness piles up, it goes beyond funny to overdone… but yeah, not entirely unfunny either.

Okay, and I have to point out — back in the Glossy office, where is HR in all this? Don’t Imogen and Eve have bosses? How can Eve be managing the staff and the company the way she does for so many months with no intervention? I call poppycock. It’s just not realistic for this size corporation to have absolutely no oversight in place. I was more than a little horrified to read about Eve’s management practices (if you can even call it that). The company should have been swimming in lawsuits.

A note on the narration:

Katherine Kellgren is a terrific narrator. She gives Imogen a posh London accent, then switches gears to portray Eve’s mean girl American drawl and Ashley’s millennial-speak. I often find narrators distracting when they over-do their versions of the opposite gender, but in this case, the narrator’s male voices were well-done without sounding fake.

The voice for Eve was strident and shouty — but that’s Eve. We’re supposed to be that irritated by her.

Wrapping it all up:

The Knockoff was an unexpectedly fun listen. It’s definitely not my usual subject matter, but the mix of humor and personalities really worked. Yes, I had quibbles about the plot, but this is meant to be entertainment, not a true study of the state of corporate America. Imogen’s personal journey is a hoot to witness, and I couldn’t help but cheer for her (while gleefully waiting for Eve’s downfall). The ending is wickedly satisfying, and there’s really never a dull moment. It’s not a particularly deep read, but The Knockoff sure is enjoyable.

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The details:

Title: The Knockoff
Author: Lucy Sykes & Jo Piazza
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: May 19, 2015
Length (print): 352 pages
Length (audiobook): 12 hours, 10 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Shelf Control #99: The Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present
Author: Wayne Mergler (editor)
Published: 1996
Length: 816 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

This mammoth, 816-page anthology tells a myriad of stories of Alaska in fiction, journalism, memoirs, folklore, and poetry. From Tlingit and Eskimo legends to the prose by Robert Service, Ernie Pyle, and Jack London to works by young contemporary writers, The Last New Land lays out a literary goldfield waiting to be discovered.

How and when I got it:

I found this book at a library sale a few years back and just had to have it.

Why I want to read it:

First of all, I’m madly in love with Alaska and love reading novels set there — so when I saw this story collection, there was no way I’d pass it up (even though I don’t usually read short stories). The anthology looks fascinating, including Tlingit and Eskimo legends, stories and excerpts about early Alaska history, all the way through to present-day fiction and articles, and even an excerpt from one of my very favorite series, the Kate Shugak novels by Dana Stabenow.

I doubt that I’ll ever sit down and read this book all the way through, but choosing The Last New Land for this week’s Shelf Control is a good reminder to myself to at least pull it off my shelf and dip my toes in!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: Far From the Tree

A contemporary novel about three adopted siblings who find each other at just the right moment.

Being the middle child has its ups and downs.

But for Grace, an only child who was adopted at birth, discovering that she is a middle child is a different ride altogether. After putting her own baby up for adoption, she goes looking for her biological family, including—

Maya, her loudmouthed younger bio sister, who has a lot to say about their newfound family ties. Having grown up the snarky brunette in a house full of chipper redheads, she’s quick to search for traces of herself among these not-quite-strangers. And when her adopted family’s long-buried problems begin to explode to the surface, Maya can’t help but wonder where exactly it is that she belongs.

And Joaquin, their stoic older bio brother, who has no interest in bonding over their shared biological mother. After seventeen years in the foster care system, he’s learned that there are no heroes, and secrets and fears are best kept close to the vest, where they can’t hurt anyone but him.

Far From the Tree is a beautiful, moving look at families — what makes a family, and what keeps a family together.

Grace, Maya, and Joaquin are three lonely teens, each going through their own brand of suffering.

For Grace, it’s the pain of an unexpected pregnancy, followed by giving up her beautiful baby for adoption. Grace has loving and supportive parents, but giving up her daughter makes her wonder for the first time what might have driven her own biological mother to give her up.

Maya is the older of her family’s two daughters — but she’s adopted, and her sister Lauren is biological. Her parents’ marriage is on the brink of disaster, and Maya and Lauren have become the keepers of their mother’s secret, hiding the evidence from their father of just how bad their mother’s drinking has gotten.

Joaquin is the oldest of the three, but his life has not been nearly as smooth as Maya’s and Grace’s. The two girls were adopted at birth by loving parents, but Joaquin was never adopted, instead spending his life in the foster system, always ready to pack his belongings into a trash bag and move on to a new placement at a moment’s notice. And even those he’s been with Mark and Linda for two years now — two kind and affectionate people who want to give Joaquin a permanent home — he fears hurting those around him, and doesn’t want to let anyone get close in case he hurts them or ruins their lives.

After Grace gives up her baby, she tells her parents that she’d like to find her bio mom, and they let her know that although they don’t know where to find her, Grace does in fact have two biological siblings living not too far away. Grace, Maya, and Joaquin find that they have a bond almost instantly, and despite their vastly different lives and circumstances, they quickly grow to trust and love one another, and to find in the others a sense of belonging that they never knew they needed.

Well, I could really just cut this review short at this point and simply say: I loved this book. The chapters alternate POV narrators between the three siblings, so we get a clear look at each one’s inner thoughts, fears, and hopes. There are scars left from their early lives and the lingering question mark — were they abandoned? Did their biological mother love them? Would she want anything to do with them if they ever managed to find her?

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that it’s satisfying without being predictable or too neat or too perfect. Over the course of the novel, I came to care so deeply about Grace, Maya, and Joaquin. Maybe it’s the mom in me, but I just wanted to scoop them all up, give them hugs, and tell them that they’re loved, and that they’ll be okay. They all have people in their lives who love and support them, but they still face hurdles around trust and belonging and feeling truly wanted and secure. Through their bonding as brother and sisters, they start to open up and feel connected, and it was so special to see how they find ways to support each other, accept each other, and offer unconditional love.

Far From the Tree is just a lovely read, and I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys well-defined characters and engrossing family situations. Maybe I take something from this book as an adult that’s different than what a teen would get from it, and I’m actually trying to push my teen-aged son to read it (despite the fact that he — gasp — does not believe in reading for fun).

In any event, I’m very happy to have read Far From the Tree. Once I started, I just really couldn’t stop. Great writing, great story — check it out!

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The details:

Title: Far From the Tree
Author: Robin Benway
Publisher: HarperTeen
Publication date: October 3, 2017
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

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