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 #98: 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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The Monday Check-In ~ 12/4/2017

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.

What did I read last week?

Odd & True by Cat Winters: Another fascinating book from an amazing author! My review is here.

Here’s Negan! by Robert Kirkman et al: The Walking Dead‘s super-villain gets a backstory. This is a quick read, and I liked it! I’ve seen some grumbling (and honestly, if I’d paid for it instead of reading a library book, I might be grumbling too) — but I thought it was pretty fascinating to see Negan’s transition from asshole gym teacher to most dangerous guy post-zombie-apocalypse. TWD fans should check it out!

Geekerella by Ashley Poston: Amazingly cute and fun! My review is here.

In audiobooks, I finished listening to The Bear and the Nightingale, and loved it all over again! The audiobook narrator is wonderful. And now I’m ready for the sequel!

Outlander !!

My reaction post for episode 312, “The Bakra”, is here.

Here’s a little peek at the episode:

Fresh Catch:

Cyber Monday included a deal on books, so I bought myself volumes 2, 3, and 4 in the Finishing School series by Gail Carriger. Yes, I’ve read them all… but now I actually have a complete set for my shelves!

Also as part of my Black Friday/Cyber Monday binge, I took advantage of a buy one, get one free offer on shirts from Out of Print (and if you haven’t heard of them, check out their fabulous bookish goodies here.)

(PS – In case it’s not obvious, the shirt on the left is Romeo and Juliet!)

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:
 

I have two books in my hands right now:

  • Far From the Tree by Robin Benway: A YA contemporary read; and
  • The Girl in the Tower by Katherin Arden: Book #2 in the Winternight trilogy, which starts with the beautiful The Bear and the Nightingale.
Now playing via audiobook:

The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza: My book group’s December book — just getting started.

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 Private Matter by Diana Gabaldon: Our group read of Private Matter ends this week! We’ll be moving on to 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 12

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 312: “The Bakra”

The official synopsis (via Starz):

The Artemis finally reaches Jamaica bringing Jamie and Claire much closer to their goal. During a ball on the island, the Frasers encounter old allies, as well as former adversaries who threaten to derail their mission.

My take:

Major plot points:

  • We learn more about Ian’s fate: After his kidnapping from Selkie Island, Ian is held captive on board the Bruja, then thrown into a prison cell in Jamaica.
  • He’s brought to see “the Bakra” — who turns out to be Geillis Duncan, alive and well and seemingly a wee bit deranged.
  • Claire and Jamie arrive in Jamaica and begin their search for Ian.
  • They go to the Governor’s reception in hope of getting more information, and discover that the Governor is Lord John Grey.
  • Captain Leonard from the Porpoise arrives, and although Jamie and Claire flee, the captain and his soldiers catch up and arrest Jamie for murder and sedition.

Insta-reaction:

Well, Outlander is certainly putting its South African sets to good use! We spend the entire episode on the (artificial) Jamaica created on the Starz sets in South Africa, and it definitely looks lush and tropical. Kudos, Outlander!

The opening scenes with Ian are disturbing, to say the least. Ian is kidnapped, forcibly taken across the sea, and thrown into a cell with other young male prisoners, who report that other boys had been there too, but then were taken to the Bakra and never seen again.

Finally, it’s Ian’s turn. He’s taken to an island plantation and shown into a beautiful room — where we see first a leg and then the rest of a naked woman’s body emerge from a bath of blood. It’s Geillis Duncan, alive and well! She says that bathing in blood (don’t worry, it’s not human, she assures Ian) keeps her skin young and fresh. Way to explain not aging your actress, show!

Geillis drugs Ian’s tea with truth serum. Apparently, the chest of jewels from Selkie Island was supposed to contain three sapphires, but when Geillis got it, there were only two. Geillis demands that Ian tell her where the 3rd is. Ian blurts out that maybe his uncle, James Fraser, has it. Geillis is VERY interested to hear that Jamie could be involved.

Apparently she needs the jewels for a mystical purpose. She’s hired Margaret and Archibald Campbell, the fortune-tellers we met several episodes ago, to find the truth behind a prophecy given by the Brahan Seer regarding the future king of Scotland, and the prophecy will only work with all three sapphires. (How does Geillis know this? Why these particular sapphires? No idea.)

Geillis also has need of young male virgins. She’s quite scary and creepy as she rubs her feet and other body parts all over poor young Ian, who doesn’t know whether to be terrified or turned on. He’s not a virgin, he tells Geillis… but she doesn’t appear to mind after all.

Okay, all that, and that’s only the before-the-credits stuff!

Jamie and Claire arrive in Jamaica and go searching for Ian. Claire, being Claire, pretty much immediately causes a public scene in the slave market. Way to stay incognito, Claire. Anyway, Jamie has to make amends to the slave owners, and he does this by buying the slave whose treatment caused Claire to snap. Claire is now a slave owner, and she is not pleased. (Later, we get a brief history lesson, as she lets Jamie know how many more years slavery will last in the British Empire and in America.)

The Frasers, along with the younger Fraser couple, Fergus and Marsali, attend a reception for the new governor in hopes of continuing their quest for Ian, planning to ask around and see if they can pick up any clues. Fergus and Marsali are giddy and adorable, and can’t seem to keep their hands off one another. As Jamie and Claire reach the front of the receiving line, Jamie is shocked to discover that John is the governor! John is flabbergasted and delighted and so totally awkward when he sees Jamie. Not exactly playing it cool, this guy. He takes Jamie and Claire into a private room, where he gives Jamie a quick update on Willie’s well-being. Claire keeps eyeing John in a knowing sort of way. The guy really is not hiding his delight over Jamie one tiny bit.

Later, Claire sees a familiar face and rushes after her, finding Geillis out in the garden. Geillis explains that she avoided her own execution (after the witch trial in season 1) with Dougal’s help, and eventually ended up marrying a plantation owner, now deceased, and moving to Jamaica. She is now known as Mrs. Abernathy.

Geillis manages to get hold of the 3rd sapphire (John is wearing it — a token to remind him of Jamie!), and has Margaret Campbell do a reading. Margaret’s words sound like gobbledy-gook, but seem to say that a baby that is born already 200 years old will have something to do with the future of Scottish independence. Hmmm, 200 years? Very interesting!

Claire and Jamie make a hasty exit when they see Captain Leonard arrive with armed men. As they flee, they learn that the slaves at the governor’s estate report seeing a young Scottish boy being taken to Rose Hall — the home of Mrs. Abernathy, aka Geillis! Captain Leonard catches up to them, and Jamie is dragged away, shouting instructions to Claire to go find Iam.

Insta-reaction wrap-up:

Huh. I’m not usually a stickler for faithfulness to the text, but this episode had some major departures from the book, and I’m not sure I like all of them. First of all, Geillis. It’s kind of too early for Claire to discover Geillis, and in the books by the time they meet, Claire already knows that Mrs. Abernathy is responsible for Ian (and other boys) being kidnapped. Also, Geillis has definitely aged and is suffering from syphilis, so there’s that as well.

The blood bath scene is dramatic and very impressive visually… but, well, I guess I’ll just leave it there. Was it necessary? Not really. But it sure does show a bit of Geillis’s crazy (and lets the show get away with yet another character being 20 years older than when last seen, but looking fresh as a daisy.)

Also, the John business. How much did Jamie tell Claire about John? Apparently he’s filled her in on Geneva and Willie, and how John married Geneva’s sister and raised Willie all these years. But did Jamie tell Claire that John was (is) in love with him? If he didn’t, she certainly picked up on something here. John was not exactly subtle. I’m actually fine with this version, since in the book Claire sees John and Jamie together and assumes (crazily) that Jamie has feelings for John, or perhaps was in a relationship with him. Anyway, as for the episode — I don’t know, it just felt like something was a bit off in the John/Jamie/Claire scenes. I can’t quite put my finger on why I felt this way, but it’s like the show is straddling two different stories. Either Claire knows everything (which is implied here), or she doesn’t, but it felt a bit muddled to me.

I did like the use of costuming to show the passage of time. Claire and Jamie are both wearing their old clothes from Paris, altered slightly and looking a bit less fresh. It makes sense — where would these people suddenly get fancy clothes from after sailing across the ocean for months? Luckily, Fergus brought them the clothes they’d stored at Lallybroch, so there’s some good continuity here. I like that Marsali was dressed up in one of Claire’s old gowns as well. It’s a nice touch, and seems to imply more of a warming up between Claire and Marsali. (Plus, Marsali and Fergus are quite adorable together, all dressed up and giddy with the excitement of it all.) Even Mr. Willoughby gets some fancy clothes to wear and looks smashing.

Wrapping it all up…

I thought this episode was just okay. Visually, it was quite impressive, from the Geillis-covered-with-blood scene to the tropical setting to the fancy party clothes (and Jamie in a wig!). Still, something about the pacing and the plot felt a bit off to me. I know there’s still a lot of ground to cover, but there was perhaps a bit too much exposition in this episode for my taste.

And suddenly, we’re only a week away from the season finale! Overall, I do feel that this has been a stellar season. It’s strange to think back and see how far we’ve come — from the battlefield at Culloden and Claire’s 20th century life in Boston, all the way to this moment of high drama in Jamaica! It feels more like several seasons worth of plot, rather than simply 12 consecutive episodes with one to go.

Cast and crew are doing a phenomenal job, and I’ve loved the show so much this season.

Trying not to cry when I think of saying good-bye after next week… it’ll be a long Droughtlander again until season 4!

Book Review: Geekerella

When geek girl Elle Wittimer sees a cosplay contest sponsored by the producers of Starfield, she has to enter. First prize is an invitation to the ExcelsiCon Cosplay Ball and a meet-and-greet with the actor slated to play Federation Prince Carmindor in the reboot. Elle’s been scraping together tips from her gig at the Magic Pumpkin food truck behind her stepmother’s back, and winning this contest could be her ticket out once and for all—not to mention a fangirl’s dream come true.

Teen actor Darien Freeman is less than thrilled about this year’s ExcelsiCon. He used to live for conventions, but now they’re nothing but jaw-aching photo sessions and awkward meet-and-greets. Playing Federation Prince Carmindor is all he’s ever wanted, but the diehard Starfield fandom has already dismissed him as just another heartthrob. As ExcelsiCon draws near, closet nerd Darien feels more and more like a fake—until he meets a girl who shows him otherwise.

Oh my, this geeky Cinderella story is oodles and oodles of fun!

Elle is Cinderella — the unloved girl forced to wait hand and foot on her self-centered stepmother and awful twin stepsisters. Elle is still devastated by her father’s death, and seeks solace in the Starfield fandom, which she shared with her father and which helps her find meaning in life. She sees the cosplay contest as a possible path to freedom, with a prize that could help her fulfill her dream of escaping from her terrible life in Charleston and moving to LA to pursue a screenwriting career.

Elle is pretty disgusted by the casting of Darien in the lead role of Prince Carmindor. He’s a pretty-boy soap actor — how can he possibly do justice to such a noble, iconic character? She voices her opinion, loud and clear, on her Starfield-devoted blog… and suddenly, her followers and page views are through the roof.

Meanwhile, Elle and Darien meet-cute through an accidental text, and begin a texting relationship which escalates from silliness to true friendship and soul-baring, all the while not knowing each others’ true identity.

This book is charming and funny in all the right ways, and yet manages to be deeper and more serious than the title and cute cover art might suggest. Both Elle and Darien have serious issues to confront about self-image and being valued for who they are and finding a place to fit in. Elle’s situation is much more dire, of course, as she lives with people who don’t love her and make her life hell. But Darien’s life isn’t perfect either, as his sudden fame results in betrayal by his one close friend, being considered a poser in the fandom (even though he’s been a devoted fanboy for years), and having no privacy while having to constantly put on a public face in keeping with his star status.

The relationship between Elle and Darien is sweet and funny, but equally wonderful is Elle’s growing friendship with her coworker Sage, and her belated discovery that one of her stepsisters isn’t the awful person she thought she was.

Geekerella has all sorts of wonderful shout-outs to the world of cons and fandoms:

As the green room door disappears behind us, I give it one last forlorn glance when a guy with thick brown hair and an even browner coat catches my eye.

“Gail!” I skid to a stop. “I think I see Nathan F–”

Gail yanks me toward herlike a yo-yo. “You can get him to sign your first-edition Firefly comic later.”

The author allows the characters to voice what draws people to their fantasy worlds and makes them so important:

Of course it’s not real. I know it’s not real. It’s just as fake as the Styrofoam props they use and the cardboard sets and the tinny laser sounds and the ice cream machines they try to disguise as “data cores” — I know it’s all fake. But those characters — Carmindor, Princess Amara, Euci, and even the Nox King — they were my friends when everyone in the real world passed around rumors behind my back, called me weird, shoved me into lockers, and baited me into thinking I was beautiful only to push me away just before we kissed. They never abandoned me. They were loyal, honorable, caring, and smart.

And while I don’t usually mention author acknowledgments in reviews, I do love this passage from the author’s acknowledgements in Geekerella:

So I want to thank you. You, the reader. You, who cosplays and writes fanfiction and draws fanart and runs a forum and collects Funko-Pops and must have hardcovers for all of your favorite book series and frames for your autographed posters. You, who boldly goes.

Never give up on your dreams and never let anyone tell you that what you love is inconsequential or useless or a waste of time. Because if you love it? If that OTP or children’s card game or abridged series or YA book or animated series makes you happy?

That is never a waste of time. Because in the end we’re all just a bunch of weirdos standing in front of other weirdos, asking for their username.

Geekerella has a sweet teen love story as its central storyline, but it’s also a love letter to fandoms and geeky delights. And as a fangirl with Funko-Pops and hardcovers of my favorite book series and all sorts of random geeky toys and t-shirts, I could absolutely relate… even though my teen years are way in the rearview mirror by now

Definitely recommended for anyone who loves to dream of fantasy kingdoms and schools for magic and impossible universes. I just hope that the author will treat us to an expanded view into her made-up Starfield world, because I’d definitely like to know more!

A reading note: I read a finished copy of the book from the library, and not an ARC — and since it was a finished copy, I do need to say that the book could have used another copyediting pass. There are typos (like “use” instead of “us”) and missed words scattered here and there throughout the book, and they’re jarring. No one likes to be interrupted in their fictional pursuits by having to stop and figure out what a sentence is supposed to mean!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Geekerella
Author: Ashley Poston
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication date: April 4, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

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My next can’t-wait book: Belleweather by Susanna Kearsley

Susanna Kearsley shared this on Facebook today, and my heart skipped a beat!

This is the Canadian cover — US version still to come — but I’m just head over heels with the gorgeousness of it all. I love Susanna Kearsley’s books, and can’t wait to get my hands on Belleweather!

Here’s the synopsis, as shared on Facebook:

Some houses want to hold their secrets.

It’s 1759 and the world is at war, pulling the North American colonies held by Britain and France into the conflict.

When captured French officers are brought to Long Island to be billeted in private homes, it upends the lives of the Wilde family—deeply fractured by war. Lydia Wilde, struggling to keep the peace in her family, has little time or kindness to spare for her unwanted guests. Jean-Philippe de Sabran—a French Canadian lieutenant—has little desire to be there. But by war’s end, they’ll both learn love, honour, and duty can form tangled bonds that aren’t easily broken.

Their doomed romance becomes a local legend, told and re-told through the years until the present day, when conflict of a different kind brings Charley Van Hoek to Long Island as curator of the Wilde House Museum. Charley doesn’t believe in ghosts. But as she delves into the history of Lydia and her French officer, it becomes clear that the Wilde House holds more than just secrets, and Charley discovers the legend might not tell the whole story . . . or the whole truth.

The book is available now for preorder via Amazon Canada, with a release date of April 24th. Sadly, the US release isn’t until October 2nd, 2018. How will I wait that long?

_______________________________

For more on books by Susanna Kearsley, check out my reviews of:
A Desperate Fortune
The Firebird

Mariana
Named of the Dragon
Season of Storms
The Shadowy Horses
The Splendour Falls

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