Series wrap-up: The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

Sometimes, revisiting a series you read ages ago is just the thing for lifting your spirits. Or at least, that’s definitely true for me!

I first encountered the Alanna books (by Tamora Pierce) when my daughter, then a middle-schooler in her tweens, fell in love with the story. Naturally, I thought I’d better check out what had captured my 12-year-old’s attention so firmly. And while I was delighted by the girl-power message of the story, I’ll admit that there was slightly more bed-hopping than I felt entirely comfortable with my daughter reading at that point.

Years passed. My daughter, now an adult, has devoured ALL of Tamora Pierce’s books and treats them like comfort food, revisiting not just the Alanna books but all the other books set in the world of Tortall on a regular basis. She’s been urging the other books on me for years, but I had only so-so memories of the Alanna series, and didn’t remember much of the details. I just couldn’t see myself re-entering that world.

And then, I did.

I’m not sure why I decided to finally jump in, but I ended up listening to the audiobooks of the Song of the Lioness  quartet this summer… and loved them. Narrated by actress Trini Alvarado, the audiobooks were a low-stress, low-commitment way for me to dip my toe back in to the world of Tortall and see if I felt the need to truly swim deeper. Turns out, the answer was yes.

I became immersed in the story almost immediately, and continued listening all the way through until I finished the fourth book. Along the way, there were some surprises, such as the fact that I hadn’t actually read the 4th book when I first encountered the series. I was certain that I’d read them all, until I commented to my darling daughter that I didn’t remember certain of the characters or plot points from that book, and she informed me that I’d stopped before I ever got there! Silly me.

Let me now backtrack and explain a bit about the books, for the uninitiated.

In book #1, Alanna: The First Adventure, we meet Alanna of Trebond and  her twin brother Thom, two motherless 10-year-olds with a father who doesn’t particularly care about his children. They’re sent off to follow the prescribed path for noble children — boys to the capitol city to train as knights, and girls to the convent. But Alanna and Thom have different plans: Alanna dreams of knighthood and adventure, and Thom wishes to pursue a study of sorcery through the convent’s magical teachers. They switch places, and Alanna becomes Alan of Trebond, entering the palace as a young boy embarking on the training to become a knight, starting by serving as a palace page.

As Alan/Alanna grows up, she earns her place among the boys who are her peers through her toughness and her absolute determination to become the best. She’s loyal and fierce, and forms tight friendships with the pages and squires around her, including Prince Jonathan, heir to the throne. She also meets and becomes fast friends with George Cooper, a young man of the streets who presides over the lower class’s thieves and rogues. Between Jonathan and George, she has two allies and advocates who will stick with her no matter what.

Over the course of the series, we see Alanna advance to squire and finally to knighthood. She ultimately reveals her true gender, and sets out on a series of adventures, becoming a member of the Bazhir desert tribes, learning advanced magical skills as a shaman, and ultimately setting out on a quest that will either save the kingdom or end her own  life. There are romantic entanglements a-plenty (along with the bed-hopping that shocked me on behalf of my 12-year-old — although really it’s tame and non-graphic compared to today’s YA fare).

What I love about this series is the ongoing development of Alanna as an individual who refuses to adhere to the predetermined roles available to someone o f her social status and gender. She embraces her strengths, acknowledges her weaknesses, and never stops trying to improve and grow. She also refuses to be all one thing or another: Yes, she wants to be a knight, and to get there must hide her true gender, but she still manages to find kindly women to go to with her questions about women’s bodies, menstrual cycles, clothing, and relationships. Alanna remains true to herself throughout, and proves to be not just brave and skilled as a warrior, but a trustworthy friend, a beloved surrogate daughter, and a devoted lover.

Beyond all that, the Alanna quartet is quite simply a great fantasy adventure. There are sword fights and horseback adventures, battles and feats of chivalry, and all  manner of court dramas and  formalities. The world-building in the Alanna books is terrific, including not just the knighthood aspects but also its own brand of magical powers, sorcery, and a history of gods and goddesses with powers over the land. The pieces all come together brilliantly, and left me entirely satisfied by the awesome climax and conclusion of the final book, but also wanting more of the characters and this particular kingdom and world.

Luckily, there are plenty more books set in Tortall for me to explore, and my daughter has been kind enough to provide me with her recommended reading order. Next up is the Immortals quartet, starting with Wild Magic, which I’ll begin once I finish up the next couple of audiobooks in my queue.

I’m so happy to have finally revisited the Alanna books, and recommend them highly!

But please, not this set of covers. I can’t even.

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Book details:

Alanna: The First Adventure – 274 pages, published 1983
In the Hand of the Goddess – 264 pages, published 1984
The Woman Who Rides Like a Man – 284 pages, published 1986
Lioness Rampant – 308 pages, published 1988

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Book Review: Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

 

Some houses seem to want to hold their secrets.

It’s 1759 and the world is at war, pulling the North American colonies of Britain and France into the conflict. The times are complicated, as are the loyalties of many New York merchants who have secretly been trading with the French for years, defying Britain’s colonial laws in a game growing ever more treacherous.

When captured French officers are brought to Long Island to be billeted in private homes on their parole of honour, it upends the lives of the Wilde family—deeply involved in the treasonous trade and already divided by war.

Lydia Wilde, struggling to keep the peace in her fracturing family following her mother’s death, has little time or kindness to spare for her unwanted guests. French-Canadian lieutenant Jean-Philippe de Sabran has little desire to be there. But by the war’s end they’ll both learn love, honour, and duty can form tangled bonds that are not broken easily.

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 to be the new curator of the Wilde House Museum.

Charley doesn’t believe in ghosts. But as she starts to delve 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 have been telling the whole story…or the whole truth.

Belleweather starts slowly, layering modern-day chapters with chapters from Lydia’s and Jean-Philippe’s perspectives. It’s masterfully done, like building a gorgeous home from the foundation upward. The early stages may seem like a lot of getting ready, but as the story builds, the pieces all come together to make an impressive whole.

We’re told from the outset that the Wilde House has a long, tangled history, going back centuries through generations of Wildes, who settled, married, bore and lost children, and over time expanded the original Colonial footprint of the house to include a Victorian wing. We also learn early on that the house may be haunted. When Charley accepts a job as curator for the Wilde House Museum, currently under renovation, one of the first stories she hears is the legend of a doomed love between a Wilde daughter and a French officer staying in the family home as a prisoner during the French and Indian War.

Charley is naturally charmed and intrigued by the tale — but the mission of the museum is supposed to be on Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Wilde. The stuffier members of the board of directors are not crazy about Charley anyway, and they refuse to expand their view of the musem’s purpose to include anything about this mysterious ghost story, despite the fact that over the years it’s become a favorite local legend, so much so that the woods around the museum have become a favorite Halloween destination for people wanting a chance at a ghost sighting.

Charley begins to dig through the old records to discover proof to back up the ghost story, and meanwhile, we hear from Lydia and Jean-Philippe about how they met, what conditions were like for them on the farm, and how family dynamics — especially conflicts with another French officer and Lydia’s brothers — seemed to make any future between the two utterly impossible.

Within the contemporary pieces of the story, we also learn more about Charley’s own family tragedies, including a long estrangement from her grandmother, the loss of her brother, her care for her young adult niece, and naturally, Charley’s own romantic frustrations and dreams. On top of that, there’s a particularly difficult and entitled set of board members to be dealt with, and lots of influential people with demands that can’t be ignored.

To be honest, I had my doubts at the beginning. The start is slow, and particularly in Charley’s chapters, there’s a lot of exposition up front, and tons of minor characters’ names to learn and remember. I was much more captivated by Lydia and Jean-Philippe from the start. Because we’re told the outlines of the ghost story at the beginning, we read about these two characters assuming we know where their story is going and wondering about the how and why — but the way it all comes together is both surprising and carefully built up to. I was very satisfied with the resolution, both of the contemporary and historical pieces of the story,

Overall, I enjoyed Bellewether very much, although I felt that certain of the emotional/family dynamics and complications in Charley’s part of the story were rushed. The storyline with her grandmother, in particular, needed a little more room to breathe and develop in order to have the intended emotional impact, and I thought the niece’s grief and healing was given a rather speedy treatment as well.

Still, as a whole, Bellewether is a great read, and by the second half, I just couldn’t put it down. Susanna Kearsley is a master of emotional, complex stories with historical elements that usually come with some sort of secretive or supernatural mysteries. Bellewether is a stand-alone that makes a great introduction to the author’s style and quality of writing, and for those who already love her works, you won’t be disappointed!

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A note on editions: The cover above belongs to the paperback edition released in Canada in April 2018, which I purchased via Amazon Canada prior to receiving an ARC via NetGalley. The US edition, releasing this coming week (August 7th), has a cover that, while nice, doesn’t match my existing collection of Susanna Kearsley books — and I’m enough of a fan and a completist that I just had to have that gorgeous Canadian cover!

Here’s the US cover:

And here’s a look at some of my other Susanna Kearsley books — which may help explain why I needed that particular cover:

 

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The details:

Title: Bellewether
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: August 7, 2018
Length: 414 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: NetGalley (also purchased)

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

My Thoughts:

I don’t think there’s anything I can say about The Hate U Give that hasn’t already been said. Released early in 2017, The Hate U Give has generated a tremendous amount of buzz, has been nominated for and won numerous literary awards, and won the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards for Young Adult Fiction and Debut Author. Now that I’ve finally read the book, I can add my voice to the raves and say with certainty that all the praise is absolutely deserved.

The Hate U Give is a raw, unfiltered look inside a life and a world that people of privilege never see. It’s an eye-opening, upsetting, deeply human look at the costs of violence, prejudice, and brutality.  Main character Starr leads us through her double life, letting us see the conflicts she faces on a daily basis as she tries to navigate her neighborhood and her school. The entire book is engaging and impossible to put down. Where it really excels is by showing us, through the power of fiction, what the lives behind the headlines look like, and how the victim of violence is too often labeled a thug or a criminal when what truly matters is the person’s life being unjustly ended.

I’m so glad that I finally read The Hate U Give, and will be pushing it on my family and friends. Everyone should read this book.

I’m really looking forward to the movie version as well.

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The details:

Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication date: February 28, 2017
Length: 453 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

 

Two families, generations apart, are forever changed by a heartbreaking injustice in this poignant novel, inspired by a true story, for readers of Orphan Train and The Nightingale.

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize that the truth is much darker. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together—in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions—and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or redemption.

Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.

The story of Before We Were Yours is all the more shocking and heart-breaking when you realize that while the main characters are fictional, the tragedy depicted is all too real.

In this powerful work of historical fiction, we follow the story of 12-year-old Rill, a girl growing up poor but happy on a riverboat with her parents and four younger siblings. But when the children become separated from their parents due to complications of labor and an emergency trip to the hospital, their lives become dark and dangerous. Stolen away by the notorious Georgia Tann, the children are taken to a children’s home, where they’re starved, neglected, and abused before ultimately being adopted out, one by one, to wealthy families who are willing to pay.

In alternating chapters, we follow a modern-day story, as Avery Stafford comes home to South Carolina to support her ill father, a politician from a powerful family. Avery stumbles upon a woman in a nursing home, May Crandall, who seems to have some sort of connection to Avery’s family. What starts as a curiosity for Avery turns into a quest to unravel the mystery of May’s strange tie to Avery’s grandmother, now suffering early stages of dementia. As Avery digs deeper, she begins to see that her family’s hidden past may have intersected with the schemes of Georgia Tann, and Avery must decide if it’s wiser to uncover the truth or let the past stay in the past.

While Avery’s search for answers is interesting, it’s the story of Rill and her sisters and brother that’s truly stunning. The children grow up free and open to adventure, never minding that they’re looked down upon as “river rats”. On board their boat and with their parents, they live in a kingdom of their own. Reading about how this family is torn apart is shocking — it’s amazing how much cruelty was inflicted upon these young children, especially as the story drives home the fact that this happened to thousands of chlidren over a period of more than 20 years.

The mystery of how Avery’s grandmother is connect to May is not revealed until close to the end of the book, and while there are hints along the way, the answer isn’t entirely obvious. Meanwhile, while we see how Rill grew up and changed from the river girl to a woman with a family of her own and a new life, the journey she makes isn’t easy and is no fairy tale. Not all the loose ends are tied up, which is fitting, given that in the historical records of the Georgia Tann scandal, many families never did find their missing children, and many hundreds are believed to have died under the “care” of this awful, twisted adoption industry.

Before We Were Yours is a compelling read, although I was less engaged during the contemporary chapters, particularly when the focus shifted from Avery’s search into family history to dwell more upon Avery’s romantic life and her career choices. Other than that, I found it a quick, fascinating, and terribly sad read.

This was a book group pick, and I’m so glad it was! As with all of my book group’s books, I can’t wait to hear from my bookish friends and to exchange reactions, ideas, and questions.

If you’ve read Before We Were Yours, I’d love to hear your thoughts too!

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The details:

Title: Before We Were Yours
Author: Lisa Wingate
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication date: June 6, 2017
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe, #2) by Neal Shusterman

 

Rowan and Citra take opposite stances on the morality of the Scythedom, putting them at odds, in the chilling sequel to the Printz Honor Book Scythe from New York Times bestseller Neal Shusterman, author of the Unwind dystology.

The Thunderhead cannot interfere in the affairs of the Scythedom. All it can do is observe—it does not like what it sees.

A year has passed since Rowan had gone off grid. Since then, he has become an urban legend, a vigilante snuffing out corrupt scythes in a trial by fire. His story is told in whispers across the continent.

As Scythe Anastasia, Citra gleans with compassion and openly challenges the ideals of the “new order.” But when her life is threatened and her methods questioned, it becomes clear that not everyone is open to the change.

Will the Thunderhead intervene?

Or will it simply watch as this perfect world begins to unravel?

I absolutely loved Scythe, the first book in the Arc of a Scythe series. So it should be no surprise that I found myself swept away by Thunderhead, book #2, simply unable to put it down once I started.

Note: This review may be a bit spoilery, since it’s for the 2nd in a series. Look away now if you want to be spoiler-free!

Scythe ended on a suspenseful note. Apprentice Scythes Citra and Rowan make it to their final rite of passage, and while Citra is ordained, taking the name Scythe Anastasia, Rowan is not accepted into the scythedom. By rules of their apprenticeship, Citra should now “glean” (kill, permanently, with no revival) Rowan, but instead, she makes sure he gets a year’s immunity from gleaning and he escapes. By the end of the book, we know that Rowan has gone rogue, illegally donning the robes of a scythe and making it his mission to eliminate the worst of the scythes — those who kill for pleasure rather than as a means of keeping balance in the world.

Thunderhead picks right up with the action, as Citra/Anastasia carries out her scythe duties with thoughtfulness and purpose. Scythes are necessary tools in a world in which death has been banished. Without scythes, overpopulation and starvation would result, killing off humanity just as surely as war and disease did back in the mortal age. Anastasia treats those to be gleaned with respect and compassion, and while her task is still grim, she gives it a dignity that “new order” scythes find ridiculous, boring, and unnecessarily serious.

Things become deadly when Anastasia and her mentor Scythe Curie are almost killed in a bombing attack. Everything in the world is governed by the Thunderhead, the sentient intelligence that evolved from cloud computing. The Thunderhead is all-knowing, and has as its mission the preservation of life on the planet to the best of its ability. The one area removed from Thunderhead control is the scythedom — a rule created by the Thunderhead to ensure that humans could make the decisions necessary for their own species’ survival without undue interference. But over the course of the book, the Thunderhead realizes that the things it doesn’t know and doesn’t see, thanks to this separation, may spell doom rather than salvation for humanity.

Scattered throughout the book are pages narrated by the Thunderhead itself, and these are truly fascinating. The Thunderhead knows everything, and knows everyone. It understands what each person needs, and it understands how things must change in order for the world to endure. It knows every probable outcome and the statistical likelihood of every occurrence. And yet, the Thunderhead isn’t some evil computer overlord. It has what it considers the best interest of all things as its focus, and if it can be said to feel, we’d be likely to interpret its musings on human beings as a form of love. Still, there is perhaps something a little creepy about a world in which the illusion of complete choice is deliberately provided by the Thunderhead in certain situations in order for people to feel free, and in which a class of people known as “unsavories” are permitted (and even encouraged) so that those who need a sense of rebellion can get that satisfaction.

I won’t give away too much more, other than to say that the ending is a TREMENDOUS CLIFFHANGER,  with a lead-up that left me gasping. I mean, I could not believe what I was reading, was utterly horrified, kept waiting for things not to be as bad as they seemed (but they were), and could not look away. Really, the ending is a stunner.

Note: Pretty big spoiler here for anyone who’s familiar with classic opera:

At the end, I couldn’t help but chuckle sadly once I realized what exquisite foreshadowing the author used by having characters attend a performance of Aida.

Sorry, I couldn’t not say that.

End of spoilers!

I could rave about this book (and Scythe) a whole lot more, but I think you get the point! I just wish I had someone in my life to discuss this with! I’m trying to push the books on a few bookish friends, and hope to have some success soon. These are books that just NEED to be talked about!

Really, read Scythe and Thunderhead! You’ll thank me, I promise.

And now we wait for #3, coming (I hope) sometime in 2019.

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The details:

Title: Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe, #2)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 9, 2018
Length: 504 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: The Lido by Libby Page

 

We’re never too old to make new friends—or to make a difference.

Rosemary Peterson has lived in Brixton, London, all her life but everything is changing.

The library where she used to work has closed. The family grocery store has become a trendy bar. And now the lido, an outdoor pool where she’s swam daily since its opening, is threatened with closure by a local housing developer. It was at the lido that Rosemary escaped the devastation of World War II; here she fell in love with her husband, George; here she found community during her marriage and since George’s death.

Twenty-something Kate Matthews has moved to Brixton and feels desperately alone. A once promising writer, she now covers forgettable stories for her local paper. That is, until she’s assigned to write about the lido’s closing. Soon Kate’s portrait of the pool focuses on a singular woman: Rosemary. And as Rosemary slowly opens up to Kate, both women are nourished and transformed in ways they never thought possible.

In the tradition of Fredrik Backman, The Lido is a charming, feel-good novel that captures the heart and spirit of a community across generations—an irresistible tale of love, loss, aging, and friendship.

What a lovely, lovely book!

A lido, for the benefit of my fellow Americans who’ve never encountered the word before (other than via references to the Lido Deck on The Love Boat re-runs), is an outdoor pool. And in The Lido, it’s so much more than simply a place to swim. For the Brixton neighborhood, the lido is a fixture dating back to pre-World War II, a place where members of the community of all walks of life come together to exercise, to raise children, to chat with friends, to interact with neighbors. But as with so much in this day and age, a community gathering center that doesn’t bring in big bucks has a hard time lasting, so when a development company wants to buy the property and turn it into upscale housing and tennis courts — well, of course that’s a tempting offer for a cash-strapped local council.

And yet, there are people like 86-year-old Rosemary, who has had the lido as a centerpiece of her life for more years than she can count. Her memories of her late husband — and really, their entire love story — are inseparable from the memories of the moments they spent together at the lido. The lido remains the true constant in Rosemary’s life, and in the lives of countless of her neighbors. The potential loss of the lido is like one more death for Rosemary, and seems to represent the final, shattering blow for a woman who’s lived through so much and has already lost the love of her life.

George is in the way the mist sits on the water in the morning, he is in the wet decking and the brightly colored lockers and in the sharp intake of breath when she steps into the water, reminding her that she is still alive. Reminding her to stay alive.

For Kate, the lido starts off as merely a newspaper assignment, but as she comes to know Rosemary, Kate begins to connect with the community that’s sprung up around the lido, and even rediscovers her own joy of swimming, something lost to her as an adult who is often overwhelmed by anxiety and panic. Kate becomes invested personally in saving the lido, and through her deepening friendship with Rosemary, finally finds a community that she belongs to.

But there was something about Kate that made Rosemary think she was in great need of a swim.

Rosemary and Kate are both wonderful characters. Rosemary is strong and wise, but still mourning her beloved George. Kate is a vulnerable young adult who has had the confidence drained out of her over the years — but Rosemary and the lido seem to give her a new purpose and a new sense of self, enabling her to emerge from her shell and truly connect.

I loved the chapters filled with Rosemary’s memories of her courtship, romance, and early years with George — and also the memories of their more mature years, such as the time they snuck into the lido late one night for a midnight swim and then couldn’t get back over the fence to sneak away. The depiction of the fire brigade rescuing this 70-something-year-old couple is priceless.

The story is told through multiple viewpoints, not just those of Rosemary and Kate, but also nameless characters such as a pregnant woman and a teenage boy who each find meaning in their lido swims. We even see certain events through the eyes of a fox — and crazy as that might sound, it absolutely works.

Most of all, the friendship between Rosemary and Kate is simply beautiful. The two women are separated by sixty years of life, but they’re brought together by their loneliness, and find in one another someone to listen, to care, to be there for, and to laugh with.

Kate thinks of the first time she swam with Rosemary, how the old woman seemed to become young in the water, and how she, Kate, felt the unsteadier one. She had felt then that Rosemary’s strength was tucked away beneath her dry-land clothes, a hidden power unleashed not by a cape but by a navy blue swimsuit.

I really can’t say enough good things about this book! The Lido paints a gorgeous picture of the power of community, the importance of connections, and how great a gift friendship can be, not matter how surprising the package it comes in.

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The details:

Title: The Lido
Author: Libby Page
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: July 10, 2018
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

This mystery thriller reunites Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama for a political mashup full of suspense, intrigue, and laugh out loud bromance.

Vice President Joe Biden is fresh out of the Obama White House and feeling adrift when his favorite railroad conductor dies in a suspicious accident, leaving behind an ailing wife and a trail of clues. To unravel the mystery, “Amtrak Joe” re-teams with the only man he’s ever fully trusted—the 44th president of the United States. Together they’ll plumb the darkest corners of Delaware, traveling from cheap motels to biker bars and beyond, as they uncover the sinister forces advancing America’s opioid epidemic.

Part noir thriller and part bromance novel, Hope Never Dies is essentially the first published work of Obama/Biden fanfiction—and a cathartic read for anyone distressed by the current state of affairs.

My Thoughts:

For everyone who laughed through their tears while scrolling through all those countless Biden/Obama memes…

This one’s for you.

Hope Never Dies is a noir detective story that just happens to feature our favorite presidential bromantic couple as the lead action heroes. In this funny, warm-hearted satire, retired Joe Biden is still a good guy, but one with enough time on his hands to build up a great big load of resentment over former bestie Barack’s never-ending parade of fun celebrity outings… while Joe just waits for a simple call or a text. But when the Amtrak conductor who’d been a part of Joe’s commute for decades turns up dead under suspicious circumstances, Joe and Barack are thrown together into a crime investigation that features drugs, bikers, shady cops, and plenty of stops for fast food.

“Son of a buttermilk biscuit” I said, grimacing. “We got bamboozled.”

This book is charming AF and oh-so-silly, and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy thinking about the good old days when these two were in the White House. Their fictional counterparts are adorable, and their ongoing friendship and devotion brought the teeniest little lump to my throat. The author has a knack for keeping the story moving while weaving in little snippets of dialogue and actions that bring our former POTUS and VPOTUS to life on the page.

Hope Never Dies is a surprisingly fun read, and the detective elements are actually pretty clever and engaging too. But really, read it for the Biden-isms and cool-as-hell Obama appearances. It’s like a little ray of sunshine in book form.

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The details:

Title: Hope Never Dies
Author: Andrew Shaffer
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication date: July 10, 2018
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Satire
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Scythe by Neal Shusterman

 

Thou shalt kill.

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

What a fascinating story! I hadn’t heard of Scythe until my son’s high school picked it for their school-wide summer reading book. Once I picked up a copy (ostensibly for my son), I just had to read it. Utterly compelling and impossible to put down.

In the world of Scythe, modern history dates back to the year 2042:

It’s a year that every schoolchild knows. It was the year when computational power became infinite — or so close to infinite that is could no longer be measured. It was the year we knew… everything. “The cloud” evolved into “the Thunderhead,” and now all there is to know about everything resides in the near-infinite memory of the Thunderhead for anyone who wants to access it.

With the coming of the Thunderhead and infinite knowledge, humankind had the answers to everything — disease, hunger, death. People became immortal, and thus, the need for scythes emerged. Generations later, scythes have rockstar status (there are even trading cards), but are also feared and treated as outside normal society. Scythes bring death as they “glean” people, some with thoughtful process and compassion, others with showy spectacle. Yes, people still have accidents and can be “deadish”, but everyone who dies in any manner can be revived, apart from those who have been gleaned. Gleanings are final, and irrevocable.

As Citra and Rowan have their lives transformed, from humdrum teen life to the world of apprenticeship, they’re thrust into a secret society of laws and infighting and a morality all its own. And as the year of apprentice progresses, they learn that some scythes have embraced a more corrupt, corrosive form of scythedom, and that these scythes seem poised to take over completely.

I was utterly absorbed while reading this book. There are some truly deep notions that I can only imagine would make for fabulous discussions. In Scythe, we learn that with infinite knowledge comes a lack of true meaning. Everything that can be known is already known. All accomplishments have been accomplished. Life stretches on forever, and when a person’s body reaches a more advanced age than desired, he or she can simply “turn a corner” and reset back to an earlier age. Without the fear of death or the sense of a limited time to make one’s mark, life is persistent and pleasant, but there’s no sense of urgency. Art suffers — there are no heights of passion or suffering to scale. Everything is nice… but it kind of sounds like a pretty boring way to live forever.

The power plays of the scythes is scary and upsetting to read about. Scythes are untouchable and answer only to their own governing body — so when corrupt scythes who tow the line of the letter of the law while committing horrific acts start climbing to dominance, there’s no balancing force to keep scythedom pure.

I really just can’t say enough good things about this book! I was completely hooked, and can’t wait to start the sequel, Thunderhead.

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The details:

Title: Scythe
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: November 22, 2016
Length: 435 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Robots vs Fairies – edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe

 

A unique anthology of all-new stories that challenges authors to throw down the gauntlet in an epic genre battle and demands an answer to the age-old question: Who is more awesome—robots or fairies?

Rampaging robots! Tricksy fairies! Facing off for the first time in an epic genre death match!

People love pitting two awesome things against each other. Robots vs. Fairies is an anthology that pitches genre against genre, science fiction against fantasy, through an epic battle of two icons.

On one side, robots continue to be the classic sci-fi phenomenon in literature and media, from Asimov to WALL-E, from Philip K. Dick to Terminator. On the other, fairies are the beloved icons and unquestionable rulers of fantastic fiction, from Tinkerbell to Tam Lin, from True Blood to Once Upon a Time. Both have proven to be infinitely fun, flexible, and challenging. But when you pit them against each other, which side will triumph as the greatest genre symbol of all time?

There can only be one…or can there?

This awesome story collection has a premise spelled out in the introduction by the editors:

“I, for one, welcome our __________ overlords.”

Assuming the mechanical and/or magical revolution has already taken place by the time you read this, we, the editors, always knew you would come out on top. Yes, you.

We knew this day would come. We tried to warn the others. It was obvious either the sharp rate of our technological advancement would lead to the robot singularity claiming lordship over all, or that the fairies would finally grow tired of our reckless destruction of the natural world and take it back from us.

And so, we have prepared a guide to assist our fellow humans in embracing their inevitable overlords. (If you are reading this and you are human, we are so pleased you found this book in time to ready yourself for the impending/current robot/fairy apocalypse. You are quite welcome.)

Robots vs Fairies is an anthology of stories by an impressive assortment of sci-fi and fantasy writers, each focusing on either robots or fairies (or in a few cases, both). There are eighteen stories in all, ranging from silly to darkly serious. In each case, right after the story, the author declares him/herself “team robot” or “team fairy”, and explains why — and these little pieces are just as entertaining as the stories themselves, in my humble opinion.

As I’ve said in many a review, I’m really not a short story reader, so the fact that I made it all the way through this book is somewhat of an achievement. I did end up skipping 2 or 3 stories that just didn’t call to me, but otherwise read them all, even the ones that left me puzzled or disengaged or with a mighty shoulder shrug.

Still, the stories that I enjoyed, I really, really enjoyed. Best of the batch for me were:

Build Me a Wonderland by Seanan McGuire: Well, of course I loved the Seanan McGuire story! I’m been on a roll with Seanan McGuire books all year, so there’s really zero chance that I wouldn’t love what she wrote. In this story, we see behind the scenes at a theme park with really magical magical effects. Hint: They’re not CGI. The story is clever and intricate and very much fun.

Quality Time by Ken Liu: Ooh, a disturbing robot story! All about a young tech worker looking for the next big breakthrough, whose inventions have unintended consequences.

Murmured Under the Moon by Tim Pratt: About a human librarian given responsibility for fairy archives. Creative and magical and just a wee bit threatening — and hey, it’s about a library! What’s not to love?

The Blue Fairy’s Manifesto by Annalee Newitz: Not a fairy story! It’s a robotic version of Pinocchio, and asks all sorts of great questions about what it is to be real, and what it means to have choices.

Bread and Milk and Salt by Sarah Gailey: I loved Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo novellas, so was really excited to see her included in this collection. Bread and Milk and Salt is probably the creepiest story of the bunch, about a fairy captured by a sadistic human and how she turns things around. Dark and disturbing and delicious.

And perhaps my favorite, because I love John Scalzi and his humor, and this story left me rolling on the floor:

Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind From the Era of Humans For the First Time: Oh my. This story is exactly what the title says it is — a dialogue between robots trying to figure out the purpose and functionality of human objects such as a ball, a sandwich, and a cat. Just amazing. And in case you’re wondering about our future overlords, it would seem clear that it’s cats for the win.

There are plenty more stories, some I found captivating, some weird, all original and entertaining and often perplexing too. It’s really a strong collection, and I could see enjoying it either as a book to read straight through, or as a collection to leave on the nightstand and pick up from time to time to read just one story here or or there, whenever the mood strikes.

As a side note, I had purchased an earlier collection from these editors, featuring some of the same authors plus several others whose works I love. The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales was published in 2016, and I have yet to open it. Maybe it’s time for it to come down off the shelf and sit on my nightstand, close at hand for when I need a story or two.

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The details:

Title: Robots vs Fairies
Authors: Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: January 9, 2018
Length: 373 pages
Genre: Science fiction/fantasy anthology
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce

 

A charming, irresistible debut novel set in London during World War II about an adventurous young woman who becomes a secret advice columnist—a warm, funny, and enormously moving story for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Lilac Girls.

London 1940, bombs are falling. Emmy Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent seem suddenly achievable. But the job turns out to be typist to the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.

Mrs Bird is very clear: Any letters containing Unpleasantness—must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant letters from women who are lonely, may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men and found themselves in trouble, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write letters back to the women of all ages who have spilled out their troubles.

Prepare to fall head over heels with Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, who are spirited and gutsy, even in the face of events that bring a terrible blow. As the bombs continue to fall, the irrepressible Emmy keeps writing, and readers are transformed by AJ Pearce’s hilarious, heartwarming, and enormously moving tale of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and ordinary people in extraordinary times.

Dear Mrs. Bird is the story of plucky heroine Emmaline Lake, who dreams of becoming a war correspondent but mistakenly ends up with a job as a typist for a women’s magazine — a magazine which tends to feature pieces on cooking, sewing, and romantic fiction. Part of Emmy’s job is to sort the incoming letters addressed to Mrs. Bird, the fiercely old-fashioned “editress” who won’t tolerate letters on forbidden topics (such as love, marriage, or intimacy), and whose main advice to readers seems to be to buck up and stop feeling sorry for oneself.

Emmy feels compassion for the writers of these ignored letters, and despite being young and inexperienced herself, decides that these women clearly need someone to respond and encourage them. She begins secretly corresponding with the letter writers, sending them letters back offering warmth and practical guidance, and even dares to sneak a few of the Unpleasant letters and her responses into the printed magazine, knowing that Mrs. Bird never reads the finished product.

Meanwhile, Emmy works as a volunteer for the fire service, answering the desperate phone calls that come in reporting fires during each air raid, and is determined that she must make a meaningful contribution to the war effort. Despite the horror of the bombings, Emmy manages to enjoy life as well, living with her best friend Bunty, celebrating Bunty’s engagement, and even meeting a charming young man of her own.

Things go wrong, of course. Emmy’s life is thrown completely off course by one particularly horrific air raid… and as expected, her secret life as an advice columnist can’t stay secret forever.

I really enjoyed Dear Mrs. Bird for its breezy, “keep calm and carry on”, chin-up tone, blending a sense of fun with the knowledge that the war is ever-present and ready to steal away one’s home and friends and family. Emmy is an engaging main character, a little naive but always well-intentioned. She doesn’t always make the best choices, but her heart is in the right place, and she’s completely devoted to her friends and to her country. It’s lovely to see Emmy’s compassion for the sad, worried letter-writers — she understands that they write to “Mrs. Bird” because they have no place else to turn, and she takes it upon herself to make sure that they’re heard and given some measure of practical guidance and hope.

The bombing of the Café de Paris, a key turning point in the story, is a true event, and that makes it even more powerful in the context of the book. It’s but one horrific incident in the London Blitz, but it serves to illuminate the personal tragedies and the immediacy of the destruction experienced by the people of London during that awful time. In Dear Mrs. Bird, the author shows the uncertainty of living daily life, going to work and going out with friends, knowing that on any night when the skies are clear, the world may come crashing down around you.

I did wish for a little more at the end of the book. I would have liked to know what happened next, and how the remainder of the war years went for Emmy, Bunty, and their circle of friends. Likewise, while there’s a resolution for the plot about Emmy’s secret letter writing, I wanted more — how did it work out? What happened next? I guess that’s a pretty good sign that the book captured my interest!

The other element I wished for a bit more of was the letters themselves. There are several featured throughout the book, but I think the storyline and Emmy’s input would have benefited from even more — more letters, more of Emmy’s responses. The author’s note at the end of the book is fascinating, as she discusses being inspired by the advice columns from women’s magazines of the era. It’s hard to imagine, sitting here in our relatively peaceful times, that columns such as “Dear Abby” would be filled with letters not just about romance and dating, but about the difficulty of falling in love and raising children while bombs are falling and one’s loved ones are off on the front lines.

Dear Mrs. Bird strikes a balance between plucky optimism and can-do spirit and the sorrow and worry of life on the homefront while a war rages on. It’s a tough tone to maintain, but author AJ Pearce pulls it off beautifully. I was engaged by the plot and the characters, and thoroughly enjoyed my time with Emmy. It’s a quick read, and highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: Dear Mrs. Bird
Author: AJ Pearce
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: July 3, 2018
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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